This is a transcript from the December 22, 2019 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.
I don't know if you've ever found yourself sometimes when you're faced with a lot of detail or something that's hard and you find yourself saying, "Could someone just simplify this for me? Can someone just boil this down for me?"
Particularly when there's lots to grasp, if you're of my generation, you may have gotten through college with something called the Cliffs Notes, which was a way of simplifying and boiling down the essence of that book you were supposed to have read or even if you did read it and didn't understand it, someone was going to boil it down for you. They have services like that today.
You can give a certain amount of money and for every month, you'll get a summary, an executive summary of all these books. It's gold if you can go to these places and someone can take something complicated and simplify it. This morning, the passage that's in front of us is a boil it down kind of passage. If someone were to say, "Can you boil it down, what's the Bible about? Can you boil it down, what Christianity is about?" I think it'd be hard to do much better than the verse that's printed in your bulletin and it will show up on the screen that's in front of us this morning.
It's out of 1 John 4, at least some of this should sound very familiar,
"Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love doesn't know God, for God is love. God's love was revealed among us in this way. God sent His only Son into the world so that we might live through Him. This is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God lives in us and His love is perfected in us."
This shouldn't sound new. Hopefully, you've heard this verse and hopefully, you've heard this theme before, which leads me to what happens often when we find out that this is the week we're going to talk about love. We're going to light the love candle. We're gonna talk about love is the response of love, love, love, blah, blah, blah. Like, "Yes, yes, yes, we've all heard this before. Can't we move on?" Now, nobody ever actually says those words exactly, but we've heard it. You may have heard it. I know I have. I have heard it when people say, "Yes, that's great to talk about love at church, but in the real world," or "I'm all for love, but."
Now. when everybody says, "I'm all for love but," just know that there's nothing good that's going to follow that. There's just no good way to end that sentence because what we're going to do is we're going to insert something into that sentence, we're going to modify the importance of love and put something else ahead of it. I'm all for love, but the Bible does talk about wraths and the Bible does talk about judgment, and the Bible does talk about righteousness. What about holiness and what about good theology or somebody who actually did say this, not here in this church, thankfully, but they said, "Yes, yes, love and rainbows, that's all great, but let's get to the real meat of the gospel."
Love, love, love, blah, blah, blah. Whenever I hear that, it makes me think two things. One is somebody is not very clear on the centrality and the importance of love in the Bible or in faith, and the second is they're not very clear about how difficult this is. Somehow, whenever we treat love as something that you can add onto the gospel as an option, it's nice but it's not central to who it is, we've missed it. Whenever we somehow just assume that you just have to talk about it and you've got it, you have missed it, which leads me to this statement for this morning.
Love is either. Love is either the most overrated word in the Bible or it's the most underappreciated, or both. I'm opting for number three. It is both overrated, overused, and underappreciated. It is underappreciated because when it gets to the centrality of the Bible, there is absolutely nothing, nothing that precedes or supersedes love. John, traditionally, this is written by the the the Apostle John who Jesus loved and loved Jesus and towards the end of his life, if that is true in terms of the timing of all this or at least the school of thought that followed him, was able to say, "You want to know what it's all about? Listen, God is love. Let's love one another."
That's what it comes down to. Anyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Think about that. Anyone who loves knows God. Didn't say anyone in our church, didn't say anyone who's Presbyterian. It doesn't say anyone who believes what we believe. Anyone who loves knows God and is born of God. Anyone who doesn't love doesn't know God.
That's pretty direct. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if you've been in church your entire life. It doesn't matter if you're a Bible scholar whiz, if you've taken theology and understand systematic. It doesn't matter if you've gone to seminary. It doesn't matter if you're a minister. It doesn't matter if you're an elder or a deacon or any other thing.
If you don't love, then you haven't got a clue about what you're talking about, singing about or praying about. The over underlying, the only thing that somehow determines it, the plumb line of our faith is how well, how good are you at this love thing because that's really the only gauge on the dashboard that's really going to matter. Everything else is in second place. Jesus did much the same when they said, "Jesus, can you boil it down for us? Can you summarize for us what the Bible is about, what the law requires?" You remember the answer cause it's usually up here every week.
This week as you go out, it's in the back because of Advent but you know, he says, "Well, you love God with everything you've got. You love your neighbor as yourself." Everything falls under those two. That is the sum of the Law and Prophets. That's pretty boiled down. That's pretty distinct. Paul the Apostle who was charged with and wrote more of the New Testament and responsible for it more than anybody else and was charged with somehow taking this thing that Jesus had inaugurated and bringing it out to the non-Jewish world, the non-religious world and somehow implementing it, at one point, he's telling a church that's fighting about how spiritual they are, says, "Listen, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if you can move mountains with your faith. It doesn't matter if you speak in tongues of angels. If you don't have love, you have nothing. You're just kidding yourself."
Love is central. Love is central to the gospel. There is nothing else. There is nothing else that we get to modify it with. There is nothing else that describes the life that you and I are called to live and there is nothing else that's more important in a church. You and I know that, you and I know that intuitively. Can you remember the last time that somebody left the church and the reason they left, they said was, "That church, it's just so, so loving, couldn't stand it. Not for me."
No, but we have all been turned off and we have all been hurt by, and we've all been affected by churches that put money over people, programs over people, dogma over people, tradition over people. Whenever we do, we know that something isn't ringing true. When you go into fellowship hall for coffee, for doughnuts or any other time of the week, make sure you look on the left-hand side, we put up, "Here are our core values. Here are the things that when we do these things, we are truest to ourselves."
One of the ones that's up there is we put people first because when you put people first, then you have to take this love thing seriously. We put people over all those other things when we are at our best because we know that's the heart of what the church is about. It's also the heart of what you and I are about. Fred Rogers, Mr. Rogers, that wonderful statement about, "Love is at the heart of everything, love or the lack thereof," and I would say that this morning, as you are thinking about this and as I'm thinking about this, one of the questions is, "Who are the people who have formed you and shaped you for better, for worse? Is it not true that you are who you are because of love or the lack thereof?"
Before we go on, I want to take some time and just sit on that a little bit. Leslie's going to help us do that. She has this wonderful contemplative meditation that's around this very subject as we consider the place and the people who have made us who we are through love. Beloved, let us love one another for love is of God and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever doesn't love doesn't know God. God is love. That's pretty simple. Actually, you could boil that down a little further. There was a guy named Albert Schweitzer who was this towering figure of the 20th century. He was a theologian and a minister, a bestselling author. He was a humanitarian. He was a missionary, he was a philanthropist, he was the preeminent Bach organ player of the world of his time.
Not only that, he fixed organs and then he designed sanctuaries around the acoustics of particular organs. He won the Nobel Peace Prize, kind of an underachiever. He's the one who, as a minister, he would come in and give a sermon. More than once, it was this sermon,
"Beloved, let us love one another." The people would say, "Yes, and what else?" His answer was, "There is nothing else.
Beloved, let us love one another."
He's the only minister I know who got in trouble because his sermons were too short. That was his sermon. I know I'm putting myself in a pretty vulnerable place this morning by telling you this, but he was able to say, "This is it." Did I mention he's a doctor? He had to become a doctor because he wanted to be a missionary. He wanted to be a missionary in order to serve, but they wouldn't let him because his theology was so suspect. He was only talking about this love thing. He would say these crazy things like, "The purpose of human life is to serve and to show compassion and the will to serve others," really radical crazy stuff like that. In other words, it's to live a life of love.
They said, "You could be a missionary but you have to be a doctor." He went to medical school, became a world-renowned doctor as well and started these clinics in what today is Gabon because they wouldn't let him talk. They said, "You can go there but you have to promise not to preach because you're making this love thing way too big." They had other things in the way. Beloved, let us love one another. There is nothing else.
Now, it's simple and it's central, but it's not easy. I had a high school teacher, a math teacher who used to teach by taunting. Not the best method perhaps, but I do remember he was teaching in algebra and you would have to come to the board and you'd have to solve this equation. My teacher, Mr. Batt was his name, Mr. Batt would sit in his chair and go, "It's easy." Then, he'd say, "Listen, it's so easy. It's like tripping over a chair in the dark. You can do it with your eyes closed."
It didn't help me learn math much at all that way, but I thought about that this week because it seems to be that's the strategy we have equated with love, that love is so easy and so natural. It's like tripping over a chair in the dark. You can do it with your eyes closed. That's what love is. In fact, that's the strategy how most of us get in love, right? We do fall in love. It is a lot of stumbling and tripping and finding ourselves in this state. Then somehow, we equate that with love itself.
When we're not in that state, when we don't have that feeling, when we have to actually work at it, we begin to suspect maybe the love has gone away, that maybe if I have to work this hard at it, maybe it's not really love. Love isn't just a feeling and love isn't just the emotion and love certainly isn't just romance. All those things could be attached to it at any given time. We put ourselves in great danger when we equate all of that with love and somehow, it's something that you fall into. If you fall out, therefore, it isn't real love.
Eric Fromm wrote a book called The Art of Loving. Goodness, I think it's 50 years since he wrote it and I don't think there's been a better book about love. One of the things he would say is this. He says, "Listen, there is no enterprise known to humanity that is entered into more often with higher expectations, and yet, fails so regularly, as love." Hear that. There is no enterprise that you and I enter into more often with higher expectations, and yet, which fails so consistently, as love. Because we don't know what love is and we have vastly underestimated what it takes to make love grow. Hence, his book, The Art of Loving. It is an art, it is a practice.
He says, "Love isn't something natural." Take that, listen to that. Love isn't something natural. Rather, it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn't a feeling. It's a practice. It is something you have to put into practice. It is precisely when you fall out of love that real love begins, because this is what is required to get us out of ourselves and then to begin to do the work to love as we have been loved and to love in the way that God loves.
Paul would agree when he says, "If you don't have love, you really have nothing." At one point, he says, "Here's what love is, by the way. Love is patient, love is kind. It's not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude. It doesn't insist on its own way. It's not irritable or resentful. It doesn't rejoice in the wrongdoing. It rejoices in the truth." Did you notice there's nothing in there about how it feels or how it makes you feel? There is nothing in there about the emotion of it. This is all hard work. It bares all things, it believes all things, it hopes all things, it endures all things. It is the great work of our life.
I want to put a sidebar here because it needs to be said probably in every church that sometimes, passages like this have been used to great detriment to people, that somehow, they have caused people to be loaded up with guilt and shame because they have stayed in a relationship that was abusive and hurtful and harmful and somehow, that was somehow godly. That's not only wrong, it's malpractice.
Everybody understands that's not what I'm saying. There are times when, in fact, people need to not be in the same house and live together and do all those kinds of things, but even then, you still have to learn to love that other person. Even us, we have to learn to love our enemies. It doesn't let us off the hook because love is the central work of who we are. It is that work that is up here. It is concrete kinds of things. It's intentional. It's sacrificial. It gives itself away for the well-being and the best interest of the other. I think that's what makes it so hard. I think that's why it's so easy to find something else and say, "Let's focus on that."
I have found myself time and again, over the years becoming more and more suspicious of things that used to intrigue me. I have become more and more suspicious of people with good theology, but there's no evidence or fruit of love in their life. I have become very wary of churches that brag because they have the best theology, they have the best program, the best building, they have the most people. I become very wary of counting and making the measure of any group, how many people walk in on a day rather than what actually walks out as a result of it.
I have become almost hostile, I have to tell you, I have become almost hostile to God talk that doesn't lead to helping people nurture, encourage and equip people for love when it's a spiritual gauze that somehow covers up and nothing happens. I have become almost hostile to those places where somehow, because of we think we can exclude others- I didn't come up with this statement, but I wished I had because it says, so much of what I've felt for so long, I would rather be excluded from those places because of who I include than included because of the people I exclude.
I would rather be excluded for the people I include rather than be included for the people I exclude. We exclude people because you've got the wrong theology or you're the wrong gender. We exclude people and keep people out because somehow, "We don't like your marital status or your orientation, or because you're too conservative or you're not conservative enough, or you're not liberal enough. You don't have the right understanding of the Bible. You're not reformed enough, you're not even evangelical enough. You have the wrong understanding of baptism so you can't be here. You have the wrong understanding of membership so you can't be here. You have the wrong understanding of communion so you can't take it."
All these different ways that we have found ways to exclude people and somehow, we do that in God's name when the very clear teaching is just the opposite. I get much more excited, I get much more excited when I find ways and I see people who are developing their capacity to encourage and equip and nurture the ability to love in concrete, intentional and sacrificial ways. I think the world is aching for a place where that can happen.
They are aching for a place where you could go and not just talk about it, think about it and find ways to exclude in spite of it, but actually get better at this thing called love. This week, there is a lot of things that are going on. There's a lot of business that's going on as it should be, but here's the challenge that's in front of us this morning. That along with the business and along with the activity and along with all the fun, are there ways that even this week, maybe especially this week, that we also focus in on, "How can I be more loving this week? How can I be more loving with whom concretely, intentionally and sacrificially?"
I can't think of a better way of celebrating Jesus's birthday than offering the gift back to God of what God has given to us. This is love. Not that we've loved God, but that God loved us. Therefore, brothers and sisters, beloved, we should love one another because everything else is just blah, blah, blah.