Sermon for January 24, 2010
Texts: Deuteronomy 6:4-9/John 15:9-17
Title: “The Love Principle”
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So opens the Gospel of John from which our morning’s lesson is drawn. “He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Suppose for a moment that instead of employing “Word” in the verses I just recited, we inserted the word “love” instead. The text would then read, “In the beginning was love, and love was with God, and love was God. All things came into being through love, and without love not one thing came into being.
I seriously doubt that the author of the Gospel of John would protest the editorial change I just proposed. And why not? The “Word,” capital W, to which the Gospel refers is Jesus, and love is his proper name.
While the term love, as one would expect, appears repeatedly throughout the Scriptures, the Gospel of John might appropriately be labeled “the love gospel” for the great emphasis given the subject. Barely three chapters into his gospel, John allows us to overhear a conversation occurring between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus. Nicodemus arranged to meet Jesus for the purpose of sizing him up, for, as he states, “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus in turn gives Nicodemus a basic overview for his, Jesus’, mission on earth, punctuating his statement with these memorable words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
That verse, John 3:16, is perhaps the most concise statement in all of Scripture pertaining to God’s purposes here on earth. He loved the world so much that he gave us what he most cherished, his only Son, to secure the world’s salvation. God, motivated by his love for the world, sent a part of himself, love itself, Jesus, into the world that you and I might in turn savor his love forever.
In the beginning was the Word, and the “Word” turned out to be love, and love bore a name, and that name was Jesus. Now we know that the love Jesus brought with him to earth was not meant to be monopolized. His agenda from the very beginning was to communicate his message of love to the far corners of the earth, beginning in Galilee where his ministry began. Remember, this was the first century. There were no media he could plug into, no newspapers, no television or radio, no internet. Basically there was only one means by which the Lord could communicate his message, and that was word of mouth.
We know full well that Jesus was a profoundly gifted communicator. In fact he was so gifted that he attracted dozens of followers, in the first rank of which were twelve men he commissioned for special service. “Come, follow me”, it was an invitation the twelve found to be irresistible.
The twelve, we learned, were a pretty average lot. The gospels offer very little personal information about any one of them individually, the closest we come to getting to know them was near the end of the Lord’s earthly life when danger threatened, but that’s another story. By and large these young men, aged in their early thirties, fulfilled the assignments Jesus gave them competently and without fanfare.
In the two or three years they travelled at Jesus’ side they probably didn’t have that many opportunities to distinguish themselves, those first years of ministry basically amounting to on the job training.
Let’s not diminish the importance of that on the job training, for we know that Jesus was not merely seeking companionship in his travels, Jesus was preparing his disciples for a future when he would no longer be with them. He knew that if his message was to take root and grow in his absence it would be because the disciples had been adequately prepared to go it alone.
Of the four gospels the Gospel of John yields the most complete information of how that process of disengagement played out. Chapters 13 through 21 recounts a whole series of statements and events through which Jesus prepared his disciples for his departure. Things, of course, truly came to a head at the table on that solemn night when, breaking bread with his disciples, Jesus announced that one of the twelve gathered at the table would betray him.
Sent reeling by that announcement, and given the very briefest time to catch their breath, the disciples are left speechless even as Jesus issues what he calls “a new commandment.”
“New commandment” is probably a misnomer for the new commandment Jesus was prepared to issue was the virtual centerpiece of his agenda here on earth, the agenda he had been preparing his disciples to embrace from day one. “I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I love you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
True to his mission here on earth, Jesus chose to close out his earthy ministry by means of a commandment that underscored the very heart of his agenda on earth. “Everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Instruction in discipleship and evangelism was being offered all the way back in the first century. If we could number the books, articles, and other resources written or compiled by other means on the subjects of discipleship and evangelism their number would run to the several thousands. Now if all that instruction, the books and articles on those topics could somehow be distilled into a single message, that message would be “love one another.”
You may remember how Jesus responded when he was challenged to identify the greatest commandment of all. He reached back into the tradition in which he was raised reciting these words from the Hebrew scriptures, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” To which he hastened to add, “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
At the very beginning of creation God sent his word forth and that word was Jesus, that word was love. All other agendas undertaken by those who serve faithfully under God’s authority are of second order priority. “Love one another” stands alone.
Recall how our second lesson opened, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” Take a minute to reflect upon what that means. Jesus loved his disciples with the perfected love that he experienced from God himself. After announcing that, he says something very important, “abide in my love. ” “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”
What did Jesus expect his disciples to take from this teaching? What was the agenda to which Jesus was pointing? Was it not to ground their love in their adherence to God’s commandments? To love in the sense that Jesus was calling them to love meant, practically speaking, to voluntarily place themselves under the authority of the commandments, none of which was more important than loving God with everything they had, heart, soul and mind.
To love in the sense that Jesus expected his disciples to love was to place their lives under the authority of God so completely that their wills and God’s will never diverged.
To this point I have talked about love as having its origins in God and communicated to the world in Christ. I have cited the commandment to love God with everything, heart, soul and mind, to which Christ added, “and your neighbor as yourself.” We have covered what the Bible says about the origins of love and what we are supposed to do with it, but to this point I have made no attempt to define the term itself. So, what to your mind might be a good, serviceable definition of love?
Great thinkers throughout the ages in the disciplines of philosophy and theology have weighed in with their definitions. Plato in one his more famous works “treats love as a (divine) madness, a natural, if not wholly desirable, emotional imbalance” he called it. In another place he differentiates between common love, love we might call “skin deep,” and noble love, a higher form of love that is grounded in virtue. Again, Plato was only one of many who employed their efforts on the subject of love.
Many Christians rose to the challenge. Writing in the first half of the last century the Lutheran bishop Anders Nygren cited love as the “fundamental motif”, of Christianity, the basic way Christianity describes itself. Nygren describes Christian love as being “indifferent to the [inherent value of its object].” It seeks out both the righteous and the sinner alike. It is “spontaneous and unmotivated, expressing the freedom of God to act as God chooses, and this is important, irrespective of what we do.”
Love has been defined from many perspectives, but is it really possible to define a subject so profound and vast? We might wish to take counsel from former Supreme Court judge, Potter Stewart, who, when asked to define hard-core pornography, responded with words to the effect, “I cannot define it, but I know it when I see it.
When we bring the issue of love into the realm Jesus, the Word of God incarnate, love incarnate, we discover that Jesus exhibited very little concern regarding how love might be defined, but he was very, very concerned that love be expressed. “This is my commandment [he declared], that you love one another as I have loved you.”
Jesus did not write a curriculum for loving. He himself was the curriculum for loving. “Love one another, as I have loved you.”
The farmer’s son came home with a bachelor’s degree from the local agricultural college. Steeped in all the things he had learned on the subject of agriculture he was eager to implement a list of changes to make the family farm more profitable. As months passed his frustrations grew. He had the theory down pat, but he just couldn’t convert theory to practice. Likewise, many of us are well grounded in the stories of Jesus and his parables. We have a good grasp of what the Bible teaches. We have witnessed love in action. But what does any of that mean if we cannot personally apply what we have learned from those sources. “Love one another,” Jesus declares. It’s the alpha and omega of a Christian identity.
Practical application of the love principle is what Jesus cared about, and it is what he cares about today. We have been given a mandate from Jesus, and mandate is best way to put it, a mandate to show this world what love on Jesus’ terms is all about. Frankly, and you know this, it’s a big challenge to love as indiscriminately as the Lord loved. But then Jesus doesn’t expect perfection from us, just sufficient self-discipline and desire to apply as best we can the lessons he taught.
Friends, there is a power in our midst that wants to break out in our individual lives and churches. That power, of course, is the power of God made visible in his love for us, love out of which all things were created and are sustained. Christ appointed his twelve disciples, appoints us, his disciples, to bring the power of his love to the four corners of the earth, starting in our homes, starting with the neighbor living next door, and yes, the stranger in our midst. The love of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, is the connective tissue that unites us as brothers and sisters, the connective tissue we are called to extend into the world through our relationships. It is the means by which you and I claim the only trophy truly worth claiming, a sanctified, Jesus saturated. life.
Lord of our lives we praise you for the gift of life, and the promise of your unconditional love. Even as you call us to be your agents of love in the world, we struggle to see our loving will make a difference. In our minds we would like to believe that love conquers all, but in the world conditions are so different. Vest us with courage to believe that love wins, O Christ, for we know that you surrendered your life to secure that outcome.
Strengthen us in the truth you have taught that in our daily lives we may be for this world a source of light. Grant us patience with ourselves, for we are so quick to be discouraged and find fault with words we have spoken and actions taken. You have taught us that there is no shame in being human, that though we may fall, O Lord, you are always ready with a steady hand to lift us up.
Even as we having so freely been the recipients of grace, you charge us to dispense grace as well. Forgive us for the forgiveness we without, the grudges we maintain, the plotting we do to settle scores. Cleansed and restored from the evil that besets us you bid us to rejoice in a freedom no one can ever take away.
We pray your blessing upon all those whom sorrow has overtaken. Brace and comfort those who have lost loved ones. Bring cheer to the disconsolate and strength to those bearing heavy burdens. Abide with those preyed upon by temptation, and those who suffer addictions.
Lord of all, we are mortal, you immortal, we know in part, you know completely. Yet even in this mortal state you have given us a glimpse of immortality in Jesus, a glimpse of the future unburdened by the cares and woes of this mortal life. Grant us faith that future glory awaits, that this brief life we live here is but preparation for wonders we cannot begin to imagine.
For the gift of love that sustains us and the Savior who embodied that love we give our thanks and praise, praying the prayer….