Sunday 21st May 2017 – Producing fruit: Love
Being a Christian was never meant to be a static thing. Jesus doesn’t invite us simply to “switch allegiances, sign on the dotted line, join the church and then sit back.”
He invites us to follow him. ‘Following’ implies movement
He asks us to become like him. ‘Becoming’ implies change.
And so, as part of following Jesus, we’re going to look at what we need to become so that we are more and more like him. As we saw at the end of last week’s message, being like Jesus means becoming like him in our character – the bible says we are to produce fruit with the help of the Holy Spirit; and “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance [patience], kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5.22-23)
Today, we’re just going to look at the first aspect of this fruit: love.
Love is a hugely important theme throughout the Bible. In fact, it’s the theme. Love is how God describes the relationship he wants to have with us. He loves us and he wants us to love him in return. When God revealed himself to Moses, hiding him in the cleft of a rock and passing in front of his while Moses shielded his eyes, we read that:
he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. (Exodus 34.6-7)
Wherever in the Bible we look, we find God telling people to love their neighbour (Lev 19.18), to love the foreigner living amongst them (Lev 19.34); he says that it was because he loved his people that he saved them out of slavery in Egypt; his primary command to his people is not that they obey him or fear him but to
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deut 6.5)
John, particularly, wants us to understand this most important thing about God. He says,
We know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. (1 John 4.16)
And, of course, it is John who records for us these words of Jesus, among the most famous of all that are recorded:
“God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3.16)
And so it should come as no surprise to us that love is top of the list when it comes to being like Jesus. God wants us to love like He does – it’s part of our “becoming” who He wants us to be. If it needs any more underlining, remember what Jesus said as he instigated the Communion:
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13.35)
Looking first at our love for God
I suppose everything else springs from this.
Obedience? Yes, we will want to obey God if we love him – and especially once we have understood that he loves us and that everything he asks us to do is for our ultimate good (including asking us to love other people).
Praise & worship? Well, they are all about expressing our love for God and to God.
Proclamation (of the Good News to others)? When you are mad keen on something or someone, you want to tell other people all about it or them. (Just hang around someone who has small grandchildren: there’s no way to get them to stop telling you how cute, clever and intelligent they are!)
Perhaps we can gauge how much we love God by how much we enjoy those three activities. How do you measure up?
How easy do you find it to obey God, to do whatever he asks? Do you have enthusiasm in your heart when it comes to praising God and worshipping him? (It doesn’t have to be about singing – there are lots of opportunities that don’t involve hitting the right notes!)
What about sharing how you feel about God with others? Easy? Hard? Impossible?
If you find yourself scoring way off on the low, difficult side – then it’s not perhaps because you’re introverted, tone deaf and naturally rebellious. It’s more likely because your love for God needs to grow some more.
What is love, then?
Firstly, we should understand that there is a difference between “falling in love”, or even “being in love”, and love itself. Not that there’s anything wrong with those two states of emotional wellbeing, but they are distinct from the thing itself. As I explain what I mean, try to picture it, not just in terms of the opposite sex, but in term of you and God.
“Falling in love” is something that happens to us – we allow it to happen, rather than making it happen by a conscious act of the will. We meet someone to whom we are attracted; often, initially, by their looks, their voice, their smile; hopefully, followed on by their character. We find ourselves wanting to be in their presence, to catch their eye, to talk to them. We get butterflies in our stomach; we go hot & cold; we worry that the feelings won’t be reciprocated. And when they are, we find ourselves “in love”. It becomes hard to think of anything else – or at least most of the time. We begin to imagine a shared future; we want to talk to them, see them, tell others about them, all the time! It’s a great thing to experience. But it isn’t love itself.
What it is, is a prelude to love – our emotions, our minds, our bodies are preparing for what love really is. Because love is quite contrary to our in-built self preservation instincts.
Love is putting someone else’s wellbeing before our own. Love is sacrificing what we want for what will be best for the other. Jesus explained it:
‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’ (John 10.11)
Now let’s look at our love for others
John, later, in his first letter, points the way:
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. (1 John 3.16)
Loving others, then, is about seeing what they need, what will make them happy, what will be good for them, and then putting that before our own needs and desires. It’s not “I’ll be nice to you so that you will go on to be nice back.” That’s not love, it’s just self-interest. Love is serving someone, anticipating their needs, watching out for them – with no hope or expectation of reward. If you do get something out of it, that’s a bonus.
A huge disservice was done by the 1970s film ‘Love Story’ with its famous byline: “Love is never having to say sorry.” In fact, the opposite is true: if you love someone, you will be ready to say sorry as often as it’s needed. People find it hard to say “sorry” because it means putting the needs of the other person before our own. It often hurts our pride to say sorry, but by so doing, we are putting the other person and their self-esteem before our own. Saying sorry is part of love in action.
So, how did Jesus demonstrate love?
Obviously, as we’ve read, he demonstrated his love for us and for God the Father, by laying down his life. The Father, too, gave up Jesus because he loved us. And, ultimately, that is what many Christians throughout the ages have been called upon to do – to lay down their lives. For some, that has meant laying down the expectations that they and others had for their lives so that they could serve God in some totally different way; sacrificing careers, wealth, the possibility of having children etc.
Others have even more literally given their lives, being killed (martyred) for continuing to declare their faith even when threatened with death.
But, before reaching that ultimate expression of love, there were myriad ways that Jesus demonstrated his love.
– he refused to condemn the woman caught in adultery, although he told her to stop sinning
(do we simply join in the condemnation?)
– he forgave people and encouraged them to start again
(are we prepared to give people multiple second chances?)
– he talked to, touched and healed the outcasts, the foreigners and the sick
(do we walk by on the other side?)
– he fed hungry crowds that had followed him to hear him teach
(what does that mean for us? Is coffee & biscuits a suitable equivalent?)
– he put the disciples’ need of clean feet before his own dignity
(how’s our dignity doing? What’s the equivalent? Replenishing the loo-rolls?)
– he called children to him to be blessed, despite what those around him thought
(We talked recently about how we related to children – are you making sure they are welcome here?)
– he looked for people who needed his help (e.g. Zacchaeus, up in his tree)
(Do you wait for people to climb down from their tree, or do you look up to see them where they are, and talk to them there?)
– he was inclusive: men, women, his own people, Romans, Greeks, corrupt officials
(Do you have limits as to who you are prepared to mix and talk with?)
– he anticipated people’s needs (money to pay Peter’s taxes; cooked fish on the seashore)
(Have you ever thought of anticipating what people are going to need and sorting it before they even start asking?)
For us, too, then, there are many ways in which love, as a character trait like that of Jesus, will work out in our lives. We may or may not be called one day to extreme sacrifice – but even for those who are, it seems only to follow on from a lifestyle of love that they have already chosen.
The point is that we shouldn’t act out something that is not true. We are being called to seek God’s help in growing love in our life. Saying to him in our prayer times,
“Father, I don’t love you as I ought; I don’t love others as I ought – not even my Christian brothers and sisters. I am willing to change. I know the seed was already planted in me when I came to Jesus; please make it grow. Holy Spirit, stretch me, water me, prune me, do whatever it takes to make me love like Jesus more and more.”
This is not a self-flagellation exercise, “Oh, what a terrible person I am: I don’t have enough love!”
This is acknowledging that we haven’t arrived yet; that God still has work to do in us. And it is asking for his help. It’s following Jesus; being a disciple, growing in Christ. This is part of the answer to last week’s question, “What next?”