A favourite singer / songwriter of mine has written well over 100 songs in a career spanning over 4 decades. A few years ago in an interview he was asked why so many of his songs were about love, or featured the word ‘love’ in the title. The singer replied “How could I not sing about love…it is the greatest inspiration we can ever know…nothing compares to it, nothing even comes close to it.” I have to say I totally agree with him.
If you look at the NIV Bible, the word love can be found 445 times in 409 verses in the Old Testament, 318 times in 257 verses in the New Testament or 763 times in the entire Bible! When a word is used so many times, I think it is reasonable to conclude that it is important and we should sit up and take notice.
But WHY do we love?
The Bible tells us quite simply “We love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) We are also told that “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:7b-8) Since we are created in God’s image and likeness, our capacity to love and be loved is an integral and an implicit aspect of our humanity; if we don’t love, we are in some way less than human. (Genesis 1:26) We are hard-wired to love. The love that we are capable of giving and receiving has its source in God.
How do we know what love is?
Love is a strong positive emotion of affection or pleasure. Love may involve sacrifice and it often involves putting other people first. Love is characterized by the desire to want good things for someone no matter the cost and as we shall see there are hallmarks of love. “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. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:16-18) If we profess a faith, a hope and a love, then that has to be backed up by our actions and truth. Christ’s love for us was such that he was prepared to give the most precious things possible – his life.
A good friend of mine is a pastor from a local church whose passion and heart is for the local community. The focus of his ministry involved coming alongside people who lived on a nearby housing estate. Over time he began to be trusted by people and he became known as a person of integrity. It is a real privilege when you make deep connections as he did in that place. One day he encountered a family who were going through some real trials. They were broken…broken physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. And they also had a real need for the things that so many of us take for granted. They needed food (they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from). The pastor sent out a text message to his network of contacts asking for donations of food, asking people to drop the donations off at the church building. He was delighted when box after box of food and supplies turned up and when he delivered these to the family it was as if all their Christmas’ had come at once. At the end of the day, love is a word of action.
“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John 4:9-12) No one can ever say God doesn’t understand or that God doesn’t act. He knows all too well what it is like to be human.
What does responding to God’s love look like?
I said earlier that the Bible tells us “We love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) The love that we give and receive is a consequence of God’s love, and our being created in his image and likeness; it is a natural or instinctive response to God’s love. An analogy perhaps is that a plant cannot help but be drawn towards the sunlight; plants always grow towards the sunlight. In the same way, if we are as we are created to be, we cannot help being drawn towards God’s love and we are called to reflect, emulate and live his love.
When we consider what responding to God’s love might look like, we gain some insight from today’s readings. With this in mind, turn with me if you will to our first reading which is taken from the book of Hebrews 13.1–8, 15–16.
The church is at her best when she shows God’s love to the world. We should do everything in our power to live out that love and living out that love begins right here. Jesus said “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35) In the passage from Hebrews, three aspects of love in action are brought to our attention:
Keep on loving each other as brothers. This is echoed in 1 John “For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.” (1 John 3:11) Because of what Christ has accomplished for us, because of God’s great love that has been lavished upon us, we are called children of God. We are brothers and sisters in Christ, and we must strive to keep on loving each other as siblings. If we love God, we will love one another.
The focus of that love is inward looking – it relates to the body of Christ. When we see divisions, or splits in the church it is utterly heart-breaking; it is like a divorce. It isn’t always easy; we would be in denial if we thought otherwise. We are all human beings in a broken world. We all make mistakes. But we must remember at all times “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8) I will talk more about this later.
Do not forget to entertain strangers. The second aspect of that love is outward looking – it relates to people outside of the body of Christ. And love is never an empty word. It always bears fruit; it is always associated with an outpouring of compassionate deeds. Love is a word of action. If people coming here don’t experience something of love then we have failed. It has to be seen in every aspect of our “being church” – and lived out by me and by you.
Recently at one of the churches I minister in, we were blessed to be able to host a musical production of Annie. A number of local families were involved, and as the children were rehearsing in the main part of the church here, I spent time with the mums and dads of those children. They were making costumes, designing posters and publicity material, sorting out make up. One of the simplest things I did was to try and listen to these people, many of whom had never set foot in the church building, and to make them welcome. And one of the simplest but most powerful ways of making them feel welcome was to make them a cup of tea. Henri Nouwen described listening as a form of spiritual hospitality. We can also show hospitality by making people a cup of tea.
I am sharing that, not in any way to “blow my own trumpet” – it isn’t about me, it never is; but because I want you to know how powerful listening is and how powerful something as simple as making a cup of tea can be. There have been many times I am sure when you have listened to one another and to folks outside and subsequently lifted them up to God in prayer. And every Sunday we are blessed with refreshments at the end of the service.
One of the families volunteered to do catering for the event and it was lovely to see a whole family working together to provide drinks, hot dogs, buns, and biscuits to the people that came. When people are loved and valued and appreciated they are released to love, value and appreciate others. When we are secure in the knowledge of the love of God, we too are released to love, value and appreciate others.
The third aspect of that love is also outward looking. “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow-prisoners, and those who are ill-treated.” We begin to be reminded of Jesus’ words “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’” (Matthew 25:35-36) If we do all of the above, we show love.
The writer of Hebrews includes those who are ill-treated along with those in prison. I would like to suggest that people can be imprisoned in many ways – through illness –physical, mental or spiritual, and infirmity. So if we perhaps struggle with prison ministry, we have an opportunity to get involved in social justice issues through other ways – by looking to organisations like Amnesty International or Open Doors or even campaigning with our local or national government. We can also get involved in pastoral visiting, volunteering with mental health support, bereavement support groups or other volunteer organisations. It is all a response to the love that we have been given.
What goes wrong?
So what is it that stops us from being loving and loving others? I think a root cause is pride or a lack of humility. Our focus becomes shifted or distorted; we take our eyes off God. When we take our eyes off God, we fail to remember or acknowledge his love. The guests at the dinner in our Gospel account today shows that…they picked the place of honour at the table. And Jesus reminds us that “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Something else that causes us to take our eyes off God is fear. So often in life we find that those who struggle to receive love, struggle to show love as well. It is as if they have placed themselves behind a wall or a barrier and nothing can get out or in. Many things may tip people into a place in which they find themselves bound and incapable of loving or being loved; failed relationships, shame, low self-esteem, or abuse. People begin to live in fear – the sentiment is “I’m scared to love and lose again.” But the Bible tells us “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18) God’s love is perfect; God’s love will not let us down. It is constant, enduring.
What’s the solution?
We are human, and we live in a broken world. We all make mistakes. Godly humility can be shown when we have the guts and the courage to admit when we are wrong, and when we ask for forgiveness. I think Heaven rejoices when a sinner repents. Let’s remind ourselves:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).
Let us say in the quietness of our heart…“Lord God, I want to know your love more fully in my heart. Your love conquers all, your love sets us free. When we stumble and fall, when we are fearful may we be restored by your love that casts out all fear.” Amen