TEXT: John 15:1-8; 1 John 4:7-21
Last summer, many of you met my friend Janice, the young woman from Trinity who began seminary last fall. During the time that I was her pastor, we talked often about many questions she had about faith. Having grown up in a church that was quite rigid, she had abandoned faith entirely for a period and had just been feeling the faith waters again to see if there was a way to have the Gospel without abandoning either her brain or her heart. After talking with her many times and developing a friendship, she finally said to me one day. "You know, I just realized that no matter what question I ask you, your answer is always the same. It's always 'love.' I can't believe I've just figured that out!"
Well, over time you will hear a lot of my sermons. Some will be good, some will be so-so, hopefully not too many will be real corkers, but in all of them I hope you will hear the theme of love – sometimes as the main topic, but I pray always as an undercurrent. I enjoy debating philosophy, theology, and all sorts of topics and issues. But when it comes right down to it, my view of life is fairly simplistic. I believe that every true virtue is a form of love and that most if not all vices are a form of fear. So I am always delighted to find Scripture texts like 1 John 4:18 which says, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear." I may still be wrong, but having a good Scripture passage to refer to at least gives me a good excuse for my ignorance.
All that is to say that I hope to say to you again and again, with every contrivance at my disposal, what John here says in the fourth chapter of his letter. We've been singing it now for several weeks, and here it is in print...Beloved, let us love one another. For love is of God and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love, does not know God, for God is love. Love, that's all we've got to do. Basic, but not at all easy to live out.
It's not even easy to determine what is loving and what is not. Love is a word that has been greatly used and even more greatly abused in our culture. At the very least, it has been used too often and for the wrong things. We love spaghetti. OK, so what does it mean to love a human being if you also can love spaghetti? Some people seem to have that worked out...you put the person in boiling water, pour them out into a strainer and have them for dinner. Somehow, I don't think that's what God had in mind.
We talk about loving people and loving spaghetti because somewhere along the line we got the mistaken notion that love was a feeling, and our emotions can be stirred up by a number of things...animal, vegetable, or mineral. When our emotions are stirred, we think we are loving. I can love to play computer games or I can love my mother and the word can work equally well if all we're talking about is feelings. But if we believe the theology of John that God is love...not that God has loving emotions, but that God's very nature is love...we get into trouble pretty soon and we end up worshiping a feeling.
A lot of our issues with love dissolve when we quit thinking of love as a feeling and realize that love is an action verb. Love is not how we feel, but what we do. That information can greatly help couples getting married. Often a couple at the altar thinks that in promising to love one another for the rest of their lives, they are promising to keep that wild rush of feeling they have as newlyweds. When that feeling inevitably fades, they think love is gone and they divorce. But love is not a feeling. Love is an action verb, not a state of being verb.
Realizing that also makes Jesus' command to love our enemies a whole lot more feasible. If love is a feeling, there is simply no way that I am going to muster warm, caring feelings for my enemies. But if love is action, then the command becomes possible.
Think for a moment of a personal enemy of yours...or if that's a problem, pick a common enemy like Hitler. Now imagine that the two of you are walking down the road and the enemy collapses in front of you, obviously hurt, probably in need of an ambulance. What do you do? If you are actively trying to obey Christ's command to love your enemies, you stop and help. You call 911, you help the person to the side of the street, get a glass of water, or whatever. You may feel disgust and revulsion the entire time, but you have still acted in love. Love is about what we do, not about what we feel.
One of the great gifts of God is that when we ACT lovingly toward a person enough, we do find that caring FEELINGS develop, especially when the actions have been sacrificial to some degree on our part. Feelings are very definitely connected to love, but they are not love itself and are not required to act in a loving way. That's why there's still hope for couples when all the feelings between them have vanished. They think love is gone if the feelings are gone. That's not true. Love doesn't just vanish...love has a will. Love is only gone when it is actively withheld, and it can come back anytime someone decides to do something about it. If they are both willing to work at it, a couple can ACT in loving ways and many discover that in doing so, the feelings return.
The truth that love is an action verb rather than a state of being verb is, I think, one of the things Jesus is getting at in the Gospel of John when he talks about the vine and the branches. It doesn't matter that we are very pretty branches with lots of leaves. If we don't eventually produce fruit, we aren't a healthy part of the vine and will be cut off so that we don't drain energy and nutrients from the healthy, fruit-bearing branches. Jesus is the vine, we are the branches. Jesus is the channel for God's love to us, and if we stay connected, that flow of love will make us fruitful. Why? Because love is an act...love by definition is fruit. If there is no action, there is no love. Period. Now don't misunderstand me...sometimes the loving action is restraint, but even restraint is an act of the will. It takes intentional effort, which is what I mean by action.
I'm not sure that Lerner and Loewe had the Gospel in mind when they wrote My Fair Lady, but the song "Show Me" pretty well sums up the point. It says, "Don't talk of stars burning above. If you're in love, show me! Tell me no dreams filled with desire. If you're on fire, show me! Don't talk of love lasting through time. Make me no undying vow. Show me, now!" That may as well be God's love song to us...don't just come to church and sing O, How I Love Jesus...show me! Bear fruit! Words might be a beginning...all of creation, after all, began with a word. But if the words aren't followed up with action, the words become meaningless...a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal...because there isn't any real love there. It's just a pretty vine with no fruit. Love is an action verb.
But Jesus has another important point to make in the Gospel account. The fruit of love is only possible when we are connected to the vine...when we are connected to the love of God. Love is not a human virtue...it is the divine nature. It is only love when it springs from God. The first letter of John says it another way...everyone that loves is born of God and knows God. When we love, we are participating in God, whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not. God is love. To love someone is to bring God to them, to be God for them. But to talk of loving someone without the power of God is literally to talk nonsense.
Yes, there are plenty of non-religious people who love...often better than a lot of those in pews singing O, How I Love Jesus. I didn't say they couldn't love without the church or without organized religion. I said they can't love without the power of God. "Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God." Those verses have implications way beyond anything the church is even willing to whisper.
It is the job of the church to make disciples, and a disciple is one who is actively learning how to love as God loves. To become a disciple of Jesus Christ, you don't need to understand all of Scripture, you don't need to buy into every sentence of the creed. You simply need to decide that you would like to learn to love. To love God, to love others, to love yourself. In the process of learning to love...and it is a process...one that takes an entire lifetime and then some...along that road we will learn about Scripture and the church and why we say and do the things we say and do. And as we learn to love together, we will sometimes discover that the things we say and do are not loving, and together we will cut off those branches.
Learn to love...that's what's important. That's what the parable of the Good Samaritan is about. It's the same scene I asked you to imagine earlier with your enemy hurt on the road. Jesus told the same story. Let me read it to you from Luke, chapter 10. This is in response to a question on how to inherit eternal life. Jesus' first answer is simply to love, but the person didn't understand what that looked like, so he told this story.
"A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, where he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. Look after him, he said, and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have."
The man who was hurt was presumably a Jew and the priest and Levite would have been friendly toward him. They probably had kind feelings as they walked by. But they didn't stop. The Samaritan was a foreigner...a hated foreigner. The Jews and Samaritans were enemies. The Samaritans were heretics...claiming to worship the same God, but the Jews felt their doctrine and theology and practice was all wrong and that they were therefore outside the kingdom. Jews hearing this story would have been shaken to the core. Here was this Jewish rabbi saying that inheriting eternal life had nothing to do with right doctrine or religious practice. It had to do with loving and even heretics could do that.
Everyone that loves is born of God and knows God. Use the right example and it is still a message that shakes the religious establishment to the core. It means that we have to give up control of the kingdom. No, the church is not the one who gets to control access to God. That pesky vine is growing branches all over the place without asking us first, and some of the most unlikely branches are bearing fruit. Samaritans everywhere are stopping to help the wounded by the side of the road, while those of us with the "correct" theology walk on by. As long as they abide in the vine and bear the fruit of love, they are glorifying God and are cherished and welcomed by God.
What sort of fruit is your life producing? I don't mean is it free from trouble...Jesus' own life was full of trouble and heartache. I mean are you connected enough to the vine that life and love can flow into you and produce fruit? That's what it's all about. The fruit of love. The world is in desperate need of it. Each one of us here is in desperate need of it. Without it we are withered branches. Love. It's the answer to every question. Make it your mission to find out what that means. Ask God. Pray. Read the Bible. Study. Talk to other Christians whose lives you see are laden with fruit. Go to Sunday School. Take Disciple Bible Study. But most of all...practice.
Love. It's the only thing that counts.
(c) 2000, Anne Robertson
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