October 21, 2012

Love is…

Passage: Job 38:1-7, Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c, 1 Corinthians 13, Mark 10:35-45

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.


“Too busy to plan a date with your loved one? Outsource it.”  That was the byline of a recent story in one Canadian newspaper.   The story was about Bianca and Aaron a twentysomething couple living in New York, who found that their busy work schedules were getting in the way of their romantic life. So, an ad was posted on Craigslist and they found Brenndon Knox, an unemployed 25-year-old who co-ordinates their dates.  For $12.50 per hour, this self-stylized “secretary of romance” plans fun outings for the couple.

Is love something we schedule when we are not working?  When the topic of love is the announced subject of the sermon or seminar what do tend to anticipate some discussion of romantic and/or familial relationship.  Culturally, for us, the word love calls to mind romance first—the stuff of being “in love.”  So when you think about love in the scope of life in what category do you typically place it?  My question is, “how do you think about love?”  Does it belong to off-duty hours, so to speak?

Allow me to illustrate.  When I was engaged in consulting work in workshops on life/time management people would often say they had no time for “exercise”, or that they wished they had more time for it.  That is a little bit like saying “I have no time to stop for gas because I’m too busy driving.”  What I found was that people typically thought of physical “exercise” as a leisure-time activity; they compartmentalized their lives and “exercise” was slotted into a non-work compartment.

What I am asking you is, have we done something similar with love.  Love is what you are engaged in when you are at home, out with friends, volunteering for a helping agency, or at church.  Have we slotted love into a compartment that only represents a portion of our lives?  I invite you to reflect with me on Paul’s definition of what love is; clearly it is to pervade the whole of our existence.

1.  It remains hidden in most of our English translations of Paul’s description of love’s nature and action; it’s not hidden on purpose—such is the challenge of translating from one language to another.  Most English translations render the Greek as if Paul used adjectives to describe the nature of love “timelessly,” e.g., love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude (New Revised Standard Version).  But the nature of love is expressed by Paul in a series of verbs, the active character of which may not be fully indicated by adjectives.

Here is how one commentator translates the text striving to preserve the verbal structure of the Greek:  “Love waits patiently; love shows kindness.  Love does not burn with envy; does not brag—is not inflated with its own importance. It does not behave with ill-mannered impropriety; is not preoccupied with the interests of the self.”  (I have read a portion of the translation of all the verses to give you a sense of its verbal structure).

Why do I spend so much time on grammar here?  Love implies action; love is something you do. Love happens when you are engaged in relationship with someone. When Jesus said, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” his clear implication is that people would be able to observe how Christians treat one another; they would see love in action.

When I think of that night before our Saviour gave up his life for us, sitting in that room with the disciples; I envision him looking around the room at each of them as he said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  When you are gathered with family or friends could you look around the room and say that: “treat each other the way I have treated you”. What each person in that room with Jesus knew was that they were profoundly loved by Jesus.  They knew it because of how Jesus had engaged with each of them in the course of these three years together in ministry.  Each of them knew Jesus had their back; Jesus could always be counted on; Jesus would never throw them overboard.

There is a logic here that I think is helpful to understand.  When you know yourself to be loved it is a source of great power/encouragement to face the world that is often anything but love.  When, for example, home life is a haven of love; when you know that when I get home someone loves me just the way I am; you find yourself somehow strengthened within to face the bumps and bruises of life outside the home.

These disciples knew themselves loved by Jesus; and Jesus’ word that night was not just for them.  His word was for every believer who would come to own Jesus by faith.  He looks into the eyes of each of us and says—“just as I have loved you.”  Do you know yourself loved by Jesus?  His cross shows us that truth supremely.  The logic I ask you to observe is the order here—knowing myself loved by Jesus is the bedrock experience that prepares me for love of another human.  This same logic is in the order of Jesus’ answer to which command was first.  First was love to God; second was love of neighbour.

“You also should love one another”: this was Jesus’ command to his followers.  I invite you to continue to trace the logic here.  The church is to be that fellowship permeated by the love of Jesus expressed in how we treat one another.  It is to be an outpost of heaven’s love here on earth where people can know themselves loved.  Indeed we are to love the world because God so loved the world.  Followers of Jesus do not expect to be loved by the world; but we should be able to count on being loved by those own Jesus Christ by faith.  The church should be that place where we know ourselves loved so we can meet the world.

In last week’s sermon I spoke about one of the Latin Church fathers named Tertullian who in defence of the legitimacy of Christians to the Roman world wrote: “See how these Christians love one another.”  A bold claim perhaps, yet Tertullian seems confident that an honest appraisal would bear out its truth.  I find myself inspired by such Tertullian’s vision.  Is it not an inspiring vision for a congregation to so love one another that you could feel confident to invite someone to come with you to worship and they would “see how these Christians love one another”.   Again, to underline the logic of the gospel here: love for one another as Christians as a primary command is not to restrict love to a few but to be the launching pad for love of the world.

2.  “My name is Peter and I was seduced by a machine,” writes Peter Nowak in the New Scientist. “Jen introduced herself via a social networking website by asking if I had any advice about getting into journalism.  Boy, did I.  She was pretty, about the same age as me, and lived in my hometown in Canada.  We messaged back and forth.  Soon, she asked me if I’d like to catch a baseball game with her.  Wow.  An attractive girl with the same interests and career aspirations – how lucky could a guy be?  Still, it was the Internet, so I asked Jen for more details about herself.  She sent me a link I clicked and was taken to a page that asked me to input my personal information, including credit card details.  The game was up.  Jen was a chatbot, programmed to scour social network profiles for personal information, then initiate conversations with the intention of tricking people into divulging their financial details.”

The British novelist P. D. James wrote: “Perfect love may cast out fear, but fear is remarkably potent in casting out love.”  Indeed the Apostle John said that “perfect love casts out fear”; yet we all have had sufficient experience of being ill-treated such that we are hesitant to offer the good that may be at hand to do—we are unsure of how it will be received.  Not only that, but we are also hesitant to receive some good from the hand of another because we wonder about their true motives.  Often in receiving the kindness of another we hesitate wondering what will I obligate myself too if I accept; we are so conditioned that nothing in life truly “free.” Much love is cast out by fear; think of the number of times Jesus said to “fear not”, the number of times God’s messengers to people begin with “fear not” because our radar is up to protect ourselves from harm.

When Paul wrote this description of love I believe he is reflecting on the self-giving, self-forgetful love of God demonstrated most clearly in the cross of Christ.  At the beginning of this letter he reiterated to the Corinthians that he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Hence Paul would write that love “does not insist on its own way” or, we could translate, “is not preoccupied with the interests of self.”  For the believer, love is preoccupied with the interests of God and with the interests of the other person.  There is no hint of “what’s in it for me”.  The believer is already assured that God is completely for them.

I note that in Jesus’ life, while he loved his enemies, while he offered good to those who despitefully used him, he did not trust himself to his enemies.  Even as he was before Pilate it is clear that he had entrusted himself into the hands of the one he called the Father.  It is the Father who would do all things well as Easter day would bear out.  Pilate may have been able to order release for Jesus but what would Pilate have then expected of Jesus; Jesus would make no deal with Pilate.

When we offer love to this hostile world we leave the outcome to God.  Our responsibility is faithfulness even when that faithfulness to act in love appears fruitless; its fruitfulness is already guaranteed by the One who ensures that love never ends—love is forever.  This is what the Psalmist means in the affirmation that God’s mercy is the reality that endures forever.

“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,” said our Lord. (John 15:10) Note the relationship of love and the law; to obey God’s law is to live in love. When Jesus said we are to love our enemies he calls us to treat them as God’s law enjoins.  He is not saying “establish warm cordial friendships”.  We do not murder our enemies, envy them, speak falsehood against them, steal from them, or taken sexual advantage of them.  You will know that in our world today rape is used as a weapon against enemy civilians to terrorize; Christians are not to behave in this way.  Friendships may ensue with an enemy or two but this is not the requirement of love of enemy.

3. I have noted a number of articles over the past two or three years that have commented on a growing trend in North America—in Western democracies generally.  It is the phenomena of single person households; people living alone.  There were 12,437,500 households reported in the 2006 Canadian Census. The majority of people lived in family households (69.6%); however, a significant number, 26.8%, lived alone.  That means there are over 3.3 million single person households.

I am not suggesting that because people live alone they are necessarily lonely people.  I do think that this increasing phenomenon of living alone does indicate a world that ever isolates people.  There is a direct link between sin and death; think of the sinful disregard for human life and the killing of the unborn (approx. 100,000 per annum in Canada).  But sin also issues in other kinds of death; the death of love.  Consider how infidelity destroys households.  Consider how people are afraid to venture a relationship for fear of being ill treated.

A number of those people living alone are widows and widowers; clearly it was not their choice to be alone.  Some of these widows have said to me that while they appreciate the people in similar situation who would be their friend, it cannot match the friendship of their spouse now lost to them.  Gently, may I offer a word of counsel? Only a spouse can be spouse to you and we need to acknowledge that and be thankful for it.  One category of friendship cannot be a complete substitute for another category.  At the same time, to hesitate to receive other friendship because it will never replace what is lost is to cut ourselves off from gifts of God.  You also have an opportunity to bless others with your friendship.  This is to say that when we view the potential of friendship as our opportunity to obey the Saviour’s command we find our own needs met.  Love will never fail to carry with it great blessing, for God is love.

Paul wrote “love bears all things”.  Some have objected that this calls from Christians a kind of conformist docility (Michael Foucault), or as “opium” (Marx), or a kind of projection of inner conflict resolved by wishful thinking (Freud).  A good way to translate this text and remain faithful to Paul’s thought is thus: “There is nothing love cannot face; there is no limit to  its faith, its hope, its endurance.”  Or to read: “Love never tires of support, never loses faith, never exhausts hope, never gives up.”  A ministry colleague of mine who works with criminals returning to society after their sentences have been served tells me that one of the most difficult things to deal with is the loss of hope.

I think the church has a great opportunity in a world that characteristically isolates people, a world that destroys hope.  If we Christians truly love one another, would that not stand out in such a world and become attractive for that very reason? Some say that this is self-serving of the church—as if the command for believers to love one another keeps us myopically focussed inward.  But the command to Christ’s people to love one another is the ground for love of the world, a congregation that loves one another is the launching pad for love of the world.  We need to trust Christ in this; give our energies to loving one another.  We are better together.