I like learning and teaching theology. I have thoroughly enjoyed preaching this Foundations series because it has been full of deep, biblical, gospel truths – the very bedrock of what we should build our lives on. I love being able to help people know God better by answering questions about God through scripture. In my own personal studies there is no greater joy for me than discovering another piece of understanding about the nature of God.
But there is one thing about the nature of God that I continuously forget – God is love. Maybe you don’t have this problem, but I do. I think more about God’s other attributes like His unchanging immutability, His power, His omniscience, His graciousness, His wrath – more than I do His love. It is the difficulty I have always had with taking my faith and helping it make that 12 inch journey from my head to my heart.
I’m not sure why this is a problem for me, because the love of God is overwhelming in scripture (and in my life for that matter). Three times in one chapter (1 John 4) it says that “God is love”. I don’t want to get into a theological discussion about the love of God, but I do want to use this as a jumping off point to our topic today. The whole point of 1 John 4 is to remind us that God is love, and that His love empowers our love.
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 Jn 4:7-8)
Our Highest Priority
This must be our first and most essential thought. I/We must remember that all of the characteristics of the Christian life – faith, hope, mission, purpose, joy, worship, forgiveness, peacemaking, communion, baptism, — none of them mean anything unless they are motivated by the love of God for me and are then lived out in loving actions towards those around me.
I can understand discipleship, walking behind and learning from my Master, but if I am not doing the things He is doing, my learning means nothing. I can recite the True Gospel word for word, share scriptures until the cows come home, but if those verses don’t take root in my heart and give me daily hope, a stronger connection to Jesus, and are shared with others in a way that shows the love of God, they are powerless. I can revel in the mastery and simplicity of the Five Solas: Scripture Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Christ Alone and the Glory of God Alone – and believe them with all my heart, but if those truths do not spill out of my heart and mouth to others, if I am not becoming more gracious to others, if I am not stirring up another’s faith, if I am not pointing others to Christ, if I’m not in a community of believers, worshipping God with others – all of that knowledge is pointless.
Doubtless, those of you who know scripture are hearing echoes of 1 Corinthians 13, which says:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (vs 1-3)
I’m reminded about the context of those verses. They are written by the Apostle Paul after he spends time teaching us about the power of the Holy Spirit lived out in our spiritual gifts and the importance of recognizing our need of others, and their need for us, in the body of Christ.
The verse right before “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels…” says this:
“And now I will show you the most excellent way.” (12:31).
That is a very meaningful, challenging verse to me. The act of loving others is more excellent than desiring, having and using our spiritual gifts! Being loving is more excellent than speaking in tongues, prophesying, teaching the scriptures, administrating our resources, and even miraculous healing. Witnessing an act of love is more excellent than anything else we could see in our lives.
We all desire God’s blessing and when we ask “What can we do to become a church (or a family, a person, a workplace) that God blesses?” the answer isn’t all that complicated. It isn’t having better pews to sit in, more contemporary music, great preaching, changing our leadership style, getting into our community [whatever that means], doing more missions, engaging the youth, or anything else that we can do. It doesn’t mean traveling the world, buying cooler stuff, finding our perfect job, or worrying about every moment being perfect. The answer is simply that we must desire the “most excellent way” of living. The answer scripture gives to “what must I do to be blessed?” is to of love God and each other more, better, spontaneously, sacrificially, and consistently. When we do that, we will live a blessed life.
The Heart of the Kingdom
“And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, ‘Which commandment is the most important of all?’ 29 Jesus answered, ‘The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 And the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’” (Mark 12:28-34)
This questioning scribe was closer than the others to understanding the Kingdom of God because he understood that God’s highest priority is love, not the actions of religion. He wasn’t quite there because he didn’t understand that Jesus was the beloved Son of God who had come to suffer for sins on his behalf, but he was a lot closer than the others because he understood something fundamental about God and about His Heart for the Kingdom – Love comes first.
Love is an Action
But what is Love? What I believe the thing that most people don’t understand about love is that it is not primarily an emotion – it is primarily a decision, and secondarily an action. It becomes an emotion only after a person has decided to love and then acted on that love.
Think of Romans 5:8, “…but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” He made the choice to love us, acted on that decision and made a way for us to be saved. He didn’t do this primarily out of an emotional connection to us, but because love requires action.
Ephesians 2:4-5 says, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…” Despite our condition of being dead in our sins, and as he just called us in verse 3, people who deserved His “wrath”, God chose to show us love.
That is the decision which we all need to make, and which I wish to compel you towards today. Decide today that you will be a loving person. Don’t wait until you feel like it, make the decision to do it. Commit in your heart to God, and ask for His help, to make the choices a loving person would make. God doesn’t leave wiggle room in scripture for anything else to be our highest priority.
Here’s an example of what I mean: In Matthew 5:44 Jesus says:
“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
We can’t do that until we have made the decision to do so. Loving our enemies is not something we are going to do naturally, nor is it something that we are going to feel – it is a decision, a choice, that we have to make well before we are faced with an enemy to show love to.
If we are primarily living with the understanding that love is an emotion, then we will never be able to obey the scriptures and be people who are characterized by love. We will be far too easily swept around by things like how we feel, how the other person feels, whether we are sick or well, happy or sad, in plenty or in want… all of those things will factor into whether or not we will love someone at that time. But, if we have made the decision to love, and intend to live by the rule of love, then it will be far easier to be consistent in loving others.
The saddest example of this I can think of is the reason so many give for why they divorce – they fall out of love. If the marriage is built upon something as transient as emotion, then the marriage is doomed from the start. I’ve been to weddings where the vows are not vows at all, but flowery words about a love devoid of commitment. I read a great quote this week online which said,
“‘I do’ is becoming something more like ‘I might’, as one in three couples refuse to vow ‘til death do us part’ at the alter.”
I get this. If you’re going to be honest, it’s pretty hard to say that you are going to be in emotional love with someone for the next ten, twenty, fifty years. It would be exhausting to try to feel loving towards another person 24/7 until the day one of you died. All it takes is one good argument, or a passing thought about another person and boom! the feelings begin to falter. So you have to leave some room just in case you or the other person doesn’t just feel it anymore.
My How They Love One Another
Here’s the part where I’m going to get preachy… this same principle applies to church as well. In John 13 Jesus famously said:
“By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love for one another.” (Jn 13:35)
There is a famous story by an ancient Christian writer named Tertullian who told of a time when the Roman government was worried about what was going on among this group of people who called themselves Christians. They were increasing in number, but they wouldn’t say that Caesar was Lord. All they had to do was put a pinch of incense before the alter of the emperor, but they wouldn’t do it. This worried the Romans who thought they might be disloyal. So they sent a spy to gather information about what the Christians did at their meetings and when the report came back it confused the pagan leaders even more.
It said something like: “These Christians are a very strange bunch of people. They meet together in an empty room to worship. They don’t have a statue or an image, but they speak of one whom they call Jesus, and whom is expected to come at any time. But there is one thing I can say for sure: My how they love Him, and my how they love one another!” (Adapted from a story told in J. Vernan McGee’s “Thru The Bible” Commentary)
That’s what’s supposed to happen when someone meets a group of Christians – or a Christian individual I might add. They might walk out confused about the songs we sing, the scripture we quote, the way we dress, the traditions we hold, or what was happening at our meetings…. They might walk away thinking you are weird, and use strange words, and do strange things… but if there are two thoughts they walk away with they must be: “Wow, do they ever love this Jesus person!” and “My goodness, do they ever love each other!”
A video I watched this week said it this way:
“If you’re a Christian, and I spend the whole day with you and can’t tell if you’re a Christian or not… you’re doing it wrong!”
I realize that I’m not saying anything earth-shattering here. I also realize that as simple as this is, it’s also the hardest thing in the world to do right. While processing this idea I went through my bookshelf looking for books that talked about the importance of loving one another… and that was every book I have.
I opened a theology book and discovered the central theme of God’s love throughout scripture and how important it is to study about God’s love. I looked at books about how to live wisely and it showed me how critical it is to live with love as a priority first, and all else will follow. I read a book about how to hear God’s voice and was told about how God speaks through serving others and listening to other believers, so if you want to hear God’s voice get close to them. I looked at the authors who teach about how to organize and grow a church and it was there too – don’t worry as much about methodology as you do about teaching, experiencing and sharing God’s love.
When we ask, “How can I become a more mature disciple of Jesus?” the answer is that we need to learn how to love God in their heart, and then act out that love towards others with our hands and words.
When we ask, “How can I get more out of worship?” the answer is that we need to focus on singing, sharing, and speaking about the love of God, and then allowing that love to effect us in such a way that we not only believe it, but feel it also.
When we ask, “How can I do outreach to my family, friends and community?” the answer is that we live out the love of God in a way that is obvious to everyone around us.
When we ask, “How can I have meaningful relationships with people?” the answer is that we need to make the choice, the decision, to step out of our routine, our comfort zone, and get ourselves into a place where we can be loved and show love.
Ok, so it’s practical application time. Let’s close out by looking at a two ways that we can do this.
1. Make the Family of Believers a High Priority in Your Life.
I’m a big fan of The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. The second purpose he says we were created for is that “You Were Formed for God’s Family.” His points are simple but profound. Warren reminds us that all Christians, when we are saved, are brought into a new family. It was God’s desire to have us be His children, and when He speaks, He speaks in terms of relationship. He is our Father, we are His children. Ephesians 1:5 says, “His unchanging plan has always been to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ.”
He reminds us that scripture teaches that we are to prioritize the body of Christ, the Christians around us, in our life. 1 Peter 2:17 says “Love the brotherhood.” (Another translation says, “Show special love for God’s people.” CEV) Galatians 6:10 says it this way, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
Why? Because of what Jesus said about how people are to know that we are His disciples – because of our love for one another. We were saved through Jesus TO BE members of his family. Ephesians 2:19, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…”
Certainly this is a command in scripture, to make time to be with and love other believers, but it is also a joy for us. We grow in community, we serve in community, we exist for community. And we primarily exist for the community of faith. Remember, the whole reason we have spiritual gifts is so we can do good for one another. (1 Corinthians 12:7)
So, if you are given the choice between attending church and going somewhere else, prioritize attending church. If you are given the choice to bless a non-believer or a believer, bless the believer. If you have something and want to give it away, ask other Christians first. If you want to talk, or find a partner, or do something with another person, find another Christian.
The lower down your brothers and sisters get on your priority list, the further you will find yourself from God, the more easily you will fall into temptation, the greater the chance is you will adopt false teaching, and the less love you will experience in your life.
2. Go Be Where You Can Love and Be Loved.
The Message version of Romans 12:4-5 says this:
“Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. The body we’re talking about is Christ’s body of chosen people. Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of his body. But as a chopped-off finger or cut-off toe we wouldn’t amount to much, would we?”
A lot of Christians, in my experience, live like chopped-off fingers and toes. They desire to be useful, feel they are made with a purpose, know deep in their being that God is calling them towards something greater, but they aren’t able to pick up any traction when they try to figure out what that is. And I believe that’s because they are trying to do it on their own, outside of the church, away from other believers.
Perhaps you have been burned by people, let down by them, hurt by something people did to you. That pain has caused you to erect a wall around yourself which you use to protect yourself from greater hurts. You’ve worked hard to make that wall look good. You’ve painted it up, put a smile on it, and when you are around others, it’s like there’s not even a wall there at all. They see the façade, but they never get to see the real you.
Consequently you keep God at a distance, because you know that if there’s one thing that He want to do, it’s get into your business, know the real you, get emotional with you, and mess around with your innards. You also keep the church at a distance because you are afraid that if you let down your defences you’ll be let down or even hurt again.
And so you live a bi-polar life where part of you is committed to Jesus and He is calling to you a greater relationship with Him – but you are trying to do it away from the church. It won’t work.
How do you get over that? What you must do is to put yourself into a place where you can be loved. Your natural tendency will be to only go when you feel like it, but as I said before, love is a choice, so you must make the decision to go places where you can love and be loved. I’m not saying you have to go and pour out your guts to the first person you see, but you must begin by making the commitment to consistently be around believers, where they can love you and where you can love them back.
Satan wants you alone. God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Satan wants you to himself, Jesus wants you with Him and around other believers. Just go. When the church is open, be there. Invite believers into your home and invite yourself over to other believer’s homes when you can. Join Christian book clubs. As a Christian leader to introduce you to someone. Join Christian chat groups online. Just be around other believers. This is one of the lessons Jesus has taught me over the years – the blessing that can come just by sucking it up and showing up even when you don’t want to.
(I’m going to borrow from Rick Warren’s “Purpose Driven Life” a bit more.)
It is in the church where you will be identified as a genuine believer and where you will be able to express your membership as one of the Body of Christ. It is your church family who will keep you from becoming self-centred and isolated. It is your church family who will help you develop spiritual muscle. It is in the church where you will find that you have purpose and meaning, and where you are needed. It is through the church that you will share in Christ’s mission in the world. And it is the church family that will keep you from back-sliding.
But it’s your choice. If you are a Christian you have been born-again, but it is your choice whether you will prioritize other Christians and put yourself in a place where you can love and be loved. “The Christian life is more than a commitment to Christ; it includes a commitment to other Christians.” (Pg 139 PDL Expanded Edition)