April 29, 2018: What Is Love?

If you type into Google “songs about love,” you’ll find thousands of examples. Many of them describe how we experience or show love, but I had set out to see how we describe love: what is it?

 

There are plenty of titles that offer answers ranging the emotional spectrum from “Love is Blindness,” to “Love is a Rose,” to “Love is a Battlefield.” My Spotify playlist begged me to reconsider the search when it suggested “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do as You’re Told).”

 

Love is an integral part of the human experience, it’s no wonder there would be many songs, poems, and stories about it. I think many would agree that to have love in one’s life is better than any wealth one could find and to be without it is the worst possible poverty. Love is an unavoidable facet of our lives.

 

But what does the Bible say about love?

 

In verse 16 of 1 John, the writer states plainly, “God is Love.” The majority of the epistle is an explanation of discipleship as loving God by following God’s commandments. We understand to be true in our relationships, too. To love someone is often characterized by acting in ways that satisfy their desires. We love our parents by obeying them; we love our spouses by sacrificing for their happiness; we love our kids by becoming part in their imagination and fantasy in play.

 

I was having lunch the other day with a friend when I saw a man with his young son and another person. It seemed the lunch was business for the two adults, but after a while, the little boy started to get restless, and his father gave him a toy. As the little boy played, he started telling stories about the characters involved with his toy. The father and the other man listened to the little boy and interacted about the imaginary characters. To encourage the child, even when it was obvious they had things to discuss, showed the child that his voice mattered.

 

Love requires our participation in it.

 

John’s epistle invites us to consider where love comes from. While we know God is love in a very direct sense, that love becomes fully present to us through the person of Jesus. John’s gospel tells us that Jesus the Son is part of God’s own self, the Word that spoke creation into existence, who then takes on the form of a human person as Jesus of Nazareth. God chose to participate in our lives to love us. After Jesus’ death, God sent the Spirit to continue to work in us and through us to know love more fully. For the creator of all things to continually make efforts to be a part of our lives is a big statement. It speaks to God’s unwavering dedication to loving us, even when we don’t love God, or even ourselves.

 

This invitation to love as God loves is a happy one. Those who remain in God’s love are protected from judgment. All of our life’s mistakes are forgotten if we abide in love.

 

And yet we struggle to abide in love sometimes. Verse 20 suggests that it is normal to not always love, but it is clear that we are never to hate. Sometimes, the bar we set for ourselves is to not hate others but not really try to love them either. We don’t want to put ourselves out there to people we don’t like. We use phrases like, “you don’t have to like them, you just have to love them.”

 

If we are to follow the example of Jesus, we can do better than that. We can see others as having the same worth and value as a child of God as we have. The good news is Jesus gives us all the help we need to love others, because he is the provider of our needs, our source of spiritual food.

 

In today’s Gospel, the disciples and Jesus are gathered in the Upper Room. Judas has already left to betray Jesus, and the disciples have begun to feel the anxiety of the coming events. As they struggle to understand how they will follow their master, Jesus tells them that they will be given the Spirit, in the NRSV it uses the Greek word paraclete which translates to Advocate, so they will always have God’s presence with them.

 

Just like last week’s passage where Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd,” in this passage he tells them “I am the true vine.”

 

The vine Jesus is speaking about is a grapevine. Grape plants are a series of vines and branches that cling to whatever surface they are near. Unlike other crops that stay in one spot, grapevines stretch all around. Jesus is acknowledging one important thing about the faith: it is meant to spread. I imagine if Jesus were in the South he would have said, “I am the kudzu.”

 

Attached to the true vine of Jesus are the branches, which is us. Grapevines require trimming and pruning to keep the branches healthy. God, the vineyard keeper, knows if we are healthy and bearing fruit. One can claim to be connected to Christ and show evidence of that on the outside, but over and over in the New Testament it is stated our fruit is how we will recognize faith.

To love is to keep that connection to God, to grow fruit, to be subject to the trimming and pruning of God who loves us more than we can know. Growth is not a passive process – it takes energy and work. It is to realize that the fruit we grow is not ours but God’s. To say we love God is to say that we want to participate in God’s work and allow our lives to be useful to God.

 

Is that the love we show?

 

One of the great challenges of the church today is the cultivated witness of those who have leaned too far into their religious devotion to rules to exclude people from experiencing God’s love. Many Christians have taken it upon themselves to pick up the pruning shears and cut branches they think could be bad for the vine without considering that is God’s job.

I have met a number of people that don’t want to attend a church because they had a bad experience being judged and excluded by one. I had a discussion last week with a person who told me, “I like you, but I won’t go to your church.”

 

There are a lot of stories like that in our community, and it is our mission to show love well enough that they reconsider their past pains.  How can we love Charlotte so that people are willing to join us in it?

 

To overcome this challenge, we will need to be better about how we love. We have to invest our efforts into being active with our faith – not in ways that promote judgment, because that’s God’s work –  but to reach out in love to those around us.

 

The bishop spoke this week at a clergy conference where he said, “Love is the mission of the church.” We all know what mission means: it’s the purpose, it’s what we are here to do. Are we succeeding in our mission?

 

At the beginning of the year, I told you our goal for the year was to focus on relationships. Everything we do as a church needs to focus on building relationships. In the front of the church, we have three missions represented. Are any of you willing to be present when we give and finding ways to be in ministry to those in need? Are you willing to accompany our ministry coordinators when they make the drop-offs and speaking to the organizations we give to?

 

We need to make everything we do here about building relationships with God and with each other. That’s a big step. Many of us come here, because this is our church home. It’s where we find love. Some folks come here, because they are looking for a place like that – a place where they belong; to be loved. Some come to find healing, hope, spiritual sustenance. They also are looking to be loved. All of those require relationships.

 

The difficulty is, in today’s society, we have fewer interactions with each other. We are in a time when there are fewer places to practice the skills of building relationships. When we used to make small talk in stores, at the bank or the post office, now we don’t have to. This is a great opportunity for the few places left that require presence and participation. We have an opportunity to speak to people who may not have spoken to another human being outside of their family or coworkers all week. We can be a place people come when they are longing to be with other people who care about them.

 

I know we want to be a place of community (many of you have lamented how different our community is in meetings and conversations), and it will take some reflection.  Let me offer an example: a number of weeks ago, we held our Easter Egg Hunt. I was ecstatic to see all the unfamiliar faces of those who came, many of whom weren’t family members but had come because they saw the signs or were invited by friends. I bet some came looking for a place to belong where they and their kids were welcomed.

 

But I noticed people tended to stay in their own groups. There wasn’t much mingling. Most people had a constant eye on their cameras. While I love a good family photo op, I didn’t see much relationship building. I didn’t hear any introductions. Later in the day, I was told a visitor had posted on Facebook that she did not feel welcomed. Did we succeed in our mission to love her and her family? Did we talk to anyone about the Resurrection of Jesus? We have room to grow in how we love others and build relationships with them.

 

Today, we celebrate one of our great relationship-building traditions in the church: the 5th Sunday lunch. I want to challenge you to sit with people that you don’t normally sit with. Who do you not know well? If you don’t know someone’s middle name or their favorite color, then you have something new to learn.

 

In the last verse of today’s epistle, John says this: “Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.” I invite you to consider what love is to you. Is it simply not hating someone, or is it to participate in the life of others and build relationships that spread Christ’s love?

 

Love requires a lot from us, but I have found that it gives so much in return. Nothing given in love for another is lost if we give it knowing we give to Jesus, our sustenance and our provider.

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