We Must Love
Beloved God, I pray that you would speak through these words and inspire love in our hearts. Where these words are only mine and go astray, I pray that no harm would be done. Amen.
The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbor as yourself."
Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
These words from Paul’s letter to the Romans echo Jesus’s when after he is questioned by the Pharisees, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew:
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” [Jesus] said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Both Jesus and then Paul are explicit in their teachings that love is the foundation of all of the commandments. Essentially what I hear them saying is that the first commandment is to love God and neighbor and all the other commandments are attempts at examples of what that should look like. It also means that if following one of the lesser commandments contradicts love of neighbor, either we are understanding or doing it wrong or the commandment no longer has relevance, sometimes to the point of doing harm instead of good.
We saw a clear example of the Risen Christ upending an old commandment in the Book of Acts chapter 11. In this chapter we meet Cornelius, a Roman centurion, who has a spiritual experience that encourages him to meet with the apostle Simon Peter. Now Peter was a Jewish Christian, like many of the Christians that Paul was writing to in today’s scripture passage. He followed kosher laws and the many other commandments outlined in the ancient Hebrew tradition. Peter also has a vision during this time. Peter is hungry and while he waits for food he has a vision of animals that Hebrew law had designated as unclean. Three times he is told to go ahead and eat of them, but he resists. In the end, he hears the voice tell him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” In that moment, Cornelius’ messenger arrives to request that Peter meet with Cornelius. Peter immediately gets the connection and agrees to meet with him. When Peter meets Cornelius and his companions:
he said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection.
Love is the centerpiece of our tradition, our commandments, our understanding of the Way of Jesus. Before any law of the land, before any religious teaching or requirement, the rule of love is first in the heart of a Christian. Before we do or say or share or follow any other thing, we must first think: is this as loving as I can be?
I mean, I’m not saying that we aren’t going to make mistakes. But if we are guided by love then the lives we live and the lives we touch will be far more grace-filled.
This portion in the letter to the Romans is pointedly talking to the Jewish Christians who are at odds with the Gentile Christians. Both groups are at fault for their obsinance and need to be reminded to love, but here Paul is talking specifically to the Jewish Christians who have been arguing that the Gentiles, before converting to Christianity, must first become Jewish and follow the Jewish kosher laws and traditions. Paul, through his use of rhetoric and theological reasoning, negates this and says: listen, the only law that we all must follow is the law of love. Everything else is based on this anyway. Stop quarreling and start loving one another.
They will know we are Christians by our love, right?
Sadly, that is not primarily what Christians are known for these days. Over the milenia, we have been responsible for a number of wars and injustices. Now, we’ve also been responsible for a number of grace-filled things, too, but our reputation as a religion is pretty tarnished. In recent years, our reputation has fallen farther than perhaps ever before. The younger generations, for the most part, are not seeing the love and the grace. They are only seeing the anger and the judgement, the hypocrisy and the infighting. They laugh at us and turn away and no amount of arguing with them will bring them back. Only one thing will convince the world that we are still truly the people of God and a place of goodness, refuge, and hope: LOVE.
In order to overcome our shortcomings, we must love. In order to attract a new generation of Jesus disciples to transform the world, we must love. In order to bring the church’s message of grace to a hurting people, we must love. In order to overcome the hatred that has become so divisive in our land, we must love. In order to bring light into the darkness of our times, we must love.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends..
These words that we so often hear at weddings, remind us of the qualities of love that we all need to show up with in our everyday lives in every place, virtual or real, that we find ourselves.
I want to end today with a story about love. I was counseling a young adult who was grieving the loss of his relationship with a young woman he had been with for a few years. He had already confessed that he had neglected the relationship and taken for granted that they would just always be together and now he wanted to give it one last try with a big romantic night with all the bells and whistles in order to prove to her how much he really loved her. For too many of us who have been raised with Disney princesses and fairytale weddings, YouTube proposals and sitcom gushy-ness - love seems like a never-ending, never-changing feeling that just happens when you meet the right person or are in the right family or friend group and can always be saved with a big showy gesture. This young man wanted to make it right, but his life lessons were coming from the wrong sources. So I stopped him in his brainstorming and gently said to him.
“My friend, the big splashy gestures simply aren’t what love is. I mean, they can be nice, but they don’t mean as much as you’d like to think. Love is showing up every day. Love is having hard conversations and working through things together. Love is listening to one another. Love is caring for your loved one when they are sick. Love is cleaning the bathroom. Love is changing diapers in the middle of the night when no one is paying attention and the child won’t even remember the act of love. Love is daily sacrifice and compromise. Love is small gestures that happen regularly to remind your loved one that you truly care. Love is trusting and being trustworthy. Love is more of a daily habit than a heart-thumping feeling. If you want this girl back, or indeed want to be in a healthy relationship with someone in the future, you don’t need a big well planned event, you need to work on yourself so that you can love better.”
I don’t yet know the end of his story. I’m pretty sure that story is still in progress. But I do know that all of this applies to all of us and to the church as a family. Love is a daily habit that sometimes no one notices. We can’t expect to get instant trust, we have to put in the work to earn that trust. Love is having hard conversations about how to do things in and out of the church. Sometimes those hard conversations are about racism and sexism and heterosexism. They aren’t easy and they aren’t comfortable, but they are part of how we learn to love our neighbor. Love is feeding people who are hungry and caring for widows.
Love is active, actions that show our love. If actions don’t match words, the words don’t count. We all know that to be true, right. So I’ll end with this quote that has been attributed to Saint Francis:
Preach the gospel, preach the love, at all times and if necessary, use words. Amen.