Sunday, October 30, 2016

Jesus’ Definition of Love

We live in a society that is undergoing tremendous change, and that very quickly and in the wrong direction. One tool being used to create this change is words. Words that used to be solid and clear in their meaning are being given new definitions. These words, with their new meanings, are being used to re-make our world. ‘Love’ is one of those words. I’d like to spend a little time this morning reminding you of the true meaning of the word ‘love’. My goal in this has to do with living well. If our world is going to be rescued from its current madness, the Church will need to live well, the Church will need to live the Gospel. To be able to do that we will need to keep clear in our minds what it means to love. We need to be clear on Jesus’ definition of that word.

Let’s start with some familiar words from Paul.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 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. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. 1 Corinthians 13.1-3

The point here is, I think, clear enough. But let me offer a bit of a confession. When I graduated from seminary I just knew that the important topics were things like justification, predestination, divine sovereignty - you know, ‘deep theology’. That’s what I wanted to talk about. I wasn’t interest in talking about love. It wasn’t all that important. And worse, liberals talked about love. However, in His kindness, God has taught me that as important as all those deep topics are, none of them is as important as love. Being able to do all sorts of impressive things like ‘understanding all mysteries and all knowledge’, you know, deep theology - being able to do that but lacking love makes what you know and what you do as a result pretty worthless. Isn’t that Paul’s point?

And if I … understand all mysteries and all knowledge … but have not love, I am nothing.

The key is to love.

Now, I doubt that anyone will disagree with that - until, that is, we get down to what love is really about. So, more from Paul.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 1 Corinthians 13.4-7

Now, we’re getting into what love actually is. This is where it gets challenging. Love does good to the other person. And here are two words Paul includes to describe that good: being patient and kind.

Patient and kind are a matched set. On the one side, you have patience. The emphasis here has to do with what you won’t do. There are plenty of times when someone does something against you, and your almost immediate reaction is to get angry. Doing that seems so right. After all, look at what that he just did to you. But love is patient. Our anger is wrong. And it’s not enough just to stuff that anger. Love doesn’t stuff the anger. Instead, love is patient. Love decides not to get angry, not at all, even though he did what he did.

Then, there is being kind. The emphasis here is different. It isn’t about what you won’t do but rather on what you will do. Because of love, you will respond to that person by being kind to him, even though he’s just sinned against you. And this isn’t being kind as some sort of manipulation, trying to get that other person to feel guilty for what he did, or something like that. It’s an act of love for the person. It really is doing good to him. Love is patient and kind.

Let’s consider some other words that define love. How about the word ‘confront’? What do you think? Does love confront? We don’t like the word ‘confront’. It sounds so aggressive, so angry. But that’s not what confronting is about. To confront someone is simply to go to him to tell him something about himself that he probably doesn’t want to hear but needs to hear. It’s clear that love confronts.

Do I have a verse for that? Of course, I do.

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. Matthew 18.15

That’s confronting someone. But how does that verse show that to confront is to love? Well, it helps to see it in its larger context. What was Jesus talking about immediately before these words? He was talking about looking for lost sheep.

What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. Matthew 18.12-14

After talking about looking for wandering sheep Jesus talks about confronting someone about his sin. Jesus wants you to go to someone because it seems that he just might be a sheep that has gone astray. Jesus wants you to go because you are concerned that he might perish in his sins. Jesus wants you to go as an act of love. Love confronts.

Here’s another word that defines love: risk. Love takes risks. Now, you won’t find the word ‘risk’ very often in your Bible. I found it only seven times in the ESV. But Paul does refer to the idea, though he uses different words.

Love … believes all things. 1 Corinthians 13.7

Love believes the other person who says he’s sorry for that terrible thing that he did to you. Love takes that risk. But saying it that way doesn’t really get at the point. So, let’s make it more real. Love is a wife believing her husband who says that he is so very sorry for the affair that he had. Love believes him. Love is willing to take the risk of seeing if he means it, of seeing if his repentance is real. That’s what Paul is talking about. Love takes risks.

Then, one more.

Love … endures all things. 1 Corinthians 13.7

To love is hard. To be patient and kind, to confront, to risk, to live that way day in and day out demands a lot. It can be quite wearying. To love according to Jesus’ definition of the word takes endurance. And I think that I can say that someone who doesn’t agree with this hasn’t really loved yet.

So much for the theory. Now for the application. And usually the application has to do with selfishness. We don’t love because we think about ourselves instead of others. And that’s true. But I want to point you in a different direction.

This is where I pick up what I said at the beginning. I told you that as a part of how our culture is changing, words that used to be fairly solid and clear in their meaning are being given new definitions. The meaning of love is being changed. The new definition of love today is tied up with the sentimentalism of our culture. So, loving a person is very much like loving a particular flavor of ice cream. To love is to like and to enjoy. But, of course, what we like changes. I used to love mint chocolate chip. But now I just love rocky road. Or I used to love my wife, but now I love somebody else. What you love comes and goes. It is fleeting. It’s just about what you like and enjoy. That’s the new definition.

And, at the same time, expressing love is fairly superficial. It’s about being pleasant. You say and do nice things. That’s loving on someone. And you do that with the expectation that the other person will say and do nice things to you. ‘I acted loving to you, so you’re supposed to act loving to me.’ And here, we’re back to that selfishness.

But Jesus disagrees with this way of living. He has a different definition of love. Jesus’ definition isn’t something that you can apply to ice cream. It isn’t about saying and doing nice things. Jesus’ definition is about being patient and kind toward someone who really doesn’t deserve it. Jesus’ definition is about caring enough to confront a fellow Christian about his sin lest he perish. Jesus’ definition is about taking a risk with a person who has just violated your trust. And Jesus’ definition is about doing all of these things over and over and over again.

It’s important to notice that Jesus hasn’t just given us a definition. He’s also given us a model. After all, He’s patient and kind. He confronts. He takes risks. And He endures, over and over and over again. That’s how Jesus loves. And that’s how He has called us to love.

And here’s one reason why we pursue this kind of living. It’s part of Jesus’ plan to change the world. Listen to what He tells us.

​By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13.35

At some point, after things in our world fall apart some more, we, the Church, will have an opportunity to rebuild that world. At the heart of that rebuilding project will be Jesus’ definition of love. Rebuilding our world based on some other definition just won’t work. It is as the world sees us loving each other that they will come to see how we do it. They will come, and we will tell them that loving in the extreme way that Jesus’ definition calls for is only possible for those who are His disciples. They will come and ask, and some of them will be changed. Some of them will join us in being disciples of Jesus. That day of rebuilding will come. We prepare for then by working at loving one another now.

Living in this way, loving one another, will be difficult because we are surrounded by people who don’t understand Jesus’ definition. They have been fooled into accepting the new definition. ‘Love is about what I like and enjoy.’ And, sadly, that includes too many Christians. So, as we try to love according to Jesus’ definition we will get some push back. We will be told that we don’t have to be patient and kind, not when it comes to that person. We will be told that there is no place for confronting people. It’s not nice. We will be told that we shouldn’t take those risks, not after what he did to you. And we will be told that we need to stop loving when it gets too hard. We will face some serious pushback. We already do.

So, we end up where we often do. We need to pray. What Jesus calls us to is hard. And what would you expect? We’re trying to change the world. So, it only makes sense to appeal to our Father for the ability to love as He defines it. We will, at times, find ourselves failing at this. We will, at times, adopt that other definition of love. We will, at times, live like so many others. That’s when we need to repent of our sin and come again to Jesus for forgiveness and for change. And having done that, we return to the battle of loving each other according to Jesus’ definition. As we do that, we will change the world.

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