August 1, 2021. Series on Colossians
Leviticus 19:9-18, Colossians 3:12-17, Matthew 25:31-46
Clothe yourself in Love!
How do you define love? This is what I found on the internet and if it is there it has to be true! “Love encompasses a range of strong and positive emotional and mental states from the most sublime virtue or good habit, the deepest interpersonal affection, to the simplest pleasure. An example of this range of meanings is that the love of a mother differs from the love of a spouse, which differs from the love of food. Love is considered to be both positive and negative, with its virtue representing human kindness, compassion, and affection, and its vice representing human moral flaw akin to vanity, selfishness, and egotism as potentially leading people into a type of mania, obsessiveness, or codependency”.
We all talk about love all the time: I love ice-cream, pasta, running, I love my wife, my children, my pet, or Lake Placid. In 1 John 4:8 the Bible says God is love. In the English language it is possible to take the 3 words, God – is – love and grammatically change it to “love is God” for in English neither love nor God has an article. However, the way this sentence is written in Greek, a very precise language, it is not possible to do so for God in this verse has an article. So, the only way to read it is: “God is love”. It is grammatically not possible to read love is god. Imagine if love were to be God? Then if you love money, money is your god, food so food is your god. Interesting but the Bible is clear: God is love and love is not God.
The Apostle John is called the Apostle of love because he writes often and profoundly about love. He of course is the Apostle who writes in 1 John 3:16-18: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister[a] in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
We have in fact seen love in action when Jesus laid down his life for us. John refers to this fact a number of times. This, for him is love defined! This is the Biblical definition of love. Jesus’ willingness to give his own life for others! His willingness to sacrifice, to pour out his life, to make the ultimate sacrifice – this is God’s definition of love.
John continues: “…..he laid down his life for us and we ought to lay down our lives for one another”. This is beautiful, it is right, is it not? Who would disagree with this sentiment? To know God is to love, but to see Jesus giving up his life is what divine love is all about! So, we need to do the same! It is profound, it is general, it is vague, and almost certainly, for almost all people, it will never be required that we will have to lay down our lives for another person. There are a few exceptions but these prove the rule that we are pretty safe in this regard. So, for most of us, this language, even though it is so beautiful, it is and will remain theoretical and hypothetical. That is why everyone would certainly nod in agreement. We love the sentiment, we love the definition, and as people of faith we embrace it because it is after all written in the Bible. So, yes, we agree!
John however, knows that nodding yes, participating in this hypothetical discussion about love, and agreeing with his words is actually pretty easy! It is actually easy to say I love others so much I will give my life for him or her – because we know that it will most likely, certainly almost, never be required of me to do so!
And this is why John immediately, without missing a beat, takes us from the theoretical to the practical (1 John 3:17): “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” Let’s think about it for a minute: How can God’s love be in someone who sees another in need and turns away?
John uses one simple, practical example; a small thing in the bigger conversation about the huge topic of “love”. Now it a different story – for all of us, every day, are confronted with this practical reality. Giving your life for someone? Sure, I agree – for it most likely will never be required. Helping someone in need? Now wait a minute! This happens all the time – and it is asking too much!
This small example is interesting: it is very practical and precise but the same time not detailed. The one has the world’s goods and the other is in need. It neither specifies what the world’s goods are nor does it say what the need is. It covers a wide range, it fits many scenarios. It can be applied to literally thousands of scenarios where all of us could do something to alleviate all kinds of needs of another! And these practical, small things that we can do, these are now for John the test of our being a follower of Christ. In essence John is saying it does not help to say that we are willing to lay down our lives for another … but then we refuse to embrace these small, everyday sacrifices to help others. And this is why he adds: “…let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
The expression “refuses to help” literally means “closes his heart against him”, that is to see someone in need and “shuts his heart so that the thought of his brother or sister cannot enter.” It means that such a person has “no compassion.”
How do we shut our hearts? Well, one very effective way is to do so with our mind. We look for and find reasons to justify our lack of compassion. We find rational keys to “lock our hearts.” We look for and find excuses not to help the one in need. And, my!, we are really good at finding excuses, good ones! “Not now, I’ve worked hard for what I have, our world does not work this way, one has to work hard, and solve your own problems, it’s your own fault, if I give you a fish, then you will have a meal for one day….” We really are creative with these excuses, aren’t we? The thing is that some of these excuses not to become involved, not to spend our time and resources, are actually pretty good – and some even have some truth in them. So, we believe ourselves and we convince others. Yet is much easier, safer and more convenient to talk about how much I love God, and about Jesus laying down his life and we say that we will do the same – if required, knowing it will not be required.
Chrysostom, the early Church father who served as Archbishop of Constantinople, was known for his preaching and eloquence, wrote a commentary on Matthew 25, the text we read this morning. Chrysostom points out that Jesus did not resent anyone for not healing him when he was sick, or liberated him when he was in prison. No, Jesus says, that they did not visit him. This implies that Jesus is not asking of us to do the impossible, things we cannot do. He only asks us that which is possible! The theological truth is that where there is true love, many things are possible, much more than we often tell ourselves.
The unfortunately reality is that the world’s Christians, more than 2.3 billion of us, about 31% of the world’s population, often find reasons to “lock their hearts” to the needs of others, or they fail to see the needs, or they don’t engage – without realizing it. We lock our hearts with excuses or being so busy that we don’t see, or when we see we don’t show compassion. Reformer John Calvin said that Christian love, Christian compassion and mercy, are simply “the pain we experience when we see the pain of another person.”
This is where God’s Spirit wants to lead us: a place where our eyes are open for the need and pain of others; a place where we have empathy for another person’s situation, a place where our “hearts break open” in love of others. When this happens, some people may, no they will shake their heads in disagreement, or disapproval. They may even label us weak, or too emotional or worse. They may resent us or blame us for we feel empathy for those who are not desirable or enemies.
We may ourselves be unable to explain why we feel this way. Perhaps we can only respond by saying: “The love of Christ moves me, I can do no other!”
So. the Apostle John is saying that people often speak with conviction and passion about love. A minister can preach wonderful sermons on love, some may cite beautiful Bible verses, the sweetest quotes and sayings about love, and some may write beautiful poems about love. I suspect there are many examples of these beautiful words, quotes and poems on social media. The fundamental questions however are and remain: “What do you do? Is your heart open to others? Do you feel for others when you see their need and pain?”
If not, the Apostle John says that in spite of your knowledge of the Bible, in spite of your polished words, then you don’t know God for God is love! These are harsh words. Some may be offended by them, but let me be clear, this is what the Apostle John, under the guidance of God’s Spirit is saying: ““How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”
This is the Biblical definition of love. And this kind of love, the Apostle Paul is saying, binds everything together in perfect harmony. This, in other words, is where God’s love is present and visible.
And this is the third way how people will see and know that Christ is the Lord. Wherever people confess that Christ is the Lord,
- They don’t focus on the differences between people, they see Christ is all in all,
- They forgive without counting,
- God’s love unlocks their hearts for the needs and pain of others.