Monday, June 19, 2017

Sunday's Sermon - Love Is...

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, June 18, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. This was the second message in the series entitled "Living by the Spirit." You can hear a podcast of the sermon on the Cove Presbyterian Podbean page. You might also want to visit the congregational website ( for more church information.

If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

As I hope some of y’all remember, last week we started a new series dealing with how we as Christians can reflect the Holy Spirit to the world around us. And to do that, we’re going to use a little of what Paul wrote to the Galatians as a guide: “...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” [Galatians 5:22b-23] You see, showing these traits is really what living by the Spirit is all about.

But before getting into all this good stuff, we started this series by talking about the “what not to do,” the kind of life-style Paul called “the works of the flesh.” And during our time last week, we discussed how folks sometime misuse the freedom they’ve been given, and that’s the reason a person might slip into this kind of mess. And then we talked about how a flesh-centered life is shown by some very definite signs, you know, like “...fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” [Galatians 5:19b-21a] And we tied it up by considering the results that always come from this kind of thing, and I’m talking about broken relationships with God and with one another. Therefore, we need to do whatever we can to avoid giving into the desires of the flesh. Now that’s what we talked about last week.

And so, with all that behind us, this morning we’re going to start looking at what living by the Spirit is all about, namely those fruits that God has planted within us and that we can allow to grow. And the first one is love. Of course, that’s not a surprise. I mean, even though Christians past and present
have been less than compassionate and merciful, especially to people and cultures that they considered strange and different, I think we all know that love should still be a big deal for believers. I mean, I think Jesus might have agreed with John Lennon when he sang “All you need is love.”

But I’ll tell you, when I think about love, it’s not The Beatles song that comes to mind first. Instead it’s those little “Love is...” cartoons that I remember seeing everywhere when I was in high school. Of course, they’re still being published, but I haven’t seen them for years. And as I remember, once you got past the fact that they looked like two naked children, I think some of them were kind of funny. And some of the were extremely cute. And some of them, well, they were really sad. Of course, I don’t think you’d strain any brain cells on any of them.

But, you know, it’s the two words up on the top of all of them, you know, “love is,” well, those words are really important, or at least they should be, especially for us as Christians. And so, for a few minutes, we’re going to look at what Paul had in mind when he wrote that love is the first fruit of the Spirit and for that reason, is probably the first thing we might want to get down if we’re serious about living a spirit-filled life. And I’ll tell you, when you look at what Paul wrote, I think there are two things he said about love  that are different from what we generally think. Of course, I have no idea about what he’d draw if he were cartoonist, but I believe I’m on pretty solid ground about what he’d write if he were here today.

For example, I think the first thing Paul would say is that love is a decision. It’s a conscious decision on the part of the one doing the loving. I mean just listen to what he wrote to the Corinthians, and this by-the-way is called the love chapter, something couples want read at most of the weddings I do. He wrote, and I’m reading this from The Message: “If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, ‘Jump,’ and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. 
Love never gives up. 
Love cares more for others than for self. 
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. 
Love doesn’t strut, 
Doesn’t have a swelled head, 
Doesn’t force itself on others, 
Isn’t always ‘me first,’ 
Doesn’t fly off the handle, 
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, 
Doesn’t revel when others grovel, 
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, 
Puts up with anything, 
Trusts God always, 
Always looks for the best, 
Never looks back, 
But keeps going to the end. 
Love never dies.” [1 Corinthians 13:1-8a] Now that’s what he wrote.

And I’ll tell you, that seems a lot different from the way love is viewed in our society. I mean, based on what you see in movies and on television, in books and on billboards, in advertising and my gosh, printed on Hallmark cards, love is all about feeling, isn’t it? It’s liking on vitamins, but not steroids; that would be passion. It’s something that can make you feel deliriously happy or unspeakably sad or incredibly angry. I’ll tell you, it leads people to think that they’ve made either the absolute best or the absolute worse decision of their entire lives, and they feel that as they’re looking at the same exact person but at different times of the day. You see, I think this is the way we tend to view love, one that’s certainly mentioned in scripture whenever the Greek word φιλεω is used. But let’s face it, as applied in our world, it has more to do with Madison Avenue than the Bible.

But of course, that’s not the Greek word Paul used either in what he wrote to the Galatians or the Corinthians. Instead, he used the word ἀγαπη, and my friends, that kind of love is a decision. In other words, it doesn’t just happen. It’s not something you fall into or that hits you like a ton of bricks. It takes effort, because it’s not always easy to be patient and kind. And there are times when jealousy and envy and arrogance seem the way to go. And this business about bearing and believing and hoping and enduring all things, don’t tell me that’s a cinch, because it’s not. No, it takes work to show the kind of love about which Paul wrote. But with enough effort it’s possible, if we decide to do it, something that may be impossible if love is all about how we feel. And something else, if love is just our emotions, it’s ridiculous to say that we can love people we don’t like. But if it’s about a decision, well, we can even do what Jesus told us to do, and I’m talking about when he said, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...” [Matthew 5:44] You see, we don’t have to like our enemies; we just need to show love to them. And that we can do, because, for Paul, first, love is a decision.

And this business about Jesus telling us to love, well, that really leads to the second thing love is. For Paul, not only is it a decision, love is also an obligation. In other words, it’s our responsibility as followers of Jesus Christ. And this is something that’s really clear in what he wrote to the Romans. Paul said, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” [Romans 12:9-17] Now I want you to notice that he didn’t say “I’d like you to contribute to the needs of the saints, if you have a little extra this month.” And he didn’t say, “If you’re able, it might be a good idea to bless those who persecute you” And he didn’t say, “Wouldn’t it be neat if we all could live in harmony with one another?” He didn’t say that, but I think most of us kind of wish he did, because, in our world, love is generally seen as an option, you know, something you do if you’re feeling it. And if you’re not, well, sorry about your luck.

But that’s sure not the way Paul described it. Love is something we’re expected to do. But even that’s too soft; it’s something we’re commanded to do. It’s like he wrote to the Galatians, a passage we talked a little bit about last week: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” [Galatians 5:13-15] We’re obligated to love others. And of course, this command to love, man, it comes from the highest authority of all. Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” [John 13:34-35] And I’ll tell you, that really points to why it’s so important for us to love. It’s like Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” You see, since it’s our job is to bear witness to Jesus Christ and to make disciples of all nations, our decision to love is absolutely crucial. It’s the way we show the world who we are.

To love others isn’t optional; it’s not a choice. Love is a commandment. Love is an obligation.

Now I’ve got to confess, I kind of like those “Love is” cartoons. And maybe it’s because some of them move past that mushy kind of love that’s so popular in our culture. But regardless of how you feel about the cartoons, I think Paul’s understanding of love is clear. You see, for him, love is a decision, not a feeling. And love is an obligation, not an option. And when we claim this vision, then we just may be taking the first step in living by the Spirit. Now we’re going to make a change at the end, one I thought about last night as I was finishing the sermon. Instead of singing the hymn that’s in the bulletin, we’re going to sing the song we just heard. Now it’ll be up on the screen.

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