Monday, January 30, 2017

Sunday's Sermon – Spiritual Growth for Short People: Loving One Another

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, January 29, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. You can find a podcast of this sermon on the Cove 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.

Well, here we are again, and I hope y’all are ready to spend a little time talking about how we might grow spiritually, you know, how we might understand God a little better than we do right now and how our relationship with him might become a little stronger than it is right here. And since there’s no football on today and we don’t have anything going on after the service, you know like a congregational meeting or a dinner, we can spend as much time as we need to do it, right? Just kidding; I wouldn’t do that to y’all.

Anyway, in case you don’t know it, we’re in the middle of a sermon series we started a couple of weeks ago, and like I just said, it’s all focused on spiritual growth. Now, as you remember, during the first sermon, we talked about how recognizing our limits is really the first step, because when we do that, when we accept that we’re human, that leads to realistic expectations and a focused approach to growth and a faith that’s patient. Now that was the first week. And last week, we looked at the importance of trusting the Lord, you know, that faith is actually trust and how it starts with a decision and that when we decide to trust, we’re suddenly free to explore all kinds of possible ways we might grow. And so that’s where we’ve been.

And this morning, we going to consider another step that I believe is important if we’re serious about becoming the men and women God created us to be, and right now I’m talking about loving one another. And to get us sort of focused, we’re going to look at some verses from the first letter of John. It’s in your bulletin and on the screen. Hear God’s word as written by John. “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. 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 in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

Now, I recognize that for most of us this seems pretty straight forward. I mean, outside of a few believers like a friend of mine who told me that the biggest problem in modern Christianity is that there’s too much talk of love, outside of guys like him, I think most of us believe that we’re suppose to love one another, especially since that’s what John said right here and Paul wrote to the Romans and Jesus told his disciples. “We should love one another.” To me, that seems pretty clear.

But I’ll tell you, what throws a little mud in the water is the fact that the Greeks had two different words which are translated “love” in the English New Testament. You see, the word φίλος can mean love. In fact, that’s the way it’s used in the word philosophy; that literally means “the love of knowledge” and in the name Philadelphia, the city of “brotherly love.” You see, when the Greeks used the word φίλος, they were talking about a feeling, an emotional kind of love. Put another way, using this word, you really need to like what you love.

But I’ll tell you, that’s not the Greek word used here, not in this verse nor when Paul wrote to the Romans nor when Jesus said, “you will love your neighbor as yourself.” None of them used φίλος. Instead they used the Greek word ἀγάπη. And to get a sense of what this kind of love involved, just listen to how Paul described it to the Corinthians. He wrote, “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.” Now that’s the kind of love Christians are called to show, you know, to God and to their neighbor and to one another. And I think that’s really important, because this kind of love isn’t a matter of the heart, instead it’s something that involves both the mind and the will. In other words, like we talked about with faith, love is a decision. We decide to love. And I’ll tell you, we can decide to love people that we just don’t like, because ἀγάπη love isn’t about our feelings, rather it’s about both our attitudes and our actions. I mean, we don’t have to be friends for me to be patient and kind with you, in other words, to treat you in a loving way. And while φίλος may affect certain relationships when it happens, ἀγάπη has got to shape our behavior, because let’s get real, you can’t act like an arrogant, self-centered jerk, if you’ve decided to love one another as Christ has loved you. Nobody has ever nor will ever fall into ἀγάπη, because this kind of love isn’t accidental. Man, it’s as intentional as it can be. And it’s this kind of love that we’re commanded to show, and I’ve got to tell you, that’s a good thing, at least for me, because there’s no way I’m going to be able to like everybody. Maybe I can fake it, but I wouldn’t be able to actually do it. But I sure can be loving to all people, even my enemies, you know, like Jesus told me to do. And I’ll tell you something else, I believe it’s this kind of love that leads to genuine spiritual growth and I’ll tell you how.

First, I believe our decision to love one another forces us to look away from the values of the world. And isn’t that exactly what John was getting at when he wrote, “Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.” Man, the world wants us to look after ourselves, right? The world tells us that we’re number one and that we should be first and that, if everything works out, we should be the ones served; am I right? That’s what the world says we should want, and what we should seek. So it shouldn’t be surprise that the world is confused when we say things like, in God’s Kingdom the first will be last and the one who leads must be the servant of all. For the world that’s stupid, maybe a little dangerous. And that’s probably why the world gets frustrated when we decide to turn from ourselves, from what’s best for us so that we can address the needs of others and from what we believe so that can listen to those who are often ignored. For the world that’s a waste of time, to say nothing of kind of subversive. And I’ll tell you, our willingness to show love not just to ourselves and those like us but to all people, when that’s what people do, in other words, when we actually listen to Paul and stop conforming ourselves to the world, that world is going to hate us, because now we’re a threat to its fundamental values. In fact, it’s going to hate us just like it hated Jesus. You see, when we decide to love, we’re undermining all those assumptions that make it possible for us to ignore people who are on the outside and we’re undermining all those preconceptions that permit us to condemn and exclude folks who are different from us, and we’re undermining all those prejudices that allow us to hate men, women and children whom we don’t even know. Brothers and sisters, the world going to hate us, because the decision to love forces us to look away from it’s values, something that really has to happen if we what to grow spiritually. That’s one.

And second, when we decide to love others, it really makes us genuine, bonafide followers of Jesus Christ, because that’s exactly what he did for us. As John wrote, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” You see, when we decide to love others, especially those who really don’t deserve our love, we’re walking in the footsteps of the one who died on a cross because he loved all people, including the guys who drove the nails. And by following his example, we move pass any kind of shallow Christianity, you know what I’m talking about, the kind of discipleship that has the all the depth of a balloon, one that may be expressed with a lot of high-sounding, spiritual words on Sunday but one has almost no affect on Monday. I guess you could call it a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. I’ll tell you, these are the folks that don’t let Jesus Christ cramp their style. And even though I believe God loves them and so should we, they’re not exactly the kind of examples we’d want to follow, not if we want to grow. Instead, as we deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow Christ, in other words, as we become more and more aware that the simple answer to the question, “What would Jesus do?”, is always “He would show love,” I believe both our understanding of him will expand and our relationship with him will deepen. And isn’t that what spiritual growth is all about? You see, I think that’s the second thing that’ll happen.

And third, as we decide over and over again to treat everyone in a loving way, frankly, I can’t see how our lives won’t change. As John wrote, “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 help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” You see, as we turn from the world’s values and turn toward the  world’s creator, I think we’re going to understand the difference between φίλος and ἀγάπη and to recognize that, even though both are important, we’ve been called to live love, not just to feel it. And we’re going understand just how shallow loving words can be and to recognize that what we say doesn’t mean a hill of beans unless we do something about it. It’s like James wrote, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” We’ve got to act. And finally, I think we’re going to understand that God has given us the tools, and I’m talking about the talents and the time and the money to take this action and to recognize the places where we, as individuals but more importantly as the church, can act. And as our lives become more loving, spiritually we’re going to grow.

And I’ll tell you, that’s going to happen as we decide to love one another. But remember, with this loving business, neither John nor Jesus was telling us that we have like everybody. And that’s a good thing, because that’s something that I don’t think any of us can do. But we can be loving, we can be kind and patient, we can be open and understanding to everyone. That we can do. And if we do, I believe we’ll be looking away from the values of the world and moving closer to Jesus Christ and changing how we live in relationship to him and others, all of which, I believe, will enable us to grow spiritually into the men and women we were created to be.

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