How do you know you’re at the “right church”? Those of you who have been around a few decades and have lived in the south could give me a list of criteria for the “right church”. I get phone calls from people who are coming here on vacation and they want to make sure they’re coming to a “right church”. We’ve built an entire ecclesiology and written literally hundreds of books on what it means to be the “right church”. And they will mostly have to do with having the right name on the door, the right kind of worship, the right kind of singing, the right kind of leadership, the right doctrinal stance on an unlimited number of subjects. And if you fit all those qualifications you must be the “right church”.
Never once have I had someone call me up and ask, “I’m looking for the right church to attend. Do people at your church love each other?” And Jesus says, that’s the only question that really means anything. Because if you don’t love one another, it doesn’t matter what you believe or how you worship or what name is on the door, people are going to know you aren’t a church that belongs to Jesus.
Listen to some of the most important words Jesus will say to his disciples on the last night of his life: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (Jn 13:34-35)
They are startling words, really. Jesus says they are a new command, but they are as old as the book of Leviticus. The command to love one another is nothing new, but what is new is the example Jesus himself gives them: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
It is not just a generic admonition to be more loving, it is a specific example to love like Jesus loves. And that’s what we need. The truth is, we can’t really love others without having first experienced God’s love – you can’t share what you don’t have. Remember the sinful woman at the Pharisees’ dinner party? Her love was extravagant and risky – why? Because she had been forgiven much – she had experienced God’s love in such a powerful way, how could she not pour out her love in response? She didn’t just sip at the cup of God’s grace, she drained the punchbowl.
So, before you can love others, you yourself must be transformed by his love, swept away by his grace.
And that’s where it needs to begin – God is always the initiator. He loved you before you ever considered the possibility that you needed loving. And it is an unconditional, unrelenting, immeasurable love.
Illustration: In a Peanuts cartoon a few years ago, Lucy is having a one sided conversation with Charlie Brown: “My uncle has always wanted to play the violin. Last week he wnet down to a music store and bought one. Then he went to a concert to watch the violinists play to see how they did it. Then he went home, picked up his new violin and tried it himself. He couldn’t play at all! The next time he goes to a concert, he’s going to try sitting closer.”
I’m not sure how well that would work for learning the violin, but when you’re learning to love like Jesus loves, it helps to sit a little closer to the Master.
If you want to learn how to love your neighbor, you need to learn how to love God, and only then can you really love each other: Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Mt 22:34-40)
And you know what the Pharisees said to that? “Woah, he’s good!” Well, not really – well, yeah, really – in Mark’s account of this debate, he says, “And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.”
They were all thinking Commandments 1 thru 10, which will he choose? And they all had a rebuttal ready to prove him wrong. And instead, he hits them with their abc’s. That’s what this was – it’s from Deut. 6 – it was called the Shema – they were the first words a Hebrew child would learn, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the LORD is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
Illustration – Karl Barth, a brilliant theologian of last century was once asked what the most profound thought he had ever had was. He thought a moment then replied, “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.”
The Pharisees are thinking ivory tower theology – Jesus hands them a child’s building blocks – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
You have to get first things first. Loving your neighbor is not first, it is second. Certainly, loving others is extremely important, but if you don’t have that foundational love for God in place, that love for your neighbor is flimsy and fragile.
What is true is that when we get that right, it does not reduce our capacity for loving people – rather it increases it exponentially.
Illustration -- At the end of a long letter, C. S. Lewis wrote: "When I have learnt to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. Insofar as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall be moving toward the state in which I shall not love my earthly dearest at all. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased."
Have you ever wondered about Jesus’ words in Luke 14 – “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple.”
At first we recoil from that. It sounds so unchristian and unloving. But what he is saying is a reflection on this very principle. If you love God most, then rather than reducing your love for the people in your life, it magnifies it.
You’ve probably heard the principle of being a good father – the best gift you can give your children is to love their mother. To be a better father, be a great husband. If I love my wife, it doesn’t reduce my love for my kids, it makes my love for them all that much more secure.
What happens when you switch it around – put people first – you become a humanitarian and go about loving and serving people out of the goodness of your spirit and the kindness of your heart? All they get is you – and granted, some of you are pretty good – but your goodness only goes so far. Your patience only goes so far, your resources stretch pretty thin. And what happens when people reject your love and ignore your sacrifices? You become bitter and resentful. Human love at its very best is frying pan shallow. When pushed to its limit it has nothing on which to fall back.
When you get it backwards, all they get is you. When you get it right, they get God. You love God first with all your heart, soul and strength, and loving your neighbor becomes an outgrowth of that love.
I’ll tell you why so many ministers burn out of ministry – they get it backwards. They start out with the noble ambition of loving and serving people for the sake of God. And they pour their lives into loving people and hang their fulfillment in ministry on being loved in return by the people they serve. But then they find out that people don’t always appreciate their ministry and are critical of them, they are crushed and disillusioned and become bitter, and not only do they quit loving people, they end up not loving God.
The only way to make ministry a lifelong calling is to love God for the sake of people. You love God so much that it overflows in loving and serving people – and if people reject that, that doesn’t damage the primary relationship there. When people receive the overflow of that love that you have for God, then there’s always more than enough to go around. When you try and love people for their own lovability, it spreads pretty thin and is awfully fragile.
It’s true in ministry, it’s true in the church, it’s true in our families, it’s true for all of us in every relationship. Get first things first. You work on loving God first and most, and your love for others will be like the widow’s jar of oil – you can pour and pour and pour and never exhaust the supply.
It’s the same principle as Jesus words on priorities in Mt 6:33 – “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
When you put first things first, God takes care of the rest.
Having said that, Jesus follows the first and greatest command, with a second which he says is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
We have to be reminded of that sometimes. We love God, but we put a kink in the hose and it never flows on to others. We have this little me-and-God thing going. Just me-and-God – I love him, he loves me – that’s all I need, nobody else. I come to church, I don’t have time to get involved, I don’t care that much about people – I’m just here for me.
And if that describes your view of loving God, I’m sorry to burst your bubble – but that’s not God’s view. God’s definition of loving him never draws a box around that relationship – it is always an expanding circle of relationships.
If you love God, you will by definition love your neighbor. You will have time for people, because God has time for people – you will reach out and love others because God reaches out and loves others.
If it is your practice to come late and leave early because you have no need or interest in the people here – STOP IT – because that’s not loving God.
When a man asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus cut through all the exemptions and excuses and told a story about a man who was in need. He had been beaten and left for dead. And the first two who passed by and ignored him were religious people – in fact, if you had stopped them and asked, “Do you love God,” they would have been offended that you would even have to ask – “Of course I love God!” But when he gets to the end of the story, he basically asks, “Who really loved God more?” And the answer was, “the one who stopped and helped.”
You can talk all you want about loving God, but if that love isn’t overflowing into loving others, your words are pretty empty and your love for God is really a lie.
So, when Jesus says to his disciples, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” he is telling them that the key to loving others is in loving and being loved by God. If you don’t have that priority and that example you will struggle all your life to love anyone else.
But even more than that, he says this is the one identifying mark that others will see that legitimates your claim to be a follower of Jesus. That is the one mark that truly identifies us as Jesus’ church. Do we love one another as Jesus has loved us?
If you went to a new church for the first time, what would you go away impressed by the most? A great sermon, great singing, or having been surrounded by a dozen people who were genuinely thrilled you were there and wanted you to come and be a part of them – who took you to lunch and loved your kids and invited you to come to their homes and who made you feel like one of them.
I don’t care if you were there visiting on vacation. You’d move there to be a part of that. Great preaching? Turn on the TV. Great singing? Plug in a CD. Finding a place where you are loved and where your heart feels like you’ve come home to family. You can’t buy that.
That’s what everyone of us wants. That’s what everyone of us is looking for. And the only way you can get that is to be that. Yes, you. You are the key to whether this church will grow. When someone comes to visit – they don’t really care if they’ve met the preacher – they are more impressed if they’ve met you and felt like someone really cared that they were here and reached out to them to share the love of Christ.
Don’t be the kink in the hose of God’s love – instead of getting a sip through a straw, people ought to feel like they’re drinking out of a fire hydrant. We don’t want anyone to go away from here thinking, “I just didn’t feel like anyone cared whether I was there.”
Frederick Buechner, in his book Now and Then, does a comparison of the teachings of Buddha and Jesus Christ. And he says, lest we be tempted to believe that at their core all religions are the same and that it thus makes little difference which one you choose, you have only to place side by side Buddha and Christ themselves. Buddha sits enthroned beneath the Bo-tree in the lotus position. His lips are faintly parted in the smile of one who has passed beyond every power in earth or heaven to touch him. “He who loves fifty has fifty woes, he who loves ten has ten woes, he who loves none has no woes,” he has said. His eyes are closed. Christ, on the other hand, hangs on the cross. His face is lost in shadows so that you can't even see his lips, and before all the powers in earth or heaven he is powerless. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” he said. His eyes are also closed. The difference seems to me to be this: The suffering that Buddha's eyes close out is the very sin of the world that Christ takes upon himself to save the world. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
If you could spend good intentions, we’d be the richest people on earth. We all have them – those unspoken desires to do something great or small that makes a difference in this world.
It may be something small like writing a note of encouragement, or something monumental like becoming a missionary and taking the gospel to a faraway land. They are those urges – motivated by something we’ve heard, someone we’ve observed, some need that’s been presented – and we’ve thought, “I could do that!”
That’s what I’m talking about with loving others. Love isn’t a feeling, it is an action. If you love others you will act upon it. It will cause you treat them a certain way, serve them sacrificially and unconditionally. Love demands that we act towards others as God acts toward us. Jesus said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
Illustration – Jim was an elder of a church in California. Their community had a huge influx of Vietnamese refugees and Jim took it upon himself to start ministering and serving those people. He didn’t speak any Vietnamese, but had a heart for people. Jim met one of those refugees named Sun Lee and his family whom he helped with food and finding Sun Lee a good job. Jim wanted to tell his new friend about Jesus Christ but couldn’t communicate without learning his language, so Jim began learning Vietnamese and Sun Lee began learning English. Finally, Jim felt like he knew enough to tell Sun Lee about Jesus, but as he began he just didn’t have the vocabulary and became more and more frustrated. Sun Lee stopped him and asked, “Is your God like you? If he is, I want to know him.” Jim explained that Jesus is greater, far greater. Yet Sun Lee wanted to know more about Jesus if he was like Jim. It wasn’t through his words, but through his life – his kindness and compassion – that he communicated Jesus.
That’s the point, if you want to make a difference in someone’s life, it won’t be by telling them about an abstract God who gives us a bunch of rules to live by, but by demonstrating with your own life a God who love us so much that he laid down his life for us