HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
September 18, 2015
Matthew 22: 34-40 (CEB)
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had left the Sadducees speechless, they met together. 35One of them, a legal expert, tested him. 36“Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. 40All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”
This morning, we are going to talk about what it means to “give in love.” This is the last sermon in a series which has focused on the four missional components that will define who and what this church is as we seek to reach out in our community: Rooted in Christ. Grounded in Hope. Growing in Grace. Giving in Love. Those of you who were here last week will remember that as we learned about “Growing in Grace,” we looked at John Wesley’s teachings on grace and how God’s grace moves us from complete separation and naivety, through transformational change, toward Christ-likeness. And I ended by sharing with you that John Wesley taught that by God’s sanctifying grace, we can be made “perfect” in this life, where perfect is defined as perfect love of God and perfect love of neighbor—complete fulfillment of that Greatest Commandment we just heard Jesus proclaim.
So let’s talk about this perfection, or full sanctification for a minute. Because the thing is, Wesley went so far as to teach that in this life, we can reach perfection; we can achieve perfect love of God and neighbor, even as Christ was perfect. Now, I shared with you all last week that I really have a lot of trouble wrapping my head around that idea and I have since I first learned of the teaching. You see, before anyone is ordained as a United Methodist minister, they have to answer what are called the “Historical Questions.” These are questions that have been asked of ordinands all the way back to Wesley. There are thirteen of them, and if you don’t answer each one correctly, then there is a possibility that your ordination could be denied. So, one of the questions is this: “Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?” And if we want to be ordained, we all say, “Yes!” And what I’ve decided in the seven years since I was ordained is that what I am really affirming in my “Yes” response to that question is that I believe that all things are possible in God. But what I’ve also learned is that the question that follows is really the more important question. It is this: “Are you striving after it?” In other words, “Are you working towards a more perfect love of God and neighbor?” It is that striving for perfect love that should be the guiding directive for our lives, so that is our focus for this morning.
In the most quoted verse in all of the Bible, we hear John declare, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.” To me, this is a statement of love in its highest form—given, shared, offered for someone else’s well-being; everything else is a weak imitation compared to God’s love in Christ Jesus, a “striving after.” Yet, Christ tells us striving after perfect love is exactly what we have to do. For thousands of years, the Israelites had followed hundreds of laws and commandments in order to fulfill their covenant to God. So one day, an expert of these laws comes to Jesus and asks what’s the greatest commandment? And Jesus says, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” There it is. The most important commandment for us as we seek to live as disciples of Christ: love God and love neighbor.
So as we think about exactly what it means to love God and love neighbor, let’s just talk about love for a minute. I think we most often experience, think about, and describe love as a feeling, an emotion. This week I went to Facebook with the question, “What is love?” I got many more responses than I was expecting, and they ran the gamut of descriptions. Some people described a feeling: “Love is being happy when another is happy.” Or, “Love is when you want better for another—even more than for yourself.” But other responses talked about love in a different way, more active: “Love is giving of or sacrificing yourself (even your life) for the sake of another without expecting anything in return.” “Love is noticing and responding to a need.” “Love is taking time to listen.” “Love is desiring and striving after another’s best interest.” “Love is seeing another person as God sees them.”
There’s no question, love is a lot more than just a feeling, isn’t it? When we really love someone, that manifests itself not only in emotion, but also in action. Love is enacted when God takes on flesh and lives as a human. Love is exposed when Christ hangs on the cross as the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. Love of God and neighbor, then, is not just something we feel, it’s something we do! And that’s exactly what Christ is getting at as he tells of the judgment of the nations in the reading from Matthew we heard earlier in the service. To love our neighbor (or anyone else, for that matter) means that we act on that love, putting their own interests and well-being above our own. Jesus gave some specific examples like feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned. But the thing is, love knows no bounds, and the love we are called to is vast and varied. We have to begin by extending love to all people, whether they look like us or not, whether they believe like us or not, whether they are a neighbor or an alien, a friend or a foe. And no matter who it is, the way we give in love will vary. Sometimes we may “give in love” simply by saying a prayer for a person experiencing a particularly stressful time. Other times, we might “give in love” by paying the security deposit for a homeless family moving into a real home. We might “give in love” by turning the other cheek when someone has hurt us. And then there are those times when “giving in love” means going all the way, running up the staircase of the World Trade Center when everyone else is running down, or throwing your body over your friends so that the bullets don’t hit them. Always, love is given freely, without concern for our own interests or well-being.
There’s no doubt about it: Loving people in the way Christ calls us to love our neighbor is a massive challenge. And that means that actually acting in love, giving in love, is equally difficult; especially for us selfish, broken human beings. But remember this, we love because Christ first loved us. And I believe very strongly that if we truly follow Christ, then loving our neighbor really means letting Christ’s love flow through us. If we can’t give in love in this way, then, well…I think we see the consequences every day. Near the end of his life, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “To neglect loving your neighbor—to lack compassion—that is the problem underlying all other human problems.” God has promised to establish his kingdom here are earth, and Christ has called us to be laborers for that kingdom, which means we have to live by that Greatest Commandment and give in love. If we cannot share the love of God in Christ Jesus with our neighbor, then we are doing nothing but compounding the many problems we already face.
I want to end with a very personal story to try and convey just how important it is for us to give in love. When I was in college, I spent my summers as an intern with a youth group in one of the United Methodist Churches up in Knoxville. Over the three years that I did that, I became fast friends with another young adult who lived in the area, attended that church, and volunteered with the youth group. Whereas I was only with those youth for the summer months, Chris worked with them throughout the year. He had a great rapport with those kids. He listened to them when they were having a tough time at home or at school. He’d play and laugh with them as they enjoyed fellowship time. He helped lead and teach their studies on a regular basis. He would use vacation time to chaperone trips and lead mission teams. He helped the newer kids integrate with the group and shared his love of Christian music with all of them.
But then, one winter, one malicious parent (who, honestly, always seemed like she was mad at the world) decided she didn’t like Chris. So she went and complained to the Senior Pastor. The next day, the Senior Pastor called Chris to his office and told him he couldn’t work with the youth anymore. I’d like to think there was something more to it than that, but I’ve looked at it from every angle and I can’t see it. The youth director was out of town at the time and returned to discover that her most capable volunteer had been fired without her knowledge. It was devastating, but it gets worse. When Chris left the office that day, he didn’t just stop working with the youth; he gathered his stuff, walked out the door of that church, and never returned. He’s never returned to any church. That was more than twelve years ago. He would be the first to tell you that the church hurt him and he has no interest in being a part of anything having to do with the church.
What I’ve come to see in the more than fifteen years since that happened is that story is part of my call story. Because after Chris walked out of the church that day, he called me up and with anger and sadness he shared with me how hurt he was. And all I could think as he talked to me was, “That’s not what the church is about. That’s not it. The church heals, it doesn’t hurt.” Yet for so many it is. There are thousands, maybe even millions of Chris’s walking around. And it may not be that they were hurt by the church, but they’ve been hurt by something or someone, or they haven’t been helped in a time of need, and they feel like all that is ahead of them is more of the same. But to compound that problem, they don’t feel like they can turn to the church. Because of past experience, or media portrayals, or whatever, these hurting people are walking away from the one opportunity for true healing.
I’m not sure if I can convey how important this is. For every one person that’s sitting in a Christian church in the United States this weekend, there are five people who are not. There are hungry people not being fed, and naked people not being clothed. There are people who are facing a terminal health diagnosis all alone, and prisoners stuffed into overcrowded prisons where they are never visited. There are lost people looking for answers, and hurting people looking for healing. And to many of them, it seems as if the church is doing nothing.
Friends, if we Christians, we the church, are to fully, deeply, and truly follow the greatest commandment that Christ ever gave, then we must act. There might be Christians out there, or churches out there that do nothing more than gather on Sunday mornings, but not this church, not this congregation. We will do all in our power to be a place of Healing, Optimism, Peace, and Encouragement. We will be a place of HOPE. We will offer ourselves to God every day, giving ourselves in love to serve God and our neighbor. This is not an option, this is who we are!
Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? Are you striving after it?