First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine
Rev. Kate Dalton
March 10, 2019
Scripture: John 13:31-38; Proverbs 3:3-4
In John 13:35 Jesus says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
When we teach kids in confirmation what it means to be Christian, we teach them about Christian beliefs. We teach them about the scriptures and about Jesus. About prayer and communion. About Easter and Christmas. We emphasize the radical nature of Jesus’ actions for his day, but I’m not sure we do a great job of instilling the idea that love is perhaps the most important marker of a Christian.
Love is one of those things that seems vague and universal at the same time. Besides, if you equate love with the golden rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you – there’s some version of that in most religions – what makes Christianity different? And it’s not uncommon for love to be used to justify hatred and violence. As a gay woman who attended college in the Deep South, I often encountered people who wanted to change my sexual orientation because they loved me. In fact, years after my first girlfriend and I broke up she wrote me a note saying that because she loved me, she needed to tell me I was going to hell if I didn’t stop dating women. I guess she would qualify that under telling the truth in love – but the problem was we disagreed on the truth, which meant we disagreed on the meaning of love.
What makes something loving anyway? One commentator I read this week qualified that love is an action that is life-expanding and not life-diminishing. Author Michael Kelly, suggests that Christian love has three markers: it’s sacrificial, it’s demonstrated, and it’s initiative.
Christian love is sacrificial. I think I believe this, but I want to clarify. I do not believe that Jesus died on the cross as the final sacrifice for our sins. I don’t believe that God needed a sacrifice for us to be saved. I do believe though that Jesus modeled servant leadership. Jesus’ actions in the world were for others benefit not his own. He was expanding other’s lives. Kelly explains sacrificial love this way,
We love pizza. We love ice cream. What does our use of the word reveal about its definition? Mainly, that “love,” at least in the culture, is about receiving. We base our love for someone, or something based on how they can benefit us emotionally, intellectually, or physically. In other words, “we” are at the center of our love for another party. Christian love stands against this because of its sacrificial nature.
Instead of taking from another, Christian love constantly assumes the posture of giving. Of serving.
Christian love is demonstrated. We can talk all we want – but our talk is not what makes us disciples of Jesus. Our actions are what make us disciples. Notice that Jesus doesn’t talk about the right beliefs, the right theology. Jesus stresses how we act in the world. The church gets confused about this because over time so many churches have split because of disagreements about beliefs. Which way is the correct way to understand something? But the reality is – Jesus says that the disciples will be known by how they love. By how they behave in the world. They don’t need to spout off the correct creed or catechism. Of course, beliefs inform actions – but at the end of the day, even if how we make sense of the world is all wrong – what matters most is how we engaged with the world.
Finally, Kelly suggests that love is initiative. For Kelly, initiative is the posture that everything in the world deserves love. Love is not earned. Love is not negated by poor behavior. Love is freely given because that’s what Jesus taught us. Kelly explains it this way:
Love, in many cases, is a weapon. If not a weapon, then a bargaining chip. It’s something that we hold back, waiting for another person to warrant it. It’s ironic to think that we use the word so freely and yet have the tendency to be so careful with its reality. But Christian love is different. As Christians, we don’t wait for someone to show themselves to be lovable or worthy of our love; rather, Christian love is initiative.
While I understand love as being central to my identity as a Christian, I can also find it overwhelming. If I consider being more loving in the world, I realize all of the ways the world is not loving. I become aware of all the change that is needed and start to feel like there is no way I can change the world to become a more loving place. In her book, Small Things with Great Love, Margot Starbuck tells a story about her friend Hugh and his interaction with another guy named Chuck. She says,
…my friend Hugh,…shares life with folks who are homeless…Recently Hugh had a chance to share with one local church that was filled with very well-meaning people. He challenged them to consider investing in relationships that cross boundaries of shelter and race and religion and income and class. One churchy guy there named Chuck explained to Hugh ‘I commute at least one hour, each way, to my job. The one day of the week I do have at home with my family, I don’t want to go to the park and meet homeless people.’ Hugh thought for a moment and then asked Chuck, “Do you have an office?” “Yes…”Chuck replied…. Hugh continued, “Is there someone who cleans your office?” “Yes, there’s a woman who cleans my office two or three times a week.” Chuck answered. “What’s her name?” Hugh asked. “I don’t know her name,” Church admitted. Hugh pressed, “How long has she been cleaning your office?” “Seven or eight years.” Chuck estimated.
You can guess what happened. Chuck learned the name of the woman who cleaned his office and built a relationship with her. This is the kind of Christian love we are all called to enact. It doesn’t have to be at superhero level – it’s an orientation to the world. An awareness to all that good has created. An invitation to relationship – whether we deem the person worthy or not.
Christians are known for a lot of different things in the United States, I’m not sure love is at the top of that list. But I am sure that our best bet at experiencing the world the way that God intended is for us to strive to emulate the love that Jesus demonstrated as best as we can. May God expand our awareness and orient our lives towards love as we move throughout this world. Amen.