Do you consider yourself a loving person? How would you define or describe it? What does love look like, sound like, act like? I doubt any of us necessarily wants to think of ourselves as unloving. Allow me to make a bold statement that will sound offensive: you don’t know what love is. Neither do I. Neither does anyone in this world. A statement like that demands proof, doesn’t it? Ok. Here’s some. In the prayer of the day we begged God to “make us love what you command” – why would we need to pray that if we are love experts? Here’s further proof: I’m almost 100% sure that when I asked if you were a loving person you immediately thought about your 1) feelings; 2) your family and friends – I know because that was my first thought, too. But feelings of affection for family is not the kind of love Jesus is describing. As one final proof I offer the reality that many of the sickest, depraved things are done in the name of love: murder of the unborn, gay marriage, refusal to carry out Christian discipline, the tolerance and support of false doctrines and idolatrous religions. No, we do not know what love is – and we’d better figure it out real quick because our confessions say “the fact that a person does not love is a sure sign that he is not justified” (FC SD III:27). Or, as John puts it: anyone who does not love remains in death. (1 John 3:14) We don’t know how to love. We must learn. And for that, we must look to Jesus.
The first stop in our quest to figure out love is the foot of the cross. John spends a full third of his Gospel detailing the final seven days of Jesus’ life and John 13:1 serves as a sort of theme of Jesus’ entire Passion: Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. (John 13:1) And what did the full extent of Jesus’ love earn him? Betrayal. When he was gone refers to Judas. Jesus had forced Judas’ hand, forced him to choose between light and darkness. Judas chose darkness and at Jesus’ command (John 13:27) he left the upper room to finish his wicked work. Imagine that! Jesus himself initiated the series of events that would lead directly to his condemnation by the church and crucifixion by the state. And yet, what does he say about it? He says it is his glory! Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once. How is Jesus, how is God, glorified by the Son of God suffering and dying on a cross? You’ve got to understand God’s rather strange idea of glory. His glory is doing the undoable, saving the unsaveable, redeeming the irredeemable. Right there you understand why many people don’t understand love, right? According to human reason and false religions a glorious, loving God ought to save the saveable, love the loveable, help those who help themselves and show mercy to those who earn it. But the true God’s glory and love are clear in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8) And what greater gift could he give than his Son? What could bring him greater glory than saving people like us who don’t deserve it?
That’s why, if you want to know what love looks like, you’ve got to go to the cross. See how God has lifted the burden of sin and guilt off of your shoulders and placed them on the shoulders of his Son. Hear Jesus, knowing what was about to happen, telling you that saving your wretched soul by being nailed to a tree and suffering the hell you deserve is his greatest glory. See him do it, not grudgingly but willingly. See him not only shoulder your sins but your fears, your failures, your worries and your cares, too. There can be no conversation about love unless we begin right here, at the foot of the cross, with Jesus suffering, sighing, bleeding and dying on a cross to bring glory to his Father and salvation to sinners.
But love that starts at the cross never stops there. Jesus moves directly from the good news of justification by grace to the love-filled life of sanctification: A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. The obvious question is: what is new about this command? Didn’t Moses say love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18) over 1500 years earlier? Did you notice the differences? There are two. First, the standard. Moses’ standard was yourself – love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. Jesus raises the bar. He commands us to love others as much as he loved us. This means that Jesus commands us to love others even more than we love ourselves. Again, Jesus’ himself set the standard: not only did he lay down his life for us – the greatest act of love possible (John 15:13) – but he did it while we were still his enemies! (Romans 5:8) Jesus isn’t commanding us to have mushy feelings for one another, he’s commanding us to sacrifice for one another – even if we don’t like them, even when they don’t deserve it. That’s the first difference, the second is the scope. Moses’ command was to love your neighbor – which is anyone and everyone you happen to be next to – illustrated so beautifully by Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:25-37) And that’s still true. But in his new command, Jesus explicitly tells his disciples to love one another. It’s a very sad commentary of the state of Christianity when churches stumble over themselves boasting about how much they do for and in their communities – and even across the world, digging wells and building schools and hospitals – but when it comes to loving one another, they don’t even know each other’s names – much less fulfilling the debt of love they owe one another (Romans 13:8) by forgiving and disciplining and praying for and encouraging one another. Please do not take my words out of context: Yes, Jesus does want us to love our neighbors out there in the world, but in this text, he is telling us to do something that just might be even harder: love the people right here.
So back to our question: are we loving people? Remember, Jesus is not talking about fuzzy feelings, empty words or good intentions – he’s laying out his personal example of total self-sacrifice, of putting other’s needs before our own, of doing the hard and thankless tasks that need to be done even if they don’t benefit us our or families – he’s saying follow me, love others like I have loved you! Paul spells out in detail the kind of love Jesus is talking about: love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7) Those words might seem natural when they are spoken over two people who are madly in love with each other at a wedding, but they sound a little different when the one whose hands and feet were nailed to a cross, who literally experienced hell for you is standing before you asking: “Look to your right and your left; have you loved these people like this, have you loved them like I loved you?”
Clearly, Jesus has set a standard of love that none of us will ever come close to matching. He even says where I am going, you cannot come. Accomplishing redemption by the sacrifice of his life was a task only Jesus could perform. But perfect love is nonetheless what he demands of us. No excuses. No massaging or twisting what Jesus said. No redefining of love or suggesting that Jesus just wants our best effort. Yes, those words that are frequently printed in some fun, cutesy font are some of the hardest law in the Bible. And this law of love does two things to us: like a mirror it convicts us of our sins and like a guide it shows us how God wants us to live. (Romans 3:20; Psalm 119:105) Permit me to cherry pick one of Paul’s standards and apply it to us, the members of Risen Savior. [Love] is not easily angered. It’s important that we understand that one of the devil’s greatest deceptions is to make God’s greatest blessings seem like the worst curses. After his gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation, what is the greatest blessing we have here at Risen Savior? You. All of you. You are the people for whom Jesus died. Yes, even the ones you’re holding in your arms, running around your feet, squawking and crying and distracting and throwing toys and making a mess. The devil would like nothing more than to turn the blessing of children in church (a rare thing in 21st century America) into a curse and a source of easy anger. And he’s had success, hasn’t he? Angry glares. Shaking heads. Resentful parents and bitter children. Thinking or saying “Something has to be done!” I agree. What needs to be done is we all need to love each other more than ourselves. So as uncomfortable as this might be – here’s the law of love applied as a mirror and guide to us. Children, Jesus loved you so much that he died for you. He has loved you enough to give you faithful Christian parents who bring you to sit at his feet. Listen to them and obey them as if you were listening to and obeying Jesus himself – because you are! (Ephesians 6:1) Parents, while everyone here understands that no child is perfect and they will have their moments – yes, even in church – Jesus commands you to love the people around you more than your own convenience or pride or laziness to take the tantrum out of church behind the glass wall built for that very purpose. Love your child enough to discipline them. Love them enough to forgive them – and actually say it. Love them enough to teach them the way the One who died for them wants them to behave. And everyone else…imagine if Jesus was sitting here, observing not only your outward behavior but judging the very thoughts of your heart. Do you imagine him sitting there glaring at you, shaking his head, nudging his Father, pointing at you and saying something about “sinners these days.” Nope, he’s here to meet you – sins and all – and he’s here with open arms to welcome you, forgive you, help you, encourage you and support you. He had every right to lose his temper with you. What did he do instead? He lost his life for you. Instead of mumbling about “parents these days” – ask yourself – “how can I help parents these days?” And let me be blunt: if a screaming two-year-old can make you lose your temper in God’s house – the problem is not the child, the problem is you. You need to repent – and a proper fruit of that repentance would be to personally apologize for your selfish and loveless behavior.
I’ll ask again, are we loving people? Can any of us say “yes” with a straight face? Even though we will never love perfectly, perfect love is our goal – a goal we want to strive for only one reason: Jesus. We don’t love children because they’re well-behaved or fellow members because they’re so compassionate or our pastor because he’s so charming – because more often than not, those things aren’t true! The one and only reason we love is because God loved us first. (1 John 4:19) He loved us when we were unloveable. He loved us when we were his enemies. He loved us enough to let our sins cause his perfect Son to be spit on and mocked, slapped and whipped, crucified and murdered. Our world likes to think of love in pretty pastel colors and fuzzy feelings and Hallmark cards. God’s love is written in the metallic gray of nails in his hands and feet and his crimson blood dripping down a cross. It’s written in the blackest depths of hell where God damned his own Son in our place. God’s love is not just words or feelings; it was and is active. His love brought us kicking and screaming to Baptism to be washed clean and made new. His love announces forgiveness for even the worst of sins and sinners – which, in my estimation, has to be me! (1 Timothy 1:15) His love hands you his Son’s flesh and blood to assure you that he didn’t just love the world, he loved you – you, just as you are. And when you turn around after receiving communion this morning and look at all the faces out there, remember that Jesus loved and died for them too. That, finally, is the reason we want to love one another.
The unbelieving world doesn’t know how to love. Neither will we if we ever take our eyes off of Jesus. He is both the perfect example of love and the only reason we can love one another even more than ourselves. One last time: are you a loving person? What can we say but: “no, not as Jesus demands.” But may God also lead us to trust that while I am not perfectly loving, I am perfectly loved by him – and so are you. When we have that conviction, then our love for one another will take care of itself. Amen.