Based on a sermon preached at Nuthall Methodist Church, Nottingham on 10th September 2017, using Romans 13:8-14 and Matthew 18:15-20 (full text of readings at the bottom).
Maybe like me you watch some of those programmes on television about the work of Customs and Border officials around the World. Programmes like “Nothing to declare”, “Stop, Search, Seize” and “Border Patrol”. One part of the work they carry out is to seize counterfeit goods. I had a lovely designer belt. The man in the Turkish Bazaar assured me it was genuine with his gesticulations as I could not speak his language. I was amazed to get the item at such a reasonable price!
The Beatles sang “All you need is love”. But what is love?
Our reading from Romans contained the phrase, “ Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law” (verse 8).
So today we look at Love: The Problem, Principle and Practice.
Love: The Problem
The Problem – Maybe love is misunderstood. Maybe sometimes it can be like counterfeit goods. We may all have been sold them at various points knowingly or unknowingly. The Bible speaks much of love but if it has been “sold” and “bought” under the wrong meaning and definition of love then it causes problems for our image of God, our image of ourselves, and our image for others.
I can tell you that the electrical equipment that “fell of the back of the lorry” is safe and legal but just because I have said it doesn’t make it safe and legal. If you decide you want to believe my assurances about the safety and legality of dubious goods you will start to be happier about dealing in them and receiving them.
I suggest that in many places there has been a redefinition of love – a counterfeit. Such a redefinition of love lets us of the hook and allows us to define our lives and lack of holiness as OK. It is not OK.
Love has been redefined in a variety of ways. Some people treat it purely at an emotional level, others have allowed lust to redefine it, others have based it around selfishness and what makes them feel good or pleases them. This is why people can use love as an excuse for inappropriate behaviour and participate in affairs, or initiate broken relationships, or objectify others and themselves.
It may be that some people define love to fit in with what they want it to mean. –
The root to many problems, including within our spiritual lives can be, if we are not alert, that we have redefined love. This is the Problem of Love!
Love: The Principle
By the principle of love I mean what is love? How do we define it? Because if we build correct definition and principle of love into our lives then our lives will be fuller, finer, richer, more as God would have them, reflecting his love and character.
Do you remember when Jesus gives the two greatest commandments he doesn’t say love just with your feelings. He fills it out. So Mark 12:30-31 says “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” 31 The second is this: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these.” Heart, soul, mind, strength! These are organs of will in addition to feelings. I think feelings are important. I think we banished emotion for too long from Methodist worship, but if that is all it is about then we are not hearing Jesus correctly. I heard this joke recently and have used it in one or two places.
“What’s wrong, Charlie?” asked the Minister.
“I need you to pray for my hearing,” said Charlie.
The Minister put his hands on Charlie’s ears and prayed. When he was done, he asked, “So how’s your hearing?”
“I don’t know,” said Charlie “It isn’t until next Tuesday.”
We sometimes have a hearing problem. It’s that we don’t hear what Jesus says about love. So we need to hear and get the right principle behind love and what it is about, the right definition.
The Romans reading gives an insight into love. “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.” But this is not a definition of love for us. It tells us of some of the out workings or evidence of us living lives of love. But that is not how one defines love. Even 1 Corinthians 13, great and powerful as it is does not really give us the full definition of love.
For the Christian, Love is not defined with words but with The Word Jesus.
He defines love and the God who is Love that we are told of in the Scriptures. That is the authentic definition of love, the best definition of love, the meaning of love. In Jesus we see what our God of love is like.
The principle of love – Love defined as the word Jesus not words or feelings. That is the love we are called to have. Sometimes love is an effort. We do not always naturally love people – or ourselves. But what we are called to is vulnerable, scarred, transforming, sin defeating, holiness growing, death defying love.
That isn’t worldly love. It is other worldly love. It is the love of God seen in Christ and which can be seen in our lives. Will we let God fill us and grow us with that love? Or will we deal in counterfeit goods? Yes it includes emotion and feeling, but it never stops at that. This is our high calling.
Love: The practice
The Practice therefore is important – love lived out. That is what we are to be about – modelled on Jesus and him as a definition and principle of love
Have you heard or experienced these things?
He calls a spade a spade.
She doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
Stupid is as stupid does.
Let them speak, Shan’t listen.
I love them but I don’t like them.
Speak the truth in love.
Teenagers that grunt at you.
Oh he’s a grumpy old man.
These phrases and experiences are as alive and well in the Christian Church as they are anywhere else in society. That’s not good enough. Frankly these are just excuses to be rude. Sometimes we can let our lives be like that – with all kinds of good excuses, not aiming or aspiring to love like Jesus.
Don’t be fooled by counterfeit love. That’s how people justify running off with someone else rather than holding to their marriage vows. “I love them but I’m not in love with them”. “I fell out of love with them”. As if it is all about how we feel again. Maybe some of us have said the same things. Sometimes this counterfeit love means we can get away with mistreating people, or ignoring people, or turning out backs on them. We justify falling out with people in church on this basis as well as in the world.
Love is not an excuse to misbehave but a high calling reflecting the Holy God himself.
Maybe there is repentance that is required.
Our Gospel reading is set in context of care for the followers of Jesus. The verse we have read and the surrounding verses focus on looking after disciples and gives a way of dealing with people when they step outside the will and purposes of God.
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
The overriding concern is to help people walk in God’s will and ways. It may be today someone needs to challenge us. Note this is not about getting rid of people or punishing them. Even treating people as a tax collector or pagan is not about shunning them for we know that Jesus engaged with such people. Rather it is to acknowledge that we need to reach out to them to draw them back into the place of God’s will. Sometimes we need to be called out. The Bible, The Spirit, God, Jesus calls us out and challenges to get our definition of love right and to put it into practice – with God’s help.
Our mission in many ways is to declare God’s love in Christ and invite response. And I hope that is something I will be encouraging in the role I now have. There are those that have not experienced love – invite them to experience it. There are those who are not living the way of love – invite and challenge to repentance.
“And they’ll know we are Christians by our love”. Some of us will know those words from a song. But they don’t always “know we are Christians by our love” and we need to understand that and acknowledge it and do something about it in our lives and churches when that is the case.
Love has an eschatological (speaking of the end things of death, judgement, heaven and hell) dimension as well as a present one. It connects with how we are to be prepared for the return of Jesus. “ And do this, understanding the present time: the hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy”.
That Romans passage includes these words, “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 14). I was part of a Christian Youth Fellowship as a teenager. It was a large group and we wanted to buy some sweat shirts which gave the name of our church with some meaningful words on. So we decided on “Love conquers all”. Because we wanted to look a little cultured I guess we decided to have it in Latin. We asked our French teacher at school to translate it for us. Why we aksed a French teacher to translate into Latin I have no idea!. Anyway he did that and we proudly wore our sweatshirts for months. That is we wore them until we found out he had mistranslated it and what we are wearing was closer to “Lust conquers all” rather than “Love conquers all”!
Love may not be easy and these few words will not sort al the problems of love out. But let’s not insult God, others and ourselves by dumbing it down and making it a pale imitation, a counterfeit of what it should be. Love will challenge us when it is the love of God. It means we cannot get away with weak phrases such as “as long as they love each other”. We have to look deeper and go deeper and find our definition of love in the person of Jesus who did not let anything go on the basis that “as long as they love each other”. Love can be as likely to say “No” as it can be to say “Yes”, because it is about our wellbeing before God.
I’m not a Scientist, but I know this. There are bad germs and there are good germs too. I hope today we might pick up an infection. And spread it! The infection of love. I hope we might become carriers of those good spiritual germs. Don’t wash your hands of love. Let people catch it and experience it.
8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ 10 Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.
11 And do this, understanding the present time: the hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.
15 ‘If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
18 ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
19 ‘Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.’