It is in sharing God’s love with one another, and with those around us, that we show that we are Christ’s disciples. This practical demonstration of God’s love is foundational characteristic of Christ Church and one of the strongest ways we proclaim the gospel to the world. How we care is one measure of the depth of fellowship that we share.
Bible Readings Leviticus 19:1-4, 11-18; Ps. 121; Matthew 25:31-46; 1 John 4:7-21
I want to begin this morning with a quick quiz. What team or group does this person belong to? What about this one? Here’s one I failed at on Friday when I saw these colours at Southern Cross. Now, what marks those who belong to this group? How can someone from outside, looking in, know that we belong to Christ Church, and more importantly what that means?
You might think I’ve got a bit of an advantage in this. That people can often tell who I am and where I work by what I’m wearing. But even people have twice assumed I was an employee at the Reject Shop, even though I was wearing my collar at the time! What is it then, that is meant to identify us to others as belonging to Christ’s church?
It’s love isn’t it? Do you remember what Jesus said in John 13?
34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
John backs all this up in his first letter. In the passage we’ve heard read this morning twice he says, “God is love.” That’s our motivation for loving others. It’s pretty foundational to being God’s people. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God.” In fact, he says, this is the test that you’ve been born of God. “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God.” Why? “For God is love.” As Sherlock would say: “Elementary my dear Watson.” Love is the evidence that we’re both born of God and know God.
People might say, love isn’t unique to Christians. How can you say that love is a defining characteristic of Christ’s Church? Isn’t the free love movement of the ‘60s as much of a contender? Aren’t families, or marriage, or friendships just as much about love?
That’s true, but there’s different kinds of love. We need no more proof of that than the fact that you love your children in a different way than you love your friends. You love your spouse in a different way than you love a peanut butter sandwich or the Carlton Football Club, or at least I hope you do.
Well in the Greek language it was a bit easier, they had four different words for different kinds of love. There was family love, storgé. There was social love, philia, the kind of love you have for friends and social peers. There was eros, sexual love, the sort you have for a husband or wife. Finally there was agapé love, which was a practical and unemotional love, fairly nonspecific in its normal usage.
The specific word that Jesus, and his disciples, used to describe Christian love was the last term, agape. Why did they choose this term and not one of the others? How can we say that love is a defining characteristic of Christ’s Church, when there are so many types of love?
Let me suggest the problem is this: when we use one of those first three words, we’re describing a love that’s essentially grounded in ourselves. Family love loves those who are of the same flesh and blood. Social love loves those who are of the same social grouping. Both have the virtue of cementing relationships in those groups, and ensuring the groups remain strong. So both are basically aimed at self preservation. Eros, sexual love, by the same token, is biased towards satisfying the desires of the lover. It can be a demanding, craving, hungry love; a love born out of the need of the lover. On the other hand, agapé love contains the idea of self-forgetfulness rather than self-centeredness. It’s a generous, altruistic, sacrificial love born out of the need of the loved one. You might still say, anybody could show this kind of love though.
But the supreme model for this type of love is God himself. John says: “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. This is how God showed his love among us.” How? Not by serenading us, not by offering us roses and chocolates. No, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
Notice the nature of this love. There’s no sense that God loves in response to our love for him. Rather, as Paul reminds us, it was while we were still his enemies that Christ died for us. So it wasn’t that we loved God. Far from it. We were totally opposed to him. Neither does he love us for what we’ll give him back. There’s no suggestion that God loved us so we’d owe him something, so we’d give him something in return. No his love was freely given to undeserving sinners. And God’s love is a love that knows no limit. It’s a love that forgives over and over again, without warrant, without tallying up the score, without retaliation.
Well then, says John, if you’ve been born of God, if you’re one who’s experienced this agapé love of God, how are you going to respond. In fact is there any choice? Not really. All we can do in response to this sort of love, is to love others the same way. Jesus said, in John 13, ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’ Or 1 John 4:11, ‘Beloved since God has loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.’
Still, you might say, well anyone can love like that. There are all sorts of people who show sacrificial, unmeasured, unreciprocated love for others. But, listen again to what John said in verse 19, “We love because he first loved us.” Now too often I think we’ve read that as being a command to love in response to God’s love. He did us this great favour so we’ve got to do him a favour in return. But let me suggest that there’s another way of looking at it. Let me suggest that John is reminding us that the starting point for our love is God’s act of love towards us. Think about what God achieved by Jesus death on the cross. He achieved the forgiveness of our sins. But he also made it possible for us to be made new. To be born again. To have our hearts of stone changed to hearts of flesh. So the result of what God has done for us in his love, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through the infilling of his Holy Spirit, is that we can now love with the love of God. And so, as we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
So as the church, as the gathered people of God, we are to be by nature a community that shows love for each other, for those around us and for the world. As we do so, we show the world what God is like. For as John says, no-one has ever seen God, but if we love one another then God dwells in us and his love is made complete in us. So as other people look at us what will they see? They’ll see a little bit of what God is like. Just as Jesus was the image of the invisible God, so we too can be images of the invisible God, if God’s love dwells in us. That’s why when people look at us they see God – because everyone who loves is born of God.
How then do we as Christ Church show the love like this? It should be obvious that it’s more than saying, “I Love You” to each other all the time. Love like this isn’t mere words, it’s actions. We demonstrate this love as we care for one another and as we care for those around us.
First and foremost we show it by the way we treat one another. John warns us “Be careful! Don’t claim to love God, if deep in your heart you’re really harbouring hatred for someone else.” The two are incompatible. You can’t love God at the same time as hating another person. Rather if we love God, we’ll also love our brother or sister and desire only that they too experience God’s love and favour. This doesn’t come naturally. It only happens as God’s Holy Spirit works in our hearts to change us. So we should be praying that God would change us to be more like him. That he’d show his love to the world through the way we love each others. In this we should be praying that our witness to those around us would make the invisible God so apparent that they’d be coming up to us to ask us what our secret is.
We demonstrate our love for those outside the church in many different ways. We do it as we welcome people in to Christ Church. We can seek to keep growing in this, as we work on developing a welcome pack and other resources so that those who come here know everything they need to know.
We demonstrate our love and care through many of the activities of Guild, including the Eucharistic Lunch we put on about a month ago, as we went out of our way to gather those who can’t make it to church, who’ve lost contact with others, who can’t get out much anymore. Another example is the great work done over in the Op Shop. It isn’t just a fundraising activity for the church. Through the Op Shop we’re able to provide for those in need in our community. Another way we show God’s love in caring for others is through morning tea for Mainly Music. More than once, people have asked Sarah or I, ‘Who makes this food?’ When we tell them it’s people from the church, they’re touched, sometimes they’re blown away that people they’ve never even met would love them enough, would care for them enough to make morning tea for them. It might seem like a small, trivial, thing, but think again of the examples of showing God’s love that Jesus spoke of in our gospel reading!
We demonstrate our love in the way we care for each other, and those around us, who are sick or in any other kind of trouble. I’m not always the first to find out when someone isn’t well, and I’m not always the first to visit people at home or in hospital. In a way, I’m actually quite glad that I’m never the first to know, because that’s a sign there are great people among us who take the lead in caring and loving in this way. It would actually be the sign of an unhealthy community if every time someone fell ill, they contacted the priest here first. It would show that we don’t have a web, a network of connections and trust in each other.
In speaking of our demonstration of love and care to those who are unwell, I know at various stages in the past, one of the ways we’ve expressed our care is through healing services. I have to confess they haven’t been a big part of my experience and faith so far. But I am making the commitment to read and learn more about them, so that we can properly explore whether this is a ministry that we should seek to engage in once again at Christ Church.
There’s probably other ways we have been, or could be showing God’s love in caring for each other and those around us. So, as we’ve done over the past few weeks I’m going to give you a few minutes to reflect and space to write down your thoughts.
But before we do so, let’s pray that the nature of our life together and our witness to the world around us might be characterised by the way we love one another, the way God first loved us.