Summary: Just as Christ generously gave of himself for us, so are we called to be generous of ourselves and our resources for the sake of others.
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.