All You Need Is Love…Rightly Understood

[This message was delivered on May 9, 2021, at Perinton Presbyterian Church, based on John 15:9-17 and 1 John 5:1-6. It can be viewed on the Perinton Presbyterian Facebook channel or website.]

One of the hazards—I mean perks—of being a pastor is getting invited to lots of wedding receptions. I have been to a few hundred. The food is sometimes really good, but often just warm when it gets to my table. Don’t ask me about DJs. Then there are customs, like when a guest clinks a glass with a spoon, and the bride and groom kiss to raucous applause. Yea for love. But some are more creative. I have been to several where to get the bride and groom to kiss, everyone at a table must sing a song with the word love in it. Of course, “Jesus Loves Me,” comes to mind, but some tables get more creative after a round of drinks. Like these I have heard and sometimes participated in:

  • “All You Need Is Love,” by the Beatles;
  • Or that one by the raspy voiced Tina Turner, “What’s love got to do with it; what’s love but a second-hand emotion?”;
  • Or that ballad from “The Lion King,” “Can you feel the love tonight?”

I like this newer wedding reception custom, but it shows a problem with our understanding of love today: we tend to think of love as an emotion, from “what’s love but a second-hand emotion?” to “Can you feel the love tonight?”

I’m all for feelings of love. I frequently have them. An example is watching my 14-month-old granddaughter Zora. She and her parents are living in Cambodia, so I haven’t held and kissed her in nearly a year, but when I see her smile on facetime, I feel love. And when I see videos of her, like this recent one of Zora walking with her dog, I feel love in overwhelming ways. When she falls, I want to pick her up and comfort her with hugs and kisses.

When love when it is primarily understood as a feeling, there is a problem: feelings are fickle; they come and go and we don’t much control them. Jesus never mentions feeling love. Rather he commands us to love one another. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” That changes the equation. Jesus is talking about love as action based on what God has done. I don’t know one place in the Bible where love is primarily understood as a feeling or an emotion.

Think of the most quoted verse in the Bible about God’s love. It has to be John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that God had this overwhelming feeling of love for us and sent a really good Hallmark card.” Wait; did I misquote that? I think it goes something like this, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” That is consistent with just about everything the Bible says about the nature of love. The Gospel according to John and John’s first letter are particularly strong in defining love.

In John 13:34-35. Jesus begins this lengthy teaching with these words, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus doesn’t say that people will know we are his disciples if our doctrine is perfectly correct.

Jesus doesn’t say that people will know we are his disciples if our political views are perfectly correct. Jesus doesn’t say that people will know we are his disciples if our buildings were beautiful and our parking lots paved. Jesus brings it all done to one simple thing: We are to love one another.

Now I go to the first letter of John, 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. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” (1 John 4:9-10)

As I studied our two passages for today, I noted two keys words. The first, of course, is love. The Greek language of that day had four words for love, delineating different kinds of love, all good. The highest is agape, which is the nature of God’s love. That is the only word for love used in these two passages. Agape is not the love that we naturally know. Our loves tend to be transactional: I love people that can help me or that I like or that I find worthy. God’s love cuts through that and instead of being transactional is transformative. It loves the other for the sake of love, not because of what one will get out of it or because we like the person or because we find the person worthy. That is the standard Biblical way of understanding God’s love. Agape, that word that denotes God’s love, dominates the New Testament. That word is used 14 times in our two lead passages today.

The second most used word in them is command or commandment (the same New Testament word). That word is used seven times. There is a 2:1 ratio between love and command. That is a good rule for life. We should aim to speak love twice for any command that we give. Both words occur together several times: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you,” in John and “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments,” in 1 John. The two are to work together, with love always in the lead place.

Obeying can be a form of love, but it isn’t always. Obeying commands in a loveless way is wearying. There was a woman married to a former military officer. He treated his marriage like an extension of his military life, where he was used to giving commands. Before he went to work each work day, he would write a checklist for his wife to do that day. When he got home, he would review the list and see how well she obeyed him. It was a loveless marriage. He treated her in a transactional way. If she checked off the items on his list, he was pleased with her; if not, he was not. Then he died. She had tried to love him, but there was some relief when he was gone. Then one day she met a kind man who was single. They took an interest in each other. They enjoyed each other’s company. He asked her to marry him. She was hesitant because her first marriage was loveless. He assured her that he loved her and persisted. They got married. It was the marriage she had always wanted, filled with love, in words, deeds, and emotions. One day, she was cleaning in the bedroom and found a piece of paper lodged in the back of a drawer under her clothes. She pulled it out. It was list from her first husband. Her body tensed. Her new husband never gave her such lists. She read the list and realized she was doing many of the same things in her new marriage, but she was doing them now for love. She crumpled the list and threw it away, shedding a tear about the transformational love in which she was finally living.

This is a difficult time for the Church in our country. For the first time in nearly a century, under half of Americans admit to belonging to a church and most of them don’t go that often. The trend is clearly moving in the wrong direction. People outside the Church perceive churches as loveless and judgmental. They think we are less than loving. We come through as just another voluntary club, like a boat club or country club, where members tend to look like one another and think like one another. For some years I thought the phrase, “not religious but spiritual” was a cop out. Now I do not. There is a deep hunger for spirituality in our land. Most people really want genuine spirituality, but they think Church is not a good place to find it.

But I believe in the Church because of the love of Jesus and my heart aches when churches are perceived as unloving, often for good reason. I am still fairly new here, just approaching six months, which has all been in a pandemic. Yet I see signs of love here, but I expect that we could do more loving. I dream of Perinton Presbyterian Church not being known as an attractive white building on a hill, but as a congregation intent on loving one another and loving our neighbors outside the church. I envision us as a welcoming congregation, wanting to love as we have been loved. Jesus gives us our marching orders: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

We are called to be a lab of love, a school of love, a love boat moving forward and helping people. And that’s not a matter of how we feel, but how we act. Let’s choose love. Let’s speak love, Let’s act love. When we do, I expect that feelings of love will follow.

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