Friday, February 13, 2015

We Have Known and Believe God's Love (I John 4:7-12) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

This coming Saturday is Valentine's Day.  I like the commercial for Valentine’s Day where a self-conscious, shy little boy, knocks on the front door of a house.  A cute little girl opens the door and he presents her with a valentine.  She smiles and invites him into her house.  He walks in and is immediately greeted by a group of little boys who wave to him.
Valentine's Day is about love.  How do you define love?  It’s used in a variety of contexts.  We see bumper stickers which say: “I heart my dog,” and there is a picture of a poodle?”   People say: “I love what your wearing,” “I love pizza,” “I love to read,” “I love your house,” “I love sushi,” “I love America,” “I love Hawaii,” “I love my wife,” “I love my husband,” “I love my children,” “I love my grandchildren,” “I love ice cream sundaes.”  Now that goes without saying.

Love's connection with Valentine’s Day has ennobling beginnings.  The day was established by a Catholic Pope in 500 A.D.  Valentine was a priest in Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius II.  He was young, handsome, wealthy, and passionately in love with his fiancé.  As they were eagerly awaiting their wedding day, the Roman emperor declared that all Christians were guilty of treason and to escape punishment, they had to worship the Roman Emperor and profess "Caesar is Lord."   Valentine was a Christian who believed that Jesus alone was Lord.   He refused.   He was arrested, tried, and condemned to death.

While awaiting execution, Valentine wrote love letters to his fiancé—romantic letters, assuring her of his never-ending love.  On February 14, 259 A.D. he was martyred for his faith.  The tradition of Valentine’s Day is rooted in a testimony to Christian faith and love.  Valentine’s legacy lives on whenever people express their love to people on this day.

But classic Greek literature also warns us about love; for love can become marred, distorted, corrupted, such as in the story of Narcissus in Greek Mythology.  Narcissus was a hunter, renowned far and wide, for his handsome appearance.   He was proud and vain about his comeliness and despised everyone around him.   The spirit of hubris, Nemesis, lured Narcissus to a pool, where he saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it, not realizing it was merely his reflection.   He was so enraptured that he couldn’t pull himself away from the pool and eventually died gazing at his reflection.  

Narcissism is a corrupt form of love.  One is totally self-absorbed.  There is no room for others.  One feels no sympathy or empathy for others.  You only love yourself.

My point is that we need an authoritative guide to truly understand the nature of love, and that truth is found in the Bible.  Without the scriptures, the definition of love is totally capricious and arbitrary.  It is purely subjective.  It's a matter of personal opinion and your opinion is no better or worse than my opinion.  And that's a problem.  Why?  Because some men or women think controlling someone, dominating them, exerting power over them, making them dependent upon them, even abusing them is love.   But they are wrong. 

In English we have only one word, love.  In the Greek language of the New Testament, we find different words for love.   Philos means brotherly or sisterly love.    It denotes a type of love which exists between family members or between friends.  Like parents raising their children, or siblings caring for one another or friends helping each other.  Feelings play a large role in this kind of love.

A second word is Eros which refers to erotic love, sensual desire, romantic love.   As a pastor, I see examples of romantic love in talking with young couples preparing for their wedding.  But I have also witnessed it with older couples, who have been married 50 years, who ask me to officiate at a special service to reaffirm their wedding vows.  Emotions are an integral part of this form of love.

The third word for love, found more than any other in scripture, is Agape.   Agape love is not dependent on emotions or feelings.   It doesn’t mean agape love always lacks feeling, that its devoid of love, not at all.  Agape love may also involve feelings.  The key here is that agape love is not dependent upon emotions, its not driven by emotions, it doesn't rely upon feelings to motivate one to love another.

Agape love refers to sacrificial love, self-less love, unconditional love, in spite of love, no strings attached love, the love we express with no thought of credit or recognition or accolades.   Agape love is not quid pro quo love.   

I John uses the word agape when it says: “Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.  How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”  

Agape love opens up the heart of God.  In this love we actually see into God's heart.  It is loving the way God loves.  It is loving someone, whether or not you like them. You can love someone and not like them, or love them and like them.  But as humans, we can also like someone, like them a lot, but not love them.   God isn’t interested in whether we like or dislike someone.  Not at all.  God is interested in whether we love someone.  Jesus commands us to take the higher road.   

Jesus practiced agape love in his ministry.  Agape love is the ability to love a stranger as you would a friend.  Jesus healed strangers, like the man with the withered hand, he fed the hungry whom he didn't know, he taught strangers about the kingdom of God, like the crowds in the sermon on the mount. 

No, the Bible isn’t sentimental or romantic when it comes to talking about agape love.  It clearly places the accent on actions and behavior, rather than emotions.   I John 3:18 says:  “Let us love, not with words or tongue, but with actions and truth.”   Agape love is not just talking about doing something, its not about words alone, but doing something.  Agape love does involve words when it comes to speaking the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable or risky to do so.  Agape love is sometimes Tough love, making tough decisions about someone, not following your heart, but following your head.  It's not easy to do, but sometimes its the right and necessary thing to do.

Our culture puts the emphasis on feelings.  We can say this refers to Eros love.   We hear: “Let your feelings guide you, follow your heart.”  Is that bad or wrong? No. Feelings are fine to a point.  It's important to trust our gut or intuition.  The problem is that feelings are fickle.  They vacillate; you can feel one way at one moment and the opposite way at the next moment.  They run hot and cold.  Our feelings surprise us, sometimes they shock us.  Feelings are spontaneous, unpredictable, impulsive, spur-of-the-moment, uncontrollable, right?  

C.S. Lewis in his classic book Mere Christianity says: “Love, in the Christian sense, does not mean an emotion.  It is a state not of feelings but of the will.  Christian love for our neighbors is quite a different thing from liking or affection.  We like or are fond of some people and not of others.  This natural liking or fondness is neither a sin nor a virtue.  It is just a fact.  Feelings are not what God principally cares about.  If we are trying to do His will we are obeying the commandment to love God and others.”  

Agape love is an act of the will, a decision to take action, a choice to do something based upon  an understanding of and an accountability to God’s will.   It says – “I will honor my commitment to you regardless of how I feel.”  “I will help you even though I don’t know you.”  “I will do the very best that I can for you, even though I don’t feel like it.”  

I John says: “Whoever does not love, does not know God, for God is love.”   Do you agree with that?  To cast an indifferent eye toward the plight of your neighbor, to not be moved by the suffering of others, to look with complacency at the needs of people around you and do nothing, is an indication that one does not know God or worship God or honor God.

Conversely, I John says:  “If we love others, this shows that God lives in us and his love grows in us.”  This passage teaches that our ability to love is grounded in our knowledge and experience of God’s love for us.  By the power of the Holy Spirit within us, by our knowing that God loves us, we are moved to love others in response to God's love.  We are able to love with commitment and sacrifice and compassion and enthusiasm, because we believe God's love is constant, steadfast, and unbreakable and because we have known and believe in God's love.    

Agape love reveals one's character and conduct.    Agape love is doing the right thing, the good thing, the generous thing, the necessary thing.   For agape love is rooted in scripture, in values, in principle, in truth, in faith, faith in God and our desire to obey and please God.   We have the power to love others, because we know in our heart of hearts, that God deeply and passionately loves us and commands us to love others.   And out of our gratitude to God for his saving love and his blessings we are free to love in obedience to His will.    

If you were not loved as a child growing up in your family, you will have a more difficult time expressing love to others, later in life.  This is true.  But by God's grace, we all can learn to love, no matter what our family life was like.  Through faith in God and the power of God at work in our hearts and minds, the capacity to love can be released in you.  I John 4:19 says:  “We love, because God first loved us.”    Agape love is not blind, its eyes are wide open, it is not fickle, but tenacious; it is not weak, but strong.  The greatest of God’s gifts to us, is the ability to love.  I truly believe at the end of the day, Christ will say: “I gave you your life, how did you use it to love others?”

I think of Padre Outfielder Will Venable, who volunteers as a tutor with students at Monarch School, a school for homeless young people here in San Diego.  I think of the story of the brave little 7 year old girl, who survived a plane crash in Kentucky in early January that took the lives of her family.  She trudged through dense woods in frigid temperatures for more than a mile. Shaking and upset, she found herself on the doorstep of Larry Wilkins's home.  Larry took her in, called 911 and saved her life. 

Eli Wiesel is a Romania-born American novelist, political activist, and Holocaust survivor said:  “The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.”  I close with a quote by Christian author Francis Schaeffer: “If we do not show love to one another, the world has a right to question whether Christianity is true.”   Yes, God demonstrated his love for us, He sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Let Christ's love inspire you to love others.  Amen!

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