February 6, 2011

All You Need Is Love?

In 1967 the BBC was hosting a worldwide program to promote generalized good feelings and cooperation among the nations.  The event was broadcasted to 26 different countries.  As they were lining up acts to fill up the show, the produces approached a hot band called the Beatles and asked if they would be willing to write a song for the event.  The Beatles agreed and Paul and John each began working on songs until John hit upon an idea that really got the guys going.  It was a song that would send a message of the need for global peace and harmony among the world’s people.  If everyone could just embrace this one key virtue anything was possible.  Thus was born the Beatles’ classic, “All You Need Is Love.”  The idea expressed in the song is that with love anything is possible.  This fit right in with the 1960s emphasis on love being the ultimate virtue which could pave the way for an Eden-like world in which everyone got along, tolerated each other, and didn’t pass judgment on anyone else.  This not only encapsulated, but propelled Western (particularly American) culture’s decades-long obsession with love.  Love is the solution to all the world’s problems.  If some act can possible be conceived as feeling loving in some way then it must be good.  It should not only be commended but encouraged, even mandated.  As a result, today we love activities, food items, and sports teams.  We make love, sell love, and buy love (although the Beatles didn’t think so).  People fall in and out of love as quickly and casually as they change their socks—but don’t be unloving towards them by suggesting their love wasn’t totally genuine each time.  We have cleaning products that will love our floors and doors and windows.  Even robots are being programmed to act in ways which will cause the person interacting with them to feel loved.  Love is everywhere.  And yet as love has become the anthem for the truly modern person, something still doesn’t seem to be right.  With as much love as has been injected into the world from so many different sources, you’d think we’d have achieved the perfect world for which we long.  Picking up a newspaper or watching the evening news, however, suggests we still have quite a ways to go.

As we enter into this season when we are encouraged to bring our offerings and bow before the altar of the goddess Love herself, I thought it would be appropriate and timely to spend some of our time together talking about love.  We hear a lot of different definitions of love, but none of these seem to really capture the word (or else we’d stop trying to define it).  We are taught to pursue love, or at least the feeling of love, as the highest good for human flourishing, but aren’t often told whether or not love can be pursued in ways or at times which in spite of all appearances and cultural arguments to the contrary, are not in fact loving.  We take all of our culture’s love baggage with us when we enter into the one relationship in which love as the primary driving force is more important than any other I can think of creating a host of situations where people misexpress, misinterpret, misapply, and simply miss love.  And so, with all of these things in mind, for the next four weeks I want to explore some of this with you.  This morning I am going to attempt to give you a clear, concise definition of love which can serve as a guide in all your adventures in seeking and showing it.  We’ll talk about both what love is and what love isn’t.  The next couple of weeks after this we are going to talk about some ways love gets misinterpreted, sought in the wrong places, and corrupted by an ungodly culture.  This conversation will include, among other things, the hot-button issue of homosexuality.  This is without a doubt one of the more emotional and controversial issues of our time and it’s not going away any time soon.  It is also an issue relevant to every single person in this room—some much more personally than others.  And yet, if we do not have a clear, Biblically-informed theology on this issue, we will be forced to deal with it in less-than-satisfactory ways including falling back on offensive stereotyping.  So, when we get there, I hope to approach with the utmost of humility and sensitivity and, above all else, the love of Christ.  Finally, I want to leave you with a picture of how all of this can inform and fill out the incredible relationship that is marriage.

Well, in order to construct a definition of love which is Biblically and theologically sound and which, though it might fail the cultural test, will allow us to pursue and express love in the most positive of ways, we are going to turn this morning to the most famous of all Biblical passages on love.  In fact, this might be one of the most famous passages on love period.  If you will, turn in your Bibles with me to 1 Corinthians 13 and I want to actually read these words altogether.  You have an insert in your bulletins.  Grab that so we all have the same translation, stand up with me, and let’s read.  “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.  Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends.  As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.  When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.  When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.  For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.  So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”  Have a seat.

Famous and familiar words, are they not?  How many of you have been to at least one wedding in which these words were read?  I’ve read them at just over half the weddings I’ve done.  And yet, when Paul wrote these words what do you think the chances are he had weddings in mind?  I’d argue almost zero.  Much of the last half of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth (which was about as messed up a place as they come) deals with the way things should be done in the church.  In particular, chapters 12-14 address the nature, place, and proper use of spiritual gifts in the local church.  Chapter 13, the famous love chapter, sits right in the middle of this discussion which begins with unity in spite of diversity in the body and ends with how the spiritual gifts of prophesy and speaking in tongues should be practiced (very carefully).   Now, some of you might be asking: why not just focus on the love here and overlook the whole wedding thing?  Because understanding the context of a passage gives us a leg up on really understanding what its writer meant.  In this case, have you ever wondered where the images Paul uses at the beginning and at the end of the passage come from?  Look at the context.  In two different places in chapter 12 Paul lists some of the spiritual gifts.  These lists include things like speaking in tongues, prophesying, knowledge, faith, helping, and some others.  Do those sound familiar at all?  They form the basis for Paul’s illustrations at the beginning of chapter 13.  And the gifts of prophesy and speaking in tongues, which Paul mentions again at the end of chapter 13, are the subjects of chapter 14.  So really, chapter 13 is kind of a segue between chapters 12 and 14 and in the transition process defines what is needed to make them work: love.  One of Paul’s main points here, then, is that exercising our spiritual gifts apart from the foundational gift of love is futile in the extreme.

Well if all of that is behind what Paul is saying here, what is he actually saying here?  If love is not reserved solely for marriage, what is it?  Let’s take a look at this as we keep working towards a definition of what love is.  Paul begins the chapter by describing all of these different activities which when pursued in absentia of love are rendered meaningless.  The note of irony here is that each of these different things are by themselves considered loving.  Someone speaking in the tongues of men and of angels might be a person with a tongue of such eloquence as to be able to charm even the most irascible of imps.  Or perhaps this is a person who can talk the talk of Christianity in such a way as to convince even her most hardened critics of her total devotion to Christ.  And yet if there is no love behind such speech it all amounts to nothing.  Specifically Paul describes the person to be a noisy gong.  Gongs were used in some local pagan cults so what Paul is really saying here is that fine words do not make someone a follower of Christ if they are not filled out by love.  Religious words don’t accomplish this, neither do religious actions.  Accurately prophesying the future, perceptively perceiving the mysteries of the universe, and standing firm on a confession in the face of a severe squall from this world all seem grand things, but absent love are pointless.  Now, I will grant you religiosity can get in the way and crowd out love, but surely something so selfless as giving away everything to the poor or offering my life as a sacrifice for the Gospel must be inherently loving.  Yet Paul declares that not only are they not inherently love-filled, but apart from love they profit us exactly nil.

All of this gives us some room to say what love isn’t.  It is not inherent to any single act.  In other words, there is nothing we do that is necessarily loving.  For some folks, this revelation will be a bit of a shock to their system.  I mean, having to worry about our intent every time we do something seems like quite a burden.  It’s a lot easier to think we can simply earn holy points by doing a few good deeds now and then without being concerned with whether or not our heart’s really in it all the time.  Yet in this we find part of what love is.  Love empowers our deeds.  There is no deed which is inherently loving, but love empowers our deeds so that they become something more than they simply seem to be.  The greatest deeds the world has ever known performed without love as their driving force are quickly relegated to the dustbin of history.  They become little more than flashing lights which burn out quickly and are forgotten at nearly the same pace.  Consider the famed Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  Some of the greatest feats of engineering and architecture ever wrought by humans.  Can anyone in here name more than three of them?  On the other hand, Mother Teresa spent her life doing little more than looking out for truly the least, last, and lost of society and yet her name is perhaps one of the most familiar names in all of the world.  The former came into being as testaments of the greatness of humanity.  The latter gave a cup of cold water to a little one because of the love of Christ.  Love empowers our deeds.

In the next section of the love chapter Paul gets more specific about the things love is and isn’t.  Let’s see if we can come up with a concise list of which is which.  Love is patient and kind, it rejoices with truth, and it bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things.  Love is not envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, demanding of its own way, irritable, resentful, and it doesn’t rejoice at unrighteousness.  Most of these are pretty self-explanatory, but let’s quickly run down the list and hit the highlights.  First, love is patient.  The more literal (King-Jamesy) translation of the word here would be “long-suffering.”  In other words, love puts up with the faults and failings of others for a long, long time.  And, it does so kindly.  Love doesn’t beat people about the head with their brokenness while it waits for them to get fixed.  Perhaps the best illustration of what I mean here comes from the movie Shrek.  In the movie, Donkey loves Shrek.  Shrek is literally an onerous ogre and yet Donkey suffers his crabbiness for a long time and is unfailingly kind to his friend.  That is a partial picture of love.  It’s partial because although love is patient and kind it does not ignore the sinfulness of its object.  Love also rejoices in the truth.  Love is not content to let the brokenness and sinfulness run rampant.  The parents who sit back and let their kids get away with all but murder and never stop or correct or discipline them because they don’t want to hurt their feelings or drive them away don’t love their kids.  Love moves eagerly for the truth to be made apparent and for light to come to the darkness.  In this quest for truth to be made manifest in our lives—for us to be made more complete as people—love does not stop until the journey is complete.

One the other side of all of this good stuff about love, there are some things that love is most decidedly not.  Love doesn’t want what someone else has.  Love doesn’t need that.  Love is content with its own.  The last thing worth comment here is that love does not delight in things that are wrong.  Once again, love yearns for what is true and right.  Love longs for reality to be made apparent and for its object to live fully within reality’s spacious bounds.  And the word there is rejoice, which is a fairly literal translation, but we should not give the word more than its due.  We think of rejoicing as exuberant celebration, but if you have ever gotten a smug, inward smile when someone got their due in a way that made you feel satisfied but which went beyond the limits of justice, you were rejoicing at wrongdoing.  From all of this, I think it is safe to say that love ennobles our character.  It helps to shape and steer us to be more reflective of the kind of life God designed us to live.  To hearken back to our previous series, love helps us become the me we want to be.

In the last third of the chapter, Paul stops talking about love directly and starts talking about things present and temporary going away with the arrival of things future and permanent.  In fact, after stating that love never ends, Paul goes on to say basically the same thing five different times.  The point here is that love will outlast everything that seems permanent in this world.  It will outlast things which are merely cultural.  It will outlast things which have long been a fundamental part of the church’s ministry.  Think about that one for a minute.  Many of the vital ministries the church does in caring for the least, last, and lost of this world will eventually pass away—because we won’t need to do them anymore!  Many people take v. 8 to be a statement that charismatic gifts like prophesy and speaking in tongues are no longer given out as spiritual gifts, but that doesn’t really fit the context.  Instead, Paul’s point is that when eternity arrives things like that won’t last because they were given to the church for the special purpose of expanding the kingdom and encouraging faithfulness.  When the kingdom is here and faith becomes sight, they are no longer necessary and so will be gone.  When we are made fully complete, perfectly mature, entirely whole in the love of Christ, all the immaturities of this world as well as the mechanisms to subvert them will be gone.  I have often spoken of the need to not overemphasize the fact that God is love.  This must be balanced with its complement: God is just.  But, when the kingdom comes and all sin has been appropriately handled, God’s justice will be satisfied.  No longer will we need fear God’s just wrath.   All that will remain is the love.  Even faith and hope will become unnecessary to a certain degree as we gain sight and assurance yet love will persist.  Love remains when all else passes away.  Love is the chief of all the virtues.  It is the medium in which all the spiritual gifts find their highest level of operation.  Just like we need to dwell in air, the spiritual gifts need to exist in love.

Putting all of this together, we can take a few more steps in our quest this morning to define love.  In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul makes clear that love empowers our actions, ennobles our character, and remains when all else passes away.  Well, if our character is made fully what it should be such that our actions have the power necessary to make a real impact on the world for the kingdom, then we can safely declare ourselves to be made whole.  Now, we won’t arrive at this point in full in this lifetime, but the goal of love is to move us closer to this end each and every day.  To put all of this more simply and directly: love won’t quit making us whole.  Yet if this is what Paul has been trying to communicate in this passage, it still doesn’t answer our question of what love is.

So let’s get right down to it then: what is love?  How can we define love in such a way as to really capture what it is?  How can we avoid the various cultural definitions of love which unnecessarily convolute the subject with heavy baggage that only gets lost and keeps us distracted from the real thing?  Well, let’s look one more time at what we’ve talked about this morning most especially the fact that love empowers our actions.  Apart from love we can play at this life, but we will never do anything of truly lasting value.  Yes, we can do any manner of good deeds ostensibly in the name of Christ, but apart from love they will not accomplish any positive good in our lives and may actually do some harm as they keep us from facing the full reality of our brokenness.  In this sense, showing love to another person is not merely or randomly doing culturally or even religiously defined good deeds.  It is doing these deeds with an intentionality which desires for the object of the love—another person—to experience the greater love of Christ in such a way that they will become more fully reflective of the image God designed them to bear.  It’s us playing a part in the work of God in this world.  And this, my friends, leads us to our definition of love.  Love, biblically defined, is an intentional decision to see someone else become fully who God created them to be.  Loving someone, then, involves everything associated with seeing that happen.

Although we will explore this in much more detail in a few weeks, this definition plays itself out in marriage.  When we say “I love you” and commit our life to another person through the marriage vows we are taking up the intentional decision to see that person become fully who God designed them to be.  This is why marriage must never be entered into lightly: because we are committing ourselves to be involved so deeply in another person’s life that we will never fully disentangle ourselves regardless of documents obtained to legally declare the relationship dissolved.  This definition also plays itself out in the relationship between parents and children.  I was reminded rather poignantly of this again a day shy of two weeks ago when I held my infant son for the first time and told him I love him.  As parents, we are entrusted with our children so that we can guide them faithfully along the path of becoming fully who God designed them to be.  To the youth: when you tell your parents you love them, you are expressing your intention of playing a role in helping your parents become fully who God created them to be.  When we commit to loving someone we are no longer content to let them remain who they currently are.  Now, this doesn’t mean we turn into nagging nellies in an attempt to fix them.  Nor does it mean we can come to the table with our agendas for them.   It means that when we observe places in their lives in which they are not living up to God’s standards, we find ways to gently, patiently, kindly, humbly reveal the truth to them so they can have the opportunity to step into the light instead of continuing to remain in darkness.  This takes a lot of courage.  It’s way easier to let someone we claim to love remain in a state of brokenness because it’s going to be too difficult or painful or jeopardizing of the relationship to confront them.  But if we take that approach we can’t use this definition of love to back up our claim.  To take that approach is to fail in our commitment of love and we would do well to repent of this as we are led.  Because, love is an intentional decision to see someone else become fully who God created them to be, but merely a shadow or dim reflection of this.  This is God’s goal for all of us.  Thus, when we love someone else—and if it doesn’t fit this definition it’s not love—we are playing an active part in God’s work in this world.  We are advancing the kingdom.

So let me wrap things up for us this morning.  We have discovered this morning a few important things that I want you to take with you when you leave here.  First, the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth is not about marriage.  It is about describing the proper medium for the use and flourishing of the spiritual gifts Jesus has given to His people for the building up of the body and the successful carrying out of the mission of expanding the kingdom of God.  What this all boiled down to is that love won’t quit making us whole.  Second, this led us to a solid definition of love which is complete enough that we don’t have to worry about defining it in any other way.  This definition stands astride what much of our culture would deem acceptable, but according to this world’s primary source of truth, it accords most fully with reality.  Love is an intentional decision to see someone else become fully who God created them to be.  In case you’re curious, that takes a lot of work and commitment.  It takes a lot more than just love to see it happen.  It takes patience, kindness, humility, an unwavering commitment to justice, and a staunch desire to see the reality of God’s kingdom be fully recognized by this world.  It also takes a lot of different forms depending on the level of our commitment to another person.  We should spend more time seeing this happen in the lives of our friends and family than of total strangers, but neither does this mean we can overlook the strangers.  When we really understand life God has for all those who belong to Him and the fate of those who don’t, for us to not desire to show the transformational love of Christ to everyone is a serious spiritual problem.  So then, was John right?  Is love really all we need?  As I have told nearly all the couples I’ve counseled before performing their wedding ceremony, the Beatles were great songwriters and generally terrible theologians.   Love is not some band-aid which when applied to the world’s problems will instantly make them better by letting people be whoever they feel they need to be.  It’s not about feelings.  Love has little to do with feelings.  It is a lifelong commitment to see the reality of God’s kingdom and His plans for His people come fully to pass.  It finds no expression in the nonjudgmental tolerance praised as this culture’s primary virtue.  It stands for and demands what it is right according to God’s standards.  Love is an intentional decision to see someone else become fully who God created them to be.  With this foundation thus established, go and love the people in your world this week and be a part of advancing God’s kingdom.