(This post is an edited version of a message I preached while filling in for our pastor at our English speaking church here in Guatemala. It’s kind of long.)
To provide some background, it was the fourth message in a series about love. The first in the series was “I love my enemies”, the second was “I love the church”, the third was “I love God”, and my message was “I love my neighbor”.
The word “love” is such a powerful word. It has a lot of emotions, memories, and hopes attached to it. The word “love” can mean so many things, it can be easily misunderstood and it can be easily misused. Because of all of this, I think it’s important for us to start out with some sort of definition of “love” so that we can all start out on the same page.
Love is not an easy word to define, so for a little help, I will turn to CS Lewis. He is one of my favorite “thinkers” and authors. He wrote a book called “The Four Loves”. In his book, he describes four different ways the word “love” can be used. (I have read other authors who say love can mean five different things, or six, or seven… but we are going to stick with this for today.)
-Love can be a romantic kind of love between two people where there is a type of “hunger” for each other. I might say to Jodi, “I love you.” And she might respond, “I love you.”
-Love can be a love between friends where we work shoulder to shoulder to accomplish a common goal. Where I could walk up to my friend and put my arm around his shoulder and say, “I love you brother.” When I say I love my friend, I mean it differently than when I say that I love Jodi.
-Love can be an affection for an object, like I have for my yellow t-shirt that is soft and comfortable that my wife wants to throw away. I could say, “I love that t-shirt”. Obviously, my love for my T-shirt is different than my love for my friends or my love for Jodi.
-Love can be a love characterized by sacrifice in the pursuit of another person’s good. For an example of this, let’s look to John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
John Piper, who has been influenced by CS Lewis wrote a book called, “Desiring God”. In it, he gives us a definition of love that goes along with, and supports the definition we just talked about. He says, “Love is the overflow of joy in God that gladly meets the needs of others”. Piper, especially in this book, is very much about the concept that God intends for our lives to be joyful. That is, a joy that comes from our love for God. The Christian life is not to be a series of tasks that are completed begrudgingly. Sometimes the tasks we need to accomplish aren’t fun, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have joy while doing them.
This is the kind of love we want to focus on today. Love that is the overflow of joy in God that gladly meets the needs of others. This is the love your neighbor as yourself kind of love.
Love is a topic that permeates the Bible, from the beginning to the end. For today, I want us to focus on one main scripture, Matthew 22:34-40. 34 Now when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they assembled together. 35 And one of them, an expert in religious law, asked him a question to test him: 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 Jesus said to him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
We are talking about loving our neighbor, but before we start talking about that, we have to first talk about the context that command is found in. Here in these verses the command to love our neighbor is built on a foundation and that foundation is another command. If we look at the context of Jesus’ words here, He is asked what is the greatest commandment. The greatest commandment is not to love your neighbor, it is to love God. In fact, it is to love God with all of our heart, all of our soul, and all of our mind. That is pretty all encompassing. Loving God is the foundation that our love for anything and anyone is built on. It is like the first part of our definition of love. Love is the overflow of joy in God… I can’t stress enough the fact that I can’t love my neighbor as myself without first loving God with all of my heart, soul, and mind.
Now Jesus says, loving our neighbor is secondary to loving God, but it’s still really important. The fact that Jesus even included it in his answer to the pharisees is important. He could have stopped with “Love God”. He didn’t have to include “love your neighbor” in his answer. Including it went above and beyond the scope of the question. Apparently Jesus thought loving our neighbor was not only important enough to include here, but he kind of attached it to our love for God when he said that all of the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.
Now, I want to step aside from our main topic and point out something important. Notice that Jesus didn’t go into a lot of detail talking about what it looks like to love God and your neighbor, but he did go into a lot of detail through the example he lived and gave to us. I think that is something we can learn from. It is kind of a cliche, but it is something we can’t overlook, people learn more about our love by what we do, than by what we say. Jesus clearly lived this. When we look at what Jesus did with his life, when we look at some of the main lessons that he wanted to leave with his disciples, one of the things that Jesus emphasized over and over again was that loving people meant serving them. The son of man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)
1 Corinthians 13 gives us a list of what love looks like and what it doesn’t look like. Love is patient and kind and it rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Love is not envious, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t puffed up, it isn’t rude, it isn’t self serving it isn’t easily angered, it isn’t resentful and it isn’t glad about injustice.
We should be able to look at ourselves and see ourselves in the good parts of this list and not in the bad parts. The problem is that we can do things that look like we love God and actually not love God with all of our heart and soul and mind. The same thing is true concerning our love for our neighbor. We can do things that look like we love our neighbor and still not really love our neighbor as we love ourselves. This is what the Pharisees (who Jesus was answering in Matthew 22) excelled at. They loved the laws and they kept them incredibly well, but they lacked love. What Jesus did here in Matthew 22 and what Paul did in 1 Corinthians was to take the laws and replace them with principles that would include these laws, but go deeper. For example, Love God with all your heart, mind and soul. That obviously would encompass all of the laws regarding God that the Pharisees were keeping, but it adds an extra measure to it. It moves “loving God” from an external “keep the law” or “do this do that” kind of relationship to an internal heart matter. Paul does the same thing. Instead of saying, “don’t lie” he said love “rejoices in the truth.” Do you see the difference? This adds an extra measure. It is no longer this external list of things that I can fake.
Let’s go back to Matthew 22. When dealing with my neighbor, Jesus said to love my neighbor as myself. I don’t know where I heard it first, but a phrase that has stuck with me throughout the years is that we could say that loving my neighbor as I love myself means with the same intensity that I love myself. Here is an example. I wouldn’t steal from my neighbor. I wouldn’t steal their clothes or their house, but what if they are cold and they don’t have warm clothes or a warm house? This is a reality for many people here in Guatemala. If I have the means to make them warm, what should do I do? Should I sacrifice my standard of living to ensure that they are warm? What if they are hungry, do I sacrifice my standard of living provide them with food? This takes us back to loving our neighbor with the same intensity that I love myself. If I was cold I would want clothing and shelter. How about this? If I, or my kids, or my wife, or my parents were hungry, I would want food and I would want my family to have food. I should want the same for my neighbor. What we would do for ourselves or even for our own children is now the standard that Jesus put in place.
(Bear in mind that this was preached to a specific audience primarily composed of missionaries, but please keep reading)
Now, I know my audience today. Let’s step back and take a moment to talk specifically about Journey Church. I am going to ask a rhetorical question here: How many people who attend Journey are daily involved in loving your neighbor? How many of us preach the gospel out of concern for the souls of our neighbors? How many of us build houses to keep “our neighbors” warm? How many of us feed “our neighbors”? How many of us clothe “our neighbors”? How many of us educate “our neighbors”? How many of us provide jobs for “our neighbors”? I would venture to say that the vast majority of the families here make these things our daily focus. If you are visiting on a team, you are here to show love to the people of Guatemala. You (Journey Church) are loving your neighbor. So, why do you need to hear a sermon on loving your neighbor? It’s one of the things that we here at Journey are really good at. It almost seems as ridiculous as going to the Denver Broncos and telling them it’s important not to fumble the football or not to throw interceptions. They know it. They are some of the best people in the world at what they do. I think it’s the same here at Journey. You might not be world champion football players, but you are some of the best people in the world at loving your neighbor.
So why, why talk about it?
One time, about 1950 years ago, there was another church. It was made up of the people of a city called Ephesus. Jesus sent them a message. We can read that message in Revelation 2:1-7.
To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars his right hand and walks among the seven golden lamp stands: I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from it’s place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
They seemed to be doing the right things. They were working hard, they were persevering, they were making sure that what was preached was the truth. They endured many hardships for the name of Jesus. They did not grow weary in their works.
That part sounds a lot like Journey Church. We work hard to love our neighbor. When things get tough, we keep going. We have given up a lot of worldly things to be here doing what we do. We do our best to make sure that what is spoken in our ministries is the truth.
Here’s what I hope, though. I hope that the second part of that passage doesn’t sound like Journey Church. I hope that we haven’t given up, forsaken, our first love. I hope that all of the “things” we do are done with pure motives. Remember when Jesus said that the Pharisees were like whitewashed tombs. They were clean and white on the outside and from the outside everything looked good. The problem was that on the inside they were full of rotten, decomposing flesh and bones. They were busy doing all of the things that the religious law required, but their actions were not motivated by a heart, soul, and mind love for God. Their actions didn’t come from an overflow of their love for God. We could easily fall into the same trap of doing, but not loving God. We could easily build houses, feed people, clothe people, educate people, give people jobs, even preach the gospel, but instead of doing it out of a love for them that is deeply rooted in our love for God, we could be doing it because it makes us feel good. We could be doing it because it makes us look good. We could be doing it because it’s what people expect of us. We could be doing it because when we first moved to Guatemala, that love was genuine. When we first moved to Guatemala, we really did love our neighbor as ourselves, that’s what got us going in the morning. But maybe over time, it’s become a job. It’s become just something we do because, well, that’s what we do.
That is not what God wants. He says in Revelation, “remember your first love”. He wants us to love Him completely. He wants us to love our neighbor with the same intensity that we love ourselves. If you find yourself busy doing, but not really loving, it’s never too late to change, until it is too late to change. The time for introspection is now. The time for repentance, if needed, is now. The time for forgiveness from God and restoration with God if we need it is now.
I don’t say these things because I see that we here at Journey have “lost our first love”. My purpose is not to point out something bad here at Journey that I have noticed. I just know human nature. I just know how my own life is. Sometimes I get tired. Sometimes I get jaded. Sometimes I get used to seeing people live lives that I wouldn’t want for me and my kids. Sometimes I need a little reminder, sometimes I need a correction in my course. Maybe it’s not huge. Maybe just a degree or two here or there to get back on course. That’s what today is. It’s a reminder, to remember the reason why we do what we do. In case you’ve forgotten, we love our neighbor because we love God.
Love is the overflow of joy in God that gladly meets the needs of others.