“THE EXCELLENT WAY, 16: LOVE BELIEVES”
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
February 19, 2017; Non-lectionary sermon
Isaiah 54:4-10; 1 John 4:7-16

“God is love, and those who abide in love
abide in God, and God abides in them.”
1 John 4:16b

One of the most beloved songs of my generation — maybe of all generations now living today — was written by John Lennon of the Beatles. “All you need is love, love — love is all you need.”

That little piece of pop-music advice has been enormously influential. It’s formed itself up into a mighty wave that’s pushed all manner of people into risky endeavors, relationships both fleeting and permanent, and utopian causes.

But is it true? Is it really true that all you need in this life is love?

It may seem, at first, like the Apostle Paul’s saying just that, in 1 Corinthians 13. In the concluding verse of that great chapter, he writes, “Faith, hope and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.” No question, Paul’s giving love first billing, all throughout this chapter, but note well: he’s not saying love is all you need. I’m afraid the Beatles were wrong about that. The love whose praises Paul sings may have pride of place, but it never stands on its own. In his way of thinking, love and faith are permanently bonded together.

I think that connection is worth exploring. You’re probably aware that lots of people today are entering into marriages in which faith is little more than an afterthought. State governments — affirming the Constitutional principle of separation of church and state — wisely refuse to get into the business of credentialing members of the clergy. The law says, if you’re getting married, you have to find either a member of the clergy, or a public official like a mayor or a judge, to sign the marriage certificate. But here’s the thing: the law doesn’t define who is a member of the clergy. There are web sites that allow you to download a custom-printed, so-called “ordination certificate” for about ten bucks. That means your best friend, your aunt or uncle, your college roommate — even your favorite bartender — can get hold of one of those, then stand up in front of all your friends and relatives and ask you and your intended to say “I do.”

It’s all perfectly legal, but here’s the question: Is it wise? Does it truly honor the spiritual foundation of marriage to make such a casual decision about who’s going to preside?

If “all you need is love,” then I suppose it doesn’t much matter. But as I’ve already said, there’s a lot more to it than that.

*****

We’ve been walking slowly, one phrase at a time, through 1 Corinthians 13, and now we’re in verse 7, that says, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Today, we come to “Love…believes all things.”

Now, when you first hear that phrase, you may think it’s saying “Love will believe anything” — or, “Love is really gullible” — but that’s not what Paul’s saying at all. He’s saying something more like “Love believes” or “Love keeps the faith.” The Greek word translated “believes” is the most common New Testament word for “faith.”

A short while ago, I read for you a selection from the First Letter of John. That passage likewise shows us how closely love and faith are intertwined. 1 John 4:11 says, “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” Notice what the scriptures are saying here. The love of God is primary. All our human loves grow outward from that.

The message is even clearer in verse 16: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” Now, the concept of “abiding” is one of the principal themes of what we call the Johannine Literature of the New Testament: the Gospel of John, the three Letters of John and the book of Revelation (also known as the Revelation to John). To abide means to stand close to, or live with. So, when the author of 1 John says “those who love abide in God, and God abides in them,” he’s saying our decision to love others brings us closer not only to them, but also to God. To love another person in all honesty and integrity is, in a mysterious way, to touch holiness.

The same is also true of our love for God. If you and I truly love God, that love isn’t going to stop there. It’s going to radiate outwards, causing us to love other people as well.

You can see that very clearly just a few verses earlier. 1 John 3:23 says, “And this is [God’s] commandment, that we should believe in the name of [God’s] Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” Believe in the name of Jesus and love one another: it’s right there, the two great loves of our lives, abiding together.

*****

So, what can we say about a love that believes? What difference does it make for us that the two — love and faith — are, in God’s plan for our lives, so closely connected? There are implications both for our loving and for our believing.

Let’s start with the loving. One thing the close connection between love and faith shows us is that, if we have Jesus in our lives, our love is more than just a feeling. It’s also an action.

I remember reading about a man who was invited to speak to a high-school class about the nature of love. “Someone define love,” he said to the kids.

No response. Not a hand went up. “Doesn’t anyone want to try?”

Still no response. “Tell you what: I’ll throw out a definition, and you raise your hand if you agree. Okay?” There were nods all around.

“Okay. Love is that feeling you get when you meet the right person.”

Every single hand went up.

That’s no surprise: because that definition of love, or something very like it, is the prevailing image of love in our popular culture. A great many people believe love is a sensation or a feeling, based on physical and emotional attraction. Love spontaneously generates when Mr. or Ms. Right appears.

The problem is, most people are also well aware that such feelings of magnetic attraction can disperse just as quickly — whenever one or both partners conclude the “magic” just isn’t there anymore. You fall in love, and you can just as easily fall out of it.

There was a rather silly Super Bowl ad, this year, you may have seen. It was a commercial for the Mr. Clean family of household cleaning products. The commercial featured Sara, a housewife, who’s standing there in her kitchen, looking kind of bored, when in walks Mr. Clean. Sara’s played by a live actor, and Mr. Clean is computer-generated.

He’s looking really buff, is Mr. Clean. You can see his muscles rippling through his tight, sparkling white t-shirt and his hip-hugging white trousers. He strides purposefully towards Sara, holding a mop and a bucket full of cleaning supplies.

The two of them lock eyes, some music starts up in the background, and they launch into a sexy dance. Mr. Clean’s scrubbing the counter, mopping the floor, wiping down the glass shower door in the bathroom. And Sara, smitten with this vision of muscle-bound male domesticity, is tracking his every move, with her eyes as well as her body.

Sara’s looking pretty hot and bothered when Mr. Clean finally speaks: “Sara? Sara?” In an instant, Mr. Clean is gone, and Sara’s husband is standing there in his place, looking far less muscular. He’s holding the same mop and bucket, though. “Clean enough?” he asks.

Oh, yes, it’s clean enough. The poor guy looks astonished when Sara rushes forward, throws her arms around her man, and the two of them lock lips. The power of her approach knocks him off his feet and he falls backwards onto the couch, with her on top of him. Then the tagline appears on the screen: “Gotta love a man who cleans.”

The commercial’s purpose is to sell cleaning products, of course, but on the way it makes a rather important point about love. Love is more than passive feelings of magnetic attraction. It’s got an active dimension: and that active dimension is oriented towards service. Love serves the needs of the beloved. And — it just so happens — that can be mighty attractive to the opposite sex!

A woman named Jennifer Roback Morse has this to say, in an essay on love:
“Love is fundamentally not a feeling at all. Love is a decision. If we see ourselves and our feelings as the most important issue in marriage, we miss out on the opportunities for learning and growth, giving and sharing, that true companionship with another person offers us. If we insist on being the center of the universe, we confine ourselves to being the center of a very small universe. But if we are willing to BROADEN our view of the good to include the genuine good of the other, we come to value things that never mattered to us before. We can learn about things we never knew existed. Love expands our world.”

Indeed it does! Especially if it’s the sort of love that grows out of faith in Jesus Christ, whose gift of himself for us was the ultimate act of loving, faithful servanthood.

*****

So, that’s how faith influences love. But the opposite is also true. When faith and love are linked together, as they properly are, love also influences faith.

Oftentimes we have a tendency to understand faith as a totally private, very individualistic activity. You or I could be sitting here in a worship service, surrounded by other people — even having a powerful spiritual experience — but no one around us would ever know it: because we keep it to ourselves. All too often, our working understanding of a congregation at worship is that of a whole lot of individual silos — each one communicating (or trying to communicate) along the vertical dimension with the Divine, but never sideways with each other. The fact that this is happening in a roomful of people is beside the point. It could just as well happen at home.

It’s a fault of our culture that we think this way. We Americans are so individualistic in our outlook on life, so resistant to anything that smacks of the communal, that this attitude spills over into our spiritual life. It’s all about “me and Jesus.” Rarely is it “us and Jesus.”

This, despite the fact that most everything we read of Jesus in the New Testament has him relating to people in groups! Sure, there are examples of him reaching out to individuals — calling his disciples out of their fishing boats, speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well — but these people never stay on their own for long. Our Lord brings them directly into the fellowship — whether it be the 12 disciples or that larger group of people who follow him around.

There are indeed times of prayer and meditation when our spiritual life has an interior bent, but this is only one aspect of how we relate to God. Because faith and love are so closely linked, we live out our faith not only inside our own hearts, but also by reaching out to touch the hearts of others.

Paul speaks on more than one occasion in the New Testament about the church as the body of Christ. He ridicules those who, as individual body parts, claim to have no need of the others. If the eye would say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” how ridiculous that would be — and how detrimental to both the eye and the hand!

Yet, isn’t that exactly how so many of us approach our spiritual life? We stick to our silos. We rarely engage with those around us. It’s simply not compatible with the New Testament understanding of the church.

Writing on this very subject — with special reference to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (which we’re not celebrating today, but do often) — the Roman Catholic spiritual writer Father Anthony DeMello has this to say:
Love is not like a loaf of bread. If I give a chunk of the loaf to you I have less to offer to others. Love is like eucharistic bread: I receive the whole Christ — and so do you; and the next person; and the next.

You can love your mother with your whole heart; and your spouse; and every one of your children. And the wonder is that each stands to gain because love improves in quality each time the heart is given to another person.

If a friend loves you alone and no one else, you would be wise to urge him to give his heart to others for, unless he does this, it is a feeble (and hungry!) heart he offers you.

The communion bread, the body of Christ, is not going to run out, my friends. It matters not how small the piece may be that we hold in our hand, because no matter what the size, it’s just as fully the body of Christ as any other piece.

The very same thing is true of both faith and love. The two are inexhaustible gifts of God that never run out. In fact, the more we share them with one another, the more abundant they become.

*****

Let’s close with a little poem by the Pulitzer prizewinner, Maya Angelou. It’s called “Touched by an Angel,” and it goes like this:
We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.

Be bold, my friends. Be courageous in just this way. Relying on your faith in Jesus Christ, do not hold back as you reach out to friends and neighbors — and even to strangers. Reach out in love, as Christ has reached out to you.

Let us pray:
Lord Jesus,
so often, faith is a mystery to us,
and love a source of anxiety.
Free us from our fears.
Unshackle us from our doubts.
May we trust always in the love you share with us
in such dazzling abundance.
Teach us how to share it with others. Amen.

Copyright © 2017 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.