Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. ~ 1 John 4:7-8
I want to start by asking you a question, and I’m not going to put you on the spot by making anyone answer out loud, but I want to put this out there as something for each one of us to think about.
The question is: What exactly is love?
Everybody knows what love is, right? But really, can you describe it in a sentence or two? Or even in a paragraph? Can you say what it is?
It would seem to be a vitally important question if, as the author of this letter puts it, “whoever does not know love does not know God.”
And yet as I thought about this question over the last week myself, I found it difficult to come up with words that would be adequate to define it.
Love is, ideally, our very first experience of what it means to be human. Ideally, we’re conceived in love, and when we come into this world, love is there waiting to embrace and care for us.
So we know love before we have any words for it, and maybe exactly for that reason, it’s hard to get past the idea that love is a warm feeling. But what we’re talking about here when we talk about the love of God and our love for each other as Christians, it’s so much more than that.
It isn’t something we feel. It’s closer to being something we do, but even that doesn’t completely do it justice.Some would say love is what we are, or at least it’s what we’re becoming.
I came across a book last week called Everybody Always—that’s who we’re supposed to love, everybody always, by a man named Bob Goff. I really appreciate what he has to say about understanding ourselves not as containers of love, but as as conduits of love. He says we’re meant to be “rivers, not reservoirs.”[i]
So the point isn’t to receive God’s love and hold on to it. We’re made to let that divine love flow through us to others.
Jesus talked to His friends a lot about how we should identify ourselves. He said it wouldn’t be what we believed or all the good we hoped to do someday. Nope, He said we would identify ourselves simply by how we loved people. It’s tempting to think there’s more to it, but there’s not. Love isn’t something we fall into, love is something we become.[ii]
I’ll warn you that I’ll be quoting from this book a few more times this morning, because I think it’s just really refreshing to find someone who can express the basic truth of our faith in a way that gets right to the heart of it.
And love is the very heart of the message Jesus came to share.
When they asked him which commandment was the most important of all, he told them there were two: One, love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. And two, love your neighbor as yourself.[iii]
I think it’s interesting, considering all that Jesus had to say about love, that he never actually tells us what it is, in the sense of trying to give us a definition of love.
What he does instead is to show us what love looks like, both through his stories and through the example of his own life.
For example, he gives us the beautiful story about parental love in the parable of the Prodigal Son. No matter what the son has done, no matter much hurt he might have caused, his father loves him without judgment or reservation, and stands ready to welcome him home again.
And that of course is an image of the love that God has for us, and who wouldn’t want to believe that we are loved that way.
And then there’s the story of the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan turns out not to be one of the good and righteous ones of Israel. They’re not the ones who respond to the man who has been brutally beaten and robbed.
It’s the despised Samaritan who tends to him personally, tenderly, cleaning and bandaging his wounds, placing the man on his own animal and taking him to an inn, and leaving money with the innkeeper to pay for continued care for this man.
And that is a model for how we’re supposed to love one another.
It’s selfless, and it transcends boundaries. Jesus told it as a story about Jews and a Samaritan but in our own time I think it might help us to understand it better by thinking of it as being about Christians and a Muslim. Two groups that don’t always get along in our world, so it’s a little challenging and turns some of our expectations upside down.
Clearly the kind of love Jesus was teaching was not going to be easy.
And he kept showing us what this love would look like, both in his own ministry of presence and healing to people who were hurting in so many different ways—and he demonstrated perfect self-giving love in his life and of course in the ultimate gift of his life.
On the night before he died, he told his friends he was giving them a new commandment, and it was to love one another, just as I have loved you.[iv]
So you might well wonder, if all of his teaching about love is so simple and straightforward, why do we find it so difficult to carry out?
We make a million excuses for our failures to love. We make it so much harder than it has to be.
We convince ourselves that some people don’t really deserve to be loved, because of what they believe, or how they live, or what they’ve done.
And Jesus shows us that isn’t true, not just in the story of the Prodigal Son but through his own example of loving everyone he encountered.
We tell ourselves that supporting good causes—or having warm feelings for those in need—is the same thing as loving them.
And Jesus shows us that it isn’t.
He shows us that we need to be loving the people who are right in front of us, especially the ones we find most difficult to love. Because who doesn’t love the people who are good to them? He said even sinners did that, and he was asking for something more from us.[v]
Bob Goff tells a story in his book about a man named Adrian who worked at the airport in San Diego. He was part of the TSA, and his job was to stand at the head of the security line and “check IDs to see if people were who they said they were.”[vi]
Now if you’ve done any traveling lately that involved passing through an airport, or if you’ve talked to anyone who has, you know that those lines are very long, and they are not filled with people who are manifestly kind and loving, so the guy checking IDs at the head of the line doesn’t generally get to see humanity at its very best.
Goff is a frequent traveler, and he says he passed through Adrian’s line maybe a dozen times over the course of a few weeks, and every time, he what he noticed was how Adrian treated people. No matter who they were or how they treated him, “Adrian always treated them with love and respect.”[vii] And that simple, quiet, sincere kind of love always seemed to make them feel better as they went on their way.
Goff really admired that about Adrian, and one day, he decided he was going to thank him. When it was finally his turn, he held out his ID in his left hand and reached out his right hand to shake.
He introduced himself, and he told Adrian how much he appreciated the way he treated each person who came through the line. And Adrian had tears in his eyes when he stepped forward and gave Goff a hug.[viii]
It might seem like an unlikely way to begin a friendship, but over time the two of them spoke briefly again and again as Goff passed through Adrian’s line. Eventually they got to know each other better, and made arrangements to meet for coffee, and after that they even started to get together with their families.
Love in action can be dramatic, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be as simple as the way you greet people and treat them in a 30-second business transaction. It can be as simple as acknowledging that humble way of being, and saying thank you for being that way.
It can begin with getting to know each other better, and moving on to finding ways that you can really be there for each other.
And of course there’s more to it than just waiting for these opportunities to appear. We need to go out to look for people who need our love and care. That’s what Jesus did, and what he showed us about how to love.
We make a million excuses for our failures to love. Maybe we’re waiting for that big opportunity to show our love in some really dramatic and meaningful way, because we’re thinking that the little things don’t count.
Or maybe we tell ourselves that anyway no matter what we do, things are just so bad that we won’t ever be able to change the world. It’s an ugly world and it’s not going to get any better. So why bother even trying? Right?
But no. If we look at the example of Jesus, who lived in a pretty ugly world, we see that that’s just plain wrong.
The lesson of today’s reading from the first letter of John—and it’s arguably the lesson of the entire New Testament, of all of holy Scripture—is contained in a single verse. It’s verse 11 of chapter 4 of the first letter of John:
Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.
Easier said than done, maybe, but the way to do this is just to begin by loving the next person you meet, and going on to love the next one after that and the next one after that.
As Bob Goff says,
There’s no school to learn how to love your neighbor, just the house next door. No one expects us to love them flawlessly, but we can love them fearlessly, furiously, and unreasonably.[ix]
God’s love will transform us, if we open our hearts and let it flow through us.
We don’t actually have to know how to define it, we just have to do it.
Because God’s love flowing through us to all of those we meet will change the world, as surely as the steady flow of the Colorado River cut a channel 18 miles wide and a mile deep at the Grand Canyon.
It didn’t happen overnight, but slowly and surely and steadily that flow did change the physical world.
It won’t happen overnight, but if we begin right now to practice this kind of love, hour by hour and day by day, God’s love flowing through us will do its slow and steady work.
And we will become love, and the world will be changed.
[i]Bob Goff, Everybody Always, iii.
[iii]Mark 12:29-31 NRSV