What is Love?

Scripture:  1 John 3:16-24

Songs have been written to cover just about every topic imaginable, but there is one subject that seems to be the most popular:  A crazy, little thing called love.   It is estimated that more than 100 million love songs have been recorded.  The variety of love songs is staggering as they appear in all genres.   The songs tell us that love is all we need and that we will do anything for love.  Yet most of these songs do not actually define love, they won’t do that.  There are some that give some definition.  Tina Turner cynically asked “what’s love got to do with it, and defined love as a second hand emotion.   Other songs are a bit more positive and ensure us that love will never give you up, never let you down, and never hurt you.  Singers of all varieties love to crone about love and hit the high notes when they proclaim “I will always love you”, but they rarely actually say what love is.

On the one hand, perhaps they do not need to.   Perhaps they do not need to define love, because on some level we know what love is.  Love is less something we explain and define and more something we feel on a deep level-which is why it is such a good topic for songs.  Yet on the other hand, how we use words matter and definitions are important.  Love is a kind of hard word to define in English, because of how the word is used.  English has more than 170,000 words.  It is one of the languages with the most words in active use in the world, yet we use the word love in a lot of different contexts.   We use the word love to define the attraction and connection between two people.  We use the world love to define how we relate to the divine, and we use the word love to describe how we feel about pizza.

Because we do not ever define the word well, it does lose some of its meaning.  Grammy winning song writer Jimmy Webb points this out in his book Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting.   Where he wrote about love that the word is “overused and has no good rhymes.”  Despite the fact it is overused, especially in songs, I think Jackie DeShannon was right when she sang “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.  It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.”  If that is true, then it is important define just what this world needs.  It is important to answer the question, “What is love?”  And this morning’s scripture goes a long way in helping us do just that.

Biblical scholars believe that 1 John and this morning’s scripture was written as a circular letter.  The idea is that the letter would be passed around to multiple churches and shared with many.  In an era before mass communication or even a printing press, a circular letter that made the rounds was the best way to get the message out.  Church tradition holds that 1 John was written by John the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus which tradition also remembers was the author of the gospel of John.  When we remember that while reading 1 John becomes fascinating because we get to see the way that the apostle John took the teachings of Jesus to heart, lived them out, and passed on what he had learned.  For instance in the gospel of John, Jesus is recorded saying “Greater love has no one than this:  to lay down one’s life for one’s friend.”   Then in this morning’s scripture that lesson is passed on in verse 16: “This is how we know what love is:  Jesus Christ laid down his lie for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”

In this letter, John uses Jesus as an example to define what love is.   Love is Jesus Christ crucified.   Selfless sacrifice for others is the definition of love that we get from 1 John.   Unlike so many love songs, 1 John defines love for his audience, but John takes it a step further.   Love, as defined, by this morning’s scripture is not just a poetic word.  It is not just a theoretical or ethereal concept.   Love is a verb.   Love is defined not by the words we say or the feelings we feel but by the actions we take.   Right after John states that Jesus laid down his life for us, so we should lay down our lives for one another he backs this up by pointing out this is not a rhetorical statement.   He puts out there in practical terms in verse 17:  If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them how can the love of God be in that person?”

The sacrificial love that Jesus showed in laying down his life on the cross, is the same love we can show by sacrificially giving to meet the needs of one another.   John does not mince words, if someone is not willing to do that, then they cannot say God’s love is in them, which means they do not truly believe in the son.    We cannot simply say we love God, for that to be more than empty words we have to be able to show it.   One of the primary ways we show a love for God is how we love on another.  Or as John puts it in verse 18, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”

Our faith is a faith based in love.   This is stated more plainly a bit later in 1 John.  In 1 John 4:19 it states, “We love because God first loved us.”  God’s love was made known to us unequivocally on the cross, when Jesus laid down his life for us.   Our faith, our relationship with God, is only possible because of an action of love.  We can have a faith today, we can call God our heavenly Father, because the love of Jesus is not a love of songs and poetry it is a love of action.  In the same our faith cannot just be one of theory and hypotheticals, it cannot be one that exist mostly on paper.   Faith requires us act.   Faith requires us to love.  As this morning’s scripture states, we are commanded to do so:  This is [God’s] command:  to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.”

The way that Jesus loves is sacrificially, and Jesus put love into action for the whole world, so that all who believe him may not perish but have eternal life.   To emulate that kind of love, to put love into action at that scale, would be a lot for God to ask of us individually.  Fortunately, this morning’s scripture seeks to make it more manageable.  As verse 16 states: “This is how we know what love is:  Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.  And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”   As we talked about last week one of the things that 1 John sets forth is that those who claim salvation through Jesus Christ are God’s children, and if we are God’s children then we are siblings in Christ.  We do not have to start with loving the whole world the way Jesus does, but instead we are given the more manageable goal of loving one another.

In order for us to love one another as Christ commanded, we have to be willing to love each other.   Our investment in one another needs to go beyond a quick, “Good morning, how are you?”  In the New Testament there is a specific Greek word to describe how a church is supposed to interact with one another.   The Greek word is Koinonia.  This appears over twenty times throughout the New Testament.  We often translate the world to mean “fellowship.”   While hanging out, and making small talk over a cup of coffee can be part of fellowship, Koinonia has a more layered definition.  As United Methodist Pastor Michael Beck write in his book The Five Congregational Personality Types Koinonia means more.  He wrote, “At the deepest level it also means mutual vulnerability, fellowship, and intimacy.  This language . . . envisions a group of people who share such a depth of union . . .they . . .are bound to one another at a soul level.  In short, it describes a type of community that shares the deepest intimacy.”

Again the love we are to have for one another is more than just words we are to love in action and in truth.  When our brothers and sisters in Christ are in need, we meet that need.  When they are hurt, we tend to it.   When the world falls apart and breaks on them, we help pick up the pieces.   We care for one another with the same kind of “I will be there for you, no matter what” love that Jesus showed us.

I think by and large we get that.  I think most of us are willing to go a step further in caring for one another.  I am confident that if someone in this church had a specific need, someone else would meet that need.  Where we might struggle is letting others meet our needs.  I realize that the word need more often than not seems to have physical or financial implications.  While those needs exist, those are not the only needs we have.  Sometimes what we need is to be heard.   To be seen.  To be listened to.   To know that someone truly cares, and to be known.  Those are all legitimate needs as well, and those are needs that a loving church can help meet.  Yet, that only happens if we allow it.  In order to allow others to love us, we have to allow them to see us for who we are, imperfections and all.   If all we ever show our brothers and sisters in Christ is a shallow representation of who we really are, then they will never be able to truly love us because we do not let them.   The command from Jesus is to love one another as Christ loves us.  We can only do that as a church, if we are vulnerable enough to let other people love us.

We should love one another.  It is in loving one another as siblings in Christ, that we practice and perfect loving other people with the same love that Jesus shows us.  However, it is not supposed to stop there.   If a church as a community of faith only practiced loving one another, then it would become a closed system, where every new how things were always done, and any newcomers would feel like outsiders.   This should not happen.  Our buildings, our congregation should be open and welcoming enough that all are truly welcome and someone can belong before they even believe.

Love should not be treated like a commodity that is exclusive only for those on the inside and already part of the club.  I would argue that if it does then a church is not truly loving one another like Christ loves us-because the love of Christ could not be contained by the walls of the tombs and it certainly cannot be contained by the walls of a sanctuary.   The love of Christ should flow out of our building and into the community like a flood.   The goal is to become so good at seeing the need and meeting the need of one another, that we burst out these doors to see the needs in the community around us.   Loving one another should teach us how to love like Jesus, so that we can move on more perfectly to loving our neighbors as ourselves, see the needs in the world, and as a unified body meet those needs.

What is love?   Love is laying down one’s life for one’s friends.  Love is Jesus Christ crucified for humanity.   Love is giving of ourselves to help another because we care about them.   Fundamentally, love is putting someone else first because we believe they are worth it.  This is what Jesus did for us.   As followers of Jesus, this is what we should do for one another, and once we learn to love because he first loved us, we then love the world.  Friends, the Beatles really were right.  All the world needs is love, and may we be the ones to show it to them.




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