Someone was working a crossword puzzle and asked, “What is a fourletter word for a strong emotional reaction toward a difficult person. It ends in ‘e’?” Someone standing nearby said, “Hate.” Another person looked at it and replied, “No, the answer is love.” Everyone is working that same crossword puzzle, but the way you answer is up to you. It is said that when the apostle John was in his extreme old age, he was so weak he had to be carried into church meetings. At the end, he would be helped to his feet to give a word of exhortation to the church. Invariably, he would repeat, “Little children, let us love one another.” The church began to grow weary of the same words every time, and they finally asked him why he always said the same thing over and over. “Because it is the Lord’s commandment,” he replied, “and if this only is done, it is enough.” Hebrews 10:24 says, “…let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds….” How do you deal with the impulse to be loved and the impulse to love? What I mean is left to our own, we would wake up each day, go through our day, and go to bed each night looking to be loved. We would want to get love, to be cared for, to be shown that we are lovable, to be shown there is love in the world. Scripture says, “God first loved us.” The fact is we’re never as sure of this as when we’re being loved first by someone. It feels good. The world is in its correct orbit when we’re the beneficiary of someone’s else love and kindness. But we also know this doesn’t happen all the time. Too many people are not doing anything between the times when they get their love fix. There is much more we can do than hope that someone will get around to loving us. Someone wise said, “It is sad not to be loved, but it is much sadder not to be able to love.” Our lives are impoverished when we’re not able to love richly. Choose to love over being loved. Don’t look to gain, look to give. Be willing to bear with another rather than gain from another. Be rich; love someone before they love you. Find treasure; pray to transform your attitude toward someone tough to find joy in. The three most famous Greek words for love are eros, philia, and agape. They are used most in the New Testament. There are however five others they saw as forms of love. We don’t have such a variety of words for love. The word used 28 times in the first 15 verses of 1 John, chapter 4 is agape. Agape means an attitude of appreciation and concern resulting from a conscious evaluation and choice. It refers to our capacity to value someone else even when they’re not valuing us. Agape love centers on our ability to consider someone worthy of consideration regardless of them meeting our conditions. In agape love, we do not receive a return, at least not as something for which we labor. Agape is love free of control or a need to be thanked. It is in this way unconditional, selfless, and altruistic. We have the capacity to love another without the source of our love being an overwhelming attractive force or because we spend time with another sharing a similar interest. Of course, love such as this may be a part of these relationships, but it doesn’t depend on these other types of love. Obviously, agape doesn’t come easily. It’s easy to love those who love us, and who share the same viewpoints we share. But this is never the end of the story. Life and love aren’t that simple. Love will almost always hits a wall. Two people run into dry spells. To be in a relationship means you’re going to meet imperfection, find a flaw, see a troubling fault, a continual loose wire, an unacceptable error that doesn’t really get fixed. Love will meet sin. After all, someone who misses the mark with God, who rebels against what’s good and best and healthiest, is going to do so against you too. Too many hit this wall and say, “No thanks. Can’t do it. I’ll find someone else. Too high of a cost. I’d rather be alone.” We back away, separate, divorce, rupture. Or there’s anger and there are arguments. What they all these reactions have in common is not the other person’s imperfections but one’s own powerlessness. The wall is too big, the imperfection too gratuitous, too insulting, too damaging. I can’t overcome it. We let ourselves off the hook often with the idea that it’s not my responsibility. I don’t need to fill in for his hole. I don’t need to make up for her faults. If he can’t manage his life, then so be it. If she can’t see what’s wrong with her, then she should pay the price. Am I my brother’s keeper? Am I my sister’s helper? I didn’t build that wall. I don’t have to climb it. Let her break it down. It’s his, let him undo it. On and on we go about why they’re guilty of trespass and we’re free of responsibility. But they’re false fronts. They mask what’s really going on. What’s really going is we’re not strong enough to make it past that wall. When faced with needing strength or conviction or insight or wisdom or long-term gratification or blind faith of agape love, to keep us from turning away from someone who is causing us pain, we don’t have it in us. Perhaps we don’t know how. Instead, we accept our powerlessness. Weakness is our default mode, our go to method, when we hit the relationship wall and meet up with the actual, live, faulty, flawed imperfect person instead of the cardboard cutout we thought we knew. Don’t give in. Don’t fall back to your default. Don’t give in to weakness. Don’t believe you’re not ready for agape love. Len Sweet is a big, kind of intimidating-looking guy. He was scheduled to talk at a conference. He walked out onto the stage, held his arms out wide like he was going in for a big hug, and said, “Good morning, saints!” And everybody responded, “Good morning!” Then he said, “Good morning, sinners!” Everybody responded again, with laughter. And he said, “Good! We’re all here.” We need to stop trying to fix people. They’re broken. We’re broken. We’re supposed to love them, not repair them. How often we want to make someone better so they can be better for us. The work of love isn’t in making them love us better. The labor of love is to make you love them more, more often, more easily, without expectations or conditions. We think the wall is their wall. How silly we are. The wall is our wall. It’s the one we built. It’s the one we have the power to tear down, or go around, or climb over. We look out at the world and the people in our lives, point the finger, and demand, “Tear down that wall, and I’ll respect you again or love you more or let you be happy.” In our unloving mind, we believe this view is like a window through which we see others. If we were in our loving mind, we would realize we are looking at a mirror, seeing only ourselves. The weak keeping believing they’re looking out a window at others when they see a wall; the strong know they’re looking in a mirror at their own wall that’s stopping them from loving. An anthropologist was winding up several months of research in a small village, the story is told. While waiting for a ride to the airport for his return flight home, he decided to pass the time by making up a game for some children. His idea was to create a race for a basket of fruit and candy that he placed near a tree. But when he gave the signal to run, no one made a dash for the finish line. Instead the children joined hands and ran together to the tree. When asked why they chose to run as a group rather than each racing for the prize, a little girl spoke up and said: “How could one of us be happy when all of the others are sad?” Because these children cared about each other, they wanted all to share the basket of fruit and candy. There’s no race in the church. What we take to be our church isn’t our church—not completely. It’s the Lord’s. Our privilege is to be able to share it with anyone who seeks to find God and God’s family here. We are all equal in this way. The advantage or benefit the long-time member has over someone who’s here much more recently is that they get to be the face and voice of God to the newcomer. We get to love someone first because we were here first. We get to welcome someone, anyone that is who comes to our church. We get to ask them their name, and tell them how glad we are that they are here, and make sure they know they’re welcome. We get to show them how open God’s heart is to them and to affirm God’s love for them. We who are here first have the privilege of loving someone in Jesus’ name before they can love us back. If you want to grow this church in spirit and numbers, understand the privilege that is yours. Let your smile be God’s smile upon someone who’s here for the first time or recently. Let your welcome be more than just words. Ask them about themselves. Invite them after worship to fellowship time. See if they will permit you to follow up with them during the week. In our world, people come for the first time to church to answer the question, “Where’s the love?” They may be having a hard time finding love anywhere in their lives or this world. Yet they still believe; they still have hope that somewhere love still is and is not in short supply. When someone decides to come here, they want to know if they’re going to find something of God’s love. They’re hopeful they’ll meet someone who will help them for a moment, make them feel special, that they matter. They’re hoping they will find love. The only way that will is happen is if we love them first. They believe in love but it’s not until we show them it’s so that they will want to stay. They believe in God but it’s not until we show them we believe in God through our love that they will see God here. May we be those who know, because God loved us first, we have more than enough love to share. Can the church say Amen?
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