May 17th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | John 15:12-17
There is a verse from the Psalmist with which we are going to begin today’s sermon. It is rather well-known. Let’s go to Psalm 139, verse 14. There we read:
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
I give you that verse because it sprang to my mind when I was reading a chapter in the book, Love Your Enemies, by Arthur C. Brooks. Brooks is the President of the American Enterprise Institute (no bastion of liberal thought). He is an ardent champion of the free enterprise system. He is a believer and an excellent thinker and writer and I commend the book to you.
In the eighth chapter of the book, Brooks takes us on a little biological tour. He introduces the subject of oxytocin. Now, be careful: there is a world of difference between oxytocin and OxyContin. Oxytocin is a hormone that is synthesized in the hypothalamus of our brain. Some refer to it as the “love molecule.” Oxytocin makes us feel bonded to another. Brooks writes:
Oxytocin is one of the means by which the human race has continued to exist. It bonds us to our romantic partners. It bonds us to our children and other loved ones who are family members. It also bonds us, in lower concentrations, to our friends, and even to strangers - when they have a story we can relate to.1
Imagine it - we are created with a little manufacturing plant in our brains that enables us to connect with other human beings. We are pre-disposed to connect to - to engage with - to enjoy other human beings. This is just one of the many ways that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”
But, if we look at the world around us these days, we do not see connection as much as we see division. Much of that division is centered on partisan political matters. We have divided the nation into republican and democrat, red and blue, conservative and liberal. We have made a pandemic a partisan matter with republicans labeled as caring about the economy and democrats labeled as caring about public health. We make judgments about people by whether they are wearing a face mask or not.
We are further divided along the lines of whether we trust in science or not. Scientific evidence is a good thing. Anyone who tells you that science is the enemy of faith doesn’t have a clue what they are talking about. Faith - all faith traditions - have absolutely nothing to fear from science. When scientists tell us to wear face masks and maintain social distance and wash our hands, we ought to be listening to them. It’s no different than when scientists tell us to use sunscreen, stop smoking, cut back on fats, or not to stand under a tree during a thunderstorm. We listen to them on those things. We trust their information. We adapt our living to their counsel. Science saves lives. (The only time this was not true was when scientists got excited about kale and recommended it to everyone.)
And here is where faith must take its place. At the heart of our faith - and frankly, of all faiths - is the key element of love. In the New Testament, there are four key words that we translate love. The word agape is used over 200 times. Writer Alyssa Roat says:
Agape love is unconcerned with the self and concerned with the greatest good of another. Agape isn’t born just out of emotions, feelings, familiarity, or attraction, but from the will and as a choice. Agape requires faithfulness, commitment, and sacrifice without expecting anything in return.2
While our brains are formed to produce “the love molecule,” it is still up to us to choose to practice love.
In the three passages that we read this morning, the word agape is used, defined, and commanded. It is the way of Jesus and it is to be the way of those who would follow Jesus and continue his work. And it has been that way for a very long time. The early church leader and theologian, Tertullian, wrote in the second century: “‘Look,’ they say, ‘how they [Christians] love one another’ (for they themselves hate one another); ‘and how they are ready to die for each other’ (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).” Love is the light, salt, and leavening for the world.
In writing to the contentious Christians of Corinth, Paul offers an explication of the love he commends to them.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
The descriptive words are powerful. They guide us and direct us. They inform the way we are to live. Tolerant, tender hearted, generous, humble, genuine - this is the very nature of agape. This is a love and a way of life that seeks the best for all and is willing to sacrifice self for the benefit of the other.
In the First Letter of John, the author adds this argument:
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. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
Of all the things we might say about God, this little letter gives us a summary argument with which it is difficult to disagree. God’s very nature is love and God acts out of love. God’s love comes to us before we even understand its reality and it leads us into understanding and acceptance. Jesus Christ is offered to the world as an action of God’s self-sacrificing love. Love is at the very heart of God and it is to be at the very heart of those who would live in God.
Jesus himself gives it to us with complete clarity:
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. (John 15:12-16)
Self-sacrificing, generous, magnanimous, unsparing love. This is the love of Jesus. This is the love Jesus commands those who would be his disciples to practice.
And in that spirit, let me give you one more. It is in Matthew’s gospel that we read:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-45)
Agape love is not easy. Such love calls us to love those we consider easy to love, but to love the unlovely and unlovable. All people - all people - are created in the image of God and deserve love.
God has given us the gift of oxytocin. We are hard-wired to care, to love, to be gracious, compassionate, and caring. It is in our brain’s chemistry. But, we will need to work at bringing that love to expression in our lives.
And, in case you hadn’t noticed, it is needed now more than ever. The partisan divide in our country is being deepened and increases in its destructive power with each passing day. The divisions within the church are deepening and pose a different form of destruction. The division between families and friends are wounding those natural bonds of affection and endearment.
Is this how God created us to live? Absolutely not. God has gifted us with a capacity for affection and an instruction to live as people of love. God has not created us to live divided from each other, harboring ill-will and hatred in our hearts, speaking derisively of those with whom we disagree.
God created us to be people of love. The world needs us - now more than ever.
The world needs the presence of God’s gift of love.
For now and evermore. Amen.
1) Brooks, Arthur. Love Your Enemies, p. 138.
2) Roat, Alyssa. https://www.christianity.com/wiki/christian-terms/what-does-agape-love-really-mean-in-the-bible.html
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