GOSPEL LESSON Matthew 3:13-17
SECOND BIBLE LESSON: Acts 10:34-43
SERMON: “Complete Love”
Have you ever had one of those “Aha!” moments, when you realized that something you took for absolute fact turned out to be wrong, or at least changed from the way you had always thought about it? The lesson from Acts I read a few moments ago tells what it was like for Peter when he finally got it, when he had that “Aha!” moment understanding what Jesus meant about loving one’s neighbor. This had to be a divine set-up. First, Cornelius, a God-believer, in spite of the fact that he was a Roman centurion, not a Hebrew, saw an angel who told him that his devotion and
generosity did not go unnoticed by God. The angel instructed him to send
for Peter, even telling him where Peter could be found.
Meanwhile, back at the roof-top, a very hungry Peter has a vision of a sheet being lowered with all sorts of animals, previously forbidden for the Jews to eat. He hears the voice of an angel telling him to go ahead, to kill and eat these formerly forbidden food creatures. Out of his lifetime of training Peter objects. As a devout Jew he insists he will not eat anything “unclean.” But the voice persists saying, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
When Peter comes face to face with Cornelius, he finally gets it – the vision he had wasn’t so much about food as it was about people, about God loving all of God’s creation.
We earthlings struggle with unconditional, never-ending love. One young man wrote a love-note to his girlfriend. “Sweetheart, if this world were as hot as the Sahara desert, I would crawl on my knees through the burning sand to come to you. If the world were all like the Atlantic Ocean, I would swim through shark infested waters to come to you. I would fight the fiercest dragon to be by your side. I will see you on Thursday, if it doesn’t rain.”
We understand the concept of romantic love, of the sweet, tender feelings that can even overpower coherent, intelligent thought. Most of us can manage to love the lovable – those people who are appealing to us, who please us by appearance, deeds or both. Loving the lovable is by definition an easy task.
We get what Pastor Bob Kaylor calls “reciprocal love,” that happens when someone loves us and we respond by loving in return. It’s a kind of ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ relationship. It’s an incomplete kind of love in that sometimes a relationship gets out of balance and a partner or a spouse begins to feel that they are giving much more than they’re getting. If the balance can’t be restored, sometimes that means a couple heading for divorce court.
Then there’s conditional love: As l long as you do what I want, I will love you; should you fail to do what I require, my love will be withdrawn. This can be a very controlling kind of love when the recipient is eager to be loved and will do whatever in order to keep love in place. Think of some parent-child relationships, some manipulative spousal or sibling relationships.
Peter was with Jesus when he tried to teach us about God’s complete, unconditional love. One of the church legal experts, asked what is the greatest commandment, 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 22:37-39).
What did Jesus mean when he said we were to love our neighbor as ourselves? Does romantic affection, loving the lovable fill the bill? No, because loving the lovable is easy and even “the pagans” do that naturally. What was Jesus getting at? What did Peter finally understand? Romantic love, reciprocal love – you scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours – , controlling, manipulative love – I’ll love you as long as you do what I want – None of these meet the standard Jesus was speaking of. What was Jesus getting? What did Peter finally understand?
Take a pencil or pen for a moment, if you will, and write on your bulletin the names of ten lovable people in your lives.
Now, write the name of someone you find simply unlovable. Make it someone with whom you have real interaction. Republicans, please don’t write Barack Obama, and Democrats, please don’t write John Boehner. Think of someone in your family, in the church, someone where you work or go to school, or where you socialize, someone who just rubs you the wrong way. Now think about it for a moment – It is so much easier to love ten lovable people than to love one “unlovable” person. , “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” Do not call unlovable anyone whom God loves.
When Jesus told us to love our neighbor as ourselves, he didn’t add, “this is, if your neighbor is lovable,” or “if your neighbor loves you first,” or “if your neighbor meets your demands.” He simply said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” According to Luke when Jesus said this, the legal expert pressed the point, asking, “Who is my neighbor?” You have heard the story of the “Good Samaritan,” an oxymoron in biblical times. “Good” and “Samaritan” just didn’t go together – ever. His story was a clear call to love the unlovable.
In the Sermon on the Mount the Lord’s words are recorded: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matthew 5:44-47)
I had a friend in St. Louis who was a Ph.D. psychologist. She maintained that the greatest human fear was not heights, or public speaking or poisonous snakes, but the fear of rejection. Created in the image of the God, who is love, at deep-down basic levels we want to love and be loved. Working on this message brought to my mind a great many songs from my teenage years. One of my chores when I was in high school was laundry and ironing, which can get to be rather tedious and boring, so I liked to listen to music while I did my work. My sister had a Johnny Mathis album, and I ended up learning the lyrics to just about every song. Some of you may know “The Twelfth of Never.” Instead of imagining a love-sick teenager singing these words, hear them for a moment as God’s words to you: “You ask how long I’ll love you; I’ll tell you true: Until the twelfth of never, I’ll still be loving you. . . . I’ll love you till the bluebells forget to bloom; I’ll love you till the clover has lost its perfume. I’ll love you till the poets run out of rhyme, Until the twelfth of never and that’s a long, long time.”
Years ago at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, a young sociology professor assigned his class go to a city slum to interview 200 boys. “On the basis of your findings predict their future” he instructed the class. Shocked at what they had seen in the slums the students estimated that 90% of the boys interviewed would someday serve time in prison. Twenty five years later the same professor asked another class to locate the survivors of the 200 boys and compare what happened. Of the 180 boys they could find only 4 had ever been to jail. Why had the predictions by the earlier class proven false? A common denominator was sought in their lives, some value or influence that could have made the difference. Through more interviews it was revealed that over 100 of them remembered having the same high school teacher, a Miss O’Rourke, who had been a tremendous influence on them at the time. After a long search, Sheila O’Rourke was found in a nursing home in Memphis. When asked for her explanation she was puzzled and replied, “All I did was love every one of them.”
Does God call us only to love the lovable? When Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he doesn’t add the codicil, “that is, if your neighbor happens to be lovable, or if they can do some good for you.” No, the sort of love Jesus is requires of his disciples is not about being attracted to another, as a moth is drawn by a porch light, it is not an incomplete reciprocal back-scratching kind of love; nor is it any kind of manipulative, controlling love. It is the sort of love that gets up and does what the other person needs, no matter how tough that may be, no matter how unlovable that person is, whether it rains or doesn’t rain.
When we come to this Table, we remember this is the kind of love that Jesus has for each of us – a love that suffered the cross because that’s what we needed. Even in our most unlovable moments, God loves us with a complete love.
The reason I asked you earlier to think of an unlovable person with whom you have a real connection, someone with whom you must interact: The challenge is to take this on as a project this week. It will take prayer, determination, and the strength of God’s Holy Spirit flowing through you – I challenge you to love that person, starting this week.