December 8, 2008

Christian Love: Commanded, Exemplified, and Enabled

I'll be delivering the second speech tonight of a two part series on "Faith Working Through Love" (Gal 5:6) prepared for my "Communication as Christian Rhetoric" class. The first speech was on faith and was entitled: Christian Faith: It's Object and Content. Here is the second speech on love.

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Christian Love: Commanded, Exemplified, and Enabled

When last we met, we examined both the object and content of Christian faith. We discovered that the object of Christian faith is none other than the God who raised Jesus from the dead. We also learned that the content of Christian faith is nothing less than the gospel, the word of faith, the good news that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead. But we must remember that the scriptures do not speak of faith in isolation from love as expressed by the Apostle Paul in Galatians 5:6, “The only thing that counts is faith working through love.” So, he thinks of them together, as two parts of one whole. So, we must ask, if Christian faith is constituted by belief in the universal lordship and resurrection of Jesus, then how does such faith relate to love? If Christian faith is directed toward the God who raised Jesus from the dead, then what does it mean to speak of that faith working through love?

First, we should observe that if Jesus is truly lord, then he sets the standards for how we live and behave. Jesus himself made this very claim when he declared, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded (Matt 28:19-20). Our Lord himself commands us thus, “Teach them to obey all that I have commanded. So, if Jesus is Lord of the world, then he sets the standards for human behavior.

But what is the standard? What is it that Jesus has commanded? Well, we do not have time this evening to look at all Jesus commanded. But we do have time to look closely at one commandment in particular. In John 13:34, Jesus is recorded as saying, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” He goes on to say, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 15:35). So, Jesus set the standard for Christian behavior and interaction during his own ministry with his original disciples. The standard is love. Therefore, if we believe that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead, then Jesus sets the standards for our behavior. And the standard he has set is love. So, faith works through love when take the lordship and commandments of Jesus seriously and love one another. Further, Jesus says that our love for one another is to be a defining characteristic of the Christian community. They will know that we are his disciples and that he is our lord by our love for each other.

But what does this love look like? We can talk about love in the abstract. But what would love look like if we put some flesh on it? Well, once again Jesus provides the answer to our question when he says, “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 15:34). So, Jesus himself not only commands love, but he exemplifies it as well. “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love another.” There are numerous examples to which we could look to see Jesus’ own example of love. But tonight I want to draw your attention to a single event at the end of his ministry.

You will know the story well. It was the night on which Jesus was to be betrayed. After supper, he went to the Mount of Olives to pray knowing fully the events that would transpire that evening and on the following day. As Jesus went into the garden he knelt before the God of Israel and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). It seems that he was so deeply anguished that the small blood vessels in his forehead burst and blood ran down like sweat. After praying, he found his disciples sleeping and warned them to pray so that they would not share in the coming tribulation that he would face. Then going a second time to pray, Jesus cried out to his father, “If you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Once again Jesus found his disciples asleep, unfaithful even at this crucial moment. Returning again into the garden he prayed for the final time, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Despite the unfaithfulness of his closest friends, Jesus did not waver in faith or faithfulness, but set his face towards the cross trusting in the God he knew as Father prepared to offer himself in a single great act of love. And even as the mob came to take him away, Jesus reached out to heal the wounded ear of one who sought to harm him. And when he hung on the cross, with thorns pressed into his scalp, spikes piercing his hands and feet, his flesh barely hanging on from the scourging, this holy one interceded before God for the very ones who were torturing him to death. What does love look like? It looks like the Lord who offered himself for his sleeping disciples. What does love look like? It looks like the one who was betrayed and still worked to heal his captor. What does love look like? It looks like the man on the cross who even at the point of death cared more for the needs of his persecutors than for his own. What does love look like? Love looks like Jesus. “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 15:34).

But how are we to love like that with such other oriented and selfless love? Are not we like those sleepy disciples who were more concerned with their heavy eyes than their Lord’s anguish? How are we to love like that? We are not able. Not unless he does something both for us and in us. Not unless he both sets us right and fills us with his own Spirit transforming us into the likeness of his own holy image. Only in power of the Spirit of God given by the Lord Jesus Christ will we ever be able to love like that.

In conclusion, then, what does it mean to speak of faith that is made effective through love? It means that the gospel, the content of faith, is also our standard of behavior. It means that the Risen Lord in whom we believe sets the rules for how we live. It means that Jesus not only commands but exemplifies and, by his Spirit, enables us to love others as he has loved us. Faith that works through love is faith in the crucified Lord which is then manifest in cruciform love.

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