by Rev. Robert Griffith
I have spent a lot of time in this teaching series talking about God’s love for us and that's really important. We've heard a lot about the various ways that we can respond to God’s love, be more effectively touched, helped and transformed by God's love. We’ve talked about the need to be rooted and grounded in love and as individuals in the Church we all need to grasp that. But we have also heard that love is incomplete and love will go sour in us if we do not learn and develop the skill to express that love to God and to other people. God effectively says to us all: “If you want to love Me, love other people.”
Jesus will say on that final day: “You fed Me, you clothed Me, you comforted Me, you visited Me in prison.” And we'll say: “What? We never even saw you - let alone fed you, visited you, comforted you or clothed you.” And He will say on that day: “When you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” God makes it very clear to us: “If you want to love Me, worship is fine - I delight in that; but if you really want to love me, start giving My love away to somebody else.” So today we are going to conclude this series by talking about the skill - the ‘how to’ of loving people and completing this interchange of love that God initiated in us through Jesus Christ, in which we have been trying to get rooted and grounded.
Ephesians 5:1-2 “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
Paul is saying we are to love each other; we are to live a life of love; a life characterised by love. God is love so Christians as Christians seek to live in God they will live in love. More specifically, we are to live a life of love as Christ did. To put it another way, in Jesus own words: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Now that sounds a little daunting doesn't it? Nobody really takes that seriously, do they? We don't really love people as Christ loved us. I mean His love is so far beyond our ability to comprehend - let alone express in the same way. The magnitude of Jesus’ love seems way beyond us and so this whole discussion can seem too abstract. But everything we're exhorted to do in the New Testament - God expects us to do and also, by His Holy Spirit He has empowered us to do it. God's bidding is God's enabling which simply means He will give us the power to do what He asks us to do. That's why Paul said: “I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)
It is not from our native ability that we do this - we are made competent by His Holy Spirit to do what God has commanded us to do and we are called to love each other as Christ loved us. So exactly how do we do that? Well, what I want to do today is try to bring this high and lofty expectation to love each other down into our real world. I hope I can achieve that in part as the Holy Spirit leads. I want to suggest that when we think about how Christ loved us that we should not think about how ‘big’ He loved us - but specifically how did He manifest that love. What did He actually do to love people? What were His skills? How did He make choices? How did He get His love to others? The ‘how-to’ is what we are going to talk about today. Now, when you read the gospels, you will notice that Jesus loved people in a very free, creative and spontaneous way. He didn't love everybody the same way. He tailored His love to each person as an individual.
For one person He spat on their face and healed them - an interesting expression of love, don't you think? To another He stood at a distance and wept. Another He touched. To another He spoke. To another He scolded, in love. His love was adapted to the individuals according to their needs. So it was creative; it was sensitive to the person; it was situational; it was free - specifically free of rules. He loved in a non-religious, even anti-religious way.
In Jesus day, a Pharisee was somebody who really knew the law, and really thought they were God's chosen and favourite and higher echelon believer. Well if a Pharisee was asked how to love they would most likely think back to the Torah - the Law. For many it had become a system for living. You ask a question - they regurgitate Law No. 224 or Law No. 317 or whatever. They had rules for every situation and so much of the Rabbinic writing is defining what everyone should do in a specific situation. That's the way religion was then and that's the way religion operates now. It may be a little more sophisticated and the rules may be unwritten in some cases - but it's still the same. Now I need to say that this kind of legalistic lifestyle is easier to live in many ways. You don't have to use your imagination, you don't have to hear from the Holy Spirit, you don't have to take any risks. If you've got a rule or a law you just obey it and that's it.
But Jesus does the exact opposite. He breaks the Pharisee's rules in the pursuit of a life of love and He teaches us to do the same. For instance, the law said you must love your neighbour and hate your enemies, but Jesus said: “Ignore that rule and love your enemy too.” A rule said: if someone asks for your shirt, give it to them - Jesus said: “Go way beyond that law - give them your coat too.” Jesus not only taught creative rule-breaking in loving people, He also practised creative rule-breaking in loving people. The Law taught: don't ever touch a leper - and if you do it accidentally, you are unclean for a period of time. Jesus didn't think much of that law - He not only touched lepers - He embraced them and went out of His way to do so. He broke the rules for the sake of love.
There were religious rules that should have prevented Jesus from associating with women the way He did. He ignored that one too for the sake of love. The law said: don't heal on the Sabbath - what does Jesus do? He goes out of His way to heal on the Sabbath. And the reason He did that was simple - He found some sick people who needed healing and that was more important than the day on the calendar and what the Pharisees had turned that into. If a law tells you to do something that violates somebody's read needs then that is not a Godly interpretation of that law. But the Pharisees, who were strict adherents and custodians of the law - just couldn't get it. They protested loudly wherever Jesus went: “The Law says don't heal on the Sabbath - you're healing on the Sabbath - that's wrong and that's all there is to it!”
Now we have this problem don't we? Some of you are already thinking there is a conflict here. So come with me on this one because we do have a tension here. Jesus said quite clearly in Mark 5:17: “I came into the world not to destroy the law but to complete it.” Well, what do you do with that in light of what I've just said about Jesus breaking the law every day? How do you reconcile Mark 5:17 with the way Jesus acted? He went against the rules, He defied the laws and we know that Jesus only did what He saw the Father doing and we know that everything He did was right and that He was without sin. How can He then say that He did not come to destroy the law? Well let me give you the Apostle Paul's view on this quickly as we look at some of his words:
Romans 13:8-10 “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.”
Galatians 5:4-6 “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”
So there's something about living a life of love that completes the law - even though it may appear to supersede it or even run contrary to it. There is a higher law and it is the law of love. There is a completion to the practical, holy character and intent of the law and that is to love other people according to the power and wisdom and righteousness revealed to us in Christ, by the Holy Spirit.
Now again, the central question is: how then did Jesus love? What were the principles that guided Him? Without the railways tracks of religion to run on, like the Pharisees had, we seem to be cut adrift. Someone listening now might be thinking: “Hey, I heard something about this in a philosophy course once don't they call it situational ethics? Is that what this is? Are we to look at everything situationally and so there is no real right or wrong and so we do everything according to the circumstances that present to us?”
Absolutely not. That is certainly not what I am saying and not what Jesus did or Paul taught. This is much more creative and much more interesting and I get really excited about this because it's Biblical truth and it will take you on to maturity in Christ. But I have to say that there is very little market for it in the body of Christ. There is such a small market for creative, spontaneous, real Christianity. For the most part, people are so much happier if you just tell them what to do - no questions asked. Then they don't have to think, they don't have to hear from the Holy Spirit. Just give them some rules and regulations and although that is spiritual abuse and manipulation - a lot of people seem to prefer it to real freedom and maturity in Christ.
But I'm going to take the risk anyway, without rules, without laws, without having something to hide behind to give us an excuse for what we do, to give us a chapter and verse or rule No. 224 justification for our actions ... when you take that all away, are we then cut adrift? Are we on our own? Do we just make ad-hoc choices? The answer is no. Absolutely not. There is something far, far better than proof-texting as a way to live your life and it's Godly, it's holy and it's the way Jesus lived Himself as a man when He walked among us. Jesus knew how to love, He knew how to creatively surpass the laws that He was given by His tradition. He knew how to do that because first of all:
- He was rooted and grounded in His Father's love. When He dealt with people Jesus was not going to manipulate them, use them or abuse them. He didn't need to. He was going to look out for their best interests because He had already been taken care of by the Father. He was secure in His Father's love – He didn’t need the affirmation of others and so His motive was always love.
- He had discernment. He knew Scripture and He was filled with the Holy Spirit so He could see what the Father was doing and He followed suit. So when the Father wanted to heal on the Sabbath - even though it went against the Pharisee’s rules - Jesus healed on the Sabbath, because He had the discernment to know that is what His Father was doing that day. It’s that simple.
- He was related to people. He had some close friends who could speak into His life. We have examples of Peter and other people exhorting Jesus. Jesus had cultivated a relationship with some people that was strong enough for them to feel free to contradict Him or question His actions. This is God we are talking about. He was always right. But even though He was always right, He created an atmosphere around Him where people felt the freedom to speak their mind. So He was open to people - He was in relationship with people - they were valued and affirmed.
- He did everything out in the open. He did it in the light.
If you follow these four principles - you can love God and do anything you like – because if you genuinely love God, you will always do what you see the Father doing. You will always please God. This is how Jesus loved creatively, which sometimes followed the Pharisee’s law to the letter and at other times he violated their rules.
You know it is as true today as it was in Jesus day that many people in the Church consciously or subconsciously try to find rules to govern their faith so they can feel secure and I can understand why they do that. You see if you're riding in a railway carriage you can relax and even go to sleep and pay little or no attention to where you are going as long as you stay on the tracks laid out before you - then you're safe. Whereas in a car - it's a whole different story. There is a road - but there are no tracks so you have to actually pay attention - look ahead - make some decisions and be responsible. All analogies break down at some point - but I guess that one explains to me, at least, the difference between the way the Pharisees lived and the way Jesus lived and calls us to live.
Now if you follow those principles you can love God and do as you please. These are no rules. There are guiding principles; there are observations of fact in Jesus' life and in the lives of those who follow His example. If you're one of them, then you will live a life of creative, Spirit-led free love which will be the highest expression of love that humans can give each other.
Now let me be really honest at this point and say that it is quite possible that for many people this will all fall on deaf ears. I don't say that with anyone in mind; I don't say that in an accusing or judgmental manner. I say it as a statement of historical fact. It’s part of our fallen nature to want to fall back on the rules and criticise others according to the rules but I am saying to you today friends that the call to spiritual maturity is the call to do what Paul tells us: “To love people as Christ loved us,” and Christ loved us by first of all by ensuring that He Himself was rooted and established in the Fathers love; secondly He remained close to and in tune with the Holy Spirit, He exercised discernment and did only what He saw the Father doing; thirdly, He was open to people, He had close relationships where people could speak into His life and finally, He did everything out in the open not allowing Satan, who lurks in the shadows, to gain a foothold.
It is my prayer that the Holy Spirit will use what I've shared today to bring us all to a fuller understanding what it really means to love as Christ loved. It is my prayer that the Holy Spirit will use all that I have shared in this whole teaching series to re-connect us to the priority of love in our relationship with God and each other. I would really encourage you to revisit this teaching again and work your way through the twelve parts with a pen in hand as you take note of those things God wants to teach you and affirm in you. Spaced repetition is the best way to learn anything and so coming back to this again will be really helpful. You can download the whole series in one PDF file from our website so you have it for future reference and for sending to friends and others for whom you believe this might be helpful.
May God continue to draw us closer to Himself and to each other as we more fully embrace the mission of Christ and our primary purpose in life. Amen.