Everything you Wanted to Know About Love, But Were Afraid to Ask
Our theme for today is love. Of course, ultimately every one of our messages is about love: God’s love for us and our love for one another, and the love we are called to have for the world for which Christ died. However, we are going to focus a little more intently than normal on the meaning of love today. In our lesson from John’s Gospel we read these words: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit–fruit that will last–and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.”
I would like to begin with one of the most beautiful love stories that I know. It is the story of the courtship of Moses Mendelssohn, the grandfather of the great German composer, Felix Mendelssohn.
Moses Mendelssohn was a small man with a misshapen, humped back. One day he visited a merchant in Hamburg who had a lovely daughter. Though Mendelssohn admired her greatly, she avoided him, seemingly afraid of his grotesque hump.
On the last day of his visit he went to tell her good-bye. Her face seemed to beam with beauty, but when he entered, she cast her eyes to the floor. Mendelssohn’s heart ached in love for her. After some small talk, he slowly drew to the subject that filled his mind. “Do you believe that marriages are made in Heaven?” he asked.
“Yes,” replied the young woman. “And do you?”
“Of course,” Mendelssohn answered. “I believe that at the birth of each child, the Lord says, ‘That boy shall marry that girl.’ But in my case, the Lord also added, `But alas, his wife will have a terrible hump.’
“At that moment I called, ‘Oh Lord, that would be a tragedy for her. Please give me the humped back and let her be beautiful.’”
We are told that the young woman was so moved by these words that she reached for Mendelssohn’s hand and later became his loving and faithful wife. (1)
Isn’t that a beautiful story? Hold on to it. We’ll come back to it in a few moments.
This morning I want to focus on three important questions as it pertains to the true meaning of LOVE.
The first question is this: where does love come from? Now some of you would answer, that’s easy–it comes from within. It’s something that happens naturally as we mature as human beings. Is that true? I’m not certain.
C.S. Lewis, the famed English scholar, in his study of the various Greek words for love came to distinguish between what he called “need love” and “gift love.” Need love should be self-evident. It is the most common kind of love in our world. I love you because you meet my needs.
It might be that my self-esteem is boosted when I am with you or it might be simply my need to be loved. Most of us have a need for companionship. Need love is always born of emptiness. The person characterized by need love is always grasping to attain from others things or values which he or she covets.
Lewis contends that many times when we humans say to another, “I love you,” what we are really meaning is, “I need you, I want you. You have a value that I very much desire to make my own, no matter what the consequence may be to you.”
Now contrast “need love” with what Lewis calls “gift love.” Instead of being born of emptiness or lack, this form of loving is born of fullness. The goal of gift love is to enrich and enhance the person whom we love rather than to extract value from them.
“Gift love moves out to bless and to increase rather than to acquire or to diminish. Gift love is more like a bountiful, artesian well that continues to overflow than a vacuum or a black hole.” Lewis concludes that is what God’s love is all about. In other words, God’s love is gift love, not need love. (2) This, of course, is the meaning of agape love.
Are we capable of agape love–that is, loving as God loves? To a certain extent we are, but this does not happen naturally for human beings. For us to substitute gift love for need love, we must go to the source of love and the source of all love is God. Jesus says in our lesson for today, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you . . .”
Love, then, doesn’t come from within–it comes from above unless, of course, God lives within us. Later, in his first epistle John will unpack this truth further when he writes, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.” Where does love come from? It comes from God. John continues, “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” So, that is the answer to the first question: where does love come from? It comes from God. Then John adds, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:7-11).
This brings us to our second question for the day: What does love look like? “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him . . .”
I said we would return to that beautiful story we began with–the story of Moses Mendelssohn, the small man with the large hump on his back. Remember he told the girl he loved, “I believe that at the birth of each child, the Lord says, ‘That boy shall marry that girl.’ But in my case, the Lord also added, `But alas, his wife will have a terrible hump.’
“At that moment I called, ‘Oh Lord, that would be a tragedy for her. Please give me the humped back and let her be beautiful.’”
What does love look like? It is like a man taking on a hump on his back so that his beloved can be straight and beautiful. But instead of a hump, let us say, as we think of the message of the Gospel, it is like a man who takes a cross upon his shoulder so that you and I might be free from the power of sin and death.
Do you hear what I’m saying? Gift love is like a man hanging on a cruel cross simply and solely because of God’s love for us. We can’t meet any of God’s needs or even God’s commands. But God’s nature is to give love. Or, as John writes, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” What does love look like?
It looks like a young guy and a young girl who fell in love. But the guy came from a poor family. The girl’s parents weren’t too happy about that. So the young man decided not only to court the girl but to court her parents as well. In time, the parents saw that he was a good man and was worthy of their daughter’s hand.
But there was another problem: The young man was a soldier. Soon, war broke out and he was being sent overseas for a year. The week before he left, the man knelt on his knee and asked his lady love, “Will you marry me?” She wiped a tear, said yes, and they were engaged. They agreed that when he got back in one year, they would get married.
But tragedy struck. A few days after he left, the girl had a major car accident. It was a head-on collision. When she woke up in the hospital, she saw her father and mother crying. Immediately, she knew there was something wrong.
She later found out that she suffered a brain injury. The part of her brain that controlled her facial muscles was damaged. Her once lovely face was now disfigured. She cried as she saw herself in the mirror. “Yesterday, I was beautiful. Today, I’m a monster.” Her body was also covered with so many ugly wounds. Right there and then, she decided to release her fiancé from their promise. She knew he wouldn’t want her anymore. She would forget about him and never see him again.
For one year, the soldier wrote many letters–but she wouldn’t answer. He phoned her many times but she wouldn’t return his calls. But after one year, the mother walked into her room and announced, “He’s back from the war.”
The girl shouted, “No! Please don’t tell him about me. Don’t tell him I’m here!”
The mother said, “He’s getting married,” and handed her a wedding invitation.
The girl’s heart sank. She knew she still loved him–but she had to forget him now. With great sadness, she opened the wedding invitation. And then she saw her name on it! Confused, she asked, “What is this?”
That was when the young man entered her room with a bouquet of flowers. He knelt beside her and asked, “Will you marry me?”
The girl covered her face with her hands and said, “I’m ugly!”
The young man said, “Without your permission, your mother sent me your photos. When I saw your photos, I realized that nothing has changed. You’re still the person I fell in love with. You’re still as beautiful as ever. Because I love you!” (3)
Beautiful story, isn’t it? Where does love come from? It comes from God. We cannot make ourselves ugly enough that God will not love us.
What does love look like? It looks like a man nailed to a cross, not because of anything we can do for him, but simply because he loves us so much. And that brings us to the final thing to be said about love today. Where does love come from? What does love look like?
The third question is, what does such love require from us?
Jesus answers that question in our text: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit–fruit that will last–and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.”
We don’t often think of Jesus issuing commands, but he does here: “This is my command,” Jesus says here. “Love each other.”
We are to love others as he has loved us–not with need love, but with gift love. Not because of anything they can do for us, but because of what Christ has done for us. The world says “Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” Christ says to do good for people who are incapable of doing anything for you in return. That is gift love, agape love, it is the love of God.
There was a touching true story in the Nashville Tennessean newspaper by health reporter Tom Wilemon that was about the kind of love God asks out of us. It was about a young woman working out at a local YMCA. “She was withering away before their eyes,” begins the story. The other Y members watched her slog through marathon workouts every weekday morning, her emaciated body leaning on the rails of the Stairmaster. They knew something was wrong. As the other Y members watched her decline they wondered what to do. Was she anorexic or was she suffering from some other medical condition? They didn’t want to make her feel awkward or to violate her privacy, but they finally decided something had to be done.
Nine of them decided to stage an intervention. Though she had struggled with eating disorders since the age of 10, Lauryn Lax, the young woman, didn’t realize how sick she was and resisted the help of strangers. “It felt a bit like kidnapping,” said one of the nine. “It was a horrible experience for every single one of us, for her and for us.”
They took her to a hospital and it is a good thing they did. If they had waited any longer, Lauryn would have died. Anorexia nervosa had weakened her to the point that her heart was struggling to beat. Doctors thought they might have to implant a pacemaker.
“I didn’t know these people,” Lauryn said. She had seen them as mere acquaintances; now she calls them her angels. Today, Lauryn is healthy and hopeful enough about her future that she has been able to complete her graduate studies at a Nashville university. (4) That’s what love requires out of us–that we be like Lauryn’s angels–taking God’s love to people who are troubled, who have no one else to care.
Where does love come from? It comes from God alone. What does it look like? It looks like a man hanging on a cross in our behalf. What does such love require out of us? It requires us to move beyond need love to gift love. To look around at others who are in need of God’s love and to give it to them–not asking what they can do for us, but remembering what Christ has done for us.
“This is my command,” Jesus said to his disciples, and also to us: “Love each other.”