I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a word in the English language that is more overused and a concept that is more underused than "love."
More than 100 songs have reached No. 1 on the charts with that word in the title. Clearly America is interested in knowing why we "Can’t Stop Falling in Love" as Elvis crooned or why so many people have "Lost That Loving Feeling," according to the Righteous Brothers. Is it possible that we have so overused the word love that we no longer really know what love is?
"I want to know what love is," and I’m not just saying that because it was a No. 1 hit by Foreigner. You ought to want to know what love is, because God uses the word. So let’s look to our text to find the answer to Haddaway’s 1993 question, "What is love?"
In First John 3, the Apostle John described what true love is: "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us."
God is love. And God teaches us what true love is through the life and death of his own Son. God teaches us that true love is not based on anything worthwhile in the recipient. True love is sacrificial love!
And you can measure the greatness of love by the greatness of sacrifice, right? Take the example of the teen who texted his girlfriend: "Sweetheart, if this world was as hot as the Sahara Desert, I would crawl on my knees through the burning sand to come to you. I would swim through a shark-infested ocean to spend time with you. I would fight the fiercest dragon to be by your side. I’ll see you on Thursday if it doesn’t rain."
Words only go so far to show love. If he wasn’t willing to get a little rain on him, his "sacrifice level" demonstrates his love level.
Now consider God’s sacrifice level. Think about some of the small things in your own life that make it better. When you have to do without even these little things, it seems like a big sacrifice. A dozen things come to mind from my stay in Nigeria.
For example, it is possible to go on living and be just fine without a cellphone. In fact, if you are about my age or older, you probably did live without a cellphone for years. But imagine not having it now. It would be difficult.
What if, by giving up your cellphone, you would save the life of someone else? I am sure many, if not all, of us would do that to save the life of another. But I bet we would view that action as a sacrifice, right? We often view inconveniences as sacrifices.
Now, try to wrap your heads around the sacrifice that Christ made for us so we could have life. If it concerns us to even imagine never using a cellphone ever again, can we begin to understand what it means to give up what he did — the glory of heaven, the perfect union with the Father and Spirit, the praise of saints and angels around the throne — to take on flesh and voluntarily subject his limitless self to human limits, bitter suffering and brutal death?
Jesus understands sacrifice in a way that we never will. He shows what sacrificial love is not only in his death, but also in the way he keeps on loving people, even in those moments where we wouldn’t, especially in those times where we can’t imagine loving. Jesus’ love is all-in, true through and through.
What is love? This is: a love that is given freely, no strings attached, not for selfish gain, not as a ploy to get something in return, not because the one loved is worth it. True love is a love given as a reflection of the true heart of the One doing the loving, for the sake of helping, saving and sustaining another. Can there be any truer love than the love shown to us by God in saving us from our sins?
Once John shows us Jesus’ sacrifice, his very next words are: "We ought to lay down our lives for our brothers." Given the sacrifice that the Lord made for us, our love looks pretty selfish gain, not as a ploy to get something in return, not because the loved one it worth it. True love is love given as a reflection of the true heart of the One doing the loving, for the sake of helping, saving and sustaining another. Can there be any truer love than the love shown to use by God in saving us from our sins?
Once John shows us Jesus’ sacrifice, his very next words are: "We ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.’’ Given the sacrifice the Lord made for us, our love looks pretty tradical.
Each one of us is hard to love, at least some of the time. Those moments hit when it is a struggle to love … you know … "God, I can’t love him right now; he’s got so many problems," or "Lord, I can’t love her with all the drama she brings," or "He’s so rude," and "She’s such a gossip." And "Their lives are such a mess. I can’t love them." Do you know the kind of people I’m talking about?
Touched and transformed by the love showered on us at the cross, our prayer changes: "My God, when I was a mess, when I am a mess, you truly loved me." That’s where we find the power to turn back in love and help our brothers and sisters in Christ with their burdens. Christ’s love transforms us to truly love, not only when love comes easily, but especially when love means sacrifice, when it means patiently and willingly bearing with another brother or sister in Christ.
The Rev. Jonathan Scharf is pastor of Abiding Grace Lutheran Church in Covington.