PRACTICAL DOABLE LOVE
Dan Behrens, Co Pastor EFC
Over the last 3-4 weeks, our church has been preaching/teaching through a series on love. Specifically, we are focusing on the question: are we growing in love? That is, are we as Christians growing in our love for God and our love for other people? Or, put another way: have we stopped growing in love? stopped pursuing love? even withheld our love from others or from God?
For Christians, this should be an incredibly important focus. This should be a focus we are continually focused on. Love is the core ingredient of all that is of Christ, and therefore, all that is specifically Christian. A “Christ” follower should be known, above all else, for his or her love. Even more, a “Christ” follower should be known for loving those who are quite difficult to love—estranged family, an arrogant friend, the irritating neighbor, your dismissive boss, even that one who wishes you every ill-will in the world (your enemy). This is the love of God, the witness of Christ.
The witness of Christ in our life ought to align with the Spirit of God. God is love and his call of purpose in our life is love. The fruit of his presence—his love, his joy, his peace, his patience, his goodness, his kindness, and so on—ought to be evident in our relationships and interactions. We ought to be him where he is needed when he is needed. And it does follow that we can not do so if we are not growing in love, if we have stopped pursuing love, or are in any way withholding our love.
One crucial observation we come know from the New Testament is that “nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus”(Rom 8:39). We would do well, even for a whole day, to take all of this in slowly. But know also, that the incredibly assuring comfort that we have in this truth has a flip side. Indeed, nothing can keep us from love. On the one hand, nothing can keep us from being loved by God; God is love and God loves us. On the other hand, because we are unconditionally and inexhaustibly loved by God, we have love to give. We. Can. Love. There is nothing keeping us from loving others.
But here comes a real snag, it’s one thing to proclaim such a foundational fact: nothing can separate us from the love of God! It’s quite another thing to actually walk out our conviction. It’s one thing for me to have faith for my questions: are we growing in our love for others? It’s quite another thing for me to actually put feet to my faith, actually align my behavior with my words, in real life with real people with real practical outcomes as my goal. As I said before, this topic of love should be an incredibly important focus, one we are continually focused on. If love is the core ingredient of all that is of Christ, and as a Christian I really do want to be like Christ, simple, practical, doable love is a great place to start.
Examples of simple, practical, doable love are all over the bible. As part of our series, we looked at the apostle Paul’s letter to Philemon. Philemon is the shortest of all Paul’s letters, and is certainly the most personal and intimate in subject and tone. In some ways it stands apart from any other text in the New Testament. What has occasioned this letter is quite a backstory, including a runaway slave returning home, an interim pastor fending off heretics, a daunting request for reconciliation, and perhaps the most incredible risk for the sake practical, genuine love apart from Christ himself.
What you will not find in this short little letter is Paul laying out any significant doctrine or arguing any particular point of theology. Instead you will find that Paul takes enormous personal risk for the sake of love. Paul takes enormous personal risk for the advance of the gospel. Paul takes enormous personal risk to reconcile relationship. The question then is, am I? Am I taking on enormous personal risk for the sake of others? What is really at stake in my own relationships and interactions? Is my growing in love all that costly? Should it be?
When we come to the Philemon text (and I hope you do make a point to read and consider), we find that Philemon is acting as a kind of interim pastor or overseer for the church that meets in his home (Phm 2). Epaphras, a convert of the apostle Paul who is mentioned in Paul’s closing remarks in both Philemon and Colossians (Phm 23, Col 1), is the actual founding pastor of the church (the church of Colossae). But at present, he too has been imprisoned along with Paul. Philemon, because of his assumed wealth and property, his social standing among the community, and his spiritual posture inside the church, now finds himself the minister of God’s purpose and the recipient of Paul’s correspondence.
Here is the witness of Christ we’re up against. Philemon the slave-owner and Paul the apostle have never met. Yet Paul believes so much in the power of the gospel to heal and restore (Rom 1) that he is willing to get very personal and very practical. Paul believes so much that nothing can separate himself or Philemon or the church from the love of God (Rom 8) that he is willing to risk his own message. He will risk his own reputation as an evangelist. He will risk the claim of the gospel as good news. And he will do so for the sake of love.
Love pursues the very best for everyone involved. Paul knows this, believes this, ministers out of this. Love pursues the very best for everyone. Without hesitation, Paul acknowledges the very best in Philemon: “I hear of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints” and “because of your love, the hearts of the saints have been refreshed”(v4-7). Certainly Paul is advocating an outcome here: establishing rapport, requesting a favor, appealing for Onesimus, but he is doing so by pursuing the very best for everyone. There is in this one observation something for the contemporary Christian to rightly consider—it’s not about me. At the very least, it’s not about me first!
To that end, love is radically risky. Love takes risk for the sake of others. Love takes risk to reconcile relationship. Someone somewhere risked something to love you into a transforming encounter with Jesus and thus into the kingdom of God. Beyond that, the redemption of humanity as a whole is one big risk if you think it out. The God of all worlds, before whose face heaven and earth will flee away, did not create a race of automator. He created a human race, incredibly powerful and fully capable of receiving or rejecting, loving or hating. Why do such a thing? Apparently, He thought it worth the risk.
Paul’s appeal to Philemon is no less a risk: “though I have great boldness in Christ to command you to do what is right, instead, I appeal to you on the basis of love” and “I am sending him back to you as part of my very being”(v8-12). Paul risks not only the rejection of his personal request, but also a deficit against his reputation, not to mention potential retribution against the slave Onesimus. Paul is willing to risk the power of God’s reconciling love against any possible outcome. This for the sake of others.
Love may be radically risky, but is there any other attitude more congruent with practical, doable love than preferring others’ needs above my own? Love prefers what others need over what I want (Phil 2). Love prefers others first and me behind them. In short, love makes sacrifice. If we honestly want to grow in love, if we genuinely wish to address areas where we’re withholding our love, it will require sacrifice! To think otherwise is foolish and results in spiritual ruin. Paul demonstrates how love is most readily expressed through the reconciling power of sacrifice—the witness of Christ in us. Genuine love makes the ultimate sacrifice for the needs of others: “I wanted to keep Onesimus with me, [Paul says] so that in my imprisonment for the gospel he might serve me in your place” and “perhaps he was separated from you for a brief time so that you might get him back permanently, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave—a dearly loved brother in Christ”(v13-16).
Before you burden yourself with condemnation over sacrifice—but I haven’t made any Pauline-type gesture, like prison or death, for the sake of others?—take brief inventory of your testimony in God. It’s true. You and I are no apostle Paul, nor were we created to be. Instead, we’ve been created to worship God and celebrate the work of Jesus Christ in our life. And a moments-worth of inventory (perhaps down on paper) of all that Christ has done through your love will account for a great deal of sacrifice. More than you can imagine. The maker of heaven and earth referred to above sees all that you’ve forgotten. All is before him, including your every kindness, your comforts, your songs, your words, your meals, your medicines, your worries, your prayers, and above all else, “your steadfast participation in the faith”(v6). If Christ is at work in you, and we agree that the work of Christ is top-tier, than you really do rest on a rock that is higher than us all.
Lastly, yet in no way less practical or doable is Paul’s bold invitation for Philemon to do what is right. Love invites others to do what is right. I have found this to be a tremendous hurdle to my growing in love—inviting others to love me in return. Perhaps it is for you too. Love desires and pursues what is best for everyone, including opportunity for everyone to love someone in return. In fact, the very best version of you loving others includes your authentic self behind the loving. The fictitious you, the you that appears all together and well-kept, is a despairing imposter who will inevitably be undone. Everyone loses at that point. What is often quite necessary for our own growth is allowing others into our need, our weakness, our struggle, our dependency. Our first attempts feel contrary, but the discipline is necessary. It is daily surrender.
Paul surrenders any position of leverage. He surrenders all authoritative posture. He invites Philemon to do what is right on his own steam: “if you consider me a partner, receive him as you would me” and “prepare a guest room for me, for I hope that through your prayers I will be restored to you”(v17-22). The God of love is always inviting us to do what is right. In a way, it’s almost a surrendering on his part, a restraint, an incredible patience, a gracious invitation for us to receive all that is good and right. God does not force us to choose him; does not force us to follow him; does not force us to let him lead. But He does call out to us to make a good choice. Calls out for us to come close. This is what He does. This is who He is. Now… are we growing in him?