Love is a verb. You can write that down. This may sound familiar to you because just a few blogs ago, I talked about how faith is a verb. So now here I am claiming that love is a verb.
Sometimes we think we can love in the abstract. Warm, fuzzy feelings for people in general but – no – love is not so much a feeling as it is a verb.
Used to, I thought I had the power to love; that I could, by myself and in myself, make love happen. Now I have come to understand that love is actually my response to God’s love. If you’ve read the letter of 1 John lately, you’ve read a lot about love: what it looks like and how it acts.
When our children were little, we used to teach them Bible verses and some of these words from 1 John were words we wanted to plant deep in the soil of their hearts. So we made the words into songs.
Beloved, let us love one another
For love is from God and everyone who loves is born of God and they know God.
Whoever does not love, does not know God for God is love.
Beloved let us love one another.
1 John 4: 7 and 8.
Most of us in my family can still recite these wonderful verses because we can sing them; the problem is – all of us are still figuring out how to actually live them.
1 John goes on to say:
God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us
1 John 4:9-12.
Because God loves us – now – therefore – we love one another. When we love one another, God’s own life grows within us, God’s own love becomes more and more complete within us. It’s a cycle of life, a circle of love.
If you live in a family, if you’ve done church much at all, you know how hard this is. My young daughter would sing our little song at the top of her lungs but then she took serious issue with some of John’s other words in 4:20:
If you do not love your brother whom you have seen, you cannot love God whom you have not seen.
Living in the middle of two brothers was not easy and hearing the message that her loving God was bound up with her loving these two sometimes hard-to-love, sometimes hard-to-live-with siblings – well, that was surely a challenge.
It’s always a challenge to love, because we don’t love in the abstract. We are real, less-than-perfect people loving other real, less-than-perfect people. And face to face, hand to hand, flesh and blood love is messy. But we love anyway because God loves us. We are able to love because God loves us, loves in us and loves through us.
So a lawyer came to Jesus, seeking “eternal life,” Luke’s famous story tells us. I’m not sure what that meant to him exactly, how a first century Jew would have thought about “eternal life” but the answer is pretty clear. Love. The way to life is love. Love God. Love one another. Love the neighbor. Love the stranger. Love the enemy. Love the unlovely and unlovable. Love as a verb.
“OK, so, who is my neighbor?” the lawyer wants specific rules and clear guidelines.
How many times have we heard this story of the Good Samaritan? So many times, I fear, that we may yawn at its telling now. But when Jesus told it, surely there were gasps of shock; maybe there were mutterings of disapproval; probably there were plenty of folks shaking their heads in disbelief at Jesus’ surprising reversal that cast the despised Samaritan as the merciful hero of the story.
We are so good at judging others, aren’t we? It is so very easy for us to see in another what we want to see or what we have always seen. It is so easy to lump people into groups and categories so we can lull ourselves into thinking we actually know something about them. It is so tempting to assign labels to others so we can keep them safely at arm’s length.
Why are we humans so good at this? And why are we Christians – of all people – still so inclined to our own prejudices and presumptions about our neighbor instead of being more inclined to love?
The startling reversal in Jesus’ story is that there – right there in the messy life of that uncomfortable person – God’s own presence exists. There – right there in the lives of “those people” – God’s own purposes are at work. There – right there in one whom we might distrust, disrespect and maybe even hate – love can be embodied.
Amy-Jill Levine is a Jewish theologian who teaches New Testament studies at Vanderbilt University. She looks at this little story of Jews and Samaritans and sees the ongoing distrust between the Israelis and the Palestinians still all these centuries later. Will this never end?
Will we ever learn to see the image of God in everyone? The only way we truly are able to love is for God to love in us and through us. Our love is response to God’s love.
What might it look like for us to love the way God loves? What did the Psalmist tell us?
The Lord executes justice for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free and opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; The Lord upholds the strangers, the orphan and the widow. (Psalm 146)
Might this be what love looks like? How love acts? Working for justice, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, challenging blindness, publicly standing in support of the oppressed, the homeless, the least among us? Is this how God’s people should be loving since this is how God loves?
Dick Hamm was General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) for several years and now he consults within the larger, ecumenical church helping congregations seek transformation. I read an essay Dr. Hamm wrote recently and I share his passion to ensure that love is the motivating force that permeates every transformational process. He says:
“When a congregation [or even the larger church] seeks to deepen its understanding of what the second commandment, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ really means in practical everyday terms, they had better be sure that everyone is at the table, that everyone can feel safe enough and be safe enough physically, emotionally and spiritually to speak their truth.”
Anthony Thiselton also talks about the way we humans love each other and how that profound experience of love can completely reorient all our priorities. Thiselton talks about how love takes our self-interest and “re-groups it, re-ranks it” until the Self of the other becomes the center of our priorities. We begin to see things through their eyes; we come to know something about what it means to walk in their shoes. We want them to be completely free to be who they are and we encourage them to speak and to live their own truth. We spend time really getting to know them: their passions and fears and hopes and dreams.
You don’t like baseball or the opera or shopping or the rodeo? I’m thinking if your beloved does, then you are going to spend time doing some of these things just because you want to be together, because you want to share experience, because you want to do whatever pleases your beloved.
I have claimed that love is not a feeling; love is a verb. And yes it is. But of course love also is deep emotion. There is a saying you probably have heard: “act as if…” Act as if something is true, and it becomes true. Act as if you love someone, act with pro-active loving acts, then – lo and behold – pretty soon the reality of love grows, not just in our acting but also in our thinking and in our feeling.
What would happen if Christians actually fell head over heels in love with one another? And with our neighbors? How would that change our world?
What would happen if our personal preferences were rearranged and re-shaped in light of the desires and needs of the Other?
Love transforms us.
Love re-orients us.
Love changes us.
And when love of God becomes our center, imagine the transformation!
“The out-going love from the heart of God to the creation becomes a force and motivation that transforms believers into the image of Christ. It is this love that allows us to see the world through the eyes and interests of God’s purposes for the world.” (Thiselton)
Love is a force, a motivation that shapes how we spend our time, how we spend our money, how we spend our energy. When the love of God motivates us and transforms us, our priorities are readjusted. We grow to care about what God cares about; we are pleased by the things that please God and we love the people whom God loves.
“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked. Jesus’ startling reversal reverses the question: to whom will I be the neighbor? Whom shall I love?
Loving one another.
Loving the stranger.
Loving the enemy.
Loving the neighbor.
For God IS love.
Charlotte Vaughan Coyle 2013
Living in The Story reflections from Deuteronomy, Psalms and Luke and 1 John
Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).
Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).