Loving God, Loving Neighbor

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.

Listen to what 1 John has 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

Authentic love is always active.

Because God loves us and lives in us – therefore – we can love one another.

And when we make even a fledgling effort to love one another, God’s own life grows in us, God’s own love becomes more and more complete within us.

It’s a cycle of life, a circle of love.

When our children were little, we helped them memorize Bible verses. 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 trying to figure out how to actually live the words!

If you live in a family, if you’ve done church much at all, you know how hard it is to love people. Especially when people are markedly unlovable.

My young daughter would sing our little 1 John song at the top of her lungs but then she took 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 always easy for her and hearing the message that loving God was bound up with loving these two flesh and blood, sometimes hard-to-love, hard-to-live-with siblings – well, some days, that could be a challenge for her!

Face to face, hand to hand, flesh and blood love is messy.

We all are real, less-than-perfect people loving other real, less-than-perfect people. The only way we are truly able to love is because God loves: loves in us and loves through us.

So Luke’s famous story tells us that a lawyer came to Jesus, seeking “eternal life.” I’m not sure what that meant to him exactly, how a first century Jew would have thought about “eternal life” but Jesus’ 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 the unlovable.
  • Love as an active verb.

“OK, who is my neighbor?” the lawyer wants specific rules and clear guidelines.

Pope Francis washes foot of prisoner at prison for minors in Rome

I fear we have heard this story of the Good Samaritan that we may yawn at its telling.

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 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 instead of accepting them as they are. 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?

jews-and-arabs

Levine says: “To understand this parable in theological terms, we need to be able to see the image of God in everyone, not just members of our group.”

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 and 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?

Isn’t this how God’s people should be loving since this is how God loves?

Dr. Dick Hamm is a wise, transformational leader for the widespread, ecumenical Christian church. As he helps congregations seek transformation, his passion is to ensure that love is the motivating force permeating 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.

When love of God becomes our center, everything is transformed!

Surely this truth provides context for the foundational text from Deuteronomy.

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9

For God’s people, loving God provides the center for all we are and all we do with our lives.

When we love God with heart, soul and might, God’s own life grows within us and God’s own love becomes more and more complete within us.

As we lean into God’s love and offer wholehearted love back to God, we also find more ability to love the neighbor – and even the enemy.

It’s a cycle of life and a circle of love.

“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 and 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?

The way to life is love.

  • Loving God.
  • Loving one another.
  • Loving the stranger.
  • Loving the enemy.
  • Loving the neighbor.

For God IS love.

Living in The Story readings from Week 18

Deuteronomy 1-16

Psalm 96

Psalm 146

Luke 8-10

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).


Charlotte Vaughan Coyle

Author: Charlotte Vaughan Coyle

Charlotte lives and blogs in Paris TX. She is ordained within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and developed Living in The Story while doing doctoral work at Brite Divinity School in Ft. Worth. Charlotte also blogs about intersections of faith, politics and culture at CharlotteVaughanCoyle.com.

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