No One Should Be Surprised Christianity Is About Love – December 20

A sermon based on Matthew 1:18-23 (NRSV)
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 20, 2020
by Rev. Scott Elliott

This is our last Sunday in Advent– Christmas arrives Friday! Next Sunday when we meet it will already be the 3rd Day of Christmas. Amazing isn’t it? On this last Sunday in Advent we lit the candle of love on the Advent wreath, and are focusing on love in the service. Of course, if you have been here for even a few worship services you probably figured out by now that we pretty much focus on love in one form of another every Sunday. We do that because that’s what Jesus’ life, teachings and ministry focused on . . . and what the early church focused on too. In that respect we are literally a conservative church, in that we seek to conserve the Way Jesus created which was followed by the early Church, and written about by Paul.

We get called a progressive church because of this love focus – which is fine, but a bit ironic since you’d think in 2,000 years the progressing to what Jesus and Paul taught and the early church continued would be much further along. This makes our progression a sort of going backwards in the sense that we aim and re-aim toward love– that is, the care and desire for the well-being of others set out a long time ago in the New Testament. And that love has just as long been understood as the primary characteristic of God, as well as the supreme expression of Christianity. I didn’t just make all that up. As I often point out that’s how “love” is defined in my Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms.

I also often point out that the beauty of this time of year is we can see what progressing to Jesus’ teachings looks like on a large scale as we play them out so much more fully. Simply put, Jesus’ Way looks like all the love we see during the holidays. Virtually all of things we do and like about this time of year focus on, or symbolize, or lift up, the care and desire for the well-being of others; and they are about understanding God is love and about being that love. As a consequence, during the holidays, love becomes the collective and supreme expression of Christianity. In the words of Mary’s song that we looked at last week, our souls magnify God–and the result is heaven breaking in.

That Christmas Spirit we feel is what love let loose Jesus’ Way feels like. The trouble is as a whole we seem to limit it to only a month when Christians should feel compelled to do Christianity like that every day. We can see this time of year that Love is the key to heaven breaking in.
Jesus claimed there is no commandment greater than love of God and love of neighbor. So, it should come as no surprise that Jesus focused on love. What is a surprise – even though this Christian season is soaked with love and epitomizes Jesus’ Way– what’s a surprise, is that Christianity has a reputation to many outsiders as practicing a lack-love way. Many think most of the year Christianity requires a loathing of others and oppressing others. Odder still is that many inside Christianity somehow believe that as Christians they are supposed to loath and oppress others. See, even though Jesus commands us to love our neighbor (and our enemy I might add), there is a sense by many that Christianity is not, or need not be, about love – the care and desire for the well-being of others; or about God’s primary characteristic being love; or that love’s the supreme expression of Christianity. This sense Christianity is not about love is counter to Jesus’ Way which weaves love endlessly into the fabric of our way of being.

And it’s not just Jesus who requires love to be threaded in all that Christians do. During the candle lighting we read the famous words from 1 Corinthians 13, words which point out that spiritual gifts do not matter (they are nothing) without love. Paul, the earliest Christian writer, agreed with Jesus in 1 Corinthians 13 and elsewhere – that nothing is greater than love. Love matters most, It IS supreme. And we do not get to redefine love to fit our prejudices or those of the religious elite or even those of doctrines or unloving scriptures. We are to Love in ways that seek the well-being of all. Period. There is no wriggle room on that.

Paul described what love is supposed to look like in Christians, in us. That look is the very opposite of loathing and oppression. Paul tells us
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. . . . Love never ends.

Each faith community and person are entitled to pursue their religious beliefs and call it what they will, but faith communities wishing to conserve the Way that Jesus created – which continued on as Church in the manner Paul describes– need to be so love-centered that inside and outside the church people experience and understand Christians manifesting love as Paul describes it.

Loathing and oppression, by whatever name they might be called,  misses the mark of love that God sets out for us– missing such a mark is the definition of sin. Paul sets out the signs we have hit the mark, that we are manifesting love. We hit the mark of love by being patient, kind, non-envious, non-boastful, non-rude, un-insistent on our way. We hit the mark of love by not being irritable, resentful or happy about wrongdoing. We hit the mark of love by rejoicing in the truth, bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, and enduring all things. All of that love is the greatest spiritual gift and no other spiritual gifts matters without it. And all of that type of love is to be unending.

Love never ends. That part is the heart of Christianity that I try and seek to drive home every Sunday in Advent–and every other Sunday too. That’s the part Jesus, Paul, and the early church sought to drive home too. This annual Holiday love-fest we have at Christmas for four wonderful weeks brings great light into the darkness of winter and the darkness of life. But the deal is, the love-fest is not supposed to end on Christmas or at Epiphany . . . or ever. Love Jesus’ Way – as Paul points out– “never ends.” We can put away the seasonal garlands and the lights and other decor and even the CDs full of carols – but not love. We can hold off ‘til next year on presents, stuffed stockings and Christmas trees– but not love. It’s okay to set aside the Holiday– but not love. Jesus’ command to love must not be stored away and only brought at the end of the year.

It’s great and its marvelous that we have it out right now, but this type of love we have out at this time of year has never, ever been something we are allowed on Jesus’ Way to put away. Jesus did not say love neighbors and enemies only around the anniversary of my birth, then store it away until next year. Christians should not be storing love away. It needs to be front and center like it is out there in our culture right now at Christmas time. Love needs to be front and center all the time; so, no one is surprised Christianity is about love; so, no one is surprised Christians love; so, our reputation is for the Love that never ends, God’s love. Jesus’ Love.

Christian love is to be boundless in time and in application. The top commandment Christians should follow, and be known far and wide for following three-hundred-and-sixty-five days a year, is the top commandment Jesus set out: to love our neighbor as we love our self. And if we want to know what following that commandment looks like we can look it up in 1 Corinthians 13. Or we can look to how we are acting right now during the holidays when heaven breaks in more than any other time of year.

Jesus’ Way looks like all the love we see during the holidays. May we as Jesus Followers strive to love like that each day of the year so that love becomes the never ending collective and supreme expression of Christianity. See the “God is with us” part of our lesson very much includes the love that is characteristic of God being expressed by us to others in our words and in our deeds.