Love Is the Goal

This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached on November 4, 2021. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.

Opening Prayer

Please pray with me.

Lord God, as we look into scripture this morning and as we consider our own lives — our own situations — and the people around us — our relationships — I pray that you would guide us gently — that you would move us and guide our thoughts — in ways that are beneficial to us each as individuals and as communities.

I pray that you would settle my mind, Lord, as I speak this morning — that you would let my thoughts be here, that you would let my thoughts be present with the text and with the message that has been prepared — and I pray that whatever it is that we find, each of us, that you would let it be with us throughout our week — that you would let our hearts, our minds, rest on those things and dwell in those things — and that you would let your Spirit be active in the way that we integrate those things into our lives.

In all things, Lord, we want to be more and more immersed in your loving work in creation so that you can be glorified not only among our families and communities but in all the world, Lord. We know that you do not just love us. You love all of creation. We know that you are not just present with us but present with all of creation, and so we want to be a part of your work not only among ourselves but in all of creation.

We love you, Lord, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Sermon

I’m going to be in 1 Timothy this morning — 1 Timothy chapter 1 — but before I get to 1 Timothy chapter 1, let’s talk about love.

I talk about love a lot, because I think that love is really the only thing that matters, which makes sense if you believe that God is love, because if you’re going to pursue God and God is love then you have to talk about love, and you have to talk about love all the time.

Particularly, this morning, I want to talk about three — what I’m going to call attributes of love, characteristics of love, that I want to set down as a basis for the way that we approach all of scripture but in this case, 1 Timothy, and those three things are this:

  1. Love is incarnate.
  2. Love is contextual.
  3. Love is adaptive.

And these don’t describe love, itself. We’re not describing what love is but more how love functions, so when I say love is incarnate, what I mean is that love can’t be separated from the idea of incarnation. When I say love is adaptive, I mean love can’t be separated from adaptiveness. Same with contextual: love can’t be separated from contextual considerations. Ok?

Here’s what I mean:

  1. Love is incarnate. Incarnate means embodied. It means enfleshed. The obvious example of this, for Christians, is Jesus who we claim is God in the flesh. He’s not just a human being but rather, we claim that Jesus is a human being who was brought into the world as an embodied aspect of God. Now, whether you believe that or not, that’s the example that we have in scripture of an incarnate, an embodied, presence, and love is incarnate.

    Again, if God is love, then love is incarnate in Jesus, but more than that, any love that a person has in any context has to be incarnate. It has to be embodied. It has to be enfleshed in something. You might hear it described as “active.” Love is active. It requires some action.

    James says that faith and works go hand-in-hand, so similarly, love — faith that is expressed through love, which we’re going to mention a couple of times this morning — has to go along with works that are manifestations of that love — manifestations of that faith, and again, God shows his love in Christ, and the New Testament talks about that, as well.

    Love is incarnate; it has to have embodied action.

    The counter to that is if you say to a person, “Go and be well,” and then you do nothing for them, but they’re in need, your love is not embodied. Therefore, it doesn’t matter. Paul makes the case several times in his letters that if your love doesn’t translate to some kind of incarnate, present, embodied action, then it’s not real love or it’s not real faith.
  2. Love is contextual. Love cares about the time and the place. Manifestations of love should reflect the context in which that love is appearing, so the way that you incarnate love — the way that you embody love in your actions — should reflect the context into which you’re loving people.

    For example, in Romans, he tells them, when he’s talking about eating meat versus not eating meat — he says, “This is an issue that you need to deal with. Some of you want to eat meat. Some of you don’t think you should eat meat.” That’s a contextual issue. Whereas in 1 Corinthians, the issue isn’t about just eating meat. The issue is about, specifically, eating meat sacrificed to idols versus eating meat not sacrificed to idols. Different context, different issue.

    In the same way, we should be prepared to address contextual issues in our time and place. These things are informed by the contextual manifestations of love. The question you might ask yourself is this: for my time and place, right here, what does it look like for me to love the people around me. These are informed by cultural things — cultural norms, cultural expectations. These are informed by the kind of people you have in your context. These are informed by demographics in your context.

    So love is contextual. The way we love each other, here, right now, in this space, in this particular city, in Las Vegas, NV in the United States is probably not going to look the same as the way you might love somebody in, say, Peru. The idea of love, if God is love, might be fairly consistent, but the way that we embody that love — the way that we incarnate that love — is contextual.
  3. Similarly, love is adaptive. That means that even within a context — even within a time and place, even within, say, this room or this congregation right here — love adapts to the changing needs of the context.

    For example, a congregation that starts might look a certain way — might have a certain age demographic. Maybe it starts off and it’s mostly younger members, and then 30 years later, it’s mostly older members. Maybe those same members stayed for 30 years, but they were once 20/30/40 years old, and now they’re 50/60/70 years old. The age demographic has changed. How you love a group of 20 year olds worshiping together might look different than how you love a group of 50/60/70 year olds worshiping together.

    Maybe the ethnic demographic changed. Maybe the context of that same congregation [was] mostly White or all White or [was] mostly Black or all Black or [was] all Hispanic, and then maybe later — 30 years later — you’re now ethnically diverse. You’re now a mixed ethnic group of worshipers who come with different cultures and expectations and from different places into this one context, or you were a suburban congregation, and then 30 years of city development later, you’re now an urban congregation.

    So even within a set context, the circumstances change, and love adapts to those changing needs of the people who are in that context. This is especially true if the people in your context have actual physical or emotional needs that are explicit as opposed to “we know that everybody has physical or emotional needs, but we don’t really talk about them.” What if your congregation had nobody in it who was neurodivergent, and now your congregation has a whole community of neurodivergent people within it. You’re going to have to adapt how you love your congregation.

So, love is incarnate; it’s embodied in action. Love is contextual; it matters to a time and a place. And love is adaptive; it pays attention to the needs of the people who are there. These are base attributes of what love is, so with that base attribute laid out, let’s look at 1 Timothy.

In 1 Timothy chapter 1, Paul is writing to his protege, Timothy, who is in Ephesus, and in chapter 1 and verse 3, he says,

As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.

1 Timothy 1:3-5, NIV

The instruction, here, that he opens with for 1 Timothy is that, first, Timothy should correct false teachers in his context — in his time and place — which, in this case, is the believers in the city of Ephesus, but in verse 5, he says the goal of this command is love, so, in verse 4, when he says their devotion to controversial speculation is preventing them from advancing God’s work — that is, they’re doing this: they’re devoted to controversial speculation, rather than the advancement of God’s work, so these things are opposed… One is interfering with the other. Their devotion to speculation, their to devotion to these myths and genealogies, is actually interfering with their ability to advance God’s work, so he would rather have them advance God’s work, but he says the goal of commanding them to leave these things behind so they can advance God’s work is love. The goal is love.

I give you this command because I’m trying to provoke love within your community. That suggests to me that something about their devotion to this speculation, to myths and genealogies — something going on there is preventing them from loving people or from promoting love within the community. It’s creating some kind of controversy, which is why, probably, he says “controversial” speculation. They’re not just speculating about things. They’re not just doing explorative theology or philosophical theology. Rather, they’re creating situations of controversy within the community that are opposing the advancement of God’s work, which he says is love, so the command is rooted in his desire for love to reign in the community.

That’s important, because he says it comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith, and the only thing that counts, he says in another letter to the Galatians — the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. Paul has one goal, here. It’s the same goal he had with the Galatians: I need you to love each other in a way that’s going to be expressive of your faith in Jesus Christ. Your faith should lead to love, and if your faith doesn’t express through love — that is, if it doesn’t incarnate in your context in love — then your faith is not advancing the work of God, so he gives 1 Timothy that same instruction.

Sincere faith leads to love, and that’s the goal, and so love, as a goal, should inform everything that we consider about faith, about God, about scripture. That’s his instruction to Timothy.

It’s important that we don’t get this backward, because when we get this backward, we get all kinds of strange things, not the least of which is legalism. The goal is love, which is by faith. The question we should ask is what can we do that would be in line with love as the goal. If we get it backward, then the command comes first, and love is just the result of the command. The command, then, informs how we understand love. The command doesn’t reveal love; instead, love should determine the command, so we don’t want to get it switched around.

I’m going to give you some examples, here, or rather, we’re going to talk more about this, because I know that can be kind of subtle and confusing.

In 1 Timothy 2, in verses 11 and 12, Paul says,

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.

NIV

If the command comes first, if we get it backwards, then what we end up doing is we come to this passage and we say, “How do I love people? Well, I obey this command that women should be quiet and submissive to men, and that’s a manifestation of love.” But when we get it the right way — when we put love first and say the goal is love (how do I love these people, as a first) — then we ask ourselves, “Is it loving, in my time and place, with this group of people, to say that women should submit to men?” If it’s not loving, we don’t do it! When we put the command first, we say we have to do it, because that is love. When we put love first, we [ask] what is love, and what’s the command that would follow? In our context, is it loving to say that women should submit to men, or is it loving to say that men should submit to women, or is it loving to say that they should have equality, or is it loving to say that they should have equity?

The question is what is love? How do we get to love? Not what is the command and we’ll just do that and assume that is love, and so, for example, with that command that he gives to women and men, in my context, considering all kinds of things, like abuse of power, patriarchal manipulation, trauma informed counseling, anything like that that I consider — it does not seem loving to me that in my context I should tell women to submit to men. It doesn’t seem loving to me that in my context I should tell men to have authority over women and that women should be quiet. Rather, it seems loving to me that we should find healthy ways to empower women to have a voice and that we should promote equality and equity between women and men in authority.

[Preacher’s note: in that last sentence, I meant “equality and equity between women in authority and men in authority.”]

That is the loving thing in my context, because it pushes against shame. It pushes against manipulation. It pushes against abuse. It pushes against all sorts of issues in society that lead to oppression. It says that love desires something that our society is not supplying to people, and therefore, the command should fit the goal of love, and a lot of people push back on this. They say, “Wait a minute. So you’re telling me you’re disagreeing with Paul? You’re disagreeing with something that we found in scripture? How is that plausible? How is that possible? How can you do that and still say that you’re being faithful to scripture?”

No, I’m not disagreeing with Paul. Paul isn’t speaking to my context. It’s important to remember. That’s why we started with that base about love. Love is incarnate, it is contextual, and it is adaptive. Paul is speaking to his context. I don’t know enough about his context to say whether or not it was loving. I don’t know if he’s talking to a specific group of people. I don’t know if he’s talking to everybody in Ephesus. I don’t know if he’s making a blanket statement for all Christians everywhere. I don’t know.

What I do know is that in Paul’s context, regardless of whether or not it was loving, it’s not loving in my context, and if I believe Paul that the goal is love, that the command he gives is out of love, then I have to adapt that to my context so that I can embody it in ways that are actually loving for the people who are here. That’s what love does, and that’s what love does in every context that we have, and if we’re not careful, if we get that backwards, we get all kinds of legalism out of this.

If the Bible is either an instruction manual or an industrial blueprint, then we have fallen into legalism. It becomes a timeless, one-size-fits-all, flat, legal document, and doing anything contextual or adaptive or incarnate becomes wrong, because we’re not following the blueprint, but as we already discussed, love is incarnate and contextual and adaptive, so if we’re going to flatten it out, we can’t call it love, and that’s the obvious issue. That’s the obvious dissonance that people often come to me with — Christian and non-Christian, alike.

This is how love is. This is how love manifests. This is how love operates in the world, so if you do this thing, it’s not love, and when we become legalistic, we get it backwards. We say no, we have to do this thing, because obedience is first, and love is second. Love looks like whatever the obedience looks like, but that’s not what Paul presents in 1 Timothy, and that’s not what Jesus presents in how he lives his life when he deals with religious elders.

Yes! Good! Obey the rules and tithe your ten percent of your dill and your cumin and go and say your prayers and do the ceremonial cleansing rituals or whatever it is that you’re going to do. Observe the Sabbath, but at the end of the day, those things don’t define what love is. Love defines how you respond to those things. Which is lawful to do on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil? To heal someone or to do harm to that person? Obviously, the good thing is the loving thing, which is to help the person and to do good, but that breaks the Sabbath tradition! Fine, he says. The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath, and the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.

When we put the command before love, we twist everything that God does in creation, and that’s what’s happening all the time in Christianity today. We are twisting it backwards so that the command becomes more important than the goal, and by doing that, we miss the goal every single time.

If Paul came into my context and says what he says here, then yes, I would disagree with him, but I don’t see scripture that way. Paul gave a command, but he said at the beginning: the goal is love, and I get to say that’s not what love looks like in my context, so I need to incarnate the love of God in my time and place in order to be effective in advancing the work of God. That’s how we participate.

Jesus said love God and love your neighbor, and all the law and the prophets hinge on these two greatest commands, and Paul echoes that when he says the only thing that matters is faith expressing itself in love and then again, when he says in Romans, every command that exists is summed up in this one command: love your neighbor as yourself, and we could go on and on. Talk about 1 Corinthians 13: nothing you do matters unless it’s done in love. Talk about 1 Timothy where he says the goal of this command is love. You can go through the New Testament and pull out all these passages.

The point is love is incarnate, it is contextual in a time and a place, and it is adaptive to the changing needs of the community. We are always trying to get at the core of who God is and what God desires, and what the New Testament tells us is God is love, and what God desires is reconciliation for all of creation, and so that should be our goal, as well, and if that means that we have to lay down the traditions we had before in favor of something new — in favor of something that is incarnate and loving in our context in this time and place — if that means we have to adapt over the years, even within our context and the changing needs of the community, then that’s what we do, because a devotion to the traditions and the commands of the past without respect to the desires of love just leads to idolatry and legalism. That’s not what we are about.

This is not going to sit well with some people, because to talk about adaptive, incarnational, contextual love threatens the status quo every single time. It threatens the power structures every single time, but for those of us who have been pressed into molds that are not sustainable, for those of us who have experienced the freedom of coming out of those power structures and those expectations and those borders that try to box everything about God into a little hole — for us, this is freedom. For us, this is life, and it is for freedom that Christ has set us free, and so what we desire for you is the same thing we received: that freedom in Christ, because God loves you; that freedom in Christ, because God desires reconciliation with you; that freedom in Christ to pursue love without the expectation of oppression and manipulation and abuse. Those things are not love.

Contextualize and embody love in your community, and watch the advancement of the work of God.

If that’s something that you’re interested in — if that’s something you want to participate in or learn more about — come and talk to us as we… Come and talk to us online. Reach out to us and set up an appointment. We’d love to meet you.

Thank you.

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