LOVING HIM WHO FIRST LOVED US
While I was a student in seminary, I was given the rare privilege of being invited to a dinner party at the home of one my professors. At the end of the evening, this professor gave me a ride back to my apartment, and on the way there he mentioned another professor, now retired, that he hoped at some point to be able to introduce me to. In describing this retired professor, he didn’t list his great academic achievements, the number of books he had written, the number of teaching awards he had received. Instead he simply said, “He has a great love for Jesus Christ.”
When I thought about this later I realized there could be no greater qualification for a teacher of Christian theology. Having a great love for Jesus Christ is really what the Christian faith is all about. It would be possible to teach theology in a completely detached, academic way – that’s what they do in religion departments of universities. But to teach theology as it was intended to be taught requires having a great love for Jesus Christ. It requires a heart completed devoted to Jesus.
This is not just a requirement for theology professors, of course. It’s something that applies to every Christian. Being a Christian is all about loving Jesus.
But what exactly does that look like? What does it actually mean to love Jesus?
“Love” is one of those notoriously vague words that we use all the time but rarely think about. If we do think about it, we’ll realize that we use the word “love” in quite a number of different ways. There’s romantic love. There’s the love between parent and child. There’s the love between friends. Each of these forms of love is a bit different. But the one thing they have in common is a deep feeling. Each of these forms of love involves a devotion of the heart that is profound.
To love Jesus is to experience an equally deep feeling. Loving Jesus is a matter of the heart. It involves feeling a powerful attachment to the one who first loved us. It fills us with passion and joy. It makes our spirits soar, and gives richness to our lives. When we speak of loving Jesus we’re saying there’s no such thing as a passionless faith. When we truly encounter Jesus and place our trust in him, we are moved in the very depths of our being, and our hearts are filled with delight.
We cannot speak of loving Jesus without taking these feelings into account. But we also need to remember that loving Jesus is not limited to having these feelings. Our feelings are part of it, but they’re not everything. If we limit love to feelings, our love is much too small. If we limit love to feelings, we are missing something extremely important.
During the terrible riots in Los Angeles in the early 1990’s, the mobs that filled the streets began breaking into stores and looting them. A news reporter on the scene managed to interview one of the looters just as he was coming out of a record store with a number of cassette tapes he had claimed for himself. The reporter asked him what he had taken from the store. The man said, “Gospel tapes. I love Jesus.”
Clearly there was something missing in this man’s concept of what it meant to love Jesus. Apparently he thought loving Jesus was just about the feelings he had for Jesus - feelings that were not enough to keep him from stealing.
Jesus himself made it clear that love is not just an emotional experience. When he spoke to his disciples, Jesus said to them, “If you love me, keep my commands … Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me … Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching … Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching.”
Jesus is telling us that loving him is not just a matter of how we feel about him. If we love him, we will keep his commands. If we love him, the evidence of that love will be visible in our lives. If we love him, we will act in the ways he has taught us.
This gives a very specific framework for our love for Jesus. It doesn’t allow us to make up our own definition of what loving Jesus is. Instead it tells us that to love him is to take seriously who he is and what he teaches. To love him is to come to terms with what he has revealed about himself. It’s not a love based on our own fantasies or projections. It’s not a love based on what we assume Jesus is really like. Instead it’s a love based on truth.
We live in a culture that is obsessed with celebrities. To become a celebrity is to reach the highest level of status our culture bestows. Some people take this obsession with celebrities to quite extreme lengths. In extreme cases it becomes what has been called “Celebrity Worship Syndrome”. People who suffer from this syndrome believe they have a bond with the celebrity that is nothing less than love.
But of course it’s all based on fantasy. They are in love with an image, not a real person. They have projected onto the celebrity a whole host of desirable qualities that may have nothing whatsoever to do with what this person is really like. But the fantasy persists, aided by the fact that the celebrity never actually talks to them – never actually asks anything of them – never actually challenges them in any way.
Loving Jesus is not like that. When we love Jesus, we do not just love an image that we have created in our own minds – an image that suits our purposes and conforms to our wishes. When we love Jesus, we love someone who breaks through all the ideas we’ve come up with about him and reveals his true self. He doesn’t just leave us to project onto him all the qualities we think he should have. Instead he shows us his true nature, and he teaches us a specific set of truths. If we are to love him in a meaningful way, we have to come to terms with the truth he gives us. We have to look clearly and seriously at his teachings, not simply picking and choosing the parts that appeal to us. We have to recognize that to love him is to see him as he really is, not as we think he should be. To love him means that we absorb his teachings so fully that they fundamentally change us, shaping every aspect of our lives.
What then are these teachings that Jesus commands us to follow? In their most detailed form, these teachings are found in the Sermon on the Mount. And they’re pretty strong stuff. We won’t find in the Sermon on the Mount a bland set of vague guidelines. Jesus doesn’t tell us just to try to be good people and to do our best to be nice to everybody. He tells us to be perfect, just as our Father in heaven is perfect. That’s how you show your love for Jesus – by being perfect.
That’s an unbelievably high standard to aim for – but perhaps we’re being misled a bit by the translation here. Being perfect here doesn’t mean being exactly like God – that’s humanly impossible, after all. What it means is that we reflect God’s perfection in our lives – specifically it means that we reflect God’s perfect love in our lives. When we love our enemies, if only for a fleeting moment, we are reflecting God’s perfect love for his enemies. We are, if only for the briefest possible time, showing the world what the perfect love of God looks like.
That’s what it means to love Jesus. We love Jesus when we follow his command to love others. It’s all above love, from start to finish. If we love Jesus, we will love others. If we don’t love others, we don’t love Jesus. It’s all interconnected. It’s just like what it says in 1 John: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen”.
In an article from a couple of years ago, Craig M. Watts says this really hits home when it comes to attitudes towards the poor. Citing a study by Princeton University, he says that Americans generally react to the poor with disgust. Maybe a study of Canadians would find different results, but I’m not so sure about that. According to the Princeton researchers, prejudice towards poor people was the strongest of all the prejudices they measured – stronger even than racism. This prejudice leads to an attitude that views the poor as lacking in moral character, lazy, dishonest and undeserving of help. This is a far cry from what Jesus is talking about when he calls on those who love him to follow his commands. As 1 John says, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”
The book of Acts gives us an example of what following Jesus’ commands looks like. Acts tells us of a woman named Dorcas, who was always doing good and helping the poor. When she died, the community of widows she had gathered together was completely heart-broken. The rest of the world had treated these widows with contempt. Without husbands in that culture, they had no status, no protection, no money. Starvation was an ever-present threat. But Dorcas had not turned away from them. She had treated them as human beings, loved by God and worthy of help. She had made them clothes. She had cared for them. She had loved them. When she died it seemed that all that had come to an end. But through Peter, God had compassion on these widows by raising Dorcas from the dead. That meant Dorcas’s love would continue to embrace them, and in her they would see an example of someone who really knew what it meant to love Jesus.
Once again we see that love is more than just a feeling. It’s a way of life. It’s a commitment to act in loving ways. Love is not complete until it’s expressed in actions – actions that honour the one who is loved. There’s something very tangible, very concrete about the love Jesus commands of us. This love doesn’t just consist of warm thoughts and strong emotions. It consists of cups of cold water offered to the thirsty, bread offered to the hungry, clothes offered to the poor. It consists of positive actions that address the reality of the one who is loved.
There is an inseparable connection between loving Jesus and loving those whom Jesus loves. This connection is so close that the line between these types of love can actually dissolve entirely. Jesus said as much when he talked about the importance of giving food to the hungry and water to the thirsty, and of welcoming the stranger, caring for the sick and visiting those in prison. He says, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me.”
In the end, our love for Jesus and our love for others is the same love. This is a love that grows in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. As the Holy Spirit deepens our love for Jesus, the Spirit also deepens our love for others. As we are drawn closer to Jesus, we are drawn closer to one another. Through the Holy Spirit’s leading, we discover with increasing measure what it means to obey Jesus’ teachings. And in the process we learn what it means to have a great love for Jesus Christ.
Savior, teach me day by day
With a child’s glad heart of love
Teach me thus Thy steps to trace,
Love in loving finds employ,
Thus may I rejoice to show