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Learning to Love: One Love

February 18, 2007

I John 4:7-21

Some sermons are soothing, and they bring peace to your soul. This sermon, however, will not do that. It will call to your attention a topic of great importance this morning.

For the past several weeks, we have focused on a series of sermons entitled Learning to Love. I know you have been somewhat curious about the titles. The first sermon, entitled “Three Loves,” focused on three distinct kinds of love: Eros, Philia, and Agape. The second sermon, entitled “Two Loves,” focused on the two great commandments from God, spoken by Jesus: to love God with all of our hearts, soul, mind, and strength, and to love others as we love ourselves.

Those two directions of love really are a response to the one true love mentioned in the scriptural text today, I John 4. John wrote this passage to Christians who had grown somewhat apathetic. The church had become well established by the writing of this letter. Those original Christians now had children and grandchildren who were a part of the church. Some of the readers of John’s letter were probably second or third generation Christians. At the beginning of any great movement, people have zeal; but some of the luster diminishes as time passes. John is facing that very issue with these Christians.

Christianity was born in love, and John feels compelled to remind the church of their beginnings. It is interesting that in the book of Revelation, where Jesus addresses seven messages to seven churches, Jesus tells the church at Ephesus, “This one thing I have against you: You have forsaken your first love” (Revelation 2:4). Probably, the apostle John directed this little letter to the same church. We know that he died in this place. Certainly, this letter applies to all the churches, but maybe particularly for Ephesus. John admonishes, “Let’s not forget what brought us together in the first place. Let’s not forget that our mission in the world is to respond to that one love, that love of God.”

John makes four very clear statements about our love for God in the passage before us today. First, he affirms that God initiated this kind of love, not us. There is no question here about which came first: the chicken or the egg. We know which came first. God first loved us. Our loving others is a response to what He has done. Clement of Alexander, one of the patriarchs of the early church, wrote, “Practice being God.” This rather alarming statement by Clement means that, in the same way that God loved, we are to love. We know how to love because God has taught us by example, by first loving us. Second, John addresses the double relationship that exists in this business of loving and knowing God. We love God because we know Him. We know Him because we love Him.

I, as many of you, am impaired when it comes to a computer. I know enough to get on the internet in order to send and receive e-mail. What is so interesting and baffling to me is that when you are connected to the internet, information floating around in cyberspace comes to you through little wires or even through a wireless connection. You, too, can send information back over those same channels. Our relationship to God is similar. God is constantly sending us signals of love. Our response is to send signals right back, signals of loving Him.

Third, John makes it clear that we cannot see God. We cannot see God any more than we can see the wind. We cannot see God any more than we can see electricity. We cannot see the love of God, but we can surely see the effects of God’s love. We can see the effect of the wind. We can see the effect of electricity. We can see the effect of God’s love in the lives of people. Fourth, we have a supreme example of this kind of love in Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son. God demonstrated His love to us in that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). There is the example.

It is important to remember that Jesus showed a special kind of love. He loved completely. He loved us to death. He loved us all the way to the cross. We did nothing to deserve his love. We did nothing to cause him to love us. His love is totally unmerited. That is what we call grace. Grace is love that is unmerited, undeserved, given to us in spite of ourselves. The theme of this service – from the Call to Worship, to the anthem “Grace,” to our closing hymn, “Amazing Grace! How Sweet the Sound,” – is grace. This love that God gives to us is grace. We are to love other people. The two are part of each other.

A Dutch priest named Henri Nouwen was one example of this kind of love. Nouwen was a great intellect who taught at places like Notre Dame, Harvard, and Yale. He had a wonderful academic career. Toward the end of his life, Nouwen baffled his fellow professors by leaving distinguished teaching positions and moving to Toronto. There he became a volunteer in a home that cared for mentally retarded adults. This home used the technique of assigning one functioning adult to one mentally retarded adult as part of the care program. These two individuals would be constant companions. I am not exaggerating when I say that Henri Nouwen worked with a man for whom he had to do everything. For several years, Nouwen served this man who required considerable care by befriending him and loving him with no love in return. Then Nouwen accepted another and another until his death.

You know the second person, a woman from Albania, as Mother Theresa. She spent her life working in Calcutta, India, because she was concerned about people who were dying on the streets and in the gutters of that city. With the Sisters of Mercy, she created a hospice, a place of refuge for those people. Someone asked her one time, “How do you expect to help all of the people who are dying in the streets of Calcutta? There are so many.” Her answer was simple: “I am going to help them one at a time.” Mother Theresa could not help every dying person; but as Erich Fromme said, “In the art of loving, when you give your love to one human being, you love all of humanity.”

Jesus loved that way. He did not heal everyone who was sick in his day and time. He did not restore sight to every blind person. He did not heal every person who was lame. Jesus loved, and the healings he performed demonstrated his love for the whole world. We, too, are to love that way.

The third example I want to mention is William Wilberforce, a young man born in the late 1700s in England. He was well educated. Soon after he left Cambridge, he decided to run for Parliament. Once elected, he served almost the rest of his life in the House of Commons. Early in his political career, he experienced a remarkable conversion. Christ came into his life and transformed him. Wilberforce thought for a time that he would become a minister, but those around him encouraged him to stay in politics. They knew he and his faith could have a profound impact in the political arena. He made the decision to stay in politics.

Wilberforce was passionate about the issue of slavery. Year after year, he proposed bills before Parliament, trying to abolish slavery in the British Empire; but year after year, Parliament voted overwhelmingly to ignore those bills. Then Wilberforce started taking a different course. First, he proposed a bill that would limit Englishmen working on slave ships for other countries. Parliament was ready to pass that bill quickly because they hated France and knew the country was participating in a considerable amount of slave trading. They surely did not want their fellow citizens working on slave ships owned by France. Parliament passed this legislation, but members probably did not realize that approximately one-third of all the sailors working on the slave ships were Englishmen. Once the bill passed, it immediately diminished the impact of slavery.

Wilberforce continued to work in the political arena and finally convinced Parliament to pass legislation that would end slave trade. Mind you that the legislation did not end slavery. It ended slave trade. February 23 marks the 200th anniversary of that event. On that day, the movie industry will release a remarkable film, Amazing Grace, which commemorates the life of William Wilberforce. Just three days before he died, some twenty years after the slave trade was abolished, slavery throughout the British Empire was abolished. His life work was complete.

Wilberforce’s mentor, John Newton, was the captain of a slave ship. Simply put, he traded in human cargo. Once Newton, too, came under conviction and was converted to Christ, he repented of his life of slave trading, as well as the other sins in his life. John Newton wrote the words to the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Most people believe that the tune came from a song Newton heard the slaves singing in the hull of the ship. “Amazing grace! how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now I’m found, Was blind, but now I see.”

Henri Nouwen, Mother Theresa, William Wilberforce, and John Newton were all recipients of the grace of Christ. Their forgiveness was complete. God says in Psalm 103:12, “As far as the east is from the west, so far will I remove your sins from you, and I will remember them no more.” Corrie Ten Boon says that God, when He forgives us, buries our sins in the deepest part of the ocean. Then He puts up a “No Fishing” sign. He tells us, “Do not to dredge up those sins. I have forgotten them. Leave them at the bottom of the sea.” That kind of forgiveness, that kind of grace, allows us to respond in grace to other people. That grace is important in the way we live our lives.

Having heard about the film Amazing Grace and having prepared this sermon for today, I learned some startling information. Twice as many slaves exist in our world today as there were in the day of William Wilberforce. It is hard to believe that 27,000,000 slaves exist. We do not hear much about this topic. Slavery takes all kinds of forms. Some is the traditional kind of slavery, slavery we read about in the plantation days of the Old South. About 20,000,000 people live in bonded labor. About 10,000,000 of those live in India alone. This slavery takes other forms. About 2,000,000 women and girls (often children) sold into slavery each year are enslaved in prostitution. About 80,000,000 children in this world under the age of fourteen work long hours every day for little or no pay. It is hard to know how many of those are categorized as slaves, but the conditions of all of them are hazardous and deplorable. Forced labor is common for political prisoners among some countries like the Sudan, Burma, China, and the Ukraine. Some kinds of marriage could be included as a type of slavery. Girls as young as ten years of age are simply sold to an owner as a wife with the primary function of serving the first wife. Even mail order brides fall into this category.

Traditional slavery occurs in many places in the world. It is still rampant in West Africa and in the Sudan. China alone has about 250,000 political prisoners. Thailand has a $26,000,000,000-a-year business in sexual slavery. Many of those are children who are sold to pedophiles. The country of Turkey is a major trafficking area for women and girls leaving the former Soviet Union and being placed in bondage for prostitution in Western Europe. About 15,000 of those go to France alone. In Haiti, parents have sold 100,000 children into domestic slavery because they do not have enough to eat. They know that their children will at least have food if enslaved. In Brazil, about 250,000 slaves are forced to labor in businesses. What is so startling is that about 20,000 people a year are brought into the United States, our country, to work as slaves – some in forced labor, some in prostitution. Twenty-thousand people a year come into the “land of the free and the home of the brave” to work as slaves.

I was not aware of these staggering numbers until recently. The problem is not a secret. It is available to us if we simply look. I am calling the problem to your attention because if we love God, and we say we do, we have a responsibility to love everybody that God loves. You know the Scripture: “For God so loved the world…” The world? Including 27,000,000 slaves? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” (John 3:16).

Grace has come to us as a gift. It is a source of our freedom in Christ Jesus. Those of us who are Christians have a responsibility to impart that kind of love to other people in the world.

A little girl taking a walk with her father along a path in the woods saw a daisy. She picked the flower and said, “Daddy, I am going to find out if you love me.” The father, of course, was concerned about the result of her game. The little girl began pulling the petals from the daisy, reciting, “Daddy loves me. He loves me not. Daddy loves me. He loves me not.” Around the daisy she went, picking off the petals and reciting the chant. As she pulled off the last petal, she said, “My daddy loves me.” The father was quite happy that the game turned out as it did. They continued their walk, and the little girl saw another daisy. She picked it and said, “Daddy, I am going to find out if Jesus loves me.” She took the daisy in her hand and started plucking off petals. “Jesus loves me. Jesus loves me. Jesus loves me. Jesus loves me.” She repeated that sentence until she had removed all petals from the flower.

Jesus loves that way. He loves us completely, far more than we could ever earn or deserve. I wish that every little girl in this world knew that. I wish that every child, every man, and every woman knew that Jesus loves them without condition. Jesus offers us a gift, a gift of grace.

Do you know that? Do you have that kind of love in your life? It is possible to be enslaved in ways that are outside the realm of what we ordinarily call slavery. It is possible to be enslaved to drugs or alcohol, to be enslaved to practices we know are sinful, to be enslaved to our work, or to be enslaved to the stress and pressures of life. The way to freedom is grace, the grace of God, fully revealed in the face of Jesus Christ. Jesus loves me. He loves me. He loves me. He loves you. If you have never acknowledged that, I invite you to make the decision to follow him. It may be that you have some other decision to make, a decision perhaps to rededicate your life or a decision regarding church membership. Whatever God lays on your heart, we invite you to respond as we stand and sing the verses of “Amazing Grace,” which tells us of this one great love, the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely

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