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The Benediction: Bonded in Love

June 22, 2014

Sermon:  The Benediction: Bonded in Love
Text:  Luke 15:11-31; Ephesians 3:14-21

During the month of June we have taken a closer look at what we have called the Morningside Benediction, a blessing I wrote when I first came to this church. I have repeated it nearly every Sunday morning for eighteen years. Each line has served as the subject of a sermon this month. Today we come to the line “We are bonded in love.”

Do you know what love is? Of course you do. All you have to do is turn on the radio to hear a song about love, regardless of the kind of station: blues, rock, country, or classical. We hear songs about love that has been damaged and rejected. We sing the words, “Love is in the air.” Some of us claim to love the Clemson Tigers, while others claim to love the Carolina Gamecocks. We sometimes say that we love chocolate ice cream and use the same word to describe our relationship with our marriage partner, children, and grandchildren. We have really trivialized the meaning of this word.

What does it mean to say, “We are people who are bonded in love”? Paul says in Colossians 3:14 that being bonded in love is the most excellent way. It is the very nature of the church. It is the very nature of God. I John 4:8 says, “God is love.” If we are the people of God, and we are, and if we are the body of Christ in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, then we are people of love.

Love is a commandment. That, I suppose, is a beginning point. Jesus said to his disciples, “A new commandment I give unto you to love one another as I have loved you” (Luke 10:27). We are to love in obedience to Jesus.

Love goes much deeper than just obeying a commandment. Love is a decision.

Just a week ago a young couple stood here in front of the church, repeating those marriage vows, “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, to love and to cherish, and to keep only unto us so long as we both shall live.” That couple is here today, and I would dare say they know more about the meaning of those vows today than they did a week ago. The truth is that when we make that pledge, we cannot possibly know what “for better or worse” will mean. How can we know what “for richer or poorer” will mean or what “sickness and in health” will mean?

Yesterday we held a funeral for Jean McGurk. She and her husband, Ray, enjoyed fifty-five years of marriage. The last several years have been so difficult because of Jean’s illness, yet Ray lived those vows until her death.

Love is a commitment. Love is a decision. Love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Love never fails” (I Corinthians 13:7).

We are fortunate today to have a group of visitors here, many of whom were members of my youth group at Knollwood Baptist Church back in the dim ages, a long time ago. I remember that on one occasion when I was talking about love with the youth there, I quoted that passage from I Corinthians 13. We studied the characteristics of love line-by-line – “bears all things,” “believes all things,” “hopes all things,” “endures all things.” When I made the comment, “Love never fails,” one of the youth responded, “Yeah, but love doesn’t always make straight A’s either.” Our love is very fallible.

Love must be strong. Sometimes we use the expression “tough love” when we realize we must set boundaries. The notion that Christians are, after all, people of love sets up the church to be an easy target for manipulation. People come to the church, expecting us to do anything and everything for them. If we really love we must have the courage to say no. At times we must decide that helping a person is not best. Jesus talked to his disciples in terms of being “as wise as serpents and gentle as doves” (Matthew 10:16). We must find a balance in our unconditional love and our tough love.

I talked with a woman this week whose son, a young adult, was walking in Spartanburg when he found a person about his age who was homeless and sleeping in a back alley. Her son showed love for this person by bringing him to his house, feeding him, allowing him to bathe, and giving him some clothes and a bed. Now, as so often happens, her son cannot get rid of this homeless person.

Where do we draw the line? When do we say, “Yes, I love you and want to be just as accepting as God is”? When do we say, “Enough is enough”?

Love has another side. Responsibility comes with love. When a child comes into this world, we greet it with open arms and offer it unconditional love. The child does nothing in order to receive our love. God loves us in the same way; He takes us, accepts us, just as we are. “Just as I am without one plea…” Sooner or later, though, children must learn to take responsibility for their toys, clothes, behavior, and actions. We are to love people unconditionally, but we must also expect them to assume accountability. This balance is difficult to obtain.

We see this difficulty so clearly in the parable in Luke 15. A prosperous father, who had done well for himself, was proud of his two sons. The younger son came to him and demanded the unthinkable, “Give me all that I have coming to me. I want it. I want it now.” Because he was younger, this son would receive about one-third of the estate, but only when his father died. In essence, he was saying, “Dad, drop dead!”

Can you imagine the tension in that household those few days following the son’s demand? The passage never mentions the mother; but if she was still there, you can imagine the anguish she felt, watching the men in her life pull and tug. Consider the number of days, the number of years, that the father had worked to obtain those possessions. He relented after a few days and gave this son his portion of the inheritance.

Scripture says the son went to a distant country, losing his inheritance in riotous living. I do not know how far away that son went; maybe it was just around the corner. Regardless, it was a long way from his father’s values.

You will notice that the father did not pursue his younger son and try to find him. He did pursue him, however, in a different way. He pursued him the way parents often pursue their children – on their knees, praying, praying, praying.

During those years at home, the son had learned from his father how to work. When he became destitute, he accepted employment, though it was not much of a job. Slopping pigs for a Gentile farmer was the worst kind of work imaginable, especially for a respectable Jewish boy. Unable to sustain himself, he had thoughts of eating what he was feeding the pigs. Instead, the Bible tells us something very important: “He came to his senses.”

Have you ever prayed, “Lord, please bring my child to his senses”?

When the son “came to his senses” and decided to go home, he began rehearsing a speech: “I am not worthy to be your son…Take me back as your hired servant.” As he near his home, the father saw his son approaching in the distance and recognized the familiar shape of his body and the gait of his walk. He got up off his knees and ran to his son. As he embraced his son, the boy began delivering his rehearsed speech, “I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son…”

The father cut him off mid-sentence, directing his servants, “Bring a robe, a ring, and sandals. Let’s kill the prized calf and have a party. My son who was lost is now home.” The father accepted his son, received his son, with open arms.

Jesus told this parable as a way to describe God’s nature and the nature of the church. If God accepts us unconditionally, God expects His people to accept others unconditionally.

You will notice that one character in the story was very unhappy about this reunion.

After studying this story in Sunday School, the teacher asked the children in her class, “Which character was not happy that the son came back home?”

A little boy raised his hand and answered, “It was the fattened calf.”

The older brother did not respond to the return of his sibling with the same enthusiasm his father had. He was bitter because he had remained at home and continued to work with his father. He felt that he had been obedient while his brother had squandered his inheritance. The father went to this son who was so angry and pleaded with him to rejoice. This situation is so much like parenting. We fix one child but must then fix another child.

This parable tells of God’s love, “Love divine, all love’s excelling.” It tells of God’s unconditional love for us. It tells of the imperfect balance between acceptance and responsibility or accountability. God loves us and holds us accountable. He loves us enough to want us to find that imperfect balance in loving others. It tells of God’s desire for us to believe things that are so important to our Christian faith. This love nurtures growth, and we grow in the faith.

God’s love has a theological and ethical side. God wants more than just our belief. He wants us to believe and behave. Perhaps James 1:22 puts that thought together better than any other book in the Bible: “We must be doers of the word, not hearers only.” The nature of love nurtures that kind of growth, that sense of responsibility. When we grow like that, we learn that God does expect a lot from us.

We can make a mistake in leaning too far in one direction or the other. The Pharisees became so concerned about obedience to the law, making every jot and tittle an obsession. They became so legalistic that they were considered hidebound, or maybe in Baptist terms, hard-shelled. We can lean the other direction, too. Paul addresses this issue in his letters to the Corinthian and Roman churches: “What shall we say then? God loves us, and we are saved by his grace. So should we sin all the more so that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1). It is as if we are saying, “If God wants to forgive me, I will just give him a lot to forgive. He will forgive anything.” We may be tempted to use that passage as a license for sin. Either way, we lose our balance. The teaching of the Bible is that we must both believe and behave.

Love conquers fear. All prejudice is rooted and grounded in fear. It is the very nature of prejudice to be fearful. I John 4:18 says that “perfect love casts out fear.” So we do not have to be afraid of anyone. In fact, our approach to everyone needs to be the approach of love. It is the greatest power in the world. It is a transforming power. We are supposed to love our enemies and pray for them. Boy, is that hard to do! Loving can have no boundaries.

This love draws us into a commitment to ministry. The first line in a section on the back of our Morningside Messenger lists the congregation as ministers of the church. John asks, “How can you say that you love God and hate your brother?” (I John 4:20). If you love God, you want to love other people. Morningside sent a group to Nicaragua and a group to the Dominican Republic, to people we do not know but people God knows and loves. God gives us the opportunity to share His love for us with others.

Steve Maffett, a member of this church, physically suffered perhaps as much as any person I have ever known. One day while visiting him at Magnolia Manor on a particularly hard day, I asked, “Steve, what is your ministry?”

He looked at me as if I had gone crazy and replied, “Dr. Kirk, I don’t have a ministry. I can’t get out of this bed. There is nothing I can do.”

“Steve, every Christian has a ministry. You have a ministry.”

“What is it?”

I said, “You have a ministry of example; you can show us how to get through this kind of illness. You also have a ministry of prayer; you can pray far beyond the walls of this place.”

He told me later that conversation had made a difference in his life.

Every person here must consider the fact that if they are a member of this church, if they have been called by Christ Jesus into his loving fellowship, they have a ministry. Some of you have found that ministry, and you do it so well. Others are still learning.

When you love the way God loves, you do not want to keep it to yourself. It is the very nature of evangelism, a word that means good news. My favorite definition of evangelism is one hungry person telling another hungry person where he found something to eat. Evangelism is sharing the good news about what Jesus Christ has done in our life. When we have the desire to share that good news, we must share it with a gentleness and kindness that pleases God. It must not turn into spiritual abuse as some evangelistic efforts have.

John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Listen to the second part of that passage in Verse 17: “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.” That love compels us to share this good news.

When a ship wrecked off the Pacific coast in the northern part of this country, rescuers fought the rough tide and the swelling surf to save those on-board. They picked up as many of the sailors as possible and returned to shore. The rescuers planned to return in order to save the last sailor, left clinging to one side of the battered ship.

Onlookers gathered on shore, including the mother of a young rescuer named Jim. When the rescuers began preparing to return to the shipwreck, Jim’s mother pleaded, “Please do not go back out in the ocean. I lost your father at sea. Your brother became a sailor years ago, and we have not seen him since. I cannot stand the thought of losing you, too.”

Jim answered, “Mother, I have to go. This is my job. I have to go.” He climbed into the boat with his companions and rowed back out to the shipwreck. As the group returned to shore after saving the sailor, they got within shouting distance. Jim’s mother shouted, “Jim, Jim, are you OK?”

Jim shouted back, “Yes! Mother! The sailor we saved is your son William!”

When we become evangelistic in our purpose, we not only try to save people we do not know. We also try to save those who are our brothers and sisters. They are part of the family. If we love, we must commit ourselves to following the two great commandments Jesus gave. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. Love other people as you love yourself.” This passage describes the heart of Morningside. The mission heart of this church finds its strength in that kind of love – love for God and love for others.

Love is an expression of our equality. The ground at the foot of the cross is level. No one has stature or rank at the foot of the cross. We are all equal.

Father Damian, a priest, went to Hawaii in 1873, believing God had called him to start a ministry among those with leprosy. He went to a colony there and built a chapel, but very few lepers came to worship. Some Sundays nobody came at all. Father Damian became so discouraged that he decided to book passage and return to Belgium. While waiting on the dock to board the ship, he noticed white spots on his own hands and felt tingling in his fingers. Realizing that he had contracted leprosy, he returned to the leper colony and continued his ministry. Sunday after Sunday the church was packed with people who had the disease; their priest had become one of them.

This is what Jesus did in the ministry of incarnation. “The Word became flesh – Emmanuel, God with us.” He loved us so much that he became one of us. When we love other people our ministry becomes like the incarnational love of Jesus.

The parable of the prodigal son illustrates the crowning achievement of love – forgiveness. Forgiveness has two dimensions. We see the vertical dimension when we pray “Forgive us our trespasses” in the Lord’s Prayer. “As we forgive other people” is the horizontal dimension. We forgive others because God has forgiven us.

Forgiving is difficult. When the disciples asked Jesus, “How many times should we forgive?” he responded, “Seventy times seven.” He did not mean just 490 times. He meant that we are to forgive and forgive and forgive and forgive until it is over. Some offenses require forgiveness for a long, long time.

We see this crowning achievement of love in Jesus who, from the cross, spoke those memorable words, “Father, forgive them.” In that short sentence Jesus included every single one of us. Love that forgives binds this church together as a united group. We are bonded in love.

Perhaps you remember folding your hands into the shape of a church as a child and repeating, “Here is the church, and here is the steeple. Open the door, and see all the people.” A Bible School teacher wanted her children to form a church by using their hands. Without thinking about the little boy visiting that day, she said, “Let’s do ‘Here’s the church. Here’s the steeple…’” The boy had only one arm and could not make the church. The girl beside him placed his hand in hers and said, “Come on, Johnny, let’s make a church together.” The two children made a church together. We cannot make a church by ourselves. It takes everyone here. We are the church, bonded in the love of Christ.

I want to share with you the pastoral prayer listed as the Scripture for this sermon. When you think of me, know that I am repeating this prayer for the people of Morningside. Ephesians 3:14-21:

14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Do you know the love of Jesus? Have you accepted him as your Savior? If not, could I invite you to make that decision today? You respond.

Kirk H. Neely
© June 2014

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