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“You keep using that word…I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Matthew 22:34-46

Sometimes I think we get the words “nice” and “love” mixed up.

Perhaps that sounds a little strange, but I’ll explain what I mean. We see a friend doing something we know is dangerous. This isn’t a matter of personal opinion. Something bigger is at stake. We want to say something, but we’re afraid of what will happen if we speak up. What if our friend takes offense at our comment? What if it causes a conflict, or causes tension between us? But we feel that leading, that tugging inside that tells us we need to speak up.

What do we do? What’s the loving thing to do? Now…as I’m telling the story here this morning, I’m sure many of us are thinking that the loving thing to do would be to speak up, even though it’s hard. But for some reason, when the situation is happening in real life, we can start to convince ourselves that keeping the peace is love. Staying silent rather than causing a problem is love. Smiling and keeping it to ourselves is love. Taking the path of least resistance is love. Being nice is love.

When I was a school-age kid, I had a small group of friends. Most of the time, we were really good friends. But, as happens with all kids, sometimes mean or hurtful things would be said. When one of those things would be aimed at me, I would run to my dad with a sad heart  and tell him that someone had said something hurtful to me, and my dad would respond, “Did you stand up for yourself?” Well…no, I hadn’t. Then he would ask, “Did you fight back?” And I would start to cry. I looked him in the eye and I said, “I can’t fight back. I’m a Christian.”

Somewhere in my mind, I had decided that being a Christian meant being a doormat. It meant letting people take advantage of me and hurt me. It meant being nice even if others were doing terribly mean things. It meant ignoring the bad things, not rocking the boat, always being nice with a smile on.

I wonder if any of you have ever found yourselves in a similar situation…where someone continually hurts you or others with their words, where a boss or a co-worker has created an unhealthy work environment, where a friend or family member wounds you with their words because they know you’ll never speak up. I’m not sure how it happens, but sometimes we confuse the words “nice” and “love,” even though Jesus shows us a completely different picture of love – a kind of love that takes risks, speaks up, shares hard truths, and leaves people silenced.

Immediately before our passage for this morning, the Sadducees come to Jesus and ask him a question about the resurrection of the dead. Now, it’s important to note that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. The question they pose to Jesus is their attempt to prove to him that the resurrection could never happen. They create a situation where a woman becomes a widow, and has to marry all of her widow’s remaining brothers – one after the other, after each one dies. If she married seven men, whose wife is she in the resurrection?

And at the end of our passage, Jesus questions the traditional interpretation of who the Messiah might be. He speaks with authority, and both times – his response to the Sadducees about the resurrection, and his response to the Pharisees about the Messiah – he leaves his listeners astounded and silent. They came expecting one thing, and received another. They came to test, deceive, undermine, and trap Jesus. But he spoke strongly, with authority, and questioned what they had been teaching and believing.

Right in the middle of these two tense and difficult conversations, Jesus is asked by a lawyer which commandment in the law is the greatest. Jesus responds with words that come from Deuteronomy and Leviticus: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”

Jesus showed perfect love. He embodied the love of God, and Jesus shows us how to live with love. Yet here, in our passage for this morning, Jesus also speaks hard truth. He challenges the teaching of the religious leaders of the day, and they are silenced by it. How are we to understand love if love sometimes means stepping out and saying things that are difficult? What might love mean if love leads us to speak hard truth, put our necks on the line, enter into the conflict?

How are we to understand love if sometimes the loving thing to do is not the nice thing to do?

Jesus draws from two passages when he responds to the question about the greatest commandment. He says we are to love God with our whole selves. And he goes one step beyond the question and offers up a second commandment – to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. But what is love? And what kind of love is it? The English language makes this even more difficult to understand. We say things like, “I love pizza,” and “I love my children,” with the same word – “love” – but obviously meaning very different things by it. Greek helps us out a little bit because it has different words for different forms of love.

There is a word for romantic love, a word for friendship love, and then the word in our passage is something different yet. When Jesus responds to the question about the greatest commandment, he says we are to love God, and we are to love our neighbors. Love – or the Greek verb agapeseis. Agape love is something different from romantic love, and it is something different from friendship love. Here Jesus uses it to describe both the way we are to love God, and the way we are to love our neighbors.

As a kid, I remember learning about agape love. I remember learning that agape was an unconditional kind of love, and I always took that to mean that no matter what I did, God still loved me, which was a big deal for me. One of the things I struggle with most in my life is perfectionism, and deep within that perfectionism is a deep and abiding fear that if I mess up, I am unlovable as a person. The idea of agape as unconditional love helped me to see outside of my perfectionism to the reality that, as it says in Romans 5:8, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”

God proves his love for us – God’s agape love – when Christ died for us, while we were still sinners! Unconditional love for us while we were still mired in our sins. Unconditional love for us apart from any merit of our own. And to me – the perfectionist – this was good news, indeed. Because if there’s nothing else a perfectionist knows better, it’s that no one is perfect, no matter how hard we try. Agape love gives us the assurance that despite our imperfection, God’s love for us reaches down into our lives anyway.

But, here, when Jesus says that the greatest commandments are loving God and loving our neighbors, he uses the same kind of love to talk about each. And clearly, we are not God. We do not love perfectly all of the time. So what else might agape mean? And what can we learn about agape from the way Jesus interacts with these groups that were questioning him?

First, this kind of love is about behavior and not about feelings.

Joel Manby, who is the CEO of the largest family-owned theme park corporation in the U.S., has actually taken this idea of love as action and integrated it into his business practices. Now, I don’t know much about Mr. Manby’s business, or about the kind of work environment he has managed to create, but I love what he had to say about agape love. In his book Love Works, he wrote this:

It is deliberate and unconditional love that is the result of choices and behaviors rather than feelings and emotions. In that regard, agape love is about the values we embrace as a way of life, and it is a determination to behave in a certain way that stems from our regard for other human beings, regardless of how we may feel about them…Agape love can exist in the most hostile environments—even work! Agape can stand the test of time. In fact, with agape love, you can dislike someone or be frustrated with them and still treat them with love.

Taken in this way, loving God is not all about how we feel. It’s about behaving in ways that are consistent with our deepest and truest convictions. Love is not about feeling good, maintaining the status quo, and making sure everyone likes us. When we love God with our whole selves, we are choosing to do what pleases God even when it might have consequences. When we love God with all of who we are, it means doing our best not only to learn what God wants, but also to do it. Love means living in a way that shows we care about the same things God cares about. Love is the actions that demonstrate what is in our heart. And we will do this so desperately imperfectly, but God’s perfect love doesn’t hinge on our perfection; it flows out of God’s very nature.

Loving God with our whole selves is about the way our actions demonstrate our deepest convictions. And loving our neighbors as ourselves is about treating everyone with regard, dignity, and respect regardless of how they might treat us. And we do this, not because we’re pushovers, not because we’re trying to be nice, but out of the conviction that God has created each and every person.

Love isn’t about being nice, or about refusing to rock the boat, or about saying things that make us popular with the right people. Love – agape love – is about the actions that flow out of our deepest beliefs. This kind of love demonstrates what’s most important to us. And sometimes that means taking risks, saying difficult things, speaking hard truths to our friends because we love them. It also means being open to those same hard truths being said to us…remaining teachable because we are far from perfect, and we get things wrong sometimes. Or, even a lot.

This is the kind of love that never fails: not the romantic love we see depicted in the movies, not the flitting butterflies after you’ve gone on a first date, but the love that makes a choice to live with love each day. And it’s hard. It’s terribly hard to do. Especially if we’ve taught ourselves for most of our lives that love is about the way we feel. But, the kind of love God calls us to is one that goes far beyond our feelings. It is a love that is deeper than feelings. It is love that consciously chooses the other over and over again, even if that doesn’t always shake out in neat, tidy, and pretty ways.

On this Reformation Sunday, we remember the way Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenburg castle church, not because he had hoped to separate from the church and cause a conflict, but because he deeply loved his church, so much so that he spoke up about practices that were deeply troubling to him.

Sometimes I think as we grow up, we mix up the words “love” and “nice.” But, kids seem to understand it much better than we do. A group of researchers once asked kids between the ages of 4-8, “What does love mean?” Their answers covered many different ideas of love, but a few of them stood out to me.

Eight-year-old Rebecca defined love this way: “When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn’t bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too. That’s love.”

Eight-year-old Jenny put it this way: “There are two kinds of love. Our love. God’s love. But God makes both kinds of them.”

Four-year-old Billy said, “When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You know that your name is safe in their mouth.”

And one more that gets right at the heart of our passage: Six-year-old Nikka said, If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend who you hate.” [1]

Love may not always be nice, and it certainly may not be simple or easy, but it is the lofty task we are called to. And what better place can we see a demonstration of love than in God’s amazing sacrificial love in the gift of Jesus. May God help us to go and live with love in this world.