Can Love Really Change The World?
This sermon was delivered at Cobleskill United Methodist Church on February 28, 2021
“Can Love Really Change the World?”
Second Sunday of Lent
Romans 12:1-2, 9-19
12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. 9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
In my Lenten small group this week, we reflected on the 1 Corinthians passage from last Sunday. You know, the “love is patient, love is kind…. Love bears all things” one. We were talking about how messed up the church at Corinth had been when Paul decided he needed to write to them with this letter. How people who called themselves one church were arguing with one another and saying one was better than the next, so on and so forth. Paul stepped into this deep conflict and anger to encourage the Corinthians to see one another in the agape kind of love: a love that puts the self aside to work together for the common good in Jesus Christ. Remember what we learned last week. The opposite of this kind of love is not hate, but selfishness. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 12 to implore a leaving of selfish behaviors behind.
Someone in my small group then asked, “So how the Corinthians take it?” Like, how did they receive this letter from Paul? I have to admit the question was not one I had expected. We often proclaim the beautiful words of 1 Corinthians 13 assuming that when the Apostle Paul writes you a letter with such beautiful and convicting words you just ….. do it! You find a way to straighten yourselves up and get in line. But I love small group Bible study for this reason, you can always count on someone to be thinking of something you hadn’t yet. How did the Corinthians receive this message about agape love?
And it turns out, it’s a super relevant question to us today and we need to go there before we can move on with our Lenten series about Love Building Up.
Why was this a good question not only for our small group but also for our times today? Because these days it’s so hard to feel like there’s any one source of authority that everyone trusts. You know what I mean? So when we read 1 Corinthians and we hear that this was Paul, the Apostle Paul, trying to bring a conflicted church back to their senses with love, we want so much to believe that things were different then than they are now. That in the midst of conflict, they could trust Paul and let love bring them back to their roots. I want so much to believe that when the young, fresh church at Corinth got that letter from Paul, less than 20 years after Jesus himself walked on the earth, that surely they would receive his words as a clarion call to change their behavior. But did they?
No! No, they didn’t listen! It turns out that the audience the most famous passage on how to love was written for originally couldn’t even do it. Eloquent words and passionate preaching from a man who actually encountered Jesus couldn’t convince them to turn from their selfish ways.
And so maybe the inner skeptic that resides inside of you, is now guessing….. if love couldn’t even change the tiny corner of the world that existed in Corinth, how can we even begin to believe that love stands a chance at changing the world now?!?
I think we have the right to be honest with ourselves. The odds don’t look good. In the 2000 years since Jesus Christ walked this Earth, we humans (and many of us who call ourselves Christians) have proven over and over that we are really good at not loving each other. Like, really good. We are much better at selfishness. Much.
The reason why love continues to be such a challenge for us to take up is because love works against our primal instincts which tell us the only thing that matters is us.
I have a lot of theories as to how we got to this point. I think the Christian movement that Jesus gave to us has drifted from his original dream. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of conforming to the world’s mold by prioritizing our own wealth, power and greed. We’ve become known more by who we exclude than who we welcome. We’ve lost our sense of compassion for the least among us. We care more about being right than we do about what is true.
But I need to tell you what is giving me hope today. Paul didn’t give up. He is what you might call profoundly optimistic. And I really, really appreciate that about him. Even more so now that I know that he had times in his ministry when the world-changing love that he preached fell onto deaf ears. He faced an entire world of skeptics, and yet, he didn’t give up. He kept writing to the church at Corinth. He kept visiting them. He kept loving them. He knew they could change and he kept encouraging them. In fact, not only the church at Corinth, but he kept encouraging churches all across the Mediterranean. I love the passage we hear today from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, here in from the Message:
“So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.”
With encouragement like that, I beg you to give love a chance. I don’t expect you to jump onto this “Love can really change the world” train flippantly. I expect you to bring a healthy amount of skepticism. After all, let’s be real. It’s been 2000 years since Jesus dreamed this dream and we keep messing it up. But if we’re going to keep calling ourselves a church then we must also be profoundly optimistic that love for our neighbor will heal this world of its selfishness. Another word for that is hope. We must believe against the odds that all the hurting and division we see around ourselves can and will be overcome. Another word for that is faith.
Because if God’s agape kind of love CAN’T change the world, nothing else can. Force? Nope. Power? Nope. Responding to insults with more insults? Nope. An eye for an eye? Nope. Love is the only way.
Yesterday I was in a meeting for the Conference Camp and Retreat Ministry Board on which I sit. We were talking all about how camping can and must continue to be a place where God’s love is felt and shared, even when the programs have to adjust to Covid realities. And someone shared a metaphor that was truly beautiful. The love of God—however we experience it, whether it’s through the great outdoors, the presence of a friend during difficult times, the kindness of a stranger, or the hope for a better world where no one is left behind—is like a fire. It’s the only thing you can give away, again and again and again, and it only grows (think about our candle-lighting on Christmas Eve). Love is like that! And if there’s anything that can change the world, it’s a love that grows each time it’s passed.
We’re going to be talking more about this as the weeks go by and I invite you to stay with us, don’t give in to skepticism. Believe in the power of little things to make a big difference. Each day brings opportunities to unite or divide. Love has already changed the world the moment you believe it can. Stay with us as we work over the next few weeks on what this means for your life.
Grace and Peace,