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You Are as You Love 
By Dr. Todd B. Jones
09/18/11

FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, NASHVILLE
DR. TODD B. JONES
SEPTEMBER 18, 2011

Relationships That Give Life:
You Are As You Love
Mark 1:40-45
1 John 4:7-21


It feels like a lifetime ago when I was a teenager, and America had only one telephone company, AT&T. We even had a nickname for it, calling the giant corporation, "Ma Bell." When "Ma Bell" ran a national ad campaign aimed at encouraging long distance calls, they started an effort that lasted over a decade, for in those days, long distance was their greatest revenue source. The slogan was one I have never forgotten: "Reach Out and Touch Someone." All of the commercials were sentimental to the point of being sappy, I suppose, but I liked them anyway. In them people were connecting warmly with other important people in their lives, and you could see the impact that such connections had on parents and children, brothers and sisters, old friends and treasured people. The assumption behind those ads was that there is nothing more important to us than our relationships. In the coming weeks this fall in worship, we are going to be dwelling on "Relationships That Give Life." We will be looking at the most important relationships of our lives that either add joy and life to our living, or make our lives sadder and harder to live. Is it fair to say that our lives are our most important relationships, writ large? Is there anything more influential upon the quality of our lives than our vital relationships at home, at work, at church and in our community?

I think not. Today we turn to the letter of John, where we hear, "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love, does not know God, for God is love." Indeed, John even goes so far as to say that if you say you love God but hate your brother or sister, "you are a liar." "For how can you love God, whom you cannot see, if you do not love your brother or sister whom you can see?" The Bible is always finally so down to earth, so real, so honest, in that it will not allow you to divorce your religion from the rest of your life.

That is why we will be looking at the most important relationships of life in the coming weeks. Another way to get at the matter is to ask, "Whose pictures are on your refrigerator door?" Often families will place photos on refrigerator doors that speak of those they count precious. I am convinced that there is no more crucial place for us to live out our Christian faith than in our most important human relationships. It was Carlisle who said, quite simply, "You are as you love." That is, a person's life story is finally told through the quality of his or her most important relationships, by how we handle the success of them as well as how we manage their inevitable failures and failings.

Jesus' desire, of course, was clear as John saw it: "Love one another as I have loved you," said Jesus, "by this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another." Well, how about you? When people look at your most important relationships, can they tell that you are a disciple of Jesus? Is there a quality to your most vital relationships that speaks of Jesus? Jesus clearly wanted there to be.

I think Jesus knew more than anyone how crucial life-giving relationships are to people. That is why He reached out to touch people like lepers whom others wanted to shun. Lisa Berkman studied over seven thousand adults in a study at the University of California at Berkeley and learned that people with weak social ties have premature death rates two to five times higher than those with strong social ties. Syracuse University studied a group of adults from Rockford, Illinois, investigating their health habits, and found that people who frequently visited with friends and family and neighbors were far more likely to practice good health habits than those who spent little time with family or friends. A lack of love leads to poor health.

Indeed, in an Israeli study of over ten thousand married men over the age of forty, two cardiologists weighed many other medical risk factors for heart disease and asked the one question, "Does your wife show you love?" The answer to that question turned out to be enormously predictive! In fact, men who carried many other risk factors for heart disease who said they had loving wives were almost half as prone to have a heart attack as those who said they did not.

People need love, which is why Jesus reached out not just to those who were easy to love, to those who were attractive, but also to lepers, whom others were afraid to love. Lepers were separated from others out of fear and misunderstanding, and forced to wear bells so others could hear them and stay at a distance. And those who were the hardest to love and the loneliest, Jesus loved.

In the coming weeks I want you to be thinking about the people God has given you to love – not just the ones you find easy to love, but the ones who are difficult for you to love. There is a law in physics called entropy – put simply, it says that systems, when left unattended, will run down. I see this principle at work all the time in marriages, in families and among friends. Relationships, if left unattended, will run down, fall apart and grind to a halt. Anaïs Nin once said, "Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don't know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; of weariness and witherings, of tarnishings." There are always forces at work to erode and tear down love, to put stress and strain on important relationships. Our challenge is to find ways to build healthy, life-giving love into our lives. I love what therapist Robert Anderson wrote: "In every marriage more than a week old, there are grounds for divorce. The trick is to find, and continue to find, grounds for marriage." And this applies not just to marriage, but to every important relationship we have. We have to find grounds for friendship, grounds for family relationships of all kinds, grounds for life-giving relationships.

"No one has ever seen God," says John, "If we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us." Don't you see how important this business of our love for one another is? How we relate to each other as Christians determines whether or not people ever come to know Jesus – for if people do not see God's love in the lives of Christians, where will they ever discover love?

At the center of our worship is a cross and a table. They are both powerful symbols of love. I think I learned a whole lot of what I know about love at a table – at my family's dining room table at 325 New York Street. It was at that table where I learned to talk as well as to listen, where I learned to wait and to be considerate of others, which is the whole point of all manners, where I was often reprimanded, and where I learned that I could mess up and still be loved and forgiven. That table helped me to understand how important this table is – the table where Christ is present, and serves as the host and bids us to remember Him. It is a table where the whole family of God sits with us.

Do any of you remember the 1984 Academy Award winning film, Places in the Heart? It was set in a small Texas town in 1935 in the heart of the Depression, and tells the story of a widow struggling to save her farm and keep her family together. She is fighting for everything that she treasures. The movie has everything by way of the drama of human relationships: murder, racism, adultery, dishonesty, but finally, like any story worth telling, it is a story about love. In the final scene of the movie, there is an unforgettable communion service in church. It starts out like any scene in any small rural church. But as the tray is passed and folks are singing, I Walked in the Garden, pretty soon you are jolted and jarred by the fact that everyone in this story is there – not just white and black together, but friends and enemies, the living and the dead. They are all eating the same bread and drinking the same cup. It is a powerful, unforgettable picture of what God wants, and where God's love will one day lead us, whether we want it or not! This table points to that table where we all will one day sit and feast – not just with those we loved, but with those we found hard to love and those we refused to love. For "God is love," and in the end, that love will be all that there is. So in this life, here and now, we are to do all we can do in our power to get ready for that day, to make our relationships everything they are meant to be.

Are you doing that today? Are you letting God's great love for you transform you into a great lover? That is the Gospel's cry and call. Have you ever heard the poem written by a young woman about her special friend? It is really self-explanatory:

"Remember the day I borrowed your brand new car and dented it? I thought you'd kill me, but you didn't.

"And remember the time I dragged you to the beach, and you said it would rain, and it did? I thought you'd say 'I told you so.' But you didn't.

"Do you remember the time I flirted with all the guys to make you jealous, and you were? I thought you'd leave me, but you didn't.

"Do you remember the time I spilled strawberry pie all over your new rug? I thought you'd hit me, but you didn't.

"And remember the time I forgot to tell you the dance was formal and you showed up in jeans? I thought you' drop me, but you didn't.

"Yes there were lots of things you didn't do. But you put up with me, and you loved me, and you protected me. There were lots of things I wanted to make up to you when you returned from Vietnam. But you didn't."

Are your most important relationships what they should be? Or are there some hurts that need healing?

Jerome tells the story of John, the youngest disciple of Jesus, on his deathbed in Ephesus, an old man now. The circle around him that scholars call the "Johannine Circle," begged John for a last word. "Little children, love one another." "Can't you say anymore?" they pressed. "It is enough, for it is what our Lord commanded."

AMEN.
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