Texts: John 15:8-7, 1 Cor 12:31-13:13, Gen 2:7-17 Ash Wednesday
The Fruit of the Spirit: Love
In the name of him who loved us so greatly that he laid down his life for us, dear friends in Christ: This evening we begin together another journey through Lent. It is, as you know, a penitential season. It’s a time to reflect on the depth and depravity of our sin precisely so that we can better appreciate the sacrifice our Lord Jesus made for us, and so prepare ourselves to remember his passion and death on Good Friday – which in turn will cause us to rejoice all the more when we complete the journey by celebrating his Easter victory over sin and death. But, like I said, for the time being, before we get to that spiritual summit, the trail leads downward as we examine ourselves to uncover the deeds of darkness that made his death for us necessary.
And there are many ways to do this. As I searched for a theme for this series of devotions, I considered some of the standard treatments. If we’re going to hunt for the sin in our lives, for instance, a good place to start might be the Ten Commandments that we reviewed earlier. We could take one or two an evening, and show how we’re not measuring up to what the Lord demands of us. We could find all kinds of sin doing that. Or again, I remember a number of years ago, long before I thought of becoming a pastor myself, sitting through a Lenten series on the seven deadly sins; you know, like avarice, gluttony, sloth, and so on—they have such impressive sounding names. I’m sure we’d find much to deplore in ourselves by doing that. Yet another way to search out our sin would be to examine the lives of some of the Bible’s more notorious villains, and show how we’re not very different than them in the things we do.
But having given the matter much thought, I finally decided that this year we’d do something different. Instead of pouring over the negative, sinful behaviors we’re supposed to avoid, I thought, why not direct the focus of our meditations to the good things that the Lord thorough his Spirit is even now working in us to bring to maturity? I’m talking about what St. Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit, found in Galatians chapter five. There are nine of them, and they’re printed on the front of your worship folder. These are the godly virtues that the Lord wants to see in us. And trust me, by studying them we’ll still have ample opportunity to consider our sin as we see how far short we fall of producing them; but at the same time, by concentrating on the positive goal rather than just harping on what’s wrong with us, we’ll be able to look forward to the blessed hope and perfection that we will one day attain when the Lord has finished his work in us.
So, with that in mind, let’s begin with first named fruit of the Spirit – the one that we heard St. Paul call the more excellent way; namely love. Love …. hmm …. I think we’d all agree that it’s a good thing … something very much to be desired … but what exactly is it? The theme song of an old soap opera proclaimed “Love is a many splendored thing.” Okay, maybe so; but I’m not sure that gets us anywhere. In the sixties – the so-called decade of love – the Beatles sang, “All you need is love” and they made a ton of money singing it; but then they also sang “Money can’t buy me love.” Sort of a dilemma, I’d say. A bit more recently, Tina Turner dismissed love as merely “a second hand emotion”. Apparently she didn’t have much use for it. But my point is that we use word a lot; do we have any idea what it is we’re talking about?
Even if we do, it’s important to understand that the biblical concept of love has almost nothing to do with, indeed, is pretty much exactly opposite to what have in mind when we use the word love in normal conversation. For example, a young man looks deeply into the eyes of his sweetheart and says, “I love you”; someone else says, “I love chocolate”, and other people say that they love certain songs, movies, sports, or whatever. But what do they mean when they say it? Well, what do you mean when you say something like that? Simply put, you’re saying that whatever it is you say you love is something that pleases me. It gratifies me. It makes me feel good. I like what it does for me. The point is that this kind of love is all about me. It’s focus in on my feelings, my happiness, and what’s good for me.
But when our Lord Jesus uses the word love, or again, the kind of love that Paul is speaking about in the familiar passage we heard earlier, the love that is kind and patient and not insisting on its own way – that kind of love has nothing to do with me. Instead, it has everything to do with serving and seeking the good of its object. Its focus is on you. It asks, “What can I give you?” “What can I do for you?” “How will your needs and greater good be achieved, and what is in my power to accomplish it?” And then it does that willingly, joyfully, completely, and continuously without ever asking, “What’s the cost to me?” or “What’s in it for me?” The biblical concept of love is a commitment of total self-sacrificial devotion to its object. And that’s why Jesus says that the greatest love is expressed through surrendering one’s very life for the life of others. That’s the kind of love the Holy Spirit means to work in us.
And an important feature of this love is that it must be voluntary. It must come from within and be granted willingly. If it is coerced or forced in any way, then it isn’t love; it’s slavery. And this explains the presence of Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. People who don’t understand often question why the Lord would place such a hazard to mankind in paradise. Or they wrong-headedly assume that it was some kind of test of obedience. It was nothing of the sort. No, the Lord showed his lavish love to mankind by creating all things for our good. He placed our first parents in the Garden to enjoy it. And the greatest gift he gave them was to create them in his own image. God is love, and he made mankind to love as he does. And our first parents did love each other. Every waking moment, Adam was one hundred percent occupied with what he could do to please Eve, and she was equally devoted to pleasing him. They never thought about themselves. They only thought about serving and pleasing the other.
But you see because they were made to love, they also needed a way to express their love for God. The trouble is that God has no needs. There is nothing they could possibly have done or given him to make his existence one iota better than it is. Love is sacrificial devotion; but they had nothing to sacrifice that would do him any good. It would have been an impossibly frustrating situation to want to show love and have no way to do it. And so the Lord in his mercy gave them something that they could surrender for him: he gave them the fruit of the tree. And by doing so he said, essentially, that by choosing not to eat it, by voluntarily giving it up and foregoing that small pleasure, they would be expressing their love for him. So far from thinking of the tree as something bad or evil, it was their place of worship. Every time they saw the tree and left its fruit alone they were saying to the Lord, “We love you.”
And because love must be voluntary, the tree was the one place where Satan could make his attack. His temptation of our first parents was much more than an invitation to break a seemingly arbitrary rule. No, he was suggesting to them that they ought to love themselves more than they love the Lord. Put yourself first, he told them. Choose what’s best for you. Don’t deprive yourself of anything. And, as you know, they fell for it. They chose to place their own immediate pleasure over the one thing God gave them to express their love for him. And so love in them died. Or to be more precise, their love became perverted. Instead of looking outward and seeking to serve others, it turned inward and asked, “What’s good for me?”
We see this immediately too, because the first thing they notice upon eating the fruit is that they’re naked. And the only way anyone can know that he’s naked is by looking at himself. That’s where their attention turned: to themselves rather than the Lord or to each other. They lost the capacity to love in a godly way and so plunged themselves and all of their unhappy descendants into sin. And that’s what I’d have you see: that all human sin is at its heart nothing more than a failure to love as God loves. Sin, in its essence, is loving self above all else.
But we don’t normally think of it that way, do we? We still think of our sins as specific violations of certain rules like the Ten Commandments. It’s so much more than that. And this is where we see some of the genius of Luther in his explanations to the Ten Commandments. There he shows that keeping a command isn’t just not doing what’s wrong, it’s also failing to do what’s right. It’s failing to love your neighbor as yourself. It isn’t enough that you don’t kill your him or do him bodily harm, or steal his belongings, or bad mouth him behind his back; no, your failure to attend his needs, or support him as necessary, or defend him against his enemies, or do what’s in your power to help him prosper and to protect his reputation – all that too is sin. Or we could go to the Epistle reading. When you are not patient or kind, when you do envy someone’s station, wealth, or belongings, or when you think highly of yourself and you boast, when you’re arrogant or rude, when you insist on your way, when you’re irritable or resentful … when you don’t bear all things, when you don’t believe the Lord’s Word, when you give up hope, when you fail to endure—all that too is your sin manifesting itself.
Friends, we’re a whole lot more sick and infested with sin than any of us can imagine. The Lord made us to love and the sad truth is that love, the real love that I’ve been talking about, is virtually unknown among us. And so it’s fitting that as we come together on this Ash Wednesday to begin the penitential season of Lent, that we take a good, long, hard look at ourselves and see just how far short we fall of what the Lord made and intends us to be.
And then, seeing nothing but sickness and corruption within, let’s turn our focus outward to where real love is seen: on the cross, where our Savior gave his life for us. “Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.” He suffered and died there for our redemption, yes; but also to restore us to what we were made to be: the image of God, which is love. And even now he is giving us his Holy Spirit to empower us to turn from our sinful, self centered ways and to work in us the fruit of genuine godly love.
People sometimes ask me, what’s heaven going to be like? They want to know what will we be doing for all eternity. The answer is quite simple. We will be loving each other – really loving one another – in a way that we cannot fully imagine now. But try to think of it: never considering yourself or your own needs; but always giving yourself entirely for the good of others, holding nothing back – and having everyone else doing the same for you. It’s certainly something to look forward to; but the point is that we needn’t wait. We can begin now – even if only in a partial sense – as the Lord brings forth the first-fruit of his Spirit in us: that we love one another even as he loved us. May God grant it to us in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!