Recently I was honored to be the officiant at the wedding ceremony of a family member. Preparing for the ceremony led me to revisit the eternal question about the meaning of love. Here’s the reflection I gave during the ceremony.
How do you come by love?
I’m an old guy. Age is supposed to produce wisdom, so I’ll give you the best I’ve got. I’m a relic from the 1960’s. Back then the unpopular VIet Nam War was on, and it was cool to say “make love, not war.” I still love the music from those days. Maybe you’ve heard some of it. One of the 60’s anthems you still hear regularly on today’s FM classic rock playlist is the 1967 recording Get Together by the Youngbloods. They put it this way: Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together and try to love one another right now. If you don’t know that one, you must have heard this one, the Beatles’ 1967 hit All You Need Is Love, written by John Lennon. The summer of 1967 (the year I graduated from high school) was called the summer of love. Woodstock was still two years ahead in 1969, but flower power was already in full bloom. We might agree with the Beatles that love really is all you need, but the real question is “how do you come by love?” Is love something you can drum up whenever you feel like it? Is it something you order from Amazon? Is it really easy, like John Lennon’s song says?
You may have noticed that the flower power movement from the 60’s didn’t turn out so well. Most people didn’t get together and try to love one another. Maybe that’s why Tina Turner’s cynical song What’s Love Got To Do With It? shot to the top of the charts in 1984. Tina asked, What’s love but a second-hand emotion? You eternal optimists resonate with John Lennon’s wishful thinking, and you cynics go with the bitter experience of Tina Turner’s song, but can we all agree that it’s a lot easier to sing about love than it is to love? Talk is cheap. Loving one another isn’t nearly as easy as John Lennon’s song made it out to be.
What is Love?
We need to back up another step, and try to understand what love is before we can figure out how to get it. When we use the word love, we’re probably talking about one of following three things. We often use the word “love” when we speak of emotional relationships, of warm fuzzy feelings for one another, feelings shared by close-knit families, by BFF’s, or romantic feelings shared by couples. We also use the word “love” when we talk about sexual attraction. We get that the word “love” can describe our feelings for one another, whether these feelings are platonic, between two people who are “just friends,” or between a romantically involved couple. And we get that love is something “made” by two people who are physically intimate with one another. So far so good, but we haven’t gotten to the most important aspect of love, the part of it that makes the emotional and sexual aspects beautiful and lasting rather than the momentary feelings and urges we hear about in pop songs. I’m talking about love as a choice, a choice to value another person, to commit oneself to that person, and to give oneself to that person. In a marriage, the emotional and sexual aspects of love flow from mutual commitment. In other words, love is covenantal—it’s a couple’s high regard for and commitment to one another.
Reflect with me for a moment on these Scriptures from the New Living Translation which tell us how God loves and call on us to love others like he loves us:
For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16)
Love is giving, not getting.
When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. (Romans 5:6-8)
Love is a choice to live sacrificially for others, whether they deserve it or not.
God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, if God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. (1 John 4:9-12)
True love comes from God, not from us. We truly love when we mimic God. People see God in us when we love like God does.
So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” (John 13:34-35)
Loving others like Jesus loved us gets noticed. It’s contagious!
What’s your choice?
I’ve got one more Beatles song for you. It’s called The End. This was the last song on Abbey Road, the last record the four Beatles would ever make together, released in 1969. The lyrics end with this couplet: And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make. This song says the more love you give, the more love you get. We all know it isn’t that simple, but the song does remind us that we reap what we sow. The love you get is proportionate to the love you give. In a family, in a friendship, and especially in a marriage, giving comes before getting. You keep giving love whether you are getting love or not. That’s what God did, and God calls us to follow his example. Jesus gave himself up for us, and he gets gratitude and love as we respond to him. The cycle continues if we love others like Jesus loved us.
How is it with you today? Maybe you’re sentimental about love and you’re into what we used to call flower power. With Paul McCartney you ask, “What’s wrong with silly love songs?” Sorry, but I have to ask you where the power for that sort of love comes from. Apart from God’s grace, that really has never worked out. Human beings on their own can’t produce a utopian society or a happy marriage—their deep flaws always get in the way of their best intentions. Or maybe you’re cynical about love, like Tina Turner was, because “somebody done you wrong,” and you’re still aching inside from being betrayed by a former friend or lover. Bitter cynicism about love is no better than the silly emotionalism that denies the dark side of human nature. So, today I offer you a third option—following Jesus in a life that values other people and pours itself out for them. What would happen to our world, our neighborhoods, and especially our marriages, if we did that?
The Greatest of These is Love
Saint Paul tells us that his life was controlled by the selfless and sacrificial love of God in Jesus (2 Cor 5:14-15). Paul responded to God’s love by loving and serving others, including even the shallow and selfish Corinthians. We close with some well-known words about love that Paul wrote to them:
If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even if I sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.
Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, it never loses faith, it is always hopeful, and it endures through every circumstance.
Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor 13:1-7, 13 NLT)
Our heavenly Father, always remind us of your amazing love for us through Jesus. Keep us from the false optimism that says we humans can drum up love on our own apart from you, and keep us from the cynicism of giving up on love altogether. Remind us that love comes from you through Jesus, and enable us by your Holy Spirit to believe in him and to love others, especially our spouses, like he loved us. We ask this in the name of the Lord Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever. Amen.