This past week we had a load of compost delivered to our house. Two workers from the Millionair Club in downtown Seattle helped me haul it from the street to our back yard, and as we worked I listened to their stories. Dan had been working hard over the past week, trying to make up for over $400 he’d lost when his wallet went missing.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. One day his boss at the Millionair Club called him in and showed him a package that had arrived in the mail. It was—you guessed it—his wallet! And not only his wallet but the money was there, too. He contacted the people who had sent it to thank them. They said they’d found it, along with his ID and a pay stub from the Millionair Club, and wanted to do the right thing.
Today’s second reading from 1 John is all about love. 28 times John uses some form of the word love. But what does John mean by love? We use the word “love” to mean many things: Puppy love. Romantic love. Friendship love. We say things like, I love pizza. I love summer. But even though he uses the word 28 times in today’s reading it always means the same thing, and it’s none of the definitions that we usually think of. No, the word in the original Greek is “agape,” which means unconditional love, Godly love.
It’s a kind of love in some ways not too different from finding a wallet full of money and returning it to the sender. The people who found the wallet were complete strangers to Dan, the owner of the wallet. And yet, what they did in returning the wallet was an act of love. It wasn’t based on feelings they had for Dan because they didn’t even know him. They did it, they said, because it was the right thing to do.
In fact, Godly love as the Bible describes it doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with the way we feel about someone. We can love another person and, at the same time, not like them. Godly love doesn’t have a lot to do with what we feel. It doesn’t have a lot to do with what we think, either.
One evening this past week I was in my office with a young couple who were seeing me for pre-marriage counseling. There was a knock at the door and it was a man asking if this we were the church providing shelter for homeless men. I said no, we do that in March, but I realized that they were looking for a nearby Methodist Church. The bus driver had dropped him and his friend off at the wrong stop. I wanted to help so I asked if I could wait until I was done with the counseling session. When I finished I told them where they needed to go. It was a few blocks away so I offered them a ride. Now, the rules of this ministry say that we’re not supposed to give rides. But I did anyway. When I got back to the church there were two more men looking for the same church. I gave them a ride, too. I really didn’t have to think about it; like the couple who returned the wallet it just seemed like the right thing to do.
Christian love is not mostly about feelings. It’s not mostly about beliefs or what we think, either. Don’t get me wrong: Christian love can include loving feelings toward others; it can mean using our brains— hopefully it does! But Christian love, often as not, can be as ordinary as just going through the motions, regardless of what we think or what we feel.
John says, We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. Now, I don’t know about you, but in a strange way I find some comfort in that. If I wait until I feel love, or, if I wait until all my motives are pure, I may wait a long time to do the right thing.
Last week after worship at Lakeridge I checked in with a member of the church who was going through a rough patch. Another member of the church had noticed alcohol on her breath, so they were concerned about this Christian sister. She admitted that she’d been struggling lately, and she said, “You know, Scott, I almost didn’t come to church this morning.” But she did. For her, it wasn’t because she felt like it. It wasn’t something she thought through. Really, for her on that particular Sunday it was just going through the motions.
Sometimes I wonder if that’s one of the most important reasons we come to worship on Sunday morning—just going through the motions. I mean that in a good way. Sometimes we come even though we’d rather stay in bed, or even if we don’t understand the Bible or find it boring, or aren’t quite sure we believe this stuff we say in the Apostles’ Creed or the Lord’s Prayer. Sometimes we go through the motions even if it would be a lot easier not to serve a meal after worship. Because love for God, and love for one another, doesn’t necessarily start with the head, or even the heart. A lot of times, in my experience, loving God and loving others starts with just going through the motions, even when we don’t feel like it.
The writer of the Book of James says, For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead. We could just as easily say that belief without works is dead, or, love without works is dead. Even if love starts with just going through the motions, love can gain a foothold in spite of our head and in spite of our heart.
I wonder if this is what Jesus is getting at, too, when he says in today’s reading that those who abide in him bear much fruit. It’s not doctrines or beliefs so much as actions that tell the world who we are and what we believe.
So as we gather around the table this morning to receive a meal that is a sign of God’s love, we remember that John writes that we love one another because God first loved us. As we gather for this holy meal you may find yourself moved deeply inside. Or, it may be that you find yourself just going through the motions. But just going through the motions, at least for now, is enough. It’s good practice for the rest of the week when we’re called on to be signs of God’s love to the world, whether in ordinary or extraordinary ways. Just going through the motions of worship might be enough to prepare us for acts of kindness and compassion the rest of the week.
You are God’s beloved. So no matter where your heart or your head is this morning, come to the feast and be fed. AMEN