Tough Love: Labor of Love
Topic: LOVE Scripture: Leviticus 19:15–19:18, John 2:3–2:11
Are you familiar with the term: A Labor of Love? What does it mean to you or what comes to mind when you think about the idea of a Labor of Love? It can mean a lot of different things, can’t it? Maybe your mind goes to something you remember about one of your parents or your spouse or another family member. Maybe the first thing that pops in your head is the face or actions of a teacher or a mentor. It might even be an object. You might recall a remarkable work of art or a recipe that has a great deal of sentimental value in your family. When I think about a Labor of Love, I have lots of things that come to mind. Everything from cinnamon rolls to the rolling eyes of my six-year-old.
A Labor of Love is just that - labor, work, effort. One that requires something of us and that we practice on a regular basis. I mentioned Isaac rolling his eyes. I tell my wife and my boys that I love them multiple times every day. I didn’t grow up in a home where I recall hearing or feeling those words very often, so I am intentional to make sure they are echoed repeatedly and genuinely in my family. It’s at the point now where, when I tell Isaac that I love him, that he rolls his eyes and says, “I know that. You tell me all the time.” Every time he says that, I reply, “And I’ll keep telling you.”
I mentioned cinnamon rolls. For as long as I have served at First Pres, there has been a constant that I’ve come to love and appreciate every December. Rachel Wilson comes by the church office with Jim in tow carrying several tins of her homemade cinnamon rolls. One container for every staff member. I can’t imagine how long it takes Rachel to make all those delicious treats, but it is a Labor of Love she repeatedly and kindly practices as an expression to the church staff. And Rachel’s baked goods are only one of the many labors of love fostered here in our family of faith.
I think of the dedicated team of gardeners who tend to every flower, bush, and green thing around our facility so that our address is not merely a place people come to worship but a display of God’s intricate creation and beauty. On cold, breezy days and hot, hazy mornings, I have seen this inspiring group of people regularly share and cultivate this incredible Labor of Love as both a means of praise to our Creator and a gift to our community. And these are only a few out of the many expressions of love that I have witnessed here within our church. And they each help us better contextualize and understand our text this morning.
We’re continuing in our series through the book of 1 John. Each week of our “Tough Love” series, we explore what this biblical account reveals to us about love in all its difficulty, beauty, and power. In both the life of Jesus and in the writings of 1 John, we learn that love is not an easy, simple, effortless thing. Much like the impact it has on our lives, love can be messy, complicated, shocking, and a labor. That’s reinforced for us in our text this morning. We’re in 1 John 2:3-11.
The center of gravity for all that is contained within this passage is the person of Jesus Christ. We read about knowing Jesus, obeying Jesus, living like Jesus, reflecting Jesus. Jesus is at the center. He is the warm and brilliant light from which everything else finds its life and direction. And with Christ at the center, we find a personal and challenging example of what it means to love like Jesus.
We can’t forget who the author is here. This is John, the disciple that Jesus loved and who Jesus invited to the most intimate and moving corners of ministry. The same John that saw Jesus still the storm, feed thousands, and speak life-altering truth. John knows a thing or two about what it literally means to follow Jesus and what it costs to be like Jesus. And so he doesn’t mince words when he makes it clear that anyone who wants to claim they follow Jesus means that they will live like Jesus. And that, as John says here, is displayed in the way that they and we love others. There is no more powerful or impactful way to be like Jesus than to sacrificially and sincerely love others.
At the start of 2020, we were blessed to have Jason Gray come here and share his music and ministry with us. One of his songs echoes what we find in 1 John in a really powerful way, a song we sang here in this sanctuary. The song is called “With Every Act of Love” and here’s just a snippet from it: “God put a million, million doors in the world for His love to walk through. One of those doors is you. We bring the kingdom come with every act of love. Jesus, help us carry You. Alive in us, Your light shines through. With every act of love, we bring the kingdom come.” This is a great expression of what it means when John talks about living like Jesus and shining the light of Christ in this world. We, as the followers of Jesus in this time and place, have the rare and incredible opportunity to be the means by which the love of our Savior enters this world. And we do that, in part, through every Labor of Love.
Now, I use the word “labor” specifically because as I read and reflected over John’s words in our text this morning, I didn’t come away with the notion that what John describes here is easy or brief. I’ll be honest, by the time I got to verses 9-11, I couldn’t help but think about how tough and even arduous these commands really might be. If we claim to be in the light, to be followers of Jesus, then, according to Scripture, it means we do not hate others but that we love others. Our expression of our faithfulness to Jesus is grounded on our love for others. John Calvin says it this way: “The love of God teaches us to love others and we also, in reality, prove our love to God by loving others at His command.” That dedication, that practice of loving others, is a labor that takes time, energy, sacrifice, and humility. It is anything but easy.
Not to mention John even takes this discipleship practice to a whole other dimension by telling us that anyone who claims to be in the light, who claims to follow Jesus but hates another is still in darkness. It’s not enough that we make an effort to love others, but now we also have to work through and resolve those feelings within us that cause us to resent or detest other people. It’s interesting too when we consider that this letter of John’s was written with the intention of being circulated throughout communities of Christ-followers.
So how do we do this? How do we practice this arduous but blessed Labor of Love? Much like the work of tending the gardens outside the church, I believe we practice what John is preaching with consistent, intentional, meaningful little actions. Yes, we are sometimes able to perform grand gestures, but Jesus didn’t call us to a life of faith where we do one large display of love and then rest on our laurels until the next grand display. No, our calling is to a life of faithfulness where every individual step we take in the footsteps of our Savior is as important as the full journey itself. The little things, the small acts of kindness, the repeated disciplines of love…that, I believe, is how we live into and live out the Tough Love we find in the person of Jesus and in the book of 1 John.
I really like the way Stephen Covey, author of the popular book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” describes this. He says, “The little kindnesses and courtesies are so important. Small discourtesies, little unkindnesses, little forms of disrespect make large withdrawals [from our relationships with others]. In relationships, the little things are the big things.” “People are very tender, very sensitive inside. I don’t believe age or experience makes much difference. Inside, even within the most toughened and calloused exteriors, are the tender feelings and emotions of the heart.” Covey is spot on, in both how he describes the small acts of love and what we think are little forms of disrespect or resentment. They all add up and form what becomes our expression of Jesus Christ in this world.
And what took place at the Capitol last week serves as a bracing reminder of just how desperately this world needs to see the love, mercy, and truth of Jesus. Like many others, I have shared my own thoughts and reactions to what happened in private conversations and even on social media. And like many others, my reaction was marked by outrage and disgust and a somber sadness. While there is justification and legitimacy in that very raw and very human response, I must confess that I have wondered how lasting and truly impactful it can be on its own. I am searching within myself, and maybe some of you are doing the same, to discover how I can foster a conviction that leads to a practice that becomes a habit so that I am perhaps able to generate hope and change in a lasting way. I know it will take a great deal of humility and attention, effort, and resolve. That’s why it will end up being a Labor of Love.
I can’t help but think that maybe if more people practiced the discipline and the commitment to small acts of affection and kindness, to the daily and intentional willingness to live into a Labor of Love, that maybe, just maybe, events like those that we witnessed this past week might not only be less prevalent but be absent from our society altogether. To practice the Labor of Love that we read about here in 1 John necessitates that we do the personal and humbling work within our hearts so that we become incapable of hating another person so much that we eventually resort to acts of violence that have become far too common. To practice the Labor of Love and to genuinely attempt to live and love like Jesus means that we repeatedly and sacrificially posture ourselves so that we are best able to love, value, and appreciate the stories, experiences, and pains of other people.
As we will continue to find, both within 1 John and throughout our own journeys of following Jesus, love is tough. It’s hard and It’s frustrating. It doesn’t allow us to have our superiority or our callousness that we are accustomed to. It forces us to think of others before ourselves and to no longer prioritize what we think or want but instead what Jesus would think or want. And we have to do that every day, with every person, in every instance. The reward and the result of passionately living a life of love is beyond our wildest imaginations. The sheer impact it can have, not only in our own lives but in the lives of every person we share that love with, is inconceivable. And it’s worth it, so worth it! But it is work, it takes effort, it requires passion, it is costly, and it forces us to a Christlike humility. It truly is a Labor of Love.