Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Loving as Jesus loved"

Message preached August 15, 2004
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Revelation 2:1-7

Order of Worship

            Two friends of mine back in high school, Margaret and Greg, fell in love with each other. They became so inseparable that we began calling them by the combined title, "Margreg." There was a silliness about them, which we often associate with that phenomenon called, "first love." ... Another friend of mine in college was so madly in love with a guy that her dorm-mates started calling her "Dizzy." Perhaps youíve witnessed what such love can do to a person. Maybe once upon a time that person was you.

            There are stages that relationships go through, you know. What we sometimes refer to as "first love" doesnít last forever, which is a good thing. Otherwise weíd spend all our days walking around like a bunch of idiots. In fact, the initial stage of many a relationship could better be called by another name, "infatuation." We are actually in love with how this other person makes us feel. We are really in love with love, and at this point - to be honest - it is more about "us" than "them." First love, in actuality, is somewhat of a selfish affair, which is why it can only last so long. Sooner or later we have to break out of it and see this other person as they are, and not as how we have romanticized them to be.

            By the way, if you look up the word "infatuation" in the dictionary, you find that it goes back to the Latin word for "foolishness." While the second definition in Websterís dictionary speaks of "extravagant love," the first meaning listed is "to make foolish." My inseparable friends, "Margreg," didnít make it beyond this stage. Neither did "Dizzy." When "first love" started to fade, they began discovering the real person on the other side of their relationship, and decided that it would be foolish to continue...

*****************

            Today we travel to Ephesus to hear, according the revelation of John, what the "Spirit" had to reveal to the church in that city (2:7), what the "angel" - it says - of that fellowship was to receive (2:1). When children step out into the world, their parents certainly pray that there is a guardian angel watching over them. Are churches any different? Perhaps this is just a figure of speech, to address words to "the angel of" a church. Maybe not. There is much we cannot see in this world - at least with these eyes on the front of our faces.

            John, you might recall, was an overseer of the churches in that particular neck of the woods, back in those days. It was not just a formal position. This was before bishops walked around full of all sorts of importance. Johnís heart beat with these people. He loved them dearly - not in some silly way - but with a love that desired for them the best. His own situation was not the best, however. After all, how can you oversee people, how can you really care for folks from a distance? He was, it says, in exile on an island off the coast. Why he was forced by the authorities of that age to be there, we can only guess. Regardless, he had to love from a distance.

            This morning we hear a word from the Lord to one of his churches, shared through John. Realizing that we are reading someone elseís mail, so to speak, maybe - just maybe - we can benefit from what this portion of the letter has to say. Perhaps the angel of the church of Long Green Valley needs to hear some of what John wrote, what the Spirit might have to say to us - here, today.

            Their portion of the letter begins with an affirmation. These people knew who they were. They were grounded. They didnít fly off into the latest tangents of faith. That day and age was not all that different from our own. The names may have changed, but it was every bit as diverse religiously as ours. We know very little about the followers of a certain Nicolas of Antioch, those folks called the "Nicolaitans," except that they were just one of the many sects that attempted to pull the early church off into some dead-end street leading to nowhere.

            Apparently some who tried, with good intentions - no doubt - to lead people astray, claimed to be apostles. Everybody tries to claim some kind of authority, you know. Iíve heard those magic words, "God told me," (perhaps you have, as well) enough times to be just a tad cautious about following whenever they are spoken. The folks in Ephesus were likewise a very discerning bunch. They were good at sorting out the wheat from the chaff. They didnít let heresy gain a foothold among them, and Johnís words affirmed this about them.

            However, the news was not all positive. While this was one, if not "the" flagship community of faith, started by that legendary pair, "Aquila and Priscilla," grounded by none other than the apostle Paul in the most important seaport town in Asia Minor - even so, this fellowship was far from perfect. Just like some other churches I know. With the good news came some bad news, if you will. While we all like to receive affirmations, we grow more from the challenges - donít we? - being made aware of those areas in which we need some change.

            "But I have this against you," the Spirit, speaking through John, said. There always seems to be a "yes, but" doesnít there? Yes, you are well grounded in the faith, "but I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first." Hmmm. "First love." Is this a call back to the foolishness of an initial relationship? Are these folks supposed to become dizzy with love, like they may have been when they first responded to the invitation to follow Jesus?

            Some of us can readily associate with such a call. We remember vividly the time we first gave our hearts to Jesus. It was like a fire that started burning within us, and at first we felt every flicker of the flame, so passionate was this new love inside. Of course, others of us had a more gradual development of our relationship with God in Christ Jesus, to where the time came to simply, and publicly state, "I do." Perhaps, though, you are one who has not yet reached that point, whether it be gradual or sudden. May that day come for you.

            Back to this "first love," the pressures of daily life conspire to blow out the flame, and we may long to return to that early fire. The same is true, by the way, of our other loves. Those of us half-way through our years may try to recapture some of the passion of younger days. We remember our first love and try to find it again in some pretty foolish ways. Lately Iíve been thinking about motorcycles, for some reason. Laugh, if you will, but thatís a much better option than some other types of wandering - if you know what I mean.

            "First love." I donít believe the Spirit was calling the folks in Ephesus, nor us, back to what is - in actuality - a form of infatuation. For you see, what we love in this stage of a relationship is how "we" feel, how "we" become when we are near someone. Itís really being in love with love and, truthfully, itís all about "us." Very little is about "them." Thatís not what the Spirit meant by "first love," is it? "Youíve forgotten your infatuation, your being in love with love, with it how made you feel." Real love, though - true "agape" or "Godís kind of love," is not all about "us," whether we are talking about our love relationship with God or someone else.

            Mature love moves us from front and center, does it not? In a marital relationship we go through the hard work of seeing our spouse as they are and loving them anyway. We grow in what it means to place their need above our own, which can be difficult for both - a give and take which is anything but easy. I would make a case that by "first love," the Spirit is not referring to initial love (which can be a form of infatuation), but rather to a love which places others first.

            Think about what Jesus said concerning real love. One of the first things we learn about how to relate to another person is the golden rule. "Do to others as you would have them do to you" (Luke 6:31). This is a wise teaching, and we have expanded upon it to think about how we would wish to be treated, to be loved. We even rightly talk about our need to love ourselves so that we might know how to love others. Still, there is about this proverb of Jesus, especially as we have come to put it into practice, something which may pull us away from "first love."

            We encounter it when we think about reaching out to other people, drawing them toward Jesus and his church. Rightly, we remember our earlier days, and what it was that attracted us, those things that made it possible for us to come to Christ and grow in the faith. Recalling this, we then seek to be a church that might in similar ways draw and grow people - which is good! Unfortunately, we can end up creating an environment which only connects with persons who are just like us. In fact, for some of us (and this may hurt, Iíll warn you) we can believe that how "church" was done when we first loved Jesus should be good enough for everyone else. After all, Jesus said, "do to others as you would have them do to you."

            However, Jesus also said - on a much deeper level, in words that should shake us up when we hear them, "this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." (John 15:12). This is "first love." That is, we have been loved first, and this love is more than about how "we" have felt in the past, or even how "we" feel now. In truth, itís really not so much about "us," but rather itís about the One who first loved us and calls us to love as Jesus loved. Thatís tough. Itís a demanding love we should never forget.

            The folks in Ephesus apparently forgot. They were well grounded in the faith. They werenít about to fly off in some tangential direction. But their love was cold. Where was the warmth that comes, not from the initial passion of a relationship, but from the tough work of placing the needs of others above your own needs? This was missing among those Ephesians.

            What is the "angel" of Long Green Valley hearing about such love here? What is the Spirit saying to us in this regard now? We pride ourselves in being a friendly church, but how warm is our love? Have we, like the folks in Ephesus, forgotten any of our first love? Are we loving as Jesus loved? Iím not talking "passion" here, at least not the kind of warmth that is more like infatuation. That is - loving love itself, how it makes us feel. Iím talking about love that - if need be - is willing to die for another. "No one has greater love than this," Jesus said, than "to lay down one's life for oneís friends" (John 15:13).

            Take a moment and look around this room at those who are gathered here. Are you willing to lay down your life for these people? Would you set aside your needs for them, let go of your pet projects, release what you think "ought" to be? Could you do something you may not like doing simply because it might help them more than it might help you? Even those with whom you may struggle to get along? Thatís what "first love" involves, and itís tough to do, especially as we allow the Spirit to speak to us personally, and not just everyone else.

            Now, expand the circle and consider those who are not here just now - not merely those in our fellowship who happen to be away this weekend, but also those who God may be drawing to our door? Would you be able to lay down your life for even them? I know, such a hypothetical question is hard to answer, but it relates to evangelism. Is our door truly open to others, or is there a sign on it which says, "only those who are like us need enter"? ... Ouch!

"Remember" and "repent," the Spirit says, or your light will no longer shine.

         A variation on this message will be preached at the Union Center Church of the Brethren the evening of  September 19, 2004 as part of a series  of spiritual renewal services.
online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Revelation.


©2004 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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