In last week’s Christmas message I said that “Love is the crown of all the virtues. It is the crown of Christmas, and of the gospel; it is the crown of all of Scripture and life itself.” Paul made that point in the famous “love” chapter of 1 Corinthians:
Even in the book of Galatians, which we’ve been studying, we find a similar statement about the supremacy of love:
Love is the workhorse of the Christian life; what matters in this journey of ours, what truly counts in the eternal perspective, is that love is the driver’s seat of our faith, guiding all of our actions, attitudes, words, and service. I fear that too often we miss this critical point, and think that the measure of our Christian faith is how many church services we’ve attended, how many Bible verses we’ve memorized, how many meals we’ve donated to the poor, how often we pray each day, or how many people we’ve told about Jesus. But in reading 1 Corinthians 13, you will realize that it’s possible to do all of those things and yet, in Paul’s words, to be nothing, and gain nothing.
It’s no wonder, then, with this in the background, to discover that when Paul lists out the qualities that are the outpouring of the Spirit of God in our lives, first of all, church attendance, Bible memorization and the rest don’t even make it on the list, and secondly, at the very top of the list sits the crown of all the virtues: LOVE.
Galatians 5:22-23 reads:
Love is the crown of the fruits because all the other fruits flow freely and naturally from true love. So today we focus on love, and save the others for future weeks.
In the life of Christ, it is no challenge to find an example of Jesus’ deeds and words being motivated and driven by love. Indeed, you would be hard-pressed to find one that wasn’t driven by love. For this morning I would like to consider the events described in Mark 6:30-44:
Earlier in this chapter the disciples had been out on mission for Jesus, preaching and healing and casting out demons. They were sent in pairs, and ministered faithfully as Jesus had commanded and demonstrated; they were doing nothing that they hadn’t seen Jesus do over and over again.
Then, when their mission was complete, they returned to Jesus and gave their report. When they finished, Jesus said to them, in essence, “Let’s get out of here; we’ve all been busy, we’re all tired, and we haven’t even had a chance to sit down and have supper with this mob of people following us.”
So into their fishing boat they hopped, and across the lake to a “desolate place” they went. And when it says “desolate,” or “desert,” the point is not that it’s a dry and arid place – the word means “solitary place” or “uninhabited place.” When you’re tired and in need of rest, “let’s go to the desert” might not be your first idea for a vacation spot, but if you’re exhausted because of all the time you’re spending ministering to people, a desert might seem like an appealing place, simply because you won’t have to deal with people there!
But of course, it didn’t work out that way. The crowds saw the boat, the disciples and Jesus in it, and said, “Hey! Isn’t that those disciples’ boat? Isn’t that Jesus there? Where do you think He’s going?” Well, they deduced that the boat was headed to a quiet place away from the crowds, and of course they thought, “Let’s bring the crowd to them!” People from all the towns around swarmed into this desolate place, and actually got there before Jesus.
Can you imagine the look on the disciples’ faces when they got to their “solitary place” and saw the crowds of people just waiting for them there? “So much for solitude! So much for rest!” I know how I’d be reacting – there would be a whole lot of grumbling and muttering and sulking and stomping of feet. I don’t like it when things don’t go the way I want.
Jesus’ reaction is very different. There was no foot-stomping and grumbling. He looked at the crowd and felt a sense of loving compassion and pity for them. He saw that they were hungry for spiritual food – they needed a shepherd to guide them into truth. So without hesitation, even though he had called for a time of rest and relaxation, he dove head first into teaching them many things.
Now, at first this was probably just fine for the disciples – Jesus didn’t need them in order to do His teaching, so they could sort of slip into the shadows and stay out of the limelight. But you remember WHY they came to this place, right? Because they were hungry, and they hadn’t had opportunity to eat. So they approached Jesus and said, “It’s supper time, and these people need to eat. Why don’t you send them to go get food in the villages nearby.”
Of course, that all sounds very nice and thoughtful and considerate, but knowing the setup of this situation, you can read between the lines and hear the disciples thinking, “Look, Jesus, we’re hungry and cranky, and this crowd of people isn’t helping out the situation. Get rid of them!”
I’m sure you know the rest of this story; Jesus refuses to send them away. Instead he throws down the gauntlet and challenges the disciples to feed them. They gather up food, which is not nearly enough for everyone, but Jesus blesses it and in blessing it, multiplies it into enough fish and bread to feed five thousand people.
There are many lessons we can learn from this very famous story, but to me, the most important ones seem to be the ones about LOVE. None of this would have happened without the love of Christ. First, for his disciples, in wanting to give them a time of restoration. It’s interesting that this first act of love didn’t work out for anyone the way they expected it to; the disciples did not get the rest they hoped for. And yet…without this first act of love, the next ones would not have happened. I think this is often true in life; we act compassionately and lovingly toward someone, and it doesn’t have the result we expected or hoped for. Yet, the power of God is so great that even our meager actions, when undertaken for love, are received as gifts to God himself. He magnifies, redirects, and pours them back out in ways we couldn’t guess or even imagine. Do not let yourself be discouraged in your heart of love; even when things seem to backfire, or not work as you hoped, God is still in it.
The second act of love we see is Jesus meeting the spiritual need of the people. They had spent their lives hearing the teaching of the temple, teaching which – you might remember – was described by the people as “lacking authority.” Once they discovered a teacher with true authority, who knew the word of God and the heart of God, they could not get enough of His truth. So Jesus obliged them, pouring out words of wisdom and truth for them to devour.
The third act of love was more “mundane” – the people were not just hungry spiritually, they were literally, physically hungry for food. And they had none. So the famous story unfolds because Jesus loves them fully and completely and sees their hunger as a need which must be cared for.
We live in a time when the people all around you are facing terrible needs. The need for comfort. The need for companionship. The need for food, perhaps the need for heating oil. The need for a place to stay. The need for someone to pick up groceries for them when they’re sick. The need for someone to encourage them – through letters, messages, phone calls or video chats. The need for someone to check in on them and find out what they need because they’re too proud or embarrassed to ask. The great, heartsick need to hear the story of a God who loves them and would sacrifice himself for them instead of abandoning them.
As we understand more and more the value of the people around us – understanding and recognizing the wonder of being surrounded by people made in the image of God and loved by him, our hearts are moved – compelled, even – to reach out with the compassion of Christ and care for the people of this heartsick world in which we live.
There is one more thing I think it’s important to consider: love is inconvenient. True love inconveniences us in many ways, some of them large and some of them small. We like to quote Jesus’ words “greater love has no man than this, but that he would lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) We like to quote them in part because we have no expectation that we’ll have to do that. It’s easy to SAY because we don’t expect it’ll ever be put to the test.
But what if Jesus had said, “Greater love has no man than this, that he delay his supper by two hours so someone else can be fed.” Or “Greater love has no man than this, that he end up late to church because he stopped to help someone change a flat tire,” or “Greater love has no man than this, that he miss out on the Superbowl to give someone a ride to a doctor’s appointment.” Those sound silly, of course, and they’re not what Jesus said, but I think the point is clear: we are people who do not like to be inconvenienced. If we have the opportunity to do something of benefit for the physical, emotional, or spiritual well-being of another, but that opportunity causes even a little bit of inconvenience for us, we start looking for excuses for why we shouldn’t be inconvenienced.
If your immediate reaction to the needs of others is always to make excuses for why you shouldn’t be inconvenienced, there is a hard and ugly truth that you need to come to grips with: You may be missing out on the crown of all Christian virtues.
There is a reason that Jesus said, “whatever you’ve done for the least of these, you’ve done for me.” (Matthew 25:40) The least of these are made in His image, and are loved by Him. To the extent that we do not love the people around us, we are demonstrating that we are lacking in love for God Himself. If we cannot be inconvenienced by people in need, then we are demonstrating our unwillingness to be inconvenienced by God Himself.
In one of her lesser-known hymns, “The Two Commandments”, Fanny Crosby writes:
"We must keep this thought before us,
In the work we try to do,
If we love our dear Redeemer,
We must love our neighbor, too.”
Love is never half-hearted or self-serving, and true love for God will always be accompanied by true and sacrificial neighbor-love.
Holy, loving God, compassionate Savior, comforting Spirit, pour into our hearts this glorious gift of divine love that is beyond our human nature. Forgive us our self-love, and help us to see the people around us as You see them. Help us to love them as You love them. Help us to serve them as You have served them, in big ways and in small ways. Prick our conscience whenever we choose our own convenience over the needs of others, and mold us into Your loving image. Amen