Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. You might recall each candle of Advent has a theme. Last week Advent I, the week of hope, has passed and we are now at Advent II the week of love. Our text for meditation this Sunday is the Epistle lesson from Philippians. As the apostle Paul opens his letter he prays fervently for the love of the Philippians to abound:
“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”
A missionary pastor who the Lord had blessed with planting many churches was once asked what qualities he looked for in finding pastors within the congregations. He said “Along with the Scriptures guidance for overseers we test them in four things, Bible, theology, and church history.” He paused for a moment so someone interrupted and said “And what is the fourth quality?” The missionary answered, “Common sense!”
Love is often thought to be a sentiment or feeling, but in this letter Paul prays for a healthy dose of common sense. Yes, he desires for their love to abound and grow and he teaches that “knowledge and all discernment” are necessary that it might grow. This way they might “approve what is excellent.” In order for love to grow the love of the Church is thought-out love, deliberate love, and it seeks a higher approval than sentimentality or warm fuzzy feelings. It seeks to approve what is excellent which means the Church recognizes that it has a higher standard than other’s love. The standard of course is the concrete love of the Church’s Lord, the crucified Savior.
Nowadays there is a lot of criticism of the Church’s love. Some is valid and some is not. The popular assertion is that the motive of Christian love is not genuine. Critics say Christians try to be good out of fear of the threat of God’s punishment or for base motives of future rewards. They assert that we do good things either because we’re terrified of hell or because we’re jealous for heavenly goodies. The conclusion of this criticism often goes like this: “You see Christians you are either fear-mongers or entirely selfish. We on the other hand don’t need threats or rewards to love. We love and do good things because they’re the right thing to do, not because we’re scared or because we expect anything in return.” So, they claim the moral high ground over the Christians.
The trouble of this line is that they completely mischaracterize Christian love and its motivation so they can make their case that they’re more loving. Sure Christians do fall into those two categories of fear or reward from time to time, but when they have they should repent immediately. If you are compelled whether out of fear or reward to love your neighbor the root problem is the same, legalism. You try to make yourself good by what you do forsaking what Christ has done for you by His death and resurrection.
From the onset of his letter St. Paul exemplifies the joy of Christian who understands love, but in order to understand love one has to have been loved first. He opens his letter as I did this sermon, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Everything he is about to say in this letter is made on the basis of what God has done. God the Father has given us grace through the Son Jesus. If you remember from your catechism grace simply put, is God’s undeserved favor. You can always remember the acronym “God’s – Riches – At – Christ’s – Expense.” God has done something one cannot earn whether by paying for it by receiving punishment or earning it by his loving works. It wouldn’t be grace if it was earned either way.
God’s favor was won for us at Christ’s expense. He covered the bill on the cross when He received the punishment of sin on the cross. He covered the expense when He earned the rewards of heaven for us by loving the world like no other man could. Because of this Paul reminds the Philippians immediately they have peace from God. They needn’t fear His punishment. They needn’t appease Him to get rewarded. Christian love is rooted in God’s grace. Stated simply as Luther put it sinners are not loved because they are attractive. They are attractive because they are loved. That is the amazing grace of God—in Christ we are loved before we are ever made lovable.
What motivates Christian love is a far cry from what our detractors say. We seek to love others not to avoid punishment or death. In fact loving our neighbor might be unpopular and bring punishments from the world. Loving our neighbor might mean dying for them. The Christian does this because he know he doesn’t need to fear death for in Christ death is already destroyed. You see, we love because we have partaken of the love of God; have tasted and seen that the Lord is superlative goodness and mercy. He is gracious like no other. When we confess in the Nicene Creed that we “look to the life of the world to come”, we are saying we are looking forward to the day when we will live in perfect love in unity with our triune God and in perfect fellowship with one another. We have a foretaste of that in the love of Christ. We are given and sealed with the promise of that love in Christ’s forgiveness in Baptism, Holy Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper. We live in light of that love and seek to love in the hope of the world to come when Christ returns and makes all things new.
Unlike the critics of the Church who claim they love purely for the reason that it’s the right thing to do and no other—Christians begin by recognizing that they haven’t loved purely. In fact they’ve seen how they’re unable to even follow the golden rule to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Christians recognize the whole problem in the world is that we don’t love God or others as much as we love ourselves. We’ve all loved for the base motive of looking good in the eyes of others; to win some benefit from someone else. We have all done the right thing not because it was right, but because we didn’t want to get caught doing wrong. Having encountered the advent of the love of Christ though and seeing how good it is, we see the weakness and sin in our love. Critics of Christians point out these things out and the Christians can answer, “You’re right and I repent!” But the critics will never admit they’re guilty of the same sin. They’re pride and self-righteousness in thinking they love purely and better than others is its own reward, though it’s a false reward.
Often people come to pastors struggling with love. They’re trying to love someone who might be pretty unlovable at the moment. Often they feel guilty about the struggle. They think a Christian should just love everyone easily and perfectly. My counsel is always this: “I would only be concerned if you were telling me that you didn’t love them and you were okay with that. Even your desire to love them is the working of the Holy Spirit in you. He’s convicting you of your weakness and He’s working in you that His love might abound in you and grow. Trust Christ’s forgiveness and avail yourself all the more of the fact that He’s loves unlovable sinners like you and me.”
We are not left in the misery of our hypocrisy and sin. In Christ we are loved before we are ever made lovable. The loving blood of Christ has forgiven all your sins. So how is our love to abound more and more after that as Paul prays in our text this morning?
The Christian sees God’s undeserved love, His grace, in Christ and says, “That love is perfect. God is love! I want to love like that though I know I fail. I desire to love how Christ loves unlovable wrecks likes me.” So we go from there and draw on His gracious love because we need daily forgiveness. Now “may He who began a good work in you…bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Amen.