Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast. Love keeps no record of wrongs. Love is unclean.
That's the message that we've been looking at this week, but there is one more thing that we must be extremely careful of when we talk about love: we must not get the commands confused.
Christians have all of these amazing ideas about love, about the best ways to love each other, about what love looks like, about what love means. We talk all the time about aspiring for our love to be like Christ's love, loving the widow and the orphan, the sick and the lame, the hurting and the broken. Love, love, love, and the greatest of these is love.
But the challenge to this, and the hole that we've dug ourselves into, is that somewhere along the way, we got the idea that to love others is to love God. They're one and the same. We love God only by loving others. And that's not really what Jesus said.
Jesus said that the greatest command was to love the Lord our God "with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, all your strength" and that the second-greatest command was like it, to "love your neighbor as yourself."
Somewhere, though, we started living the second-greatest command and not really the first. We started to love our neighbors, but stopped loving our God.
You can tell that we stopped loving our God because we no longer do the things that tell Him we love Him. We invite our neighbors into our home for a meal, but we no longer pray before that meal. We get up in the morning and go for a walk with our neighbors, but our Bibles collect dust on our shelves; we have no need for morning devotions. We pitch our tents in the park on Saturday night and camp out with our neighbors. There are no concerns about Sunday mornings; we have nowhere to be. We don't have to go to church to love people, we say. We can do that all on our own.
And maybe we can. But we can't love God without doing the things that He's told us actually demonstrate our love for Him. The three ideas in the last paragraph that are so easy for us to ignore now are the core three, woven into an old youth group joke that still makes me laugh - pray, read the Bible, go to church. If you're not doing these three things, no matter how well you're loving your neighbor, you are not loving God. Plain and simple.
If you love God, you talk with Him. That's what prayer is. Imagine trying to make the argument that you love someone but having to confess that you never talk with them, even when they are in the same room and doing the same activity as you. Not much of an argument. If you eat dinner with your husband every night, sit on the couch together and watch a movie, go to bed together, wake up together, but never, ever talk to one another, this is not love.
If you love God, you know His story. That's what the Bible is; that's what reading it does - it tells us God's story. Imagine talking about one of your friends, but not being able to say anything about them. Is that person really your friend? If you don't know who they are, what they do, how they got here, what they love, what they value, what they fear, what they hope, how they interact with their world, or anything like that, then what do you know about them? Their name, maybe. Can you call that a real friendship? Can you call that real love? "This is Bill. I know literally nothing else about him, but he's my best friend."
Sucks to be your friend.
If you love God, you participate in His community. That's what the church is. We don't go to church to love each other. We don't go to church to connect. We don't go to church to get involved in various things, to discover our neighbors, to build our social resumes. We go to church to love God. That's it. Everything in the church service is (or ought to be) designed around loving God - worship, prayer, Communion, preaching and hearing the word of Truth. Even fellowship, which seems like it would be about loving our neighbor, is actually about loving God. Imagine any other relationship in your life in which you consistently avoid the other person. If someone invited you to dinner all the time, but you never went; invited you to their parties, but you always had some excuse; invited you to do stuff but you never do, then what kind of relationship do you really have? Not really a relationship at all.
And yet, through all of it, we are doing all of these things with our neighbors. We are talking with them, learning their stories, accepting invitations into their spaces. And we are loving them.
Let's just not confuse that with loving God.
For there is still above us this greatest command, and the greatest command is not fulfilled by the second, but the second by the first - Love the Lord your God with everything that is in you. Talk with Him, learn His story, accept His invitations. And then, only then, as a natural outflow of this (and not a fulfillment of it), love your neighbor as yourself.
In crazy, messy love.