Let’s begin this morning with a survey.
- How many of you prefer apples to pears? Pears to apples?
- How many prefer mangos to papayas? Papayas to mangos?
- How many prefer cherries to strawberries? Strawberries to cherries?
- How many prefer oranges to tangerines? Tangerines to oranges?
- One more—how many prefer peaches to apricots? Apricots to peaches?
- How many of you knew that avocados, tomatoes and olives are fruit?
- How many of you knew that walnuts, almonds, and pecans are fruit?
- How many of you knew that peanuts—are NOT fruit? They’re seeds.
- How many of you have heard of a mulberry?
When I was a kid we built a tree fort in a huge mulberry tree in the woods down the street from our home. We loved it when the mulberries became ripe—we’d sit up there and fill our stomachs with them all day! It was like free candy!
I could go on and on—because there are a lot of fruits—and a lot to know about them. I bring up this subject because today we’re beginning a new sermon series—entitled, “Becoming a Good Neighbor—PART 2.” In part 1 we looked at the spiritual disciplines that combine to make us more Christlike and therefore the best kind of neighbor. For the next couple months we’re going to look at the fruit of those disciplines—what Paul refers to as the FRUIT of the Spirit. And like physical fruit—there’s a lot we can and need to learn about it—because being a Christian who—like the mulberry tree I mentioned—produces fruit—that’s one of the things that makes us good neighbors!
We could add this verse to our “vision theme song:”
“I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you…a neighbor who shows the fruit of the Spirit through and through!”
Take your Bibles and turn to Galatians 5:22-23. It’s short so I won’t ask you to stand this morning—but let’s do read it aloud together!
Galatians 5:22 – the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
23 – gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
Now—have you ever wondered why Paul would use this particular word picture? Why call these virtues “fruit?” I can think of several reasons—I bet you could come up with more—but here’s my list.
First, just as there are many kinds of fruit—everything from pecans to passion fruit—there are many kinds of Christlike virtues that we should display in our lives. Paul lists nine here in our text.
Second, just as physical fruit is the natural outgrowth of a healthy plant—I mean that mulberry tree we climbed around in produced tons of mulberries every year because it was healthy—well, in the same way a healthy Christian will produce this fruit we’re going to be talking about. And just as the branch of a fruit tree has to be connected to the tree to produce—if we are to bear the “fruit” of these Christlike virtues we need to be connected to Jesus—the true vine. I mean, we don’t grit our teeth and try harder to be more loving and patient and gentle. No—those virtues come from our staying connected to Christ. These virtues come not from our power—but from the power of His Spirit in us.
One other similarity between real fruit and the spiritual variety—-is the fact that physical fruit is good for you—providing vitamins and fiber—these spiritual qualities are good for you. I mean just as apples and oranges and pears are good for the human body, love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control—they are good for us as individuals—and for the body of Christ—the church where we serve.
And don’t miss this point. These aren’t just individual virtues—they are community virtues. The fruit of the Spirit of God is meant to be practiced and experienced in community. Paul refers to this back in verses 13-14: “Serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” The fact is, more mature we are as individual Christians, well the more we will produce these fruits and the healthier our church will be.
This morning we begin with love—the first “fruit” in Paul’s list—and I think that’s intentional—because LOVE is foundational to all the other fruit of the Spirit. As Jerry Bridges puts it: “I am patient with you because I love you and want to forgive you. I am kind to you because I love you and want to help you. Love is not so much a character trait as it is the inner disposition of the soul that produces all the fruits of the Spirit.”
But the Apostle John stresses the importance of this first spiritual gift best when we says, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death.” (1st John 3:14) So, there is a sense in which you could say that this first spiritual fruit—love—is literally a matter of life and death. Loving as God loves—shows we are alive spiritually. Not doing so tends to point in the opposite direction. Not loving others—well could indicate that we’ve never become a Christian and are still dead in our sins.
Now—the word that we translate “love” here is “Agape” in Greek—and whereas it is a familiar word to us in the church—it was not in New Testament times. I mean, this was an unused Greek word back then. God used the writers of the New Testament to pull it off the shelf—and make it popular.
Even though it’s familiar to us—let’s review its meaning. Basically, an AGAPE LOVE is an UNCONDITIONAL love. Let me put it this way. AGAPE is the reverse of the way that worldly, conditional forms of love work. Conditional love is an, “if…then” caliber of affection. Conditional love is based on desire and expectation. It is a love that says, “If you are good, if you please me, if you return love to me, if you are beautiful and you remain so…THEN I will love you.” But Agape love has no such conditions. It’s not a “because of” kind of love. No—it’s an “in spite of” kind of love. It’s a commitment to love even if the “lovee” is not beautiful—even if the lovee is bad—even if they do things that displease the “Love-er”—even if the “lovee” doesn’t love back. I’m reminded of a true story I found on the Preaching Today website by David Prince. He writes: “I know a family who adopted an older child from an unspeakably horrific orphanage in another country. When they brought her home one of the things they told her was that she was expected to clean her room every day. When she heard about that responsibility, she fixated on it and saw it as a way she would earn her family’s love. In other words, she isolated the responsibility and applied it to her existing frame of thinking that was shaped by life in the orphanage. So, the next morning when her parents came in her room, it was immaculate and she sat on the bed and said, ‘My room is clean. Can I stay? Do you still love me?’ Her words broke her new parents’ hearts. Eventually, the girl learned that she was her new parents’ unconditionally-beloved child. She would never be forsaken. She wasn’t some visitor trying to earn her place in the family. No—was an inseparable part of that family. Nothing she did or didn’t do would stop her parents from loving her.” Their love was unconditional—agape.
Here’s something else about AGAPE. It is a love that loves even in the face of fierce resistance.
In his book Hidden in Plain Sight, Mark Buchanan writes, “Agape CHOOSES to love…in the face of betrayal, in the face of rejection, in the face of evasion, in the face of rank badness. It wills to love even when circumstances trigger instincts of anger or hurt, withdrawal or revenge. Agape is an UNPROVOKED love.”
Think of it this way. We read of unprovoked AGGRESSION all the time—like in the synagogue shootings in the U.S. and the mosque shooting in New Zealand. Those are examples of unprovoked AGGRESSION. Those poor people had done nothing to those shooters. His was an UNPROVOKED shooting. And sadly that kind of thing has become common place. But not it’s opposite. I mean we almost never read of unprovoked LOVE but if we did it would sound like this. “CBS news reports that a man named John Doe was minding his business at the Metro stop, and along came a group of altruists and philanthropists who—in spite of the fact that John Doe was a grumpy selfish person who never gave a dime to charity—out of the blue they blessed him with a brand new BMW—and enough cash that he’d never have reason to ride the Metro or be grumpy or complain ever again.”
Agape love is this kind of UNPROVOKED “out of the blue” kind of love. It seeks those who never saw it coming—and indeed those who never HAD it coming. It shows up unannounced, unexpected, and completely undeserved. It isn’t predicated on our beauty or our popularity or our intelligence or our worthiness. It is a LOVE that pursues US—even when WE pursue UNLOVELY—hateful things. And—of course this is the way that God loves the entire world.
Because of His nature—because He IS love—God chooses to love you and me like this. You’ve heard of a “Latin lover?” Well, God is an “Agape lover.” His love is indeed unconditional, undeserved and unprovoked. As Paul says, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) And as Jesus said, “I have come to seek and to save the lost—the sinful—the people who had turned their back on God.” (Luke 19:10)
Well—as His children, God wants us to be like Him. He wants us to bear the fruit of this kind of love. We must become AGAPE lovers.
This morning, relying heavily on the insights in Buchanan’s book—I want us to try and understand how to love in this way by focusing on the places in life where AGAPE love shines the brightest—those places where AGAPE is needed the most.
(1) And the first is when we love the LEAST of these
Now—the “least of these” is the kind of person you are most likely NOT to notice. These are the LOSERS of life. It’s the people we tend to ignore and avoid—if at all possible.
At my mom’s funeral last summer an elderly woman introduced herself and told me she was a former neighbor and the mother of a friend of mine from high school. His name—which has been changed to protect the innocent—is Bert—Bert Corn. Well, Bert Corn was a great example of the LEAST of these. As I said, “Bert” was my literal neighbor in that his backyard bumped right up against mine—but to be honest I avoided my back yard so as to avoid bumping into Bert—because Bert was a true nerd—and I don’t use that term proudly. It’s a cruel way to describe someone—especially back in my adolescent years. But teens can be cruel so we branded Bert as a nerd which was easy to do because he had horrible acne, and thick, perpetually greasy glasses. He used a pencil guard in his pocket—and he always had very red, chapped lips which probably came from his playing the tuba in the marching band at cold Delaware football games. Bert was the guy everyone at Caesar Rodney High School avoided. He was just too hard to love—too needy. Everyone ignored him. He was one of “the least of these” at C.R. And perhaps the motivation for my treating him the way I did—was I was very close to “least of these status” in High School. I didn’t have a pocket protector or thick glasses—and I didn’t suffer from bad acne—but I wasn’t very popular—and mistreating Bert—well it helped push me in the “popular direction” if you know what I mean.
I must have grown up a bit since the late sixties—back when I knew Bert—because as I talked to his mom I felt the pangs of guilt for the times decades ago when I rushed past him in the halls. I wished I had embraced him more as a friend. Bert needed friends. He needed to be AGAPE loved. And, that’s what this particular fruit of the Spirit does for you. The more you tap into Jesus—the more that kind of love flows into you—and when it does, it makes you feel guilt for that kind of behavior. Buchanan says, “Agape overturns our natural inclinations of disdain, disgust, and apathy. It strips us of our sense of superiority. It breaks our attachment to comfort and security. Agape pushes us beyond ourselves.”
I would remind you that Jesus taught that the best litmus test of whether or not we are truly maturing as His disciples is if we love others. We can measure how much we are beginning to LOVE like God by how OFTEN we commit acts of unprovoked love toward THE LEAST OF THESE. Do you remember those two times when Jesus cleared the temple in Jerusalem? He did it at both the beginning and the end of His earthly ministry. Well, do you know WHY He was angry enough to grab a whip and drive those money changers and their herds out? It was because they had set up shop in the only place that non-Jews could pray and worship—the OUTER part of the temple—the only place where THE LEAST OF THESE could go in God’s house. Remember? In Mark 11:17 Jesus said, “My house will be called a house of prayer for ALL NATIONS—but you have made it a den of robbers.” So—to truly become like Jesus we must commit to love the outcast, the marginalized, the forgotten, the despised. That’s how AGAPE love works. It’s one of the places it shines brightest. This week I read about an assisted living home in Californian called: Valley Springs Manor. When it shut down a few years ago, 16 of its residents had nowhere to go. The staff left when they stopped getting paid — with the exception of two men: Maurice Rowland, the cook; and Miguel Alvarez, the janitor. They realized that if they left, there would be no one to care for those 16 who had been left behind, so they stayed and became round-the-clock caretakers—going home only to take a shower and change clothes. They cleaned, fed and cared for patients on their own time, placing the dignity of human life above their paychecks. This continued for several days until the sheriff took over. Rowland and Alvarez’s commitment to taking care of abandoned elderly patients led to new California legislation known as the Residential Care for the Elderly Reform Act. I don’t know if they ever considered that their actions might change government policy. But they just couldn’t stand by and do nothing, knowing that there were people who needed them, and knowing that they could do at least something to help. They agape loved these 16 elderly people—the least of these.
Well, let me ask who are “the least of these” that God has placed in the pathways of your life?
Who are the “Bert Corns” and the “abandoned nursing home residents?” Who are the people who are hardest for you to love—easiest for you to avoid? Is there some AGAPE love action that God is calling you to do for them right now?
(2) Buchanan says a second way AGAPE love is manifested is in loving the MOST of these
I mean, comparatively speaking, it’s easy to love the LEAST of these. The abandoned elderly and the Bert Corns of the world are innocent and they tend to do no harm. So, true AGAPE love goes a step further—and loves not just the LEAST of these—not just the LOSERS of the world.
It also loves the WINNERS. Think of it this way. Agape is a love for the person who does what you do—ONLY BETTER. It’s a love for the person you are most likely to NOTICE—and resent. It’s your rival—the one who threatens to eclipse you. It’s your prettier sister or more athletic brother. It’s the guy at work in the corner office who always gets the pay raise. It’s that PERFECT mom down the street—the mom who never loses her cool and whose kids always shine. It’s the guy who has ten talents to your one.
Well, Agape love pushes us beyond ourselves to help us overcome our inborn jealousies or resentments for these kind of people. It trumps our feelings of inferiority and insecurity.
Many years ago served as the minister of music at a church that had a truly talented soloist who we’ll call Karla Patti. Again names have been changed. Well, Karla did have a great voice. The problem is she knew it—and was VERY proud of it. Well, a few months after we arrived at this church a new family moved to our area and joined. They immediately got involved. The mom in this new family was a great soloist as well. Let’s call her Donna. Well, Karla immediately felt threatened by Donna—and the feeling quickly became mutual. A rivalry began and their struggles almost split the choir and caused me a great deal of grief—because neither of these women had learned to love THE MOST OF THESE. Don’t get me wrong. They were both great people. They loved the elderly—and would be glad to help the “Bert Corns” of he world. It’s just that they had not matured enough to love their rival. Our choir—our church—I—would have been much happier if they had learned to cheer for each other instead of compete. You see, that’s one of the ways that AGAPE love expresses itself. It enables us to be our biggest rival’s—biggest fan.
It’s the kind of love that Jonathan had for David. Think of it. Jonathan was heir to his father’s throne but he saw God’s hand on David’s life so he stepped up to the plate and helped his rival.
Well, who’s THE MOST OF THESE in your life? Listen—bear this first fruit—whenever you see one of “THE MOST OF THESE” in action, instead of feeling threatened you must learn to ask yourself,
“What is God up to here? Why has He gifted this person? How can I join God in His work with this individual? How can I pray for them? What can I do to encourage them?” As Buchanan puts it, “You can do this through a clenched jaw or with a generous heart. The difference between the two is agape.”
(3) One final way I’ll mention that agape love expresses itself is in loving the WORST of these.
In other words, to love as God loves, we must learn to love our ENEMIES—the people we have the LEAST reason to LIKE—and the MOST reason to HATE. I’m talking about the person who has betrayed you, hurt you, willfully misunderstood you, taken something from you. And this is where we REALLY need God’s help because our natural inclination is to HATE this kind of person—we tend to want justice or vengeance—but AGAPE loves instead. Do you remember Jesus’ words from Matthew 5:43? He said that if we are to be recognized as God’s children, we must “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.”
G. K. Chesterton once said, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.” A woman named Regine, who was a survivor of the genocide of Rwanda, tells the story of another woman whose only son was killed. This grieving mother was consumed with hate and bitterness and constantly prayed, “God, reveal my son’s killer.” She wanted revenge. One night she dreamed she was going to Heaven. But there was a complication: in order to get to Heaven she had to pass through a certain house. She had to walk down the street, enter the house through a neighbor’s front door, go through its rooms, up the stairs, and exit through the back door.
In her dream she asked God whose house this was. He told her it was the house of her son’s killer. In her dream, the road to Heaven literally passed through the house of her enemy. The next day she couldn’t get that dream out of her mind.
Well, two days later, there was a knock at her door. She opened it and there stood a young man. He was about her son’s age. He hesitated but said, “I am the one who killed your son. Since that day I have had no life. No peace. So here I am. I am placing my life in your hands. Kill me. I am dead already. Throw me in jail. I am in prison already. Torture me. I am in torment already. Do with me as you wish.” The woman had prayed for this day. Now it had arrived, and she didn’t know what to do. Well, she found, to her own surprise, that she did not want to kill him or throw him in jail or torture him. In the moment of reckoning she found she only wanted one thing—a son—so she said, “I ask this of you. Come into my home and live with me. Eat the food I would have prepared for my son. Wear the clothes I would have made for my son. Become the son I lost.” And so he did. He became like a son to her—and grew into a Godly young man. That day this woman was practicing Agape love because she reflected God’s love in her attitude and action toward the worst of these in her life—her son’s killer. Buchanan refers to this kind of Agape lover and says, “They do what God has done, making sons and daughters out of bitter enemies, feeding and clothing them, blazing a trail to heaven straight through their houses.”
I’m reminded of something else Chesterton said. He said that fairy tales aren’t just for children—because adults can learn powerful lessons from them. His favorite fairy tale was Beauty and the Beast and one of the main lessons of this particular fairy tale that adults can learn is the fact that unlovely things must be deeply loved before they become loveable. And when you think of the change Belle’s love had on the beast you can see that principle. Remember how as the story proceeded and Belle’s affection for the monster grew—he started to groom himself—and became less monstrously selfish—and more thoughtful? Do you remember how once he learned how much Belle loved books, he gave her full access to his vast library?
The power of love to change the unlovely is a Biblical principle. This is one thing Paul is getting at when he writes in Romans: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Because of God’s love for sinners like you and me—we can go from being ungodly—to becoming Godly—go from being God’s enemies—to His children—we can change from being fallen and like the adversary to being forgiven and like the Son. When we “unlovely beings” experience God’s great love—we begin to love others. As John puts it in his first epistle, “We love—because He first loved us.” (1st John 4:19)
So Chesterton was right. Unlovely things—the WORST of these—must be deeply loved before they become loveable.
You know, God’s AGAPE love is unprovoked—but there is a real sense in which ours is not. Our agape love comes from our personal experience of the UNPROVOKED, UNMERITED love of God. As Paul puts it in 2nd Corinthians 5:14-15, “Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that One died for all. Those who live should no longer live for themselves—but for him who died for them and was raised again.” As we close our service, let me ask: What is God’s love compelling you to do this morning? Is there a LEAST of these—or a MOST of these—or even a WORST of these that you feel compelled now to love with an AGAPE caliber of love? Perhaps God’s love is compelling you to serve Him in this church family. Or—maybe our use of this ordinance that symbolizes Jesus’ death on the cross—maybe remembering that act of UNPROVOKED love has prompted you to profess your faith in His Son. If you have a decision like these to share, come forward as we stand and sing and talk to me. Let’s all respond now as God leads.