One of the most important and influential theologians in Christian history is a man named Augustine. Augustine lived almost 1,700 years ago, was originally from North Africa, and was not converted to Christianity and baptized until he was in his 30s. But he would go on to become a bishop and shape much of Christian teaching and doctrine that continues to this day. The way we understand everything from the church to the trinity to sin to salvation has been influenced by Augustine.
Augustine was a prolific author who wrote books such as the “City of God” and “Confessions” that you can easily find in bookstores today. While Augustine is one of the most influential people in all of church history, his books aren’t always the easiest to read. They can be a bit dense and long. It may have been the style of his day, but I have often thought his books could’ve used an editor. It can take him a long time to develop a thought.
Augustine did not have a lot of tweetable moments.
But there was at least one time when Augustine preached a brief statement that spoke volumes.
In one of his sermons, Augustine said: “love God, and do what you will.”
Love God, and do what you will.
On the surface, that may sound like a very permission giving statement. All I have to do is love God and I can do anything I want?
I can lie, cheat, steal, use, abuse, as long as I love God?
Well, there is the wisdom of Augustine’s statement. If you really love God, and everything you do is grounded in that love, you won’t have any desire to lie, cheat, or steal.
We heard earlier in the book of Ephesians, Paul’s direction that thieves must give up stealing.
In addition, Paul said to give up falsehood, to speak truth to our neighbors, to not sin, let no evil come out of your mouth, to put away bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander.
If we fully love God, and do what we will, we won’t even have the desire to be doing any of those kind of things.
Instead, we will move toward what Paul writes about throughout all of his letters and in this letter to the Ephesians. The whole direction Paul is pointing us toward is to become more like Christ and the way that we get there is through the practice of love. Paul uses the word love 16 times in this short letter to the Ephesians.
In Chapter 1, it is through love that we are adopted in to the family of God.
In Chapter 2, it is through God’s great love that we are saved by grace.
In Chapter 3, Paul invites us to know the love of God so that we will be grounded in love.
In Chapter 4, Paul shifts the focus of love away from describing God’s affection for us to an instruction on how we are to treat one another; “bear one another in love, speak truth in love.”
In Chapter 5, we are called to love as Christ loved us.
And in Chapter 6, the letter ends with the statement, “Grace be with all who have an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ.”
For Paul, love is what we experience from God and it is what brings us in to the family of God. Love redeems us and restores us and makes us more like Christ, so then as a people rooted in love, we operate from that place in everything we do.
Love becomes the foundation that we stand on, the air that we breathe, the place from which we live and serve and have our being.
In Chapter 5 of Ephesians, Paul calls on us to “live in love, as Christ loved us” and to be “imitators of God”.
On one hand, that might sound like an impossible standard. Who are we to imitate God or to love like Christ? That is a high order. Sure, God can do that, but God is God and we are not.
And yet, while we may not be perfect at it, love is something any of us can do.
Last week my parent’s visited and they were amazed at the talent in our church. Their church has about the same size of a congregation, but they don’t have musicians like ours, people who can sing like Mary or Sam or Dolly, people with the organizational genius of John or the steet cred of Tony.
Last week, Katelin and Ryan went and saw Beyoncé in concert. The next day, I asked them if Beyoncé performed any Aretha Franklin songs. She didn’t, but this morning we changed our order of worship and Kim did. Kim could do something Beyoncé couldn’t, that is how talented we are as a church.
We are an incredibly talented church and when I look around I see a lot of people who do things I can’t do.
But when it comes to love, that is something all of us can do.
All of us can love.
We may have been hurt along the way and be hesitant to make ourselves vulnerable to love, we may find it difficult to trust people or be protective of ourselves, but all of us can love. You don’t have to be fast or strong or talented or witty or clever. All of us have the capacity to love.
So what does it look like to be imitators of God, to love like Christ?
If we are to love like God, the first practice of that is forgiveness.
When Jesus was asked how many times should we forgive, Peter said, should we forgive seven times?
That sounds pretty generous. Would you be willing to forgive seven times? If someone lied to you, gossiped about you, took something from you in the free store, stole from you, cussed at you, hurt you, betrayed you, would you still forgive?
And yet Jesus said not seven times, but seventy times seven times.
Who can forgive like that?
We expect God to forgive like that.
Every night when I lay down to sleep and confess my sins, I expect God to forgive me completely and instantly. I expect my sins to suddenly be white as snow, with God not holding on to any resentment.
And I am sure I sin seventy times seven times a day.
Paul said in Ephesians 4, that we are to forgive one another, as God has forgiven us. We need to forgive each other in the same way we expect God to forgive us. When we do that, we find that we are the ones who can let go of the bitterness, resentment, and anger that comes with unforgiveness.
As imitators of God, we are called to forgive like God.
The second way that we love like Christ and imitate God is by telling the truth in love.
Now, I have heard many people say that they are speaking the truth in love, when the next words that come out of their mouth are ones of judgment and condemnation.
For Augustine and Paul, letting love be the foundation of everything you do influences the kinds of words that you speak. Speaking the truth is not returning hatred for hatred, but countering hatred with love.
This happened last week in Washington DC.
A rally was planned by white supremacists on the first anniversary of the rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
United Methodist Bishop LaTrelle Easterling learned about this. But instead of trying to silence that rally, she sought to overwhelm it with love and created a counter-rally called United to Love.
She issued a call to prayer and action in which she said, “It is my belief that the way to respond to negativity is not by silencing it; rather, the outpouring of love should be so strong as to overwhelm it.” She said, “In that spirit, our numbers should completely overwhelm and drown out any messages of hate, exclusion or division.”
Joining with people from other faith traditions, Easterling saw her vision become reality as close to 1,500 people gathered on the National Mall for four-hours of worship and witness, in contrast to the 20 people who showed up for the white supremacist rally. In her sermon, Easterling said “love gives life. Love creates, restores, heals, encourages, empowers and welcomes. Love is God and loving is of God.”
The third way that we love like Christ and imitate God is when we look in to the eyes of the person in front of us, not seeking our own comfort or gain, but asking how we can serve.
At the end of Ephesians 5, Paul says that husbands are to love their wives as much as Christ loved the church.
How much did Jesus love the church? So much that he gave his life up for us.
Paul tells the church in Philippi to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” and then he goes on to describe the humility and service of Christ:
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
If we are to love like Christ and imitate God, then we too are to humble ourselves, forgive, speak truth in love, and look at the person in front of us asking how we can serve instead of what we can gain.
It is when we live like this and love like God that God is present in our world.
I recently had someone say to me that they didn’t think God existed.
What that person was looking for was a tangible, scientific proof of God. Something that they could hold on to.
While I can’t offer that kind of proof, my response was that everywhere we see love, we see God. Every time we see someone helping a stranger, every time we see an adult child caring for a parent, every time we see a mother caring for her child, we see love and we see God.
Every time we operate from a place of love, when we speak in love and act in love, we make God present in our world again.
Every time we love like Christ, we follow the pattern of what Paul described as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
When we fully live out a practice of love, when we love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, when we are kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgive one another, we change the world around us and we become the fragrant offering.
During the time of this sermon, this diffuser has been filling the room with the essential oil of peppermint. The room smells different than it did 20 minutes ago. And the fragrance is not just a pleasing scent, but the scent is healing and comforting. Peppermint oil reduces pain and creates a positive environment.
The same thing happens when we allow love to become the ground of our being that influences every word that we say and every thing that we do. We fill the spaces of our lives with an aroma that brings healing and comfort.
We become the fragrant offering that brings life.
May we go from here today as a people changed by God’s love, redeemed by love, healed by love, made whole by love, rooted in love, so that we can then offer ourselves as a work of love that brings forgiveness and truth and healing to all people.
Let us love like God, and from that space, do as love will.
“Once for all, then, a short precept is given unto you: Love God, and do what you will: whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: In all things, let the root of love be within, for of this root can nothing spring but what is good.” – Augustine