What LOVE Looks Like

Based on Matthew 21.23-32

Just a couple of years ago, a man lay down under a large shade tree in a church yard in a small Tennessee town as the congregation entered the sanctuary.

The man looked homeless in a long coat and covered in a blanket, all scruffy and disheveled and filthy-looking.

Not many people took notice. They passed right by him.

As the service started, the new pastor, his name was Willy Lyle, who was being installed on that very Sunday morning as the new pastor, he entered the pulpit and asked if anyone had seen the homeless man who was laying under the tree out front.

There were a few grumbles, but, as expected, not a lot of response.

The new past

or went on to preach about emulating Christ and not judging others based on their appearances.

And then the congregation was surprised to hear Pastor Willie reveal that he was actually the homeless man earlier in the day.

He had gotten cleaned up right before the service began.

He revealed that he had spent the last five days living on the streets and had moved to the churchyard Sunday morning as an experiment to see how he would be treated.

I imagine the congregation was pretty silent at that point…

Loving one another

I think we probably get that message very clearly.

We know what Jesus calls us to do, and we simply pick and choose the people or situations in which we decide to act upon Jesus’s call and commandment to “love one another as I have first loved you” (John 13.34).

I’m pretty sure I’ve preached to you before that we’re really good at coming to church each Sunday, to praying, to helping out with the ministries here.

We’re good at reading our Bibles and holding Bible studies to better understand what Jesus calls us to do.

What we tend to wrestle with is actually doing what Jesus calls us to do.

That’s the hard part.

Now, my purpose today is not to admonish anyone.

Otherwise, maybe I would have dressed up as a homeless man…

Or as a drug abuser.

Or a Muslim.

Or ex-con.

Or fill in the blank, right?

But I love how Jesus approaches this topic today, because we can’t help but see when we read this passage what Jesus is really getting at.

He enters the argument through the illustration of how his own and John the Baptist’s authority were questioned.

In our reading in Matthew 21.23-32 today, we see Jesus preaching in the temple and the Pharisees — the religions leaders — basically ask Jesus: “Who do you think you are to be teaching here?”

They specifically ask “By what authority are you doing these things?”

Like “Who said you could be here!”

I think for drama’s sake, Pastor Willie down in Tennessee should have just walked up to the pulpit in his homeless garb and started preaching…

That would have punctuated well this passage today.

Jesus was from Nazareth.

That is as far across the other side of the tracks as one can get in the Jewish world.

The Pharisees questioning Jesus, well they summer on the Vineyard and shop at Saks Fifth Avenue and drive Maseratis.

And rather than revealing his true playing cards — that Jesus is the messiah, the Son of God — he asks them by what authority John had to baptize people.

Was it from God or from humans?

Either way they answer, it’s going to put them in hot water.

Because if they say God gave John the authority, then Jesus will call them hypocrites for not believing John.

And if they answer from humans, well, the crowds would pounce upon the Pharisees because they believed John to be a prophet.

The Pharisees can’t win here, and because they can’t answer, Jesus refuses to tell them of his authority.

Back to Pastor Willie:

If he actually got up to preach as this filthy homeless man, and his message began how we shouldn’t judge one another by their appearances, what would his congregation have done?

The same, I bet.

They might have said something like “Sir, you can’t preach here.”

In other words, the homeless man didn’t have authority to stand at the pulpit and preach.

And he might have answered, “Why? God told me to speak to you about this. About loving one another as Jesus first loved us…”

Well, we can say this homeless man wasn’t Jesus.

But at the same time, we can’t say that Jesus isn’t within us.

Or within him.

“Whatever you do to the least, you do for me.” Remember?

The two sons

Back to the Temple:

Jesus continues to teach, and it’s again at the Pharisees’ expense.

In the second part of this reading, Jesus tells of the two sons, the first who first disobeys his father’s wishes, but then turns and ends up doing as his father asked of him.

This son has a change of heart.

But the second says he will obey his father’s request — absolutely — but then never does what his father asks him to do.

Jesus asks in verse 31: “Which did the father’s will?”

And the Pharisees answer easily and correctly, “The first.”

And in so answering, the Pharisees convict themselves.


Because Jesus tells them that when John the Baptist — the prophet who came to clear the way for Jesus — came, the Pharisees didn’t believe him.

But the the tax collectors and prostitutes — in other words, those who have been sinning openly — did believe John.

See, they, like the first son, had a change of heart, too.

In other words, the tax collectors and the prostitutes were like the first son who said they wouldn’t follow the father’s will, but then later, turned around and did.

But the Pharisees are like the second son, who say they will do the father’s will, but lie to his face and never have any intention of following the father’s will.

It’s all just for show.

Those who don’t seem like they have authority in the world, but do God’s will and believe in Christ will enter into the kingdom of God.

Those who appear as if they have authority but never do God’s will, won’t.

Jesus says if they do not change their minds, they won’t be given God’s kingdom.

Changing minds

When we change our minds, what we are really doing is that churchy word repenting.

Repent means to change directions. To turn away from.

It’s not just stopping what we’re doing that’s keeping us from doing God’s will; it’s turning away from doing it because it’s what God asks us to do.

Now, we need to reframe that, because, like I said, we don’t respond well to admonishment, and we shouldn’t expect that the way to love Christ is through admonishment.

It’s through love.

Jesus didn’t say “Don’t do this stuff.”

Jesus’s commandments were to “DO stuff.”

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22.37-39).

We don’t have to walk around as some sort of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” the way the Rev. Jonathan Edwards taught in the 1700s.

No, Fear of God means that we are in awe of God.

God is that awesome.

And so if God is that awesome — and God certainly is — then why not honor God by loving one another as Jesus FIRST loves us?

You see — and I say it a lot, and I know a whole lot of people don’t like to hear it — but we are broken people in a broken world.

We are sinners, and we continue to tell our father, “Yeah, I will gladly do your will,” and then we turn around and never do it.

Instead, we do the very opposite.

Do we let God down?

No. We don’t hold God up.

God holds us up.

Remember that.

But the question doesn’t have to be what we lose when we don’t love like Jesus first loved;

The question is what do we gain when we love like Jesus first loved?

When we follow God’s will for our lives?

And a word of caution and clarification here:

When I say what we gain, I don’t mean that there is some cosmic scale that allows us into God’s kingdom through our acts;

Because we’re allowed into God’s kingdom because of God’s grace and only God’s grace.

That’s why Jesus says “How I FIRST loved you.”

Jesus loved us first — never, ever, forget that…

For love

What we’re talking about here is that we should want to do God’s will in our lives.

And the church says “Amen.”

The problem is, we don’t always do that.

And we don’t like to say “amen” to that.

So what does that mean?

Well, when we turn away from that which God doesn't want us to do, we are NOT acting in love.

But when we turn toward what God wants us to do, we are acting in love.

Did Jesus put conditions on what love looks like?


Instead, he told us that we are to love everyone.

That’s because we're all brothers and sisters — not only in Christ, but because God made us all and we’re all God’s children.

There are no conditions to that.

And we see that because of how Jesus modeled what love looks like.

* Jesus saved a prostitute who was about to be stoned to death.

And because of his love, she turned away from the darkness and turned to God.

* Jesus befriended the tax collectors — those who cheated people and preyed on their vulnerabilities.

And because of his love, they turned away from the darkness and turned to God.

* Jesus saved a foreign pagan woman’s daughter from sickness.

And because of his love, she turned away from the darkness and turned to God.

* Jesus honored a Roman centurion — an enemy of Israel’s — who requested Jesus to heal his servant.

And because of his love, he turned away from the darkness and turned to God.

* And Jesus promised eternal life to a convicted criminal who hung on the cross right beside him.

And because of his love, he turned away from the darkness and turned to God.

What we gain

When we honor, heal, help and love one another — no matter who they are or what they have done — we are following Jesus out of love.

And we are showing them, each other and even ourselves, what it means to turn away from the darkness and turn to God.

This is what Jesus offers us.

This is what Jesus offered the Pharisees in this lesson.

It’s not only about what they lose;

it’s more about what they gain.

And so it’s not only about what we lose;

it’s more about what we gain.

Tradition, Culture

It’s hard for us to break with our traditions, with what we have been taught and learned and what has been engrained in our culture — our social, political and even moral culture.

We know people in this world — and maybe in this congregation — who believe that those with different color skin, religions or preferences are less than us and so deserve less.

When we turn away from them, we are turning them — and, listen, ourselves — toward the darkness.

That’s on us. It just is…

That’s us asking “by what authority do they have to be given love?”

And certainly, that’s us answering the father “Yes, I’ll do your will” and never having any intention of honoring it.

Do you see that this is how we turn away from God?

We come here.

We read the word.

We take communion.

We take vows.

We worship God.

We hear and we learn.

Jesus asks us, are we the first son or the second?

Who Are We?

I know for a fact, I am … both.

I flat-out refuse sometimes, then I turn and follow.

And sometimes, I just flat-out say, “Lord, I will do your will.”

And then I don’t.

But, like you, I keep coming back here.

I keep reading the word.

I take communion.

I take vows.

I worship God.

I hear and I learn.

And I pray. And I ask forgiveness.

And Jesus first loves.

And my love expands.

And I grow in love.

And that’s what we do, too.

All of us.

This is how we grow in love.

And this is how we grow in the love of all of God’s people.

So next time we want to question anyone’s authority to be given love, think of how Jesus loved us this way

— and how God loved us so much that God gave us Jesus on the cross to forgive us for not loving.

It’s easy to love Pastor Willie, isn’t it?

It’s hard to love the homeless guy.

We base what kind of love we give on their authority — or lack thereof.

But Jesus says no.

He doesn’t differentiate.

Instead, Jesus tells us to love like he did — to do God’s will.

Even if we’re like the first son who refuses at first.

With love, we’ll come around.

That’s what transformation is.

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