Cultivate Love

(The following is a transcript of Steve Carter’s message “Cultivate Love,” part I of the Cultivate series. The video is also available to you.)

Central to historic Orthodox Christian faith is the reality of the Trinity. But here’s the problem—growing up, not in a Christian home, I came to understand that the Trinity was Father, Son, and Holy Bible.

I never actually encountered the Holy Spirit. I didn’t know much about the Holy Spirit. And I found myself just diving into the Word of God. But I kept coming across—what’s this Spirit? We learn about the Holy Spirit because He’s there at the very beginning, hovering over the chaos. But in the Old Testament, the first people who are given the Holy Spirit, they’re the artists, the creators—the ones that are kind of designing the Tabernacle. And in the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit was for people at a specific time, for specific people, for a specific purpose. Kings and artists and prophets. And that was it.

Now, people like you and I, we found ourselves having to probably dive into the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, to try to understand how to walk closely with God. And then, in the New Testament, Jesus walks this earth. And He begins telling us that, one day, someone even greater than Him would come. It sounds so... weird. Because this is Jesus saying this. He’s saying, “No, no, you don’t understand. But when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, it’s gonna change everything. You will be able to do even greater things than Me.”

And then, in Acts chapter 2—which is the seminal passage of our church—it’s Pentecost. Where the Holy Spirit falls and becomes accessible and available—not just to kings and prophets and artists but to every person. You and I.

And central to what it means to be a follower of Jesus—a disciple of Jesus today—is, yes, we have experienced the Father’s love. We have access to Him through the Son. And we are people of the Spirit. And the Spirit is at work in us, transforming us more and more and more into Christlikeness.

Now, for Paul, the Spirit was everything. But, somehow, I think, for many of us today, we don’t know what to do with it. For some of us, maybe we came out of unique traditions where we saw things with the Spirit, we’re like, “I don’t know.” For some of us, maybe we’ve just never encountered it. But when you flip through the New Testament, this is central to us. There is a power and energy—a way to live in tune and in step with the Spirit. And that’s what I want us to cultivate this summer. I want us to cultivate our minds, our hearts, our lives to live by the Spirit. So that we can be people who bear the fruit of the Spirit.

Paul writes about this in Galatians chapter 5. He says this: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law”—which is the first five books of the Bible—“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. So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies,”—that’s in the Bible—“and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.”

What Paul is saying: “You gotta understand that, every day, you and I are in internal conflict. There is this battle going on within us. You got the flesh, the human nature. There’s all of these choices—selfish ambition, envy, factions, impurity. And it’s at odds with the fruit of the Spirit—with the Spirit having control of our lives so that we can live like Christ did here on this earth. There is this tension and this battle. And if we’re gonna be the kind of people who actually cultivate the fruit of the Spirit today, in a world that needs it more desperately than ever before, then we’ve got to be aware of what our culture is. What our culture teaches us.

And culture’s a really fascinating word. Scholars would say there’s probably a top-five most difficult words to translate. Actually comes from the land and how you kind of work the soil. But it’s kind of begun to shift and morph over the centuries. And to this day, culture can simply be defined as the narratives, the stories we tell, the convictions, the beliefs we hold, and the practices—the things that we do to shape and form a group of people. And whether you’re at a dining room table in your home, you have a culture. Whether you work in the marketplace or you live in a neighborhood, there is a culture. And here, even in our church, there is a culture.

And the truth be told, we live in a world that has dominate culture, has dominate values, that find its way coming into our lives trying to shape us and form us, and, oftentimes, they’re at odds with the fruit of the Spirit.

What I want to do over these next few weeks is I want to walk through each of the fruit of the Spirit, cause I want to help you cultivate a fruit of the Spirit in the culture that teaches blank. That’s what we’re gonna go after, because it’s so critical. Jesus understood this. Jesus spoke in John 15:8, and he says, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.”

Jesus understood that people would know who his disciples were by the fruit that they were willing to bear. He even is talking once about how do you discern between false teachers and my disciples? Because you’re gonna know by the way that you identify their actions. Look at their fruit. Is it something that’s authentic and true to me, or is it some artificial, fake? You’ll be able to know.

Now, at the local Jewel-Osco, there’s only one kind of apple. I know that there’s a whole bunch of displays of Fuji and Granny Smith and Jazz Apple. No, no thank you. I don’t want any of it. There’s only one apple to me—it’s a Honey Crisp apple. Yeah. It’s fantastic. You go and you eat of this, add a little bit of natural peanut butter, I mean, it will just change your life.

But here’s the thing. Apple, you see it, and you go, oh, that’s from an apple tree. Duh. It’s really simple. You see it and, all of a sudden, you recognize it; that fruit is from an apple tree. The same should be true about us. People should see the way that we live, the way that we interact, the way that we engage with our neighbors, and go, “Oh, that, that’s people who have come from the tree of Christ. Those are people who are just different from the dominant culture. They’re people who are just wildly loving, wildly kind. They’re people, man, there’s just something different about them. That is the church.”

And to be honest, I believe the church is God’s cultivated field. And there are weeds and there are things that are trying to get in the way to choke out the Spirit. But we, as the church, we have to be able to discern what is life by the Spirit, and what is life in today, in the dominant culture. And with that, I want to give you what we’re going to look at this morning.

I want to teach you how we can be the kind of people who are cultivating love in a culture of self-interest. Even as I went to the store, to buy this apple, if you think back, hundred and fifty years, probably, we would go into a store, and we would barter or we would trade for an apple. But, right now, an apple has a price. And a Honey Crisp apple out of season is $3 and 99c per pound, and that is a rip off. But it’s so good inside, I have to make a conscious choice: there is a value on this amazing piece of fruit.

We go to the mall—everything has a value. And, constantly, we are choosing: will this thing benefit my life? Will this pair of jeans? Will these shoes? Will this car? Will this job? Does everything that we do benefit me? That’s what the dominant culture is telling us. Just turn on the television and wait for the commercials. Cause all they’re trying to tell you is: “You need this. You deserve this. You should have this. If you don’t have this, no one’s gonna wanna be around you. Buy this. Drink this. Eat this. Feel this. It’s for you!”

And when you see the commercials, all it is is that snake tempting the man and the woman in the garden. And, oftentimes, I watch it, and I go, “Yes, please. Yes, please. Yes, please.” But life in the Spirit is people who are cultivating love in a culture that is blatantly blaring and screaming, “No, no, no, don’t be others focused, don’t be others directed. Be solely focused on your own self-interest. Love you. Not them.”

And so I want to go after this. And to do this, I want us to look at what God’s love is all about.

First and foremost, God’s love is unconditional. Unconditional. Unconditional love in Greek is the word agape. Let me hear you say agape. I love this word. It’s how God sees every one of us. God sees you. Before you’ve done anything, before any performance, any attempt at perfection, any title, anything that you’ve ever done, because you breathe, God says, “I love you. You are my son. You are my daughter.”

It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past, God still loves you. It doesn’t matter what you are walking through right now—God loves you. This is God’s pursuit for you. Look what it says in Ephesians. Paul writes, verse 4, “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”

His love has nothing to do with what you do or what you have done. His love is constantly giving. He gave His Son for you. And every experience that He wants for you in this life is to be grounded and rooted in His unconditional, agape love. And, the truth is, many of us just push that away. For many of us, our lives are not grounded in God’s love—His unconditional love. Because the dominant culture is telling us self-interest love, it must always be conditional. God’s love is unconditional, but in the dominant culture, it’s very, very conditional: “You know what? You’ve gotta live your life in between this box. And you gotta vote like me, you gotta act like me, you gotta like the things that I like, you gotta believe the things that I believe. And if you check off this box and you mark the qualifications, then I can give you love. But if you have done something outside of my standards, you know what? Sorry. You have given me license to turn my back on you and walk away.”

It’s a big difference. And in one sense, God is putting Himself out there—loving unconditional. And the other side is deeply about self-preservation. Just: “You’re either gonna help my life, or you’re gonna take up too much time because your life is just messier and it’s more broken and it’s not like mine and you don’t have it all together like my... so I’m just gonna turn my back on you.”

And I just wonder, like, when people kinda see that with the church, what kind of fruit does that look like? Does it look like the fruit of the Spirit? Or the fruit of our culture?

The second way of God’s love that I find myself just being blown away by is God’s love is sacrificial. Sacrificial. It’s unconditionally giving. It’s unconditionally proving. But God’s love is sacrificial. Look what it says in John 15, verse 13: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Isn’t that just the picture of the cross? And Jesus was willing to sacrifice Himself for our eternal benefit. Jesus was willing to sacrifice Himself so that every one of us could have access to the Father. Jesus was willing to sacrifice Himself so that every one of us could experience grace. Jesus was willing to sacrifice Himself so that we could benefit by having the Holy Spirit.

Sacrifice for the benefit of the other. That’s what sacrificial love. Sacrifice for the benefit of the other. But self-interest love, it’s the opposite. It’s not sacrificial—it’s beneficial. It’s constantly looking at everything through that lens of that cost-benefit analysis. It’s not just stuff, it’s not just job, it’s not just title, but it’s also people. And we begin to put value signs on people. Will this person help my life? Will this person get me connected to this person? Will this person take up too much time? Will this person benefit me? And, in one sense, Jesus goes, “I sacrifice for the benefit of others,” but our dominant culture tells us, “No, no, no. If it doesn’t benefit you, then do not sacrifice for it.” Do you see that rub?

Self-interest love says, “It must benefit you. It must benefit your bank account. It must benefit people’s perspectives of who you are. It must benefit your career. It must benefit your family. And if it benefits all of those, then sacrifice for it.”

And I just wonder sometimes, when people see the people of the church living like that, and tasting of that fruit, do they go, “Man, that’s the fruit of the Spirit”? Or does that just look like everybody else? Just the fruit of our culture.

God’s love, the third one—it’s unconditional; it’s sacrificial—oh, the third one. It’s continual. It’s like that song we often sing: “It just goes on and on and on and on it goes.” That’s what God’s love is. I love how Romans 8 says it: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

You look at the entire cosmos—there’s nothing that can prevent this overflowing movement of God’s continuous love that is available to you at every moment of every day. Doesn’t matter if you’re at the top of the mountain or if you’re at the lowest part of your story—His love and His grace and His peace is available to you.

And God won’t stop pursuing you. God won’t stop chasing after you. God will not stop until you can experience just a taste of the goodness of His love. That’s what God’s love is. But self-interest love? That’s not continual. It’s circumstantial, isn’t it? Maybe I’ll love you. Maybe if it fits in my calendar. Maybe if I’ve got enough margin and I can keep everything else going, then, maybe, I will make a way to show you love.

And again, it’s still all based on a value system. Value is: “Are you going to benefit me? Or, in some way, will you be able to repay me?” And that’s kind of what our culture teaches us. Circumstantial. Beneficial. Conditional. Protect, preserve, you, because you are more valuable than everybody else.

And God’s love. Ah. God’s love. It’s unconditional—agape. It’s sacrificial, for the benefit of others. It’s continual. Because you are others-focused. Cause you see the inherent value in other people and you want to lift them up.

So here’s what I want to do. I want to ask you, honestly, where are you in this continuum? If I were to walk around this room and I were to hand you a marker, invite you to come up here on stage, where would you place a big X to declare, “You know what, in my life, this is what people would say. God’s love—kind of almost like that picture of the fruit of the Spirit, I’m bearing the fruit of the Spirit. Or self-interest love. A kind of love that represents our dominant culture”?

Where would you be? Maybe some of you are right here. Well done. Or maybe, would you be right here? There’s a part of me that wants to do a little like Price is Right and just go, come on, where are you, where are you, where are we? And maybe, for some of you, you might be right here. Or right here. But be honest. Are you someone who just oozes unconditional love? You don’t ask a ton of questions. You’re just constantly willing to lead with love first. Or is there conditions you put on it?

What about sacrificial? Are you sacrificing for the benefit of another? Or are you looking to be benefitted? And if the benefits are worth it, then you will sacrifice. Where are you? Cause our culture screams, “Man, be here. Be here.” And the fruit of the Spirit says, “Please, guys. Be around here.”

Where are you?

Maybe for some of you, you’re around here, or around here.

Is your love continual? Or is it circumstantial? And do you see how this just gets in the way for how people kind of experience the church? Cause, all of a sudden, they can see things, and they go, “Oh, it’s just conditional. It’s just more about them. Doesn’t look anything different.”

I think for us, with Kingdom eyes, the way of Jesus, it’s upside down—it looks radically different from the culture. And we’ve gotta have those eyes to be able to sift and sort and say, “Spirit of God, guide us. Lead us.”

And, every day, we’re gonna have all of that tension and motivation to go towards some of those ways of the flesh. But we have to be the kind of people that constantly and continually choose—I want to orient my life by the Spirit, so that my fruit can be the fruit of the Spirit of God. So that I can be transformed more and more and more into Christlikeness.

So how do we do it? How do we do this? How do we cultivate love in a culture of self-interest? I want to give you three ways for you to think about this.

First one is this: We will cultivate love by removing conditions from love. What are your top three conditions to loving someone? Maybe for you it’s... they can’t be an Ohio State fan. Easy, right? That’s just... I gotta remove that condition. Very difficult. Or maybe for some of you it’s: You know what? They can’t have a criminal record. Maybe for some of you, you think, and you go, “Ah. They can’t have another faith.” Maybe for some of you, it’s about something they’ve done in their past. And, you know what? Jesus, when you flip through the Gospels, He was quick—not to throw the first stone. He was quick to go after, to get on His knees and talk to kids. To sit by a well and talk to a Samaritan woman. To interact with the woman who had been found in adultery. And He did not see the labels. That’s what our world sees, that’s what our culture sees. He saw God’s creation. And when we can see God’s creation, and we remove the conditions, it will be the greatest opportunity for us to be so radically different from the dominant culture and to be someone who’s led by the Spirit.

The second way that we can cultivate love is by resisting the relational cost-benefit analysis game. Don’t play that. And it’s very, very hard. There are some of you in this room that are wildly gifted at networking. Strategic networking. And you know what I mean: “I can talk to this person because that person knows that person, who knows that person, and in three conversations, I could get to the CEO.” And so all of the other people that God has put in front of you, you’re like, “Nope, nope, nope, no. Gotta get to that person. Gotta win that person over so I can get to that person, get to that person. Then I get to the CEO.” And we look at people going, “You can’t advance my career. You can’t help me. You can’t help my life. You can’t help my family. So everyone else, out of my way.” Please, please, please, please, please. That’s not us. That’s not the Gospel. That is not life by the Spirit.

And, sure, you are gonna have opportunities to connect with the wild array of people that God puts before you. But if you find yourself putting value on certain people or devaluing certain people because of their economic class, because of their title, because of their position, because of their race, because of anything else, I’m telling you, that’s the way the world is—that’s not the way the church is. So do not play that cost-benefit analysis with people.

And number three. We cultivate love by regaining love everyone, always consistency. A woman stopped me in the lobby, and she said, “Hey, I need you to know: I leave this parking lot and I see those signs, and a car is in front of me, driving the speed limit with a sticker that says, ‘Love everyone, always.’ I come to the church, I go online, I see it on people’s Facebook, and that message has been hitting me over and over and over again, which has led me to reconcile with a family member who just hurt me.” And I thought about that, and I was like, “That’s... that’s so powerful.” Because if we become the kind of people who are consistently, continually, loving everyone, always—not circumstantially, but we are loving everyone, always, it changes things.

We become people who are empowered by the Spirit, who begin to bear the fruit of the Spirit. And let me just show you what I think this means. If you think about this, and you go and you get an apple, and you actually cut this apple open, there’s something inside it. What are those? Seeds. What’s amazing is that, when you go out and you bear the fruit of the Spirit, there are these seeds inside of it. And when people taste that love, when people experience unconditional God’s love, sacrificial-for-their-benefit God’s love, continual versions of God’s love, it’s so radically different. And inside that fruit of love there will be seeds that will want to be replicated and multiplied.

And that is how things transform. That is how families transform. That is how cities transform. That’s how neighborhoods transform. That is how people transform. Because it’s how God has arranged it to be. God has trusted you and I with His Spirit—with the third person of the Trinity. To fill us so that we could bear His fruit. To transform us from the inside out so that we could bear His fruit. And then, when people see our lives, they would be able to taste and see God’s profound goodness. Because it’s so wildly different from the dominant culture.

Friends, let me just ask you, one more time, is your love conditional or unconditional? Is your love more like God’s, or is it more driven around what you want, what you need? Is it continual? Or is it circumstantial? And over the next few weeks, we are gonna talk about how we can cultivate the fruit of the Spirit. So that everyone that we encounter will see that our lives are radically different from the dominant culture. Amen? Amen.