two person holding papercut heart

Perfected Love

I preached this sermon on July 13 2014 at Trinity United Methodist Church in Hackettstown, NJ.

I was born in West Virginia, and raised in the Maryland mountains across the Potomac River. Storytelling is a great mountain tradition. Elkins, West Virginia is located practically in the center of the state in the West Virginia mountains. A story coming out of Elkins is told of a pastor who had a man in his congregation who was consumed by Judgment Day and whether he was a good enough Christian to be among those redeemed. The man eventually became convinced that the following day would be Judgment Day and resolved to stay awake and greet the day facing the rising sun. He spent the night in his fields, but was overcome by sleep and fell asleep in a haystack. A couple of local boys, seeing an opportunity to torment the man, set fire to the haystack in which he was sleeping. Feeling the heat, the man awoke and ran away yelling, “I knew it! It’s Judgment Day and I’m in hell.”

I suspect that many of us can relate to that farmer. He was caught up in the question as to whether he had done enough as a Christian to be counted among the redeemed in Judgment. Why is it that so many Christians just are not confident in their redemption? How often do we ask the same question? Perhaps more important, how often have we answered the question by saying, “I have not done enough. I am not worthy of eternal life. I need to do more.” Or perhaps, “I can’t possibly do anymore. Living the life that Christ expects is just too difficult. It’s impossible.”

When we look at our scripture passage today from 1 John, we can interpret it to make life in Christ to be almost unattainable. We are told we have to love one another and that if we do not we cannot know God. That sounds like a command to act that sets a pretty high hurdle to cross. And doubly so, because loving others as we do ourselves is absolutely the core of Christian life. But as theologian Frederick Buechner has said,

You can make yourself moral. You can make yourself religious.   But you can’t make yourself love.

So there is the paradox. No matter what type of love…romantic, filial, or agape love, that is love like God’s love, we cannot will ourselves to love. We may do loving acts for others, but we cannot make ourselves love them. And we know it. And that is why so many of us are inclined to be as the farmer and believe that our haystack will be burning on Judgment Day.

So in a world with so many people that are unlovable, how on earth can we love one another? We can’t. But God can. How that can happen jumps out at us from so many places in the Bible that it is a wonder that we so often still miss the message. Let’s just take our passage from 1 John. In verse 7 we find,

Dear friends, let us love one another, for loves come from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.

We have heard “God is love” so many times but it is worth contemplating what that means. God’s nature is love. The essence of God is love. As surely as you will feel heat when you are in the presence of fire you will experience and know love when you are in the presence of God. It is an absolute certainty! You cannot make it happen and you cannot avoid it. And as John states, it is a natural characteristic of birth in God. When we experience biological birth we are a product of the biological natures of our parents through our DNA. Love is God’s DNA. He passes it to us when we are born in him spiritually.

As we learn in Genesis 1, humans have been created in the image of God. God is spirit and God is love and we were created to love like God. We were created with the capacity to love like God. We long to love and be loved. Indeed, the cry of the human heart for love is universal. And we do love. We love a man or a woman romantically because we are attracted to them and the relationship is one of mutually giving and receiving love. We love because

We too often project our human experience with love on to God and conclude that God will love us because we have done things to please him, and that we will be redeemed if we do enough things to please him. But that is not how God loves. He loves us despite what we do, not because of what we do. As said in verses 9-10 of 1 John 4:

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Perhaps even more clearly stated in our reading from Romans:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

God manifested his nature, manifested his love, in Christ. His love is sacrificial. Yes, human love can be sacrificial also. We may sacrifice even our lives for our spouses, our family, or others for whom we care. We may even sacrifice abstractly for our nation. But human love rarely drives sacrifice for the unlovable. That is love driven by God, for God in Christ sacrificed himself for the unlovable..the sinners..all of us.

God gives his love to people who need to be loved, not to people who love him first. Dwight Moody tells a story of the great pastor Charles Spurgeon that perfectly illustrates the point:

Charles Spurgeon and Joseph Parker both had churches in London in the 19th century. On one occasion, Parker commented on the poor condition of children admitted to Spurgeon’s orphanage. It was reported to Spurgeon however, that Parker had criticized the orphanage itself. Spurgeon blasted Parker the next week from the pulpit. The attack was printed in the newspapers and became the talk of the town. People flocked to Parker’s church the next Sunday to hear his rebuttal. “I understand Dr. Spurgeon is not in his pulpit today, and this is the Sunday they use to take an offering for the orphanage. I suggest we take a love offering here instead.” The crowd was delighted. The ushers had to empty the collection plates 3 times. Later that week there was a knock at Parker’s study. It was Spurgeon. “You know Parker, you have practiced grace on me. You have given me not what I deserved, you have given me what I needed. Moody Monthly, December, 1983, p. 81.

The love of God was completely manifest in Parker. Spurgeon was correct. He did not deserve that love, but received it because he needed it.

We are made to manifest the love that starts with God, and is given to us by God. Given to us solely because we need it to be the people God created us to be. John makes that clear in verse 11:

Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

Or in today’s Gospel:

As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

That love starts with God’s nature, but is connected to our nature, and becomes our nature, through the action of the Holy Spirit within us. We do nothing, and can do nothing, to make that happen, but accept the love and grace of God. When we accept Christ, however, God’s love within us, and acting through us, becomes our testimony. We then love others, because God loves us. Not an act of our will, but rather an act of God’s grace; expressed best in the last sentence from our passage from 1 John, which I prefer from the King James version:

If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.

We may have been created with the capacity to love as God loves, but we can love as God loves only when he perfects his love in us. When we know and obey Christ we are transformed to manifest the love of God to others. Perfected love.

So what does it mean to be transformed by Christ instead of trying to demonstrate God’s love as an act of our will? St. Augustine once said that if we love God we may do what we please. What he meant is that if we live in the perfected love of God, we may do as we please because that loves transforms us so that all of our choices will be choices of and for God. Well, the transformation can be dramatic and sudden—something that is immediately recognizable from the moment you accept Christ and thereafter the dominant characteristic of your life. But more often it is a subtle and gradual change from living the life of our choices, to living the life of the Kingdom of God. As one of my favorite Christian authors, Dallas Willard, says in his book, The Divine Conspiracy:

What that means is that God will bring our lives in line with the Spirit and with each adjustment, integrate our lives into the eternal spiritual world of God.

The “eternal spiritual world” to which Willard refers is the Kingdom of God. Each time the perfected love of God flows from you to another you are living in the Kingdom of God.

So if you are wondering, as the farmer, if you will be burning in a haystack on Judgment Day, ask yourself why do you wonder? It is the oldest of deceits that makes us think we can somehow earn God’s favor. Don’t fall for it any longer. Jesus knows you are not and never can be good enough. The moment you accept the grace that God holds out to us in Christ, he begins the work of his divine miracle in your life and makes you part of His Kingdom. He begins the work of perfecting his love within you. Accept Christ and live. Accept Christ and love. Amen.


  1. Nancy Hudec (note: new email address) on July 14, 2014 at 12:07 pm


    Hi Tom….Loved your opening paragraph…cute!!! I also enjoyed the following sentence…….”What that means is that God will bring our lives in line with the Spirit and with each adjustment, integrate our lives into the eternal spiritual world of God.” Won’t it be fun to look back and see all these adjustments we needed in our lives? Not sure if I can see it now (or today) without a lot of internal realization and study of myself. Wonder how long that would take?….. Good sermon!!!
    Hope you and Kathy are doing well.
    Take care….

  2. Laura Stealey on July 21, 2014 at 4:28 pm

    Great sermon Tom…I needed to hear this today. The concept of God’s grace and love is so simple but so difficult to understand and accept.

  3. Dave Trezise on July 23, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    I can tell you are aging by your opening story. Haystacks is an old timer term. What bothers me more is knowing what they are and actually have seen them. I also thought about James 2 about vs 14 or so and following. That could lead someone to think they could good works their way to heaven without faith. Fact is, if you have faith, it will show in your works. God’s love is such that it will show in your works. The fact is we may not like some of the people who cross our paths but we will love them as God loves us and work to show that love in our actions. Sorta takes away any chance of being mean doesn’t it

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Welcome, I'm Tom

I'm Tom Trezise a retired lawyer and corporate executive with over twenty years of experience as a Methodist lay preacher. Raised in Appalachia, I proudly call myself a hillbilly at heart. I'm the executive director of The Everyday Kingdom, a non-profit devoted to fostering a community that helps people find and experience the peace, purpose, and joy available from living every day in Christ’s kingdom.

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