1 John 4:7-21
I feel that we often come back to music in the sermon. Last month I preached and talked about how punk gave me a lens to understand the world. And then last week Traci, who wasn’t here when I preached, talked about punk and how music helped express what she was feeling. But here we find ourselves again, not as a focus of the sermon but as an unintentional by product. I want to talk about the reading from 1 John which is all about the theme of love. Do you know how hard it is to reflect on love with the copious amount of cheesy love songs there are out there. The aging rock stars are singing about the girl they once loved, the country boys are singing about their love for their tractor. The emo kids are wondering why no one loves them, and the metal head only love blackness and death. I pondered the question what is love, but had echoed back in my mind, baby don’t hurt me. The hymnody, or songs, of the church has made much of the theme of love. Recent song writers have really enjoyed combining the theme of love and weather metaphors, love like an ocean, hurricane, etc. We hear often in the church about God’s love and our love for God but it is often in vague generalities. But in this passage John outlines love both in terms of God and humanity.
John makes a concise declaration in v.8, he says, “God is love.” Love is a defining characteristic of God. And I say a defining characteristic as opposed to the defining characteristic, because there are similar statements elsewhere in John’s letter and elsewhere in the Bible. John makes a similar statement in 1:5 when he says that “God is light.” In the same way, Peter sums up much of the theology of the Old Testament when he says in 1 Peter 1:15 that “God is holy.” All of these statements, despite their brevity carry a great amount of theological weight. Summed up in each of them is nothing less than the nature of God. All of these statements work together to give us a clearer picture of the nature and character of God, even if it is as though we are seeing through a glass darkly.
So we affirm John’s statement and we say that “God is love,” but we need to wrestle with the question, what does that really mean? What does it mean when we say that God is love, that a defining characteristic of God is love? Howard Marshall makes the helpful observation that saying God is love, “refers to [God’s] action. Yet it signifies more than ‘God loves,’ for its effect is to claim that all God’s action is loving.” To say “God loves” seems to narrow love to one of many possible attributes or actions of God, but as Marshall points out saying “God is love” is to say that all of the action of God is love. The totality of God’s actions are love. Everything that God does is love.
I would like to suggest that the whole of the Biblical story can give us a framework or a tangible example to grab hold of to try to understand what this claim, “God is love,” looks like.
The story of God’s love begins naturally with the beginning of the story, creation. But this act isn’t simply a benchmark for the start of the story but instead an incredible act of love. God was complete prior to creation, lacking nothing, but yet he still chooses to create as an expression of his love. As we see in the creation stories in Genesis and the numerous references to creation in the psalms and elsewhere, this creation was an intimate act. God did not stand far off and create, he was not the Deistic unmoved mover, the God who creates and leaves the creation up to their own devices. Instead he is intimately involved in the whole process. The creation story in Genesis 2 tells us of God reaching down into the ground and taking dust in his hands and forming it into the first person. Then he takes that person, after noticing that they needed someone to be with them, and creates all of the animal life and parades them before the human. God allows humanity to join in with the act of creation through naming all of the animals, without second guessing any of the names. Probably should have with a couple of them, but too late now. Then God, seeing that there wasn’t a suitable partner in the animals, performs surgery and builds another human out of a rib from the first one. God expresses love through his intimate relationship with the creation. He knows the humans, the animals, and walks with them. Even after sin has corrupted the creation God is still intimately involved, caring even for the birds.
Following the act of creation and the sin that distorts the creation, God chooses to remain with humanity. He does not simply cast them aside or abandon them, instead he chooses to preserve them, through devastation such as the flood, and chooses some of them out of all the nations to be his representatives. God chooses a family, a group of humans, sinful beings to be his representatives to all of creation. He even tells them that through them all the nations of the world would receive blessing. When I was at another church, a couple of guys broke in to the church and stole the safe out of the office that had all of the money from the weekend offering in it. They were eventually found and arrested. When God choose Abraham and his family to be his representatives in the world, would be like if we had asked those guys to be the ones who take the offering to the bank each week. God shows he is love is that he chooses humanity in spite of its disobedience and chooses to use humanity to be his representatives to all of creation.
God’s intimacy with humanity is also spelled out in many ways in the law. Sometimes we are tempted to think of the law as this standard that only condemns, that it reveals the unattainable standard of God’s holiness. But I think it is more than just that. Yes, it highlights the ways that we fail but it does it while showing us the way toward holiness. It showed the Israelites that even when they fail there is redemption possible through sacrifice. But more fundamentally it shows that God continues to be intimately involved with his people. He cares how they worship, how they eat, and how they treat each other. He cares about them and cares about their everyday lives. Which in their culture and still today is a radical notion. God doesn’t just care about the highs and the lows but also everything in between. We praise God for the good and we pray when we encounter the bad, but I think that we don’t know what to do with everything else. Does God care when we have a normal day? The law tells us that all of that is important to God.
The Babylon Bee is a Christian satirical news site. Like the Onion but for the church. They are publishing a book entitled How to be a Perfect Christian. The description on the back says, “There is only one verse in the Bible that talks about God’s character, and it says ‘God is love.’ Any other characteristic like his wrath or holiness are simply not scriptural ideas.” It is naturally sarcasm but it hits on an important point. The wrath and judgment that are in the Bible are also a part of what it means when we say “God is love.” This is the most difficult part for me, and I suspect for most people, because there are some especially difficult and violent passages in the Bible. But this forces us to reckon with our post-woodstock, only positive vision of love. Acting in love also means judgment and punishment. While I know that to be true I have difficulty squaring that with the way that it is portrayed in the Biblical narrative.
I am also struck by the longevity of God’s love. Since the time of creation, through the nation of Israel, the exile, and now the Church age, God’s love continues and has not reached its end. God’s love continues as he walks with his church to the end, whenever that may be. God’s love is long suffering, patient, limitless.
You may have noticed there is one part of the biblical story that I have yet to address, even though John features it so prominently. I chose to save it until now because, while it is not the end of the story, it is in some ways the culmination, or perhaps more accurately the climax of God’s love for humanity. The ultimate expression of “God is love.” God is love in that his love is sacrificial, found in its fullest expression in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This ought to both humble and scandalize us. God chose to become human, to put on flesh and live in the midst of his creation. His love for his creation, for us, lead him to the cross, to a brutal and painful death. And it was a death that he experienced in the fullness of his humanity. God’s love for us was such that he not only left the glory of heaven for the sinfulness of creation but he also sacrificed himself for that creation. A creation that rejected him. But yet he did it anyway, out of his love.
Our Love is a Response to God’s Love
God is love, and that finds expression in his actions towards us, as a part of his creation. He loved us in the first place so then we respond out of and to that love. John says in v.19, “We love because he first loved us.” Our love is always a response to the love that God has already shown us, and it is the right and proper response. First, this shows us that we do not need to win God’s love. We do not need to act in such a way that we get his attention and thereby earn his love. Instead we are simply responding to the love that he has already shown us. The way that we do communion symbolizes this in a way. When we come forward to receive the bread we do so with outstretched hands because the bread is already in the basket. Christ has already made the sacrifice that has redeemed us we and we are responding to that love. Second, as John Wesley wrote “Now, that we have our sins pardoned, if we do not know they are pardoned, cannot bind us either to love or obedience. But if we do know it, and by that very knowledge or confidence in the pardoning love of God both bound and enabled to love and obey him.” Since we know of the sacrificial love that God has for us and we know that that love has pardoned our sins then we are to respond to that saving act with love and obedience. We have no other choice but to love because of the love that we have been shown.
Our Response is to Love Others by Doing
Finally we have to note a common theme throughout this passage and throughout John’s letter, our response to the love of God is to love others. John says this very clearly in v.21, “The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” We can not say that God loves us and we love God if we are not loving our brothers and sisters. “If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” But, “whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
But who is our brothers and sisters? Jesus was faced with a similar question. He was asked who is my neighbor? And he responded by telling a parable. There was a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. As he was on his way he was ambushed by a group of thieves. They beat him, robbed him, and left him for dead on the side of the road. As he lay there bleeding a priest came down the road. Seeing the man he crossed to the other side of the road and walked by, leaving the man to die. In the same way a Levite, another of the religious class, passed by the injured man. As the man lay there bleeding a Samaritan man came down the road. The Samaritan man would have been regarded as “other” by the Jews. He was a member of a social class that was looked down upon and cast aside. But yet the Samaritan took the bleeding man, bandaged his wounds, and put him on his donkey. He brought him to an inn where the injured man was cared for at the expense of the Samaritan. Jesus asks the man before him, “who was a neighbor to this man.” The man answered, “The one who cared for him.” “Go and do likewise.”
It is popular today to see people as members of tribes. This is especially true in regards to political leanings. People are divided up into Republicans and Democrats and each tribe views the other tribe as being wholly “other.” They are regarded as the enemy. But Jesus’ parable and John’s letter leave us in a place where this way of thinking in untenable. We are called to respond to God’s love with love to our brothers and sisters and our brothers and sisters include all people, even those who don’t look like us, speak like us, or believe like us.