1 John 4:7-21
"Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also."
Prayer – Loving God, you see our world of brokenness, of shame, of hate and of pain. You not only see it, you came to us in the Jesus the Christ and lived it with us. You came to show us yourself in him, to show us that your compassion and love know no bounds. Give us the faith to trust and live out of this good news, and the let love make a claim on us, to live love, to share love, even in the least lovable times and places, and even when those places are in our own lives – amen.
It has been nearly 45 years since I read The Odyssey by the ancient Greek poet Homer. Over the years I have gone back and read parts of it, reminding myself of some important learning’s from that epic. What has struck me as I have re-read is how much better, how much nobler, are the human heroes that the gods in the story. In The Odyssey and in many of the Greek myths, the gods are vindictive and petty. They are deceitful. They play favorites. They make a sport out of interfering with human lives. The goddess, Calypso, keeps Odysseus prisoner on her island, far from Ithaca, from his wife and his son, simply because she wants him as her own.
Poseidon, the god of the seas, also keeps Odysseus from making it home, inflicting disaster after disaster on him and his men. And while the goddess Athena is Odysseus’ champion on Olympus, the gods compete with each other, using poor Odysseus as a pawn in their power struggles with one another. Sounds a lot like our modern day gods of commerce and politics playing with human lives as if they are chess pieces.
It is no wonder that the Greek philosopher Socrates did not encourage his students to read these stories. He thought that the gods in Greek poetry were immoral and unworthy of respect. Like many, he gave the gods their due, probably observed the public rituals, but after that left the gods alone. And this view of the ancient gods was fairly common. Don’t let the ancient gods become too involved with you, because any glory you won from the gods would be offset by a greater measure of suffering. Getting involved with the gods was dangerous and to be avoided.
Perhaps this ancient Greek understanding has a lot to do with the world’s current perception of God. I don’t think we can deny that many live their lives this way. A lot of people come to church asking for baptisms or for weddings or for funerals. They want to do the ‘right thing,’ to offer the appropriate religious respect, but many of them also keep a careful distance. They don’t really trust that God wants the very best for them, that God loves them, that God is just waiting to judge and punish them for one misstep along this journey called life. Yet, for some reason, they think it is important to get the imprint, perhaps the divine approval of God at crucial moments in their lives, but they are wary of greater exposure.
Perhaps much of this mistrust of God and God’s love goes back to the gods of Greek mythology. Perhaps this mistrust of God and God’s love comes from toxic theology that is espoused from far too many pulpits in our world today. Toxic theology that proclaims that ‘if, then’ theology that results in a mistrust of a God who wants nothing more of us than to accept God’s endless love and grace. Perhaps this mistrust of God comes from harmful relationships with parents, grandparents, teachers, siblings, friends, spouses, partners who have led us to believe that love is a commodity traded only if we behave a certain way. No matter the source of this human mistrust of the divine – it is a real concern for the human heart.
Our scripture passage this morning contains the well-known verse, “God is love.” Christians and others have become very familiar with this idea, perhaps too familiar. We do not realize what an astounding idea of God this is. To the ancient world, this would have been a shocking notion or simply absurd. That is why the Apostle Paul described the good news of Jesus Christ as folly as foolishness to the Greeks. The idea, notion, that God is love goes go against both the ancient and modern experience of life.
Think of how the vast majority of this planet’s inhabitants experience life – poverty, infant mortality, recurring famine, fatal epidemic, natural disasters, deadly war. And even in Europe and North America, as so many struggle with joblessness and foreclosure, with the disparities between the 1% and the rest of us, to claim that God is love goes against so much of our common, human experience. I can’t tell you how many times I hear people I visit in the hospital who believe deep in their heart that whatever catastrophe they are dealing with is because God is ‘giving them what they deserve’ for some misstep along the way. If that belief is true, then it is hard to fathom the idea of a God is love.
Nevertheless, we as Christians persist. We proclaim that God’s love transcends and pervades the common human experience. Perhaps today we Christians sometimes proclaim this too glibly. Perhaps we sentimentalize this love. Perhaps we, when things are going right for ourselves, forget that this is not the case for everyone. We forget that God’s love is not obvious for everybody.
The simple and yet most difficult reality is that it all begins with God’s love. God is the source and definition of love. God loves as the sun shines, love expresses who God is. God’s love is passion expressed in action. God made love real and present in Jesus whose love included everyone, not just the religious elite. God’s love does not depend on our initiative or on our worthiness – repeat. We don’t have to reach out to God or even believe in God in order to be loved. We don’t have to clean up our act before God can love us. We don’t have to measure up to some standard in order to be loved by God. No, God showers love on us whether we deserve it or not.
The writer of 1 John insists that the more fully and completely we open ourselves up to God, the more immense reality of God’s love dawns on us. When we open ourselves up to the warmth and light of God’s presence, we find that even our deepest, darkest secrets and the ugliest parts of ourselves are NOT beyond God’s reach. Nothing in us is so broken or so filthy that God is unwilling or unable to touch us with the gentle touch of grace and love. God embraces us just as we are, loves us just as we are, and works in us make us whole and new.
That is what life is all about. From the moment we are born until the moment we die; every second, every minute, every hour, every day, every month, every year, every decade, and every moment in between, God is trying to teach us one thing – to be embraced by, to feel the depth and breadth of God’s deep and never-ending love. Such self-giving love is too wonderful to keep to ourselves. To know God’s love is to overflow with God’s love. How can we possibly love God while we hate, exclude, fail to see God’s beloved? Seeing ourselves as God’s beloved means seeing our sisters and brothers as God’s loved ones too. That is sometimes really hard because I really want God to dislike, disapprove, withhold God’s love from those who think, behave, live differently than I do. But thankfully God doesn’t follow Mike’s path of loving; rather God loves each and every person God has created in God’s image. God lives and loves in each and every person. We are not gods, but we are God’s and God’s love is incarnate in us just as it was in Jesus the Christ.
The author of 1 John calls us to love as God loves. The first century Christians for whom 1 John was originally written were in conflict about the boundaries of the faith community, about theology, about false teaching. The whole foundation of 1 John suggests that if we love others as God has loved us, there can be no boundaries. God’s love made visible and present in Jesus, is the source of the love we share with others. Jesus ignored the limits that religious communities imposed. He ate and talked with people whom the religious leaders had rejected as heretics, as sinful, as filthy and despicable. He touched people who were considered untouchable and welcomed people whom everyone else kicked out. His harshest words were reserved not for the impure, but for unloving, self-righteous people who saw some of God’s children as beneath their attention and certainly not as unworthy of their love. If Jesus shows us what God’s love is like, then there can be no doubt how far our love for others must extend – to every single human being, particularly those we would just as soon not love.
Such love can never originate with us. It is not our own, weak, limited love that we share with God’s beloved. No, we are called to open ourselves to God’s love so that God can love others through us. When we love one another, we re-present God to the world. By allowing the love that God has showered on us to overflow onto our sisters and brothers, we make divine love real and visible in the ordinary lives of ordinary people. God invites us to accept the deep well of God’s love to live in us, so that we can welcome outcasts and touch untouchables and heal the broken. When God’s unimaginable, limitless love comes alive in us; we become the real presence of God in the world. Friends, it is pretty simple, it is all about love – thanks be to God – amen.
To proclaim that God’s love is counter-intuitive. To believe that God is love is to commit ourselves to a counter-cultural, even a radical confession, or it is a fantasy of the highest order, sentimentalist claptrap, the opiate of the masses. It is one or the other. There is no middle ground here. Either we are bearers of a new truth about God and the world, or we are above all pitied as the greatest of fools.