1 John 4:7-21
“What is Love?”
What is love? This is indeed a question of the ages. Philosophers, poets, songwriters, and artists have spent an eternity trying to contain, define, and explain it. The Greeks broke it into 4 categories – the unconditional agape, the passionate and romantic eros, the loyalty of family and friends found in philia, and the love of affection – like parents to children in storge. However, like many things in life, if you ask children to tell you what love is, you get a great glimpse into what it might really be all about. This week, I took advantage of having some great children on site and went down the hall to ask some of our pre-schoolers to tell me what love is. The most common answer was “when someone hugs you.” Two friends looked at each other and giggled and said, “when we knock each other on the ground because we are playing so hard.” One defined love as a new truck for his mother, and another little boy held his hands up, fingers cupped, into the shape of a heart. While these are great answers, some of my favorite answers came from children I have never met:
“When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.” Billy, age 4
“Love is when my mommy makes coffee for my daddy and she takes a sip of it before giving it to him, to make sure the taste is OK” Danny, age 7
“Love is when your puppy licks your face even after you left him alone all day.” Mary Ann, age 4.
“When you love somebody, your eyelashes go up and down and little stars come out of you.” Karen, Age 7.
Love is the topic of today’s letter found in 1 John. This love is not about puppies and sips of coffee; the love John writes about is God’s love for us and for the world. Today’s passage answers the question: what is love? In our reading we find the answer: God is love. We see who God is, how God chooses to be seen and known, how we are strengthened and empowered to do God’s work, and what work it is that God has for us (Self, 471). Going back to the Greek ideas about love, it is the word agape that John uses to describe God as love. This word describes an unconditional love that gives without expecting or demanding anything in return. At the heart of the truth about God is this, “the love of God is given to humans in human form, in the person of Jesus, the Son of God. God loves us and sent the Son, person, as the word of love, the sign of love, the living love of God given in the flesh to human beings. So, if God loves us, then we must love one another in the same way.” These words of Claudia Highbaugh are our guide as we walk through our reading from today. God is love, and that love is visible – through Jesus Christ – mutual and all encompassing, and calls us to serve others.
“Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening the presents and listen.” Bobby, age 7. Love begins with Christmas. It is in the incarnation, the birth of the Christ child that we see what God’s love looks like. We don’t have to guess, we don’t have to wonder, we don’t have to question. We know. We know that God came down to us as a baby, who grew up and died for us. Each year we re-live the delivery of God to us when we light candles and sing Silent Night. As a community, we have watched God act in love, reaching out to those who were sick, outcasts, unclean and touching them. Together we stand at the foot of the cross on Good Friday and watch God’s love for us play out in suffering and death. We hold our breath on Saturday when we can no longer see it, feel it, or believe it. And then, we are transformed by the presence of the love that is stronger than death and will never leave us. Because we can see what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, we can see God’s love for each and every one. I love what Pastor William Self says about this: “we cannot escape the fact that we learn who God is by what God does. No love, no Gospel.” (Self, 469). Sit with that for a moment – no love, no Gospel. No love, no atonement for sin. No love, no hope. No love, no grace. God’s love for us has been made known in a specific person, in the Son who was sent by God. Love is what God has done for us on our behalf in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend you hate.” Nikka, age 6. God’s love for us, and the love God calls us to share, is a love that is mutual and all encompassing. Listen again to verses 20-21: 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 a 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. Sometimes, loving God is the easy part. To love one who is mysterious, far away and perfect is much easier than to love someone you know deeply and is right in front of you, imperfections and all. It is easier to love the One who is unflawed than to love one another in our daily flawed states. But, God loves each of us unconditionally, and we are to do the same for others. Yes, Nikka’s words speak a hard truth to us – “if you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend you hate.” We are challenged with this text to face the truth that we cannot claim we love God and not love each other. And, “each other” has a broad meaning here. John is not only talking about only the people in the pews next to us, or those who are at work or school with us. John is not only talking about the folks who are in our city or state. This is the big “Each Other” – capital E capital O – when we are called to love each other, we are called to love all of God’s children. And that can be really, really hard to do. It is hard to love those who are angry, or make us angry. Those who cause conflict. Those who do not see eye to eye with us. Those who are hurtful. It can be hard to love those we think are wrong. And yet, here we are – called to do it. What does that look like – to love the one you hate? It looks like a paradox, for it cannot be done. We have to set aside our hate and find another way. We have to allow the love of God in Christ to have room to transform us.
That’s scary. It is scary to ask God to change us, and it is scary to admit that perhaps some of our unloving-ness comes from a place of fear. We are afraid of what we don’t know – we are afraid of new things and experiences. Not all of us all the time, but sometimes. There are times when I am unable to show love, and many times it is because I am afraid. We create divisions out of fear – divisions of who is acceptable and who is not. Divisions between countries and parties and generations and classes. We create divisions so that we can stay safe from hurt or harm that might come from being different. The fear that creates divisions creates in us an inability to see past them and to just love each other. When we read the letter for today, we are called to set aside fear and share love as an act of courage. Perfect love casts out all fear, verse 18 reads, and so we are called to trust that the love of God is stronger than the fears we may have. Even love that is imperfect drives out fear.
One of those statistics that I have heard so many times that it may not be actually true is that at some point in time, public speaking was one of the number one fears in America. Have you ever had to participate in public speaking or performance? Were you scared? How did you overcome that fear? When asked about love, Cindy, age 8 said this: “During my piano recital, I was on a stage and I was scared. I looked at all the people watching me and saw my daddy waving and smiling. He was the only one doing that. I wasn’t scared anymore.” Love casts away fear. And when fear is cast away, we can embrace what we once feared, and see that it may indeed be lovable. Professor David Bartlett, from Columbia Seminary, tells this story: “A small child received a jack-in-the-box for Christmas one year. As he turned the handle and the puppet popped out, the child was not delighted, as his parents had hoped, but terrified. However, the child was not completely overcome with fear. Once again, he turned the handle as the notes of “Pop Goes the Weasel” played from the box. This time when the puppet popped out, the child kissed the puppet he had once feared. The boy was far from fearless. But, by loving, he was able to put fear in its proper place.” (workingpreacher.org, Lectionary for May 10, 2009). When love casts out fear, when we can look beyond what we are afraid of, then we can love others as God loves us – without condition. From there we can respond to the call to love one another and serve them.
God did not love us abstractly, poetically, metaphorically. God did not just say, “I love you” and leave it at that. God acted. God still acts. Love acts and redeems. It is love that atoned for us, it is love that redeemed us. And it is love that calls us to do the same to others. To not simply speak our love, but to act it. This letter can make us certain of God’s love for us, and from that love comes a call to action, a call to love others. It has been said that to truly know the love of God is to live the love of God.
“When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn’t bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too. That’s love.” Rebecca, age 8.
What actions of yours reflect the love of Christ that you have been given? Beloved, how do we love one another? How do we love the world? How do we love those who betray, deny, anger, and hurt us? For this is the logical conclusion we can draw when reading today’s passage — God is love, and made that love known to us through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. We know what God is like because of Jesus. And we love because God loves us. We love those we fear, because it is the love of God that casts out all fear and allows us to open ourselves to transformation. We see Christ, and we see those we are called to love actively – not as a concept, but as working with our hearts and hands and feet. Love is saying you are sorry, love is sitting with someone at a homeless shelter and offering them a meal. Love is having a conversation with someone you fundamentally disagree with and being open to hear what they have to say rather than trying to convince them to change their minds. Love is a relationship, and is hard work. However, love is the work we are called to do. All of our mission, our outreach, our service, and our worship – inside these doors and out in the world comes because we know that we are beloved by God and our best response is to live out that love and give it to others.
“You really shouldn’t say ‘I love you’ unless you mean it. But, if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget.” Jessica, age 8. Including the scripture, the title, and this sentence, you have heard the word ‘love’ 140 times this morning. It is a word we need to hear – the word that we can never get beyond. God’s love is stronger than any of the forces on earth – including death. That is a word we can hear over and over and over again. The good news of this lesson for today is the gospel of God’s love for us in Christ – and that is news that bears repeating time and time again. We never grow beyond our need to hear those words and to live them out. You, each and every one of you, is loved by God with a love so deep and unconditional that it defies definition. It cannot be explained, but is seen in Jesus Christ. It is who God is, how God chooses to be seen and known, and how we are strengthened and empowered to do God’s work (Self, 471). How does that love move through you and propel you to love others? In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Julie A. Jensen
FPC Cartersville, GA
May 6, 2012