Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
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. 8Whoever does not love does not know God,
for God is love. 9Godís love was revealed among us in this way: God
sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through
him. 10In 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. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love
one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God
lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
13 By this we
know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of
his Spirit. 14And we have seen and do testify that the Father has
sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15God abides in those who
confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16So 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. 17Love
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. 18There 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. 19We love because he first loved
us. 20Those who say, ĎI love Godí, 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. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God
must love their brothers and sisters also.
This morning is the
third and final installment of this little miniseries that I'm doing on
the first letter of John. We come to the heart of the text that April
read earlier, with it's central affirmation that seems so appropriate
for Mother's Day: God is love. Therefore, we should love one another,
for only by loving can we truly know God.
Now, if you were to run across this text without knowing its source
(just pretend for a moment you didn't know it came out of the Bible),
what would you think? Would you think that this came from some flower
child of the 1960s? Because that's what immediately came to my mind. I
mean, seriously, you can just picture someone throwing rose petals, you
know, "God is love. We should love one another. Abide in love and you
abide in God". Almost like Monty Python :) What is your favorite color
:) . . . . . .
When we were picking music for this morning, we thought we should
channel a little bit of the Beatles, you know, "All You Need Is Love",
right? So even though that may be the essence of the message, it can
come off as being just a little trite, because of the way it has been so
over-sold in popular culture, as this simplistic, sugar-coated, syrupy
solution to all of the hard challenges and complexities of life. Syria
on the verge of civil war? If they could just see that God is love. . .
. . they would find peace. Greece about to cause an economic meltdown
across Europe? If they would just love one another. . . . . everything
would be OK. Obama endorses same-sex marriage and Romney denounces it?
If they could just love each other. . . . . . well, maybe not :)
So, you see what I mean? It's just too easy to trivialize love by making
it into some kind of magic potion that we think can fix all ills without
doing the hard work to address the difficult issues. And such is not
really love, is it? It's pseudo-love, not the abiding love that this
passage is talking about. It's a band-aid we put over a wound to cover
it up, when what we really need is that ointment to heal it. And yeah,
like Iodine on a cut, it may hurt -- but it's often through the pain
that love can heal.
And see, that's precisely the kind of love, I think, that our author is
talking about. Not pseudo-love, but abiding love. Love based not on an
emotion that can change on a whim, but in nothing less than the
character of God, as revealed to us in the teachings and the deeds and
the sacrifice of Jesus. As well as through our own experience. It is
love born in the very real pain of human life that knows the hurts of
our hearts and the longings of our souls. And this love is anything but
trivial, indeed, to live in and by this love is perhaps the most radical
thing we can do.
I have in my mind this morning an image of Vaclav Havel, not exactly a
household name, I know. But much like Nelson Mandela, Havel went from
being a political prisoner in Czechoslovakia, to two months later
appointed as the President of the country, and then becoming the first
democratically elected president in the history of that nation. Havel
died just this past December. He was a poet and a playwright, not a
politician. He was imprisoned for his opposition to the totalitarian
regime in Czechoslovakia at the time. He was one of those who made very
real, personal sacrifices for a better world. Washington Post
columnist Michael Dearson wrote that by his faith in civilization, he
helped to save it.
Havel wrote of a call for ordinary citizens to become dissidents, not by
seeking violent revolution, but by working for change in their daily
lives to better our world. Shortly before his first arrest in 1978, he
wrote that the attitude of a dissident "Must be fundamentally hostile
toward the notion of violent change, simply because it places its faith
in violence. A future secured by violence might actually be worse than
what exists now. The dissident movements do not shy away from the idea
of violent political overthrow because the idea seems too radical. On
the contrary, because it does not seem radical enough".
And so too in this text. 1 John speaks of love not as the safe choice,
not as the feel-good choice that makes you warm & tingly, not as the
easy option, but as that what we must do because every other option does
not go far enough. Anything less than the deep, abiding love of God is
not radical enough to live as God wants us to live. To create the world
that God wants us to create.
Now, again, as I said over the last 2 Sunday's, context is important. To
speak of love as a character of God, not just one of many characters,
but the essential character of God that defines God above all else.
We're used to that kind of language, right? But in that first century
Greco-Roman world in which our author is writing, that had to sound
bizarre, absurd, ridiculous. Because in that world, gods were often
malicious, deceptive, capricious. Perhaps beneficial to some, but rarely
ever portrayed as loving.
More likely than not, our author is raised within the Jewish tradition
in which love is very much a character of God. Take for example the
prophet Hosea, who uses his marriage to the unfaithful Gomer to contrast
God's steadfast love with the infidelity of the nation. And in that
wonderful passage, I think so fitting for Mother's Day, indeed I've done
a sermon or two from it (in Chapter 11 of Hosea), he proclaims: "When
Israel was a child, I loved him. And out of Egypt I called my son. Yet
it was Ephraim [Ephraim another name for Israel] to walk. I took them up
in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with
bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their
cheeks. I bent down to feed them". Like a mammy bending over her baby,
is the image. "How can I give you up, oh Ephraim, how can I hand you
over, oh Israel? My heart recoils within me. My compassion [and here it
helps to know a little Hebrew -- the root for compassion is "womb"] --
my womb grows warm and tender, says God. I will not again destroy
Gods' love is like that. Such is the character of God. It is
internal to who God is, as a womb is to a mother.
Clearly the biggest influence on our author of this text (1 John), is
none other than the example of Jesus. For in him, we most clearly see
the meaning of God's love, that cuts through all the divisions and
removes all barriers. And so we read in that text: "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 love God but that God
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".
Just how radical that message is, I think is most evident in those times
and places where you least expect to find love. Last week I shared with
you the powerful story of the mother Abigail, who spent 8 long years
filled with pain and anger and hate, before she began four painful years
of healing, learning how to forgive the man who killed her daughter.
Only then to be told, as we heard in that video (by another mother) that
she must not have loved her daughter as much as that mother did. As if
love for one precludes the possibility of forgiveness for the other.
Mamie Till-Mobley is another mother who knows the true depth of God's
love in the face of tragedy and hate. She was the mother of Emmitt Till,
who was one of the early victims that marked the beginning of the civil
rights movement in 1955, brutally murdered by two white men. And here's
what she said about her feelings towards those two men: "It certainly
would be unnatural not to hate them. Yet I have to say, I'm unnatural.
The Lord gave me a shield, I don't know how to describe it myself, I did
not wish them dead, I did not wish them in jail. If I had to, I could
take their 4 little children (they each had two) and I could raise those
children as if they were my own, and I could have loved them. I believe
the Lord meant what he said, and try to live according to the way I've
Mamie's imagined parenting of those white children calls to mind the
actual pronouncement of parenting by Mahatma Gandhi, a judgment on a
Hindu man, for killing a Muslim father. Gandhi pronounced that he must
adopt the child of his victim and raise him as a Muslim.
So how far should we go in our love for one another? When Bishop Desmond
Tutu spoke in Portland for the annual Collins Lectures of Ecumenical
Ministries of Oregon in 2009 (packed house in this huge stadium, a
basketball arena probably held 15,000 people) he told the story of how
the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa helped to bring
healing to that country after decades of brutality from the apartheid
regime. And because I can't tell the story as well as he can, I'd like
to just play it for us:
What is this incredible capacity for
goodness? This generosity of spirit that can turn a brutal murderer,
born out of anger and desperation, into a bakery of hope and promise for
impoverished youth? That can lead those who have suffered the pain of
unimaginable brutality to healing, to reconciliation and forgiveness?
That it can extend a mother's love for her murdered son to the children
of her son's killers? That can overcome hate? That can transform death
into life, despair into hope, bitterness into joy?
It is no less than what comes from the womb of God. The abiding love of
a mother, or a father. The sacrificial love of Christ. The steadfast
love of God, for all of us.
Do you know how loved you are?
Brothers and sisters, share that love of God, with all.