Thank you for your patience as we make a few necessary improvements to our sound system. This should be the last week without a recording of the week’s sermon. The text for this week’s sermon, however, is below.
1 John 4:7-12 Common English Bible (CEB)
Love and God
7 Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. 8 The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him. 10 This is love: it is not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as the sacrifice that deals with our sins.
11 Dear friends, if God loved us this way, we also ought to love each other. 12 No one has ever seen God. If we love each other, God remains in us and his love is made perfect in us.
God Is Love
There are verses, for all of us, that are essential, that shape how we understand everything else. For some people it’s the line about being justified by faith. For others it’s, “I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me drink.” For still others it’s, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart Lord Jesus, you will be saved. These verses shape how we see everything else.
Lots of Christians don’t have a specific verse. It’s fine if you don’t. It’s not a requirement. Even if we don’t have a verse, most of us have a key belief or experience through which we view things. We interpret everything else through that.
This passage has one of those ideas or verses for me.
God is love. Period. There’s no condition, interpretation, or limitation. It’s not God is this kind of love but not that; or God is love for these people but not those; or God is love if you do x, y, z. Just, God is love.
It’s a profound claim. If we take it seriously, it points us in interesting directions. This passage deals with some of them—more than we can work through in a morning. (We’re actually going to come back to this passage in two weeks and do some more reflection on it.) For now we’re just going to focus on the most essential claims.
God is love. We know God, or connect with God, through love. And, without love we can’t know God.
If it’s not loving, it’s not holy. Let’s start there: if it is not loving, it is not of God. If we’re going to have a litmus test for whether something is Christian or not, whether something is holy or not, this is it. If it’s not loving, it’s not of God. From the smallest moments of our days, to the very structure of our society, our economy, our foreign policy, if it’s not loving, it’s not godly.
Of course, love isn’t all sweetness and roses, all the time. Sometimes it includes hard truth and firm boundaries. But it never leads to the diminishment or degradation of someone’s spirit. If you have been bullied, abused, or shamed in the name of God, I’m sorry that happened. Hear this: that abuse was not God. It was not holy. It was not Christian. God is love. We know God through love. If love does not abide, God does not abide.
It’s a powerful tool for discernment. But the other side is also powerful: God is love. Where love abides, God abides. When we love, we abide in God.
1 John is a very short little book, just five chapters. And yet, in those five little chapters, it mentions love more than any other book of the bible. There’s something interesting about how it uses the word love in the Greek. My friend Elizabeth pointed it out to me. There’s a difference in how the word love is used when it relates to God and when it relates to people. In the Greek, love is a noun when it relates to God. God is love. God has love. God knows love. The essence of God, and the essence of love are the same.
But, with people, in 1 John, it’s a verb. People do love. It’s never a possession or an attribute or a thing. It’s not something we have or feel or exude. It’s an action, a verb. Love is always something we do, or practice.
Here’s the wild claim: when we do it, when we love someone, we are connected to God, abiding in God, experiencing God. Our love connects us to ultimate love.
Think about the most recent loving thing you did—whatever it was: scooting over to make space for someone in your pew, saying hello to someone you haven’t met, maybe it was getting someone else dressed this morning, or texting a friend to see how they’re doing. Think about whatever it might have been—the last time you loved someone.
That, right then, was God. Because God is love. If you have trouble with a anthropomorphic old man in the sky image of God, a master puppeteer controlling all of us, I find this to be a really helpful corrective. God’s not some kind of power like a superhero in the sky. God is love.
A few weeks ago in bible study someone piped up and said, “Yeah, I just don’t believe in a third party God.” I’d never heard that expression, but I loved it. I asked them to elaborate. He said, “Yeah, you know, I don’t believe in God who’s a third party out there. I believe in God as the Divinity running through all of us, and when you and I connect, that’s God.”
This is why you should come to bible study or book groups at Bethany: because there are brilliant people here.
“I don’t believe in a third party God. God is the Divinity running through all of us, and when we connect, we connect with God.” God is love, and when we love one another, we abide in God. So if we want to connect with God or know God, then we need to connect with one another.
This is really interesting, because most of our books about prayer and spirituality emphasize solitude and silence as essential tools for spiritual growth. Some Christians grow up encouraged to have daily quiet time with Jesus. People will ask each other, how’s your quiet time with Jesus been lately? (And if you grew up outside of those contexts, that probably sounds like the creepiest question ever.)
There’s a lot to be said for solitude and silence in spiritual formation. Jesus regularly took time alone to pray. But it’s worth balancing that with this: God is love, and when we love a sister or a brother, we abide in God.
So, connecting with God or being spiritual isn’t just about a feeling we get or private devotional practices. It’s about the daily work of loving other people.
All those things that go into loving someone, those are spiritual practices. I’m thinking of things like, calling or texting to check on a friend, or writing a note, feeding folks, making doctor’s appointments, listening to the long, boring story you’ve already heard 3 times or 300 times. All of these little, boring, essential tasks of love, are spiritual practices. They are prayer.
In fact, I am increasingly convinced that one of the chief values of quiet prayer alone, is to enable us to glimpse God in all of the daily, practical things we’re doing. Because God is love, and when we love a sister or brother, we abide in God.
But that’s really hard to see God in daily love, because people are frustrating. And the business of loving mostly doesn’t feel very holy. I mean, it does occasionally. The early days of romantic love often feel transcendent. And sometimes we get to intercede in someone’s life and it feels profound and beautiful and holy—we get to sit and hold their hand as they wake up from surgery, or we get to make a meal and it feels like a privilege, or we get to give a gift that is deeply needed. Sometimes there are moments in a friendship that feel divine: finding yourself doubled over laughing at a shared joke, or walking and sharing intimately. Even love on a social scale when we’re working for justice can feel holy—when everyone’s voices join together, or when you feel like you’ve made some real progress. There are moments of loving other people where it’s crystal clear that we’re abiding in God, hidden in the heart of Christ, resting in the Divine.
But then there are the other moments. A lot of love doesn’t feel like resting in the Divine. A lot of love is boring, at best. And a lot of loving is boring. Laundry, and errands, and bills, and sorting Tupperware, and mowing the lawn. Love is listening and patience and space and closeness. Love is daily, bodily tasks, and grieving and rejoicing and everything in between. Love is ethical work, and making the best choices we can, and hanging in there through the conflict. It’s choosing our words carefully, and being held to account, and saying I’m sorry. It’s coming to Immigration 101 or joining a small group to talk about race so that we can know and understand and love our neighbors more fully. All of this is love. And all of this is God.
When we abide in love, we abide in God. All of these tasks of love are meeting places for God. Which is really good news. It means we don’t need to get our to do lists done, or achieve anything in particular, because God is as close as our breath, within and among us. Because God is love, and when we love, when we do the tasks of loving, we abide with God.
We get as much God as we want. And the deeper we sink into the doing of love, the more we see of God. Because God is love, and when we love each other, we abide in God.