The Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B.
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.1 John 4:7-21
“God is Love”, such a small phrase, tucked away in a short New Testament letter that hardly anyone reads. Yet that phrase “God is Love” seems to so perfectly capture what we as Christians believe about God. But what does it mean? What does it mean to say that “God is Love”? We certainly have an intuition, and it seems almost absurd to try and pry apart the meaning of a phrase so short and simple. But within the simplicity there is room for interpretation, which leads us to wonder which of many is a proper interpretation? When we say “God is Love” are we attributing another perfected form to God, in the same way we would say “God is Good” or “God is Eternal”? Only this phrase “God is Love” seems different from a simple attribute of God like Goodness or Eternity. Love is not an adjective, descriptor, or component of something, but an action. So when we say “God is Love” are we suggesting that the almighty creator of the universe is somehow an action? Is the affection and goodwill between humankind actually God? When we love one another do we become God? Or is the mutual shared feeling God? But what does it mean for God to be a feeling, or even an action, is that a god at all; or is it a way simply to feel good about ourselves?
That’s the problem with trying to interpret an iconic and seemingly simple phrase, especially completely divorced from its context, very quickly you can end up in odd places. It’s at this point where an argument can be made that we are simply over-thinking simplicity. “Stop thinking about the details so much! It’s a metaphor and an ethical charge! ‘God is Love’ simply means ‘God is Love’, and it means that you should love your fellow man too.” All of that may be true, perhaps we are looking too close at the bark of a tree and missing the whole forest. But for all the beauty and truth in the simplicity it is just as easy to look at that forest that we have seen a million times and forget not only that it is made of thousands of beautifully unique trees, but also the wonder it inspired when we first saw it.
This is why it’s important to ask the silly questions, especially with phrases so iconic and important as “God is Love”. It is a revelation so monumental, yet now so well-known, that our eyes have grown dull and our ears no longer hear. We’ve heard it so many times in sermons, in hymns, in prayers, and even conversation that it is easy to forget the wonder and hope that the revelation gives.
It is fitting that this passage from 1st John should appear in the Easter season. As you are all painfully aware of at this point, the season of Easter is about seeing the Risen Christ. It is about us witnessing the miracle of the resurrection and in seeing that miracle, finally realizing that all the promises made by God were not distant metaphors or philosophical victories, but action, lived experience, and a personal invitation to His saving work. Yet because we are weary, and have heard the story countless times, our eyes have grown dull, and it is harder to see that miracle and all its implications. “God is Love” is the shortest summary of the Easter story, it is the complete revelation that God out of love for humanity became human and gave everything to save us.
But what does it mean that God is love? What are we to do with this great revelation? Does it mean that God is that warm-fuzzy feeling we have for our loved ones, or perhaps the abstract intellectual ethical imperative that for the sake of our survival as a species, we love one another? Because our eyes have grown dull, because we are weary, our great temptation is to interpret this phrase, and the whole of our faith, as an abstract, impersonal, truth. Understanding the Truth about God and God’s nature in the same way we can appreciate mathematical principles, or well-composed music, lost in the intricacies without fully experiencing it.
If we turn to 1st John, where we find this phrase, we see that he leaves no room for such abstractions. He begins not by stating the great revelation, but calling the community to action. “Beloved, let us love one another”. He is writing to a community, likely in Ephesus, that has been troubled by schism, division, debate over doctrine, and inter-personal scandal. Though he was writing with specific people in mind, in a way, he is writing to every community. For him and his community, they will only be healed by the love of God working through them. “God is Love” means that the members of the community love one another, not in the abstract philosophical love of “the brotherhood of all mankind” or other such notion. But for the people they encounter every day. Love is a gift from God and comes from God. Being called to love each other, especially if it comes into conflict with our prideful self-interest or no direct benefit to ourselves, or perhaps even some sacrifice on our part, is not something we can muster within ourselves of our own accord. That empathy, charity, and self-giving love we all have comes from God and is a mark of the saved world. We have enough hope, enough freedom to love and be loved freely, because we have seen the risen Lord and know that God is among us. We no longer have to work only to care for ourselves because we know that God has freely given us everything we need. With that freedom comes responsibility. Having been saved, we no longer have the luxury of abstract philosophical notions of God and Love. We must now embody that love to all people we meet, especially those who oppose or threaten us “…if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
Years ago, when our nation felt especially divided, hurt, and angry with one another, there was a program on public radio called “Indivisible” that took callers from all over the country to discuss the current state of affairs, and hoped to promote healing and understanding between people of various parties. I was in seminary at the time and listened to the program regularly as it came on when I would be doing a long drive to my field education site. One day while listening I was shocked when I heard the host say that the next caller was from Franklin County Tennessee. For a moment I was delighted, maybe it was someone from Sewanee, perhaps a classmate or even a professor! When the connection was made, in the heaviest drawl I’ve heard in my life, the caller said, “Hello! This is Gil and I am a true Christian!” My heart sank. “Oh, please don’t say something horrible” I thought to myself. No sooner had the thought crossed my mind then he began explaining how global warming couldn’t be real because God had given the earth to Man to be used. “Now surely we all remember Genesis 8 that God told Man to dominate the earth” he said. He continued on to explain how welfare was supporting drug addicts and lazy parasites. He was in between jobs, but of course that was because the Mexicans had come and stolen his and all the “real American’s work.” This went on for about ten minutes before the moderator was finally able to get a word in and eventually had to outright cut the call. I was stunned, angry, and saddened. “My God” I thought to myself, “That man just represented my county and my faith on a national broadcast. He’s just made us all look like hateful, out-of-touch fools!”
As easy and tempting as it is to want to forget Gil and all the awful things he said, to write him off as a nobody, someone not worth the time or mental energy to bother with, God is love. Only in loving a real person with a real name, story, and real opinions, do we know God. “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.”
How then do we love Gil, or anyone who angers, threatens, or opposes us? This is where we must be as “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16) and remember the other great revelation about love’s nature in the letters of the New Testament. We cannot simply abstract Gil into some notion of the “human family” and love that abstraction, that “idealized Gil”. God is Love, real, specific, self-giving, and intentional. Now, God and Love do not demand that we act foolishly, or self-harming, or against the Truth in loving one another. We can love the real Gil without idealizing him or agreeing with everything he said. Like God our love must be real, specific, self-giving, and intentional. It is at this task that we must remember Paul’s iconic words about the nature of Love,
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”I Corinthians 13:4-7
This is how we love: embodying the hope and freedom of the resurrection. Being like God in every way we can with patience, kindness, and intention. “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.” Amen.