This morning's Scripture is going to sound very much like what you've heard before. The book of First John is a song with only three chords: God loves us. We love God. We love one another. We know this song. Or maybe I should say we've heard this song. But do we really know it? What's so special about a 1-4-5 chord progression? I also suspect that if we think hard about these three ideas, we might start to ask some questions like, "What is love?" "How do I know God loves me?" "How do I love God?" "How do I love other people?" "What difference does love make in my life?" Many times when we hear something we've heard before, we're not actually listening. We're repeating in our heads what we think we remember hearing before. As you listen to these verses, I invite you to tune in and slow down and really think about what the words mean. Despite what you may think you remember, I suggest to you that this passage of scripture contains some of the most radical, most freeing, and most demanding verses in the entire Bible.
Scripture Reading 1 John 4:7-12,16b-21 from the NRSV
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.…
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 judgement, 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.
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
"God is love" is one of the simplest and most profound statements in the Bible. As I was preparing for this week, I found a lot of authors very concerned to make the point that God is love but love is not God. And since this is English and not math, we can make that distinction. After all this book also says that God is light, but it would sound weird to say that light is God.
However this distinction that "love is not God" bothered me because the desire to make that point seemed rooted in something else this chapter talks about: fear. God is love, but love can't be God because love might not be as hard on people as God should be. Love might let people get away with things that God shouldn't let them away with. Love might not hold people to the same standard of behavior that God will hold people to. And this bothered me because as we said last week, anytime acceptance or love is based on "correct" behavior, we have a situation that does not reflect God.
This, I believe, is the main reason that we all struggle to really live in the reality that God loves us. Anything that we perceive as being loving, we do attribute to God. But apparently God has some extra kind of something that we still call love, even though we expect it to be really harsh. As if God could love us and hurt us at the same time. And friends, I want us to get rid of this notion once and for all. Because anytime someone says they love you while they are hurting you, they are lying to you and themselves. What they have is not love but a desire to control you. To force you to be who they want you to be. And throughout the Bible, we see that God does not have the desire to control us. God has turned us loose in the world with the ability to make our own choices, and then experience the consequences of whatever we choose. Whatever God's love is, it is better and higher and purer and stronger than the love we are capable of.
But I can hear some of you asking, "Isn't there such a thing as tough love?" And to that I say I think that there is, but let's make sure we know what we are talking about when we say that. Let's think about that in the context of parent and child, which is always appropriate when thinking about us and God. If a parent is doing tough love, it usually means they are exercising boundaries. Maybe the child has been doing something harmful to themselves or someone else, and the parent has come to the point where they aren't going to keep supporting the child. Or maybe the parent is going to allow the child to experience the natural consequences of their unhealthy choices. The goal of such love is always the future health and maturity of the child.
If the parent is acting in the moment of anger, that's not pure "tough love." It happens, but we all know it's less than what we want to do. So if God "tough loves" us, it would make sense for that to be 1. a last resort 2. in response to our harmful choices and 3. with the goal of redemption. Let me say this very clearly: a punishment from which there is no hope of redemption does not count as tough love. Which leads us directly to verse 18: There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear, because fear has to do with punishment, and the one who fears has not yet been made perfect in love.
That word perfect means complete, as in perfected or finished or whole. When we come to a full realization of God's love, we will realize that punishment is not part of the equation. We have nothing to fear because we are not going to be punished by God. How do we know? John told us back in verse 10: This is love: not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent his son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
And now I can hear some of you asking, "But wait - doesn't that atoning sacrifice stuff have to do with an angry God?" And to that I say ... maybe. But not necessarily. The word translated as "atoning sacrifice" is used only twice in the whole New Testament and both times are here in First John. The other time is in chapter 2 verse 2 where it says that Jesus is the "atoning sacrifice" not only for our sins but for the sins of the whole world. In the Old Testament this word refers to the lid of the Ark of Covenant, or what was called the mercy seat.
Do you remember when we talked about the book of Ruth and I told you that we get to decide what we believe? This is another instance of it. Some incredibly smart people who love God and study the Bible say this word means trying to appease a God who is angry about our sins. And some other incredibly smart people who love God and study the Bible say this word means cleansing us of the effects of our sins. I have firmly chosen to believe the second option, because I think the whole Bible makes more sense that way, and also because I personally couldn't live with the fear anymore.
Because of God's great love for us, God has made a way for us to be rescued and healed and redeemed from the unhealthy or cruel or just plain stupid choices that we make. Like kids who have gotten filthy playing in the mud, we come home to a mother who is not furious with us, but just takes us firmly by the hand and hoses us down. Not because she's furious that we got dirty, but because it's not good for us to try to eat dinner while we're covered in mud.
Here's what the Bible essentially says about sin: it's a condition of the world, a large-scale manifestation of the small-scale choices we make. It is not something we are able to fix in our own power. Jesus' life, death, and resurrection fix it for the whole world for all time. There's lots of different ways to describe it but those are the essentials.
Here's what First John chapter 4 says: God is love. God's love for us is demonstrated in the self-sacrificing love of Jesus. And God's love is made complete in the world when we love one another with that same love. If we do that, when the day of Judgment comes, we have confidence. And now I can hear some of you asking, "Well isn't the day of Judgment going to be harsh and punishing?" To which I say, it may feel that way to some people. Remember the day of judgment is the day when everything will be revealed for what it really is and then set right, when everything is finally done according to God's perfect justice and righteousness.
And on that day when God does away with all disparities between the races, if we try to continue to live in our racism, we're gonna feel awful. But if on that day, we are already living self-sacrificial lives in the pattern of Jesus, we are going to experience the rest of the world finally coming in line with what we've been trying to do. We will discover all the ways we weren't getting it right, but we will have nothing to fear because Jesus has already covered that, and God invites all of us to get on board with justice and righteousness.
With God, there is nothing but love. Love that is patient and kind. Love that is not envious or boastful or proud. Love that does not dishonor others, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, and keeps no record of wrongs. Love that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres. If God is love, and love is all those things, then God is all those things too. There's no reason to fear a God like that. God's love lives in us, we can be all of those things too.
The Church for All People down in Columbus has this saying that they put on everything. It says, "God loves us each of us exactly the way we are and God is not finished with any of us yet." Are we perfect? No. Are we ever going to be? Not this side of the resurrection. Should we be afraid of how God is going to treat us? No. Why not? Because God loves us and Jesus has already taken care of the sins of everyone, everywhere for all time. What is left for us to do is to love God by loving one another. And while that may sometimes be really hard, it will ultimately bring us in line with God's plan to set the whole world right, where we will find joy forevermore. Amen.