(Modified 2021-05-22: Added audio recording of sermon.)
Several years ago, some researchers asked a group of children to explain what love is. The results have been passing around the internet ever since.
Karl, age 5: “Love is when a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on shaving cologne and they go out and smell each other.”
Chrissy, age 6: “Love is when you go out to eat and give somebody most of your French fries without making them give you any of theirs.”
Emily, age 8: “Love is when you kiss all the time. Then when you get tired of kissing, you still want to be together and you talk more.” She went on to comment, “My Mommy and Daddy are like that. They look gross when they kiss.”
Some of the answers were quite wise.
Billy, age 4: “When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.”
Nikka, age 6: “If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend who you hate.”
Tommy, age 6: “Love is like a little old woman and a little old man who are still friends even after they know each other so well.”
Jessica, age 8: “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.”
But this one is my personal favorite. Karen, age 7: “When you love somebody your eyelashes go up and down and little stars come out of you.”
Eugene Peterson, in his introduction to the letters of St. John in The Message said, “The two most difficult things to get straight in life are love and God. More often than not, the mess people make of their lives can be traced to failure or stupidity or meanness in one or both of these areas.
The basic and biblical Christian conviction is that the two subjects are intricately related. If we want to deal with God the right way, we have to learn to love the right way. If we want to love the right way, we have to deal with God the right way. God and love can’t be separated.
John’s letters provide wonderfully explicit direction in how this works. Jesus, the Messiah, is the focus: Jesus provides the full and true understanding of God; Jesus shows us the mature working-out of love. In Jesus, God and love are linked accurately, intricately, and indissolubly.
But there are always people around who don’t want to be pinned down to the God Jesus reveals, to the love Jesus reveals. They want to make up their own idea of God, make up their own style of love. John was pastor to a church (or churches) disrupted by some of these people. In his letters we see him reestablishing the original and organic unity of God and love that comes to focus and becomes available to us in Jesus Christ.”
We hit the midway point in the fifty days of Easter last Wednesday. During this season, we have replaced our usual Old Testament lessons with readings from the Acts of the Apostles. We have also been reading from St. John’s gospel, and from the first of his letters. Because we continue to be in the Easter season, all of these readings continue to point us toward what God has done for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And for John, the reason behind all of God’s actions is clear: it’s love.
“This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him. This is the kind of love we are talking about – not that once upon a time we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.” (1 John 4:9-10)
Let’s just linger here for a little bit. Have you felt lately, really deep-down felt, how much God loves you? There is a reason why we spend fifty days in the season of Easter – why we linger here with the resurrection. Often, if you’ve been a churched person for any length of time, we can tend to move on too quickly from what God has done for us to what we now need to do for God. When we hear in 1 John “if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other,” we put too much emphasis on the second part, and not enough on the first. You are the object of God’s love. You are his creature, his creation. God knows you intimately – in fact a great deal more intimately than you know yourself! You don’t have to earn God’s love. In fact, you couldn’t, no matter how hard you tried. The starting place of our story with God is that he loves us. “First we were loved, now we love. He loved us first.” (1 John 4: 19)
And here is the result of this correct ordering of events, according to John: “God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgement Day – our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s. There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life – fear of death, fear of judgement – is one not yet fully formed in love.” (1 John 4:16b-18)
Isn’t that a lovely image? “When we take up residence in a life of love.” Think of floating in a warm Caribbean sea. That’s the kind of relationship we have with God’s love for us. You don’t have to seek it out, because it is infinite and everywhere. You don’t have to bottle it up or try to contain it and save it to use a little at a time so you don’t run out. You can’t run out. You are not acting upon God’s love – God’s love is acting upon you, holding you up. You are merely resting in it. Abiding, as Jesus says in John’s Gospel.
“I am the vine, you are the branches. Remain in me, and I will remain in you.” (John 15: 8, 4) Again in this passage, the emphasis is on what God does, not what we do. The branch does not produce fruit by its own effort. It produces fruit because it is connected to the vine. The branch does not prune itself in an effort to bear bigger, sweeter fruit. The branch merely submits to the Gardener’s pruning. God is the actor. We are acted upon.
Elsewhere in John’s first letter he says, “And friends, once…we’re no longer accusing or condemning ourselves, we’re bold and free before God! We’re able to stretch our hands out and receive what we asked for because we’re doing what he said, doing what pleases him.” What is the thing that pleases God? “Again, this is God’s command: to believe in his personally named Son, Jesus Christ. He told us to love each other, in line with the original command. As we keep his commands, we live deeply and surely in him, and he lives in us. And this is how we experience his deep and abiding presence in us: by the Spirit he gave us.” (1 John 3:18-24)
We see that our actions, our love for one another, is only the outflow of God’s love for us. We believe in Jesus Christ, his incarnation, death and resurrection. We receive the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sent, and through the Spirit, we are able to love one another.
“My dear children,” John says, “let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality. It’s also the way to shut down debilitating self-criticism, even when there is something to it. For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves.” (1 John 3:18-20)
“Don’t love the world’s ways. Don’t love the world’s goods. Love of the world squeezes out love for the Father. Practically everything that goes on in the world – wanting your own way, wanting everything for yourself, wanting to appear important – has nothing to do with the Father. It just isolates you from him. The world and all its wanting, wanting, wanting is on the way out – but whoever does what God wants is set for eternity.” (1 John 2:15-17)
What God wants, firstly, is not for us to do, not to try to earn, but simply to believe. Believe in Jesus Christ and him crucified. Believe as simply and joyfully as the Ethiopian eunuch, who wanted immediately to be baptized in a stream beside the highway. Accept that God loves you as you are. Rest, abide in that. You can’t earn it, and you can’t lose it. Let everything else in your life flow from that center.
“This is how we know we’re living steadily and deeply in him, and he in us,” John says. “He’s given us life from his life, from his very own Spirit. Also, we’ve seen for ourselves and continue to state openly that the Father sent his Son as Savior of the world. Everyone who confesses that Jesus is God’s Son participates continuously in an intimate relationship with God. We know it so well, we’ve embraced it heart and soul, this love that comes from God.” (1 John 4:13-16a)
I heard a story this week from Scott Benhase, who was Bishop of Georgia in the Episcopal Church up until his retirement last year. He was describing how when he was bishop, we would interview seminarians in his diocese and he would do a role-playing exercise with them. He would say, pretend I am an average 50-something man, and tell me, why should I come to your church? One student said, well, we have great social programs in our church. The bishop replied, oh, well, I’m in the Rotary Club, so I guess I don’t need church. Another student suggested, we have excellent music in our church. The bishop said, hmm, well I have season tickets to a big concert venue, so I already have great music in my life. A third student said, you should come to my church for the community. But the bishop replied, I attend AA meetings, so I’m set for community. I guess I don’t need church. None of these students said, you should come to church because we preach the atoning sacrifice of Jesus.
That is the only thing that sets us apart from the rest of the world. There are many organizations in our city that take care of the poor and the vulnerable; that provide people with social and cultural enrichment. You can volunteer at the Food Bank, subscribe to the Symphony, and join a book club if what you’re looking for is volunteer opportunities, cultural enrichment, and community. But if you need to be reminded regularly that God loves you, and that Jesus died on the cross to atone for your sins and rose from the dead so that you can have the life in God’s kingdom you were created for, then this is where you need to be.