1 John 4
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.
This is our last week with first John. This letter was written as a follow up to John’s Gospel. Once people read, heard and experienced the community of faith rooted in John’s Gospel, they came to believe in Jesus Christ the savior. Well sort of, maybe. People came to some form of the faith taught by Jesus and his followers, but there were other teachers infiltrating the church communities who taught other things. People were being taught that Jesus was not really human, that Christmas was not really what it seemed, that the word of God was never really made flesh and dwelling amongst us, Jesus was seen as a sort of spiritual being that just gave the illusion of being like us.
First John was written to correct this and help protect the faithful from other teachings. Last week, we heard the author of 1st John give some tools to the community to judge what teachers and preachers were saying. They had to ask “do they preach Jesus was the word made flesh”. That was the way to measure and figure out if someone was from God. Recognizing the word of God becoming flesh is not just a sentence of doctrine on a list of 100s of other beliefs. The word of God becoming flesh is a way of life. It is seeing and knowing God is in the world, in suffering, in storms, in the valley of the shadow of death, with the ignored and unlistened to, with separated families on our borders, with the struggling poor, with the mistreated, addicted and okay. It is the assurance of God’s salvation, reassurance we can trust God’s promises and a sign of God’s great love for us.
This week, we see the next tool given to the community to judge teachers and verify their words are from God. We just heard 1st John’s famous verses on love. We are used to them as readings for weddings or engagements, kind words directing us to care for each other, the kind of bible verses we see printed on coffee cups, t-shirts and church banners. Really, these bold proclamations of God’s love, verses like “we love because he first loved us”, “God is love” and the growing in popularity “Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars” have two purposes. They are expressions of Christianity’s main point, not that we loved God, not that we earned our salvation by decisions or good works, but rather that God loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins, that Jesus did what we could not. These verses are also tools given to the church to judge and evaluate the words of teachers. Like we ask “do they point to the word of God made flesh and dwelling amongst us, we also ask “does what teachers of God say point to love, create love, push God’s love above everything else, inspire love of neighbor”, We ask does what they say and do point to God’s active, saving love for all people. If the answer to any of those questions is no, or I’m not sure, the speaker should be shut up before they hurt more people, prayed for and taught. If that fails they should be chased away, shut down and dismissed. Others need to be warned as well.
These decisions and judgments are not made lightly. Not everything perspective I or you disagree with, decision I or you dislike or statement I or you are bothered by can be dismissed by these tools. I'm not comfortable with this, im not used to this, is not the same as this is leading people away from God's love. They are made in trusted community. Wednesday, I had 2 very different church experiences, both were new or strange to me. One was in a community I knew and one with a group I did not. In the morning I had the Elmhurst clergy prayer meeting. This is a the group of about 8 to 12 pastors in the neighborhood that meet for prayer, advice and discussion of our ministries. We are from different traditions, worship styles and ministries. This Wednesday, we had a very different morning, our normally quiet group turned into a full on contemporary praise and worship service. There were songs some people knew by heart (which I never heard before) and the leaders expressed their gifts and comfort with this spontaneous service. It started with someone (obviously not me) saying “hey there’s a guitar in the corner, why don’t we sing a song”. This was all really strange and awkward to me, it was not what I signed up for and not my thing if you will. At the same time, I knew the pastors there, we had been meeting monthly for almost 2 years, we had prayed together, listened to each other’s struggles, celebrated each others joys and I understood they might not always love the way we normally did things.
On the train in the afternoon, there was also an unexpected church service, Now, I’m used to one person giving out pamphlets and doing a little sermon, calling people to faith in Jesus. This was different, this was 15 – 20 people doing a full on church service, singing hymns, saying prayers, doing sermons. This was strange, awkward, I had no connection to them and it just felt terrible. This service ended with what I can only call a Jesus cheer, give me a J, give me an E, give me S, whats that spell. (thankfully at that point, I was at union turnpike and got off the train), It was loud, sloppy, weird, long and clearly unwanted, driving people away (Christians and non-Christians alike were fleeing the train car). The singing was horrible (as a horrible singer, I know, recognize my own) With respect for putting faith out there and publically expressing it, I just felt embarrassed for them, I couldn’t think of anything nice to say (generally, ill share a word or two of encouragement with people preaching on the subways). Perhaps I was a bit jealous of their ability to openly share their faith in the best ways they could, saw fit, but having no relationship with them, I couldn’t bring myself to understand or follow.
Relationship is the key to using these questions about the word made flesh and love to protect the faithful. In Greek, there are 4 words for love. Agape, One’s children and spouse, charity, active love, God and us, Eros (erotic or sexual love), Phila (brotherly love, equals hence Philadelphia is the city of brotherly love), storge (love of country, team, family relationships, accepting love).
I thought about these different types of love as Jennifer and I had our wedding anniversary on the 10th. We decided to not do gifts this year, just have a nice little trip, dinner, etc. The day before I was out looking for an anniversary card. Now choosing a card is not easy. There are so many to pick from, so many images, themes, poems and sayings: I also consider price, expressive quality of message and any card gets extra points for having a cat or sheep on it. I’m willing to spend more than $1.99 but it better be an amazing card. Obviously anniversary cards focus on love, commitment, years together, mutual support and all the things we celebrate in marriages and other relationships. There was one with a rabbit hugging a shrimp with the words “your shrimply the best” written underneath. Cute but jen does not like shrimp and it was a little weird so I didn’t get that one. It also did not really express our relationship or what I wanted to say (and I wasn’t sure which one of us was the shrimp and which one was the bunny). I settled on a relatively normal card instead.
First John ends with the same point as the Gospel of John, it’s an invitation to faith, to relationship with God and each other. Standing out among all the other ideas, teachings, and desires, the greeting card in the pile of all the others that you see and go, that’s it. It is God’s invitation to relationship with God and with each other. Since God loved us so much, we ought to love one another. Our faith is a response to what God has done.