May 3, 2015

For God is Love

Passage: Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:25-31, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8
Service Type:

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.

Larry Smith is the founder and editor of the online magazine SMITH. A few years ago the magazine editors asked the question “If you had to summarize your life in six words, what would they be?” The magazine website was flooded with so many responses the site almost crashed. Out of that came the website and a book titled with these six words—Not Quite What I Was Planning. Here are a sample of the six-word life summaries submitted.

Threw spaghetti at wall; some stuck.
One tooth, one cavity; life’s cruel.
The psychic said I’d be richer.

I suppose it could be an interesting exercise to engage in—to summarize your life in six words. What would you write? I would get stuck in that I could only have six words; that would be difficult for a preacher. However, as I reflected on that a little further I want to suggest to you that the gospel, in fact, gives a six word summary of human life, a six word title to write on the title page of the story of humanity; here it is from John’s gospel (John 3:16): “For God so loved the world.” In fact I think you could summarize it the four words from John’s first letter; “for God is love.”

In the sermons of this Easter season we have been exploring the lectionary’s epistle readings from John’s first letter. While John’s gospel is aimed at striking fire in the hearts of those who hadn’t yet owned Jesus Christ in faith, John’s letter was written for people who were already part of the Christian fellowship. John’s letter could be understood as a commentary on his gospel. So here is how to summarize your life according to the good news of Jesus Christ; “for God is love.” Or you could also translate this “because God is love.”

1. Summarizing life in six (or four) words prompts people to think about the significance of life in general. To probe their understanding of the very meaning of human existence. The question has been posed by philosophers this way; “why is there something rather than nothing?” The gospel answer to this question could also be summarized with these same four words—“for God is love.” Our very existence, including the creation of the universe, owes its existence to the love of God.

In 2002 the Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling, minister of the Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, published his book “The Trinity: An Essential for Faith in Our Time.” It is a collection of essays exploring the Church’s doctrinal affirmation that God exists in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At the book launch Dr. Stirling spoke very eloquently about the reason for publishing such a book. Here is a little of what he said that evening:

“A book on the Trinity is about a love story and the love story is as follows: Before Israel was created, before we had even heard the name Jesus of Nazareth, The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit loved one another. Before our conception of time or before our ability to understand how the eons moved, their love existed.

Their love was so strong and their love for each other was so powerful that it issued in a creative act, the creation of the world. And as a manifestation of their love they said “let us create this world and more especially let us create human beings in our image in order that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit may share their love with the creature and the creature may bask in their love.”

The scriptures maintain that God is free. Freedom in that nothing inhibits God from being God. God is free not in the sense that he can do anything at all (such a God could never be trusted;) God is free, rather, in that nothing prevents God from acting in accord with his true nature. Nothing within God; nothing outside God; nothing inner or outer impedes God from acting in accord with his true nature. This is the freedom of God.

Further, God is without deficit or defect. Therefore he doesn’t create in order to find in the creation what he somehow lacks in himself. God does not need any creature to fulfill himself as if God can’t get enough love as so created humans to fulfil God’s self. As the eternal Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, he is already in himself “the one who loves in freedom,” as the theologian Karl Barth’s so memorably stated. Friends we found ourselves alive in this world; the very reason we can speak about a “you” and a “me;” the reason the sun followed its course today bringing morning to this part of the world yet again; the reason for all of this is “for God is love.”

2. How do we know that God is love and the nature of this love? John says “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.” (1 John 4:9-10) We know that God is love because of Jesus Christ.

I take you back to that evening book launch. The love story that is the Triune God doesn’t end with the creation of the human. Dr. Stirling continued:

“And although rejected by the creature they had created the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit nevertheless were desirous that the world might know the bond of love that they have for one another. … In time the Father sent the Son, the Son who came from that very nation Israel that had been called by the Father, the Son and the Spirit. And the purpose of the Son was to bring that message of that love in person, to become incarnate, and to share in the full fleshliness and creaturely-ness of the ones that they had created. … .

Moreover the Son was obedient, he was obedient even to the point of his own death and through that death removed any barriers that might have existed between the love of the Father, the Son and the Spirit and the creatures whom they had loved from the very beginning. And in that obedience, at one moment the Son cried out for he felt he was now separated from his Father and the Father gave and poured out his heart in his only Son for the creatures, and the Spirit grieved because of the sin of the world. And the creatures saw with their very own eyes right before them the (self-forgetful) self-giving love of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

God’s love, according to the Apostle, is seen most clearly in the cross. Note that: God’s love is in its sharpest focus not in nature (as so many people try to tell us); God’s love is in its sharpest focus in the Incarnation of his Son. Jesus Christ (not anything in nature) is the image of God, the apostles tell us. Friends, God’s love for us is brought to effectual focus in the cross. The cross doesn’t mean that God loves us more than he did prior to Christmas and Good Friday; and the cross doesn’t mean that God began to love us there. But the cross does mean that God’s love — begun in eternity and undiminished through time — did something for us there and was able to do something for us just because God himself came among us and dwelt with us in the incarnation of his Son.

I remind you here that John’s first letter was written to address the impact of some teachers who were infecting the church with another narrative about the nature of human life. These teachers were known as Gnostics. If you want a sample of their understanding of life you can read online what is known as the Gospel of Judas; the recent CNN series on Jesus dedicated an entire episode to this second century Gnostic tract.

Gnostics insisted that while God is good, the creation is bad, evil in fact. Therefore God couldn’t have created it. Matter is evil. Therefore God would never have come in the flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. As you read John’s letter he is careful to insist that God has come among us in Jesus Christ. Most pointedly John writes, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” (1 John 4:1-3)

Let me put it this way. We learn that love; God’s love; the love that is the true source of all love; we learn that this love is self-forgetful self-giving because of the cross of Jesus Christ. The Apostle can only write “for God is love” because he knows Jesus. Now there are voices today within the church that seek to diminish talk of Jesus or to speak is such a way as to redefine the Apostolic witness. (This was the impact of the Gnostic teaching—Jesus only seemed to be a man.) Consider the teaching of the theologian Marcus Borg (of Jesus Seminar fame). He considered himself a “panentheist,” that is a person who believes god is everything, and everything is god. Reading the gospel story this way Borg would have considered himself just as divine as Jesus. This is not the Biblical view that insists that God is not his creation.

So I am with the Apostle John on this and encourage you as believers to always test the spirits: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.
3. Some would accuse John of splitting hairs or of being heavy handed shutting down voices that disagreed with him. But John thinks the truth that is Jesus Christ is to be contended for, for a whole host of reasons. If not then the gospel is denatured. It is no longer good news. Jesus is God-Incarnate or else you and I remain unsaved and face a fearful prospect. Unless Jesus Christ is God, he can’t save us, since only God can save sinners. Unless Jesus Christ is human, he can’t save us, since only his sinless humanness can restore ours. He is wholly divine and wholly human simultaneously.

One of the casualties of the gospel that is lost when it is denatured has to do with the subject of love for one another; of living out our Lord’s command to love one another as he loved us. We know what love is by what God did in Jesus Christ. Love is not merely a concept of the mind nor an affection of the heart. It is something that is done. When God comes in the flesh in Jesus and ministers to people and gives himself for us without remainder we see love in action; we see more that love is known as action. Therefore John would say, “let us love, not in word of speech, but in truth and action.” (1 John 3:18) Love is very concrete.

Further John asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Note how bodily his conviction is regarding the nature of love. Where does this come from? The Gnostics said that flesh or matter was evil. So the human body didn’t matter. So what would be the point of relieving anyone’s suffering? John insists on the concreteness of love because of the gospel. Jesus coming in the flesh confirms what the creation story affirms. The human body is a fitting vehicle of the glory of God. The relief of human suffering is something Jesus did; he gave his life so that future day would come when suffering will be at an end.

Listen again to the Apostle John. “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.” It is apparent that these teachers were claiming to love God—or some ethereal notion of God—but treated their fellow Christians despicably and though nothing of it. Notice John’s emphasis on the concreteness of life. “A brother and sister whom they have seen.” John insists that if you love God you love what he loves—his creation, his creatures. Love is not a concept known abstractly. It is an action lived concretely.

In the (March 2015) The Chronicle of Higher Education an article appeared about the 100 most-discussed research papers of the past year (2014). What was intriguing to the authors of the article was how it revealed what people found most interesting to read. Not surprisingly, it seems to me, the subject of our health was a dominant theme among the most-discussed papers. More than a third of the papers are about diet and disease. The bodily nature of our existence is something the gospel affirms. Our creatureliness in not the happenstance of some mindless big bang. The gospel’s reason for our bodily existence? … for God is love.

4. Jean Vanier is a Roman Catholic layman and a lifelong student of philosophy and theology. He is best known as the founder of L’Arche, French for the Ark, a global network of communities where those with and without disabilities live side by side as equals.

The network was begun in northern France in 1964 when Vanier invited two intellectually disabled men to live with him as friends. It has evolved into 147 L’Arche communities, in 35 countries. In addition, a support group for families of people with disabilities, known as Faith and Light, has spread to 82 countries.

Vanier was awarded the 2015 Templeton Prize. The Templeton Prize honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works. In a statement after receiving the news, 86 year-old Vanier wanted to draw attention not to himself, but to the remarkable people that he has dedicated his life to serving. "They are essentially people of the heart," he said. "When they meet others they do not have a hidden agenda for power or for success. Their cry, their fundamental cry, is for a relationship, a meeting heart to heart. It is this meeting that awakens them, opens them up to life, and calls them forth to love in great simplicity, freedom, and openness. When those ingrained in a culture of winning and of individual success really meet them, and enter into friendship with them, something amazing and wonderful happens. They too are opened up to love and even to God. They are changed at a very deep level. They are transformed and become more fundamentally human."

Make no mistake. There a direct relationship between Vanier’s faith in Jesus Christ and his care for the developmentally disabled.

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.