Big Questions: Love
1 John 3 and 4
Love is a funny word. The way that we love soccer and brownies and puppies is different from the way we love our mothers, which is different from the way we love our spouses, which is different from the way that we love God, which is different from the way God loves us. This has always been a weakness of the English language, this one word for so many nuances of feeling. And it’s only getting worse as we get lazier with our vocabulary. We throw this word around a lot. At least I know I do. But then sometimes I want to say it with tremendous seriousness and have it be understood tremendously seriously.
This morning we’ve already heard a well-known passage of Scripture from First Corinthians 13 reminding us what love is, what characteristics love has, how we can recognize true love. The New Testament was written in Greek, which doesn’t have the same weakness of language as English when it comes to the word love. The ancient Greeks had different words for different kinds of love. “Eros” to describe love with physical attraction, which is where we get the word erotic. “Philia” for the love of family and friends, which is where we get the city name Philadelphia, or the city of brotherly love. And “agape,” which is the kind of love that God has for us and that we are to have for one another, both our siblings in the faith and our enemies.
“Agape” in Greek, translates to “caritas” in Latin, translates to “love” or to “charity” in English. This is the love the apostle Paul is describing in First Corinthians 13. Paul talks about love a lot, as does the author of the gospel of John and the letter of First John. This morning I want to share with you two different chunks of Scripture from the letter of First John as we continue our series on big questions. As we read the first passage, I want you to think back to the connections we’ve made between sin, death, resurrection and eternal life. Those are big concepts, and love is how we make them concrete in our lives.
So let us listen now for the word and the wisdom of God in First John chapter 3 verses 11 through 18.
“For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love abides in death. Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has the life of the ages residing in them.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”
This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
Did you hear the connection? “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.” If we access the grace of God simply by trusting Jesus, then how do we KNOW that we have it? How do we know that we have taken the Jesus vaccine against the virus of sin in our life? How do we know that we are no longer slaves to the fear of death? We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love is still abiding in death.
Remember that the power of death is evident in all the things we do to try to avoid the reality of dying. All the ways that we try to justify ourselves, to be our own gods, to make meaning outside of what God has already offered us. We recognize our slavery to the power of death when we grasp at pleasure and power and put ourselves above everyone else. Like Cain, jealously killing his brother Abel when Abel’s sacrifice was accepted and Cain’s wasn’t. And how do we know we have passed from death to life? We know it when we find that we are no longer obsessed with ourselves but are instead focused on serving others. When we are actively loving others, our friends and especially our enemies. Love is God’s mark on us. Not signing off on a statement of beliefs, not praying a particular prayer, not engaging in a specific set of behaviors imposed on us by some other authority. When we LOVE.
Which sounds lovely, because I think to myself, “Oh that’s not hard! I’m good at loving! I love everybody.” Here’s the kicker. I love everybody in my mind. But I certainly do not love everybody with my actions. I make very uncharitable assumptions about people with loud vehicles who cut me off in traffic. I avoid making eye contact with people who are asking for money. I don’t have time for people I don’t like. I dismiss and even privately ridicule people who disagree with me. Theoretically, I love everyone. But practically, not so much. God invites us out of that hypocrisy, away from loving in theory and sermons and glib Facebook posts, and into actual loving actions, as verse 18 says, loving in truth, which means reality instead of illusion. It sounds simple, but it’s certainly not easy.
So where would we possibly get the inspiration and empowerment to actually do that? We get it from the love of God. We are enabled to love others in action and truth when we fully receive the love God has for us. Which brings us to the second passage I want you to hear today. This is also from First John, the next chapter, chapter 4, verses 7 through 19:
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how the love of was revealed among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is made complete in us.
This is how we know that we abide in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Anyone who confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in them and they in God. And so we have come to know and have come to trust the love God has for us.
God is love. Anyone who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But complete love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made complete in love.
We love because he first loved us.”
Love comes from God. God is love. God abides in us and God’s love is made complete in us. We love because God first loved us. The only way that we are able to love one another is by accessing the love that God has for us. And what kind of love is that? Well, according to the apostle Paul in First Corinthians, God’s love for us is patient and kind and not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude or self-seeking. The Bible contains many metaphors to describe our relationship with God and the primary ones are parent and lover. Hebrews 12 says that like a loving parent, God disciplines us for our good in order that we may live the abundant life God intends for us. Parents discipline their kids because they love them.
And like a lover, God keeps pursuing this. Without at all infringing on our free will, God continues to woo us, continues to invite us back into relationship. All week I’ve been thinking about that 80s movie Say Anything with John Cusack. Remember the scene where he stands outside the window holding up the stereo? That’s God pursuing us. Not sitting wimpy and waiting, but showing up over and over again to remind us of the love God has for us, trying to win us back. And because God’s love is so unrelenting, eventually, eventually God will succeed in winning over everyone. Death is no barrier for God. Those who want to continue to avoid God are allowed to do so, but God never never never gives up on them. See God has already decided about us. God has already decided to pursue each and every one of us for as long as it takes, no matter what. And when we decide to fully trust that we are loved like THAT … our confidence in that love will begin to change us. Not all at once, but it will happen.
Remember verse 18: There is no fear in love, but complete love casts out fear. WHY? Because fear has to do with punishment, and the one who fears has not yet been made complete in love. Can I tell you the only other place that word punishment shows up in the Bible? It’s in Matthew 25, where Jesus says that what we have done for those in need we have actually done to Jesus. Those who feed the hungry experience the life of the ages, and those who ignore the hungry experience … punishment. Same word. When we are made complete in love, when we actively love others, we do not have to be afraid of that punishment because we won’t experience it, because it only happens to those who are not actively loving others!
This love is not a general good feeling; it is specific actions, and we have someone to model it for us: Jesus Christ. Anywhere we recognize love, we are seeing God, in any person regardless of their religion. Anyone who abides in love abides in God. But for us as Christians, Jesus gives us a specific and challenging example. Remember First John 4 Verse 9 says, “God’s love was revealed among us in this: God sent his only son into the world so that we might live through him.” And chapter 3 verse 16 says “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
As Christians, God invites us, calls us, requires from us, not a wimpy general love for mankind, but a love that does hard things. A sacrificial love. Christian love looks like Jesus, like Jesus who was so willing to show us what God’s love is like that he was willing to give up everything. Jesus who was not seeking to be served, but to serve others. Jesus who was so unwilling to participate in the power of death that he allowed himself to be killed. That is how we know not just that we are abiding in God but that we are aligned specifically with Christ: we are willing to love when it feels impossible. When we would rather not love. When no one is going to thank us for it. When no one is going to know we did it at all. When it’s going to be misunderstood. When it’s going to put us on the wrong side of the issue. When it means not loving only the oppressed but also actively loving the oppressor in a way the oppressor recognizes as love. When it’s going to cost us something. When it’s going to cost us everything.
This is love: not that we loved God but that God loved us first. God pursues us forever and eventually wins us over with relentless non-coercive affection. And when we really trust that we are loved like that, we are freed from our obsession with ourselves and instead have all this God-given love energy to pour out sacrificially on others—our family, our friends, our communities, those in need and especially our enemies. Because loving our enemies is the only thing that will ever really change the world. When we love our enemies, we are truly accessing eternal life.