Scripture: 1 John 4:7-21
7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 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. 10 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. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.16 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. 17 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. 18 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. 19 We love[b] because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters,[c] are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister[d] whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters[e] also.
Folks, I don’t know what I was thinking when I chose to talk about this scripture. It is just so packed! It’s so stunning and more than a little unbelievable! Maybe I had a moment of foolish sentimentality; it says that “God is love,” which is like my mother calling me right out of childhood; it’s a big bite of comfort food. Maybe I was hearing some of that sweet new age music, with reedy flutes and Celtic overtones, saying “God is love and all love is of God,” covering me like a soft and cozy blanket that keeps out colder consequences of the world. Maybe I was hearing old hymns repeating in my heart, saying “Love lifted me” and “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” and “All you need is love,” and “Love, love me, do.”
The word “love” is attached to so many profound things and so very many trivial things that it’s hard to sort through what you might talk about when John says: “God is love.” I was feeling that warm, soothing, wash of ocean waves in late summer when I took this on. That was my first feeling.
I’d like you to take a minute to imagine what the most vivid or the most magnificent love you’ve ever known felt like: maybe it came on the day you married the love of your life, or when you held your baby for the first time. Maybe it’s happens when you share a sunset with your oldest, dearest friend, or when you watch a child you know play with complete abandon. It might be when you look at your horse or even pet your dog. Please imagine that now.
That warm wash of childhood feeling and love songs and congregational geniality fooled me into thinking that preaching about this passage would be fun and easy, because it’s the very essence of my faith; it’s the foundation of all I believe. Hah! Huh! There’s nothing easy about describing the love of the Creator of All Things. Maybe that’s because I suspect it asks me to completely surrender all of myself to that Creator. That suspicion was my second feeling, as I tried to piece out the component parts of that phrase, “God is love.” My wariness about love and being loved by God did a couple of things: it froze me at the start of these writing and preaching tasks, and that paralysis gave me a place to move through the scripture. My wariness is a form of fear, so that’s where I’ll start.
Verse 18 says, “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.” My suspicion and my wariness isn’t the kind of fear like being scared of bears and mountain lions, because that’s a normal fright, a regular human fear that helps me stay alive. Ignoring those common fears can kill you. But to perceive God first and foremost as vengeful or punishing or judgmental or powerful or demanding or even simply as a justice-seeking God, well, those approaches create fear. Seeing God these ways means that we approach God with fear about the life we’re leading now and fear about the life that is to come. This is because we all know that we’re imperfect and we have reason to be afraid that good things won’t come to those as imperfect as we are. Psalm 34 says, “I sought the Lord and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.” What an awe-inspiring and wonderful assurance! Imagining life without those anxieties and malaise is much better than imagining winning the lottery – it’s more life-changing and transforming than a huge lottery payout could ever be!
But if we first and foremost understand that the essence and the most basic characteristic of God is love, unconditional love, which is all comfort and peace and rest and security and serenity and boundless affection, can you also remember what you conjured a moment ago, with all the feeling and joy and amazement and gratitude you put into it? When we let that understanding of God as a being who is more love than anything else, it creates a sense of well-being and confidence in us. God’s love becomes the net that catches us if we trip and fall — as well as the net that catches us if troubles push us over the cliff.
The Infinite Master stays with us and protects us and shelters us, comforts us and consoles us. In other words, God loves us, and loves us unconditionally. God will never add conditions or requirements to the his love. This is an overwhelming and liberating difference from wondering: have I been good enough or have I done enough good to avoid the steam that could be coming out of God’s ears. (If God had ears.) This understanding of God’s love helps me understand what the scripture means when it says, “There is no fear in love…perfect love casts out fear….and whoever has fear has not reached perfection in love. (The word “perfection” isn’t perfection in the sense of being without fault or failing….instead it is to say, perhaps, a maturity in love or such an abundance of love that your love is in some ways like the love Jesus and God have for others. It isn’t a copy of God’s perfect, unfailing, and unconditional love.)
Years ago, the famous preacher William Sloane Coffin sermonized on this text from 1st John. He said that the opposite of love is not hate, but fear. Then he quoted verse 18, saying “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” The first part of that sentence is about the relationship between the believer and God, who is the creator of all things and all beings and the lover and the judge of the world.
But the second part of the sentence is about perfect love, which is God’s, who had it for us before we were even born, and about our trust and confidence in that love, which lets us let go of any image or understanding or fear we have that says God’s love is anything but first and foremost with God. God’s love is perfect, unwarranted and unexpected in its beginning, making us whole and full whenever we feel it, helping us to live more consciously and mindfully, shaping and enriching our days past whatever we could have imagined, past what you imagined earlier, when I asked you to. Perfect love.
And here’s what is tangible evidence of God’s love: we already know and feel and experience a little form of that love if we love other people or if we are loved by some other people in turn. Like when you saw your father acknowledge and admire a new adulthood in you, or when you see your baby take a first step, or when you see the joy breaking across the face of someone you love after being apart for a long time.
This helps us know and trust … that a person who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in them. This proof abandons the trivial uses of the word “love” that sometimes confuse us. This use of the word “love” depends on a relationship between two beings – a person and God, two people, even a person and an animal being – rather than being a transient feeling I might have about something that doesn’t and cannot have a relationship with me. So even though I love salt water taffy, it isn’t the kind of love that can abide, or live, in me and the candy – taffy cannot share much of anything with me, much less let me abide in it. Sadly, it can live on in me, but not in ways I like.
Sometimes what passes for relationships between people can be like this, too. One or both people may be incapable or unwilling to give their best and highest to each other, so that they might abide in each other. It makes the way the word “love” is too often used abstract, and that usage becomes pretty thin and as fleeting as smoke.
The relationship between God and a person that makes perfect love possible does not use the abstract meaning of love. Love in this relationship is first a quality, a characteristic, of the Lord’s deepest self. I suspect it’s the quality our gracious creator cares about most, for a host of reasons. First, some form of the word “love” shows up 28 times in today’s scripture alone! In the Old Testament, it’s used 413 times and 228 times in the New Testament. If the Bible is our primary holy book and reference about God, I’d say love is pretty important! Jesus uses some form of the word “love” 66 times in his teachings and words to us, so we know Jesus loves love, too.
The examples in the Bible explain and illustrate love in relationships and not just love in the abstract. It lets us better understand that our Maker is love, always, but not all love is God. It’s a formula where the two sides are not equal. An abstract love just isn’t enough. To be perfected, love must be within a relationship, and it needs to be a characteristic of one or two of the beings who are in relationship.
Verse 19 says that we love because God first loved us. That allows our love to become something more than a commandment to us – because God loves us first, it means that God’s love becomes a foundation for new possibilities of our love. And that also is an awe-inspiring and wonderful assurance!
You may know that each of you has over 10 million biomes living inside of your guts, which help in most of your digestion, health, emotions, and even your thinking. Now KNOW that there is 10 million times 10 billion parts of each of us. where God lives inside us. That means that when we love, we have the best ever, the highest imaginable teacher abiding in us to tutor us in love! (Although dogs are good, too. There’s a reason why the word “dog” is “God” spelled backwards.) Then, we in turn abide in God, we can feel and experience that incredibly massive love and concern and tenderness wrapped around us, secure and complete, every moment of every day, from now through eternity. That’s a whole new level of safety and protection – and that’s why God’s perfect love eliminates fear. It just makes me step back and pray Anne Lamott’s #1 prayer: “Wow!” WOW!
And here’s the next part of our scripture that thrills me to the core: it’s when it says that not only can we people of love and God be bold when the day of judgment come, that is, when the end times and our day of resurrection comes, but that we will be “as God is,” says verse 17, “in this world.” It says that “as God is, so are we in this world.” That’s a phenomenally brash truth for our lives, even in our less than perfect human state and in our fallen world. Our willingness now to follow Jesus and live out more of our faith now …. well, it makes this day better, this life better, and all the life to come better! That’s a miracle of God’s promise and plan … to bring Her realm to earth for us here, in this flesh, as well as for when we die and are transformed into the heavenly kingdom!
I don’t think it’s humanly possible for us to banish all fear while we live this life, but God’s love strengthens and fortifies us, it lets us live boldly now and go forth boldly — to the day of judgment and our resurrection. That’s because God’s love is more than simple affection; it is the ultimate commitment to believers, to the community of believers, and to creation itself … of Hope, of Life beyond our Deaths, and of Life Everlasting with God. That’s perfect love to me.
Now … let all the people of God say, “Wow!”