Abiding in God’s love (1 John 4:7-12, 16-21)
To love God is to love who and what God loves. The deeper we grow in God’s love the more connected we become to everyone and everything else. And this love comes to fruition and expression in how we treat others and care for others. John makes it very clear in this passage that loving God and loving God’s world, loving our sisters and brothers in the human family are inseparably tied together. Because God dwells in every human being and every human being is sustained by the Spirit of God, every human being has a bit of God in them. Every human being bears God’s image, no matter how marred that image may be. When we love others, we are loving God.
God is Love, says the writer of this passage. Most of our beliefs about God are like fingers pointing at the moon. The moon is so much bigger than what we see with our eyes from this vantage point, from this earth looking up. It’s even more so with God. When Jesus talked about God he used images and symbols and told stories. How can any human know fully or completely what God is like? So we use images and stories to try to see a particular aspect or characteristic of God.
But the writer here is bold enough to say, God is Love. For this biblical writer and his faith community love is not just one feature or characteristic of God. For this community love is the essential thing – the essence of God, the heart of God, the soul of God. Love is the power of God that motivates us and empowers us to be better persons – to overcome our negative attitudes and habits, to be less selfish and driven by our ego, and to be more compassionate and merciful and gracious.
God’s love is an all-encompassing, all-embracing love and it always moves us outward and beyond the limits that we tend to put on it. Of course, none of us will ever love perfectly, nor can we possibly express our love to the degree that God loves each of us. We are all God’s children and God’s love is a first love. The late Henri Nouwen puts it this way: We are the Beloved. We are intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children, and friends loved us or wounded us. That’s the truth of our lives. . . . That’s the truth spoken by the voice that says, “You are my Beloved.” I think the major theme of most of Nouwen’s writings is about helping his readers learn how to hear that voice.
God loves all God’s children unconditionally and eternally. None of us can love like that. As a human being not even Jesus of Nazareth could love to that degree, though he clearly was far more advanced in loving than we are, and his life as portrayed in our scriptures becomes for us the definitive human expression of God’s love. But all of us are limited in how we express God’s love, and we are simply not capable of loving everyone in equal measure, nor are we capable of completely grasping and experiencing God’s love. And when you read all of 1 John where these wonderful passages on God’s love are found, it is clear (at least to me anyway) that even John and his church who had such insight into God’s love struggled with this too, because John says some other things in this short letter that seem like a contradiction of what he says here. We all struggle with trying to understand and live out God’s love.
Maybe it will be possible in the next life to more completely experience and incarnate God’s love. Jesus, on one occasion, seems to suggest that in the life or age to come we would not have the same kind of possessive relationships we have in this life. Maybe you recall in the Gospels the time when the Sadducees (the priestly party of Judaism) attempt to trap Jesus by describing a scenario where a woman marries seven brothers in succession. The question is asked: Whose wife will she be in the resurrection? Now, the reason they asked that question is that they were trying to refute the idea of resurrection. Jesus says in response that in the resurrection we “neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Luke 20:35). Jesus seems to be saying that in the state of resurrection, at the next level of consciousness, in that advanced state of reality there will be no possessive, exclusionary relationships. Our experience will be more inclusive and unitive. We will be more deeply related and connected to everything and everyone.
Maybe this was what Jesus was getting at in his response to his mother and brothers who tried to coercively get him to drop his mission and come home. We can’t blame them for trying. They knew the Jewish authorities had already started plotting how they could get rid of Jesus. They feared for his life. Do you remember Jesus’ response? When Jesus was told that his mother and brothers and sisters were seeking him he asked, “Who are my mother and brothers and sisters?” Then, looking around at everyone present he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers and sisters. Whoever does the will of God is family.” I don’t think Jesus was being disrespectful. I think he was operating out of a different level of consciousness than most everyone else. I think he knew and experienced at a much deeper level than any of us here today just how all-embracing and all-inclusive God’s love is.
In this life we have to have some boundaries. There are limits on the degree to which we can love. But the Spirit of God is always compelling us to be more embracing, more encompassing, more inclusive and less possessive. And the Spirit does this “nudging along” in whatever ways the Spirit can use to move beyond us where we are, so that we are growing and enlarging in our capacity to love.
In the film version of the story The Great Gatsby, Gatsby goes to great extremes to prove his love for Daisy. The narrator tells us that everything he did—the house, the parties, all of it—he did for Daisy. His love for Daisy was a great love, it was an enduring love, but it was a tainted love and a possessive love. It was a love born out of fear and insecurity and mixed with greed and selfish ambition. He didn’t think she would truly love him unless he proved himself, unless he was rich, powerful, and successful. So his love was a very skewed love.
God’s love, on the other hand, is pure; it’s not tainted or twisted by ego. All human love has some measure of possessiveness and exclusion attached. It’s inevitable. In marriage, for example, we pledge loyalty and faithfulness to our spouse. We become bound by a covenant that excludes others. The marriage covenant is an exclusive covenant right? It is a necessary exclusion; necessary for a healthy, flourishing marriage. But this can turn dark and go awry.
There is a scene where Gatsby and Daisy confront Tom. Tom was married to Daisy. And Daisy doesn’t want to do this, but Gatsby is pushing and demanding. Gatsby, fueled by his ego, presses Daisy to tell Tom that she never loved him, that she only loved Gatsby, that even when she was married to Tom she never loved him. But she did love him. So she could not do that.
By contrast, God’s love is an infinitely expansive and deep love that extends to all God’s children equally. Anytime we think that God loves our group more than others we have seriously misunderstood and misinterpreted our experience of God’s love. We project our limitations on to God. And often what we project is rooted in the ego. We want to think that we are more special than others. But when God’s love fills us and flows through us it always moves us outward, breaking down walls and barriers, leading us to be more hospitable, accepting, welcoming, and affirming, more open, receptive, self-giving, and attentive to others, which, of course, is how the Spirit led Jesus.
John tells us that God’s love dispels fear. John says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love cast out fear; for fear has to do with punishment.” You don’t need to be afraid of God. One might interject here: But what about all those texts, particularly in the OT, that admonish us to fear God? Well, you know the biblical writers struggled to put all this together just the way we do. They were just as human as we are. But that said, some of those passages that admonish the reader to fear God are talking about reverencing or respecting or trusting God, rather than being afraid of God.
John says that fear has to do with punishment, and when we are abiding in God’s love we don’t have to fear being punished. But in another sense, even if we are punished, we don’t have to fear it. And the reason we don’t have to fear it is because God’s punishment, whatever that may be, would not be for the purpose of condemnation, but restoration and reconciliation and redemption. God will never abandon any of God’s children. The door is always shut from our side, not God’s side. God is the waiting Father of Luke 15 who runs to embrace the child the moment he sees his child coming home. And God never ever withdraws the invitation to come home. I would bet my very life on that.
Wendell Berry’s novel, A World Lost, is the story about a family coping with the death of one of their own. In the final chapter, Berry reflects on the manner of man he was. This meditation gives way to a reflection on death as a pathway into the light. Berry writes, “I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment. And yet,” says Berry, “in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves within it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled. In it they are loved completely . . .” What Berry is saying is that the light of God is a blinding light before it is an illuminating light. Berry is saying the fire of God can be painful, but it is a purifying fire.
Berry says it’s only hell until it is heaven. Hell, however we may experience it, is not forever. Heaven is forever. Heaven is where we are going. Think how this understanding of God’s love casts out all fear. You don’t fear God’s punishment, because you know that whatever it involves, it will make us a better person. If we accept this understanding of God’s love then some of these biblical images that preachers have used for years to instill the fear of hell in people take on a completely different meaning. The furnace of fire where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth becomes a furnace that does not burn up the person, but burns up the greed and hate and selfish ambition that has been consuming the person. The “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is the temporary struggle and suffering we go through that is the prelude to the joy and gratitude that comes from God’s healing and redemption. John says, “There is no fear in love, and perfect love, mature love casts out all fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection/maturity in love.” Can we trust in the greatness of God’s love that frees us from all fear. None of us need to be afraid of God. Fear of punishment will never heal or liberate or transform a person. As John suggests in another passage it’s only when we can see how beautiful and immense God’s love really is will we be changed by that love.
What will it take for you and me to see, to experience, to enter more fully into the unconditional love of God? Perhaps the story of Philip and the Ethiopian we read earlier is suggestive. In that story Philip is led by the Spirit into an encounter with this brother who is traveling a wilderness road. The wilderness road is symbolical of the journey that we all must take. Every spiritual journey involves the wilderness road. The man is reading the Hebrew scriptures but he does not understand what he reading. And he doesn’t pretend to. That’s important. He is seeking truth and understanding, and ready to admit he has a long way to go. He is seeking God. He is open and ready to learn and to become more than what he is.
To experience God’s love we must want to experience God’s love. We must realize our need to be changed by God’s love and desire to become more loving like God. We must be honest enough to admit how unloving we sometimes are. And we must be willing to walk the wilderness road. We don’t need to know where it will take us. We only need to trust that as we walk this path God will lead us into those experiences and encounters that will help us to see more clearly just how great and liberating God’s love is. We must be willing to be immersed in the healing, purifying, life-giving waters of the Divine Spirit who will lead us into the transforming reality of divine love, which is what baptism symbolizes.
The wilderness road is not a safe road. There’s a lot of uncertainties and dangers on the way. There are places where the terrain is treacherous and the journey difficult. There are times when you will question whether the journey is worth it, because you don’t even know where you are going. There are places on the wilderness road where you feel lost and alone. But deep in your heart you know that it’s the only road that will take you home, even though you don’t even know what or where home is. But something in your gut tells you that on the wilderness road you will find it – it will lead you there. Are you ready sisters and brothers? Are you willing to trust God and trust the journey?
O God, we know that the many experiences we have had in our lives – in our families, our relationships, our opportunities or lack thereof – both negative and positive – have had a profound impact on where we are right now. Some of that we have had no control over. In order to experience your love more fully there are things we need to unlearn and let go of. We know we can’t hunker down where we are, where we feel safe. We have to explore, we have to venture out, we have to take a journey that will lead us into some unpleasant and difficult places. Help us, O Lord, to take that leap of faith. To trust that you will be with us. Growing in your love is not an easy thing, but it’s what we are all made for. And we know that we will never find meaning and joy apart from your love. Give us the courage to say “yes” to that journey this day and every day. Amen.