Speak Now - Week Four: "This Is Love"
Throughout this study, we'll be focusing on what it means to not only follow Jesus but also how to speak about our faith in life-giving ways.
As we identified last week, the problem that we have in our culture right now is that when someone says "I am a Christian," it's hard to tell exactly what that means. So many people in our culture have negative feelings about Christians and what they believe Christians stand for.
And the reasons they have these negative feelings is because the people who are speaking the loudest in our culture about what it means to be a Christian have completely lost the plot. My hope is that this series will help give us the tools and the empowerment we need to speak up in love about what Jesus has done for us.
Last week we learned that what we do reveals more about who we really are more than anything we say. Today, as we step further into our study of 1 John, we are going to be lifting up an important and transforming idea:
Let me begin by asking you a question: When you picture God, what do you imagine?
Most of us fluctuate between images of an old, wise man with a beard to Morgan Freeman. But I think that most of us if we were pushed, would admit that trying to describe God's appearance is an exercise in futility.
The moment you try to put your definitions and your imagination to work in trying to describe God, is the moment you limit the limitless, which is impossible.
Perhaps a better question would be to ask: "What is God like?"
Now we're getting somewhere right? Think about that question for a moment--how would you answer it? What words would you use to describe the nature of God? I'm sure that we'd have as many descriptions of what God is like as there are people in this room.
And what kind of God are we longing for, really?
A God who controls nature, prevents sickness or violence?
A God who lays down the law with complete clarity?
A God who holds all the cheaters accountable, rewards the faithful?
A God of prosperity who makes us rich if we do the right things?
And ultimately what will happen if you continue asking these questions is that you will come to the most difficult question of all.
"What kind of God--would allow terrible things?"
"What kind of God--would school shootings?"
"What kind of God--would allow disasters and war, disease and poverty?"
"What kind of God...?" That's the most difficult question, isn't it? It wrecks all of our descriptions and images of God in ways that no other question can.
Which leads us to our Big Idea for the sermon today--the one thing that I want us to hold on to throughout our time together:
We don't have to wonder what God is like, we just have to look at how God has loved.
The author of the letter was a man scholar refer to as The Elder, and he had a lot to say about the question that we're wrestling with today about the nature of God. Let's read:
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 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. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
The word that the Elder uses for "love" here in chapter 4 of his letter is agape, a word that was actually repurposed by early Christians to reflect the sacrificial, laying-down-your life kind of love that Jesus showed.
19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
And the Elder refers to the people he's writing to as the Agepetoi, which is poorly translated here as "Dear ones," or in some other translations as "Little children." There's a deeper meaning here that we can't ignore.
The Elder calls these people, "The Lay-Down-Your Life Lovers," or more specifically "Those Who Are Willing To Love Like God Loves."
We see in this text that any pure expressions of human love flows out of the great love of God first and foremost. Because God is love. Love pours out of love. It has a source and that source is God.
And listen, we don't have to guess what this looks like. Because we learn about God's "abiding" or never-ending or sacrificial love when we look at how Jesus perfected it through his life, ministry, death and ultimately his resurrection.
Through Jesus we have clear evidence of the true nature of God. We see clearly through Jesus what God values, what God loves and despises. We see clearly how far God is willing to go in order to rescue those God loves. Jesus wasn't coy about expressing God's love--he lived it every single day through his actions as well as his teachings.
The Elder wants these first century Christians to know that love is not just an inner assurance. It's not just about me and my spiritual growth. It's not about punching my own ticket to the hereafter. No, the Elder wants these Christians to know that true love, the love of God, is expressed in acts of love.
And not just any acts of love, but the kinds of acts that are signs and symbols of the new world that Jesus initiated with his resurrection, acts that we have glimpses of throughout his ministry: The sick healed, the poor restored, the rich given a heart, the outsiders brought to the inside, the hopeless given hope.
What we see in this text is that living in this love transforms us. It makes us different. The old has gone, as we read in Scripture, and the new has come. We don't have to be defined by our past mistakes we are made new. And, and... not only are we transformed by this love, we are then made transformational.
We are given the opportunity to go out and change the world through the simple, life-changing, world-altering love of God through Jesus.
Finally, the Elder exhorts his readers to abandon their self-interest because the only way they can truly claim the love of God in their lives is to abolish hate from their hearts. The foundation of hate ultimately is fear, isn't it? And what does the Elder assert here? That there is no room for fear in love. In fact, perfect love--the love Jesus showed--casts out all fear.
If we are willing, we can cut the ground out from under fear in our lives and live in defiant and radical hope.
And here's what I love about this text. The Elder is speaking with the authority of people who knew this. People who had stood at the foot of the cross. People who saw Jesus' body prepared for burial. People who themselves had been transformed by the kind of love that cannot die.
What he is saying is quite simply, "We don't have to wonder what God is like, we just have to look at how God loves."
So how can we know this deeply and intimately? How do we make this knowledge that the Elder is passing on to us real and true in our lives?
Sometimes I need some steps to take to make stuff happen. If you are one of those people, you will dig this. If not, then listen anyway, dadgummit, because there's some seriously good stuff to follow.
First, we need to Claim God's Loving Image as our own. You are created in the image of God. God's DNA, God's fingerprint is on you. And because of this, you instinctively know what it means to truly love.
I recently read an article on the neuroscience surrounding how we learn empathy and compassion. It begins when we are infants, as we gaze into the loving and caring eyes of our caregivers, we begin to build neuropathways based on something that scientists call mirroring.
There was a story attached to this article about an elderly man who volunteers at an orphanage to simply hold and comfort babies--working on connecting them with love so that those pathways can begin growing from the beginning.
How cool is this? You and I are created to mirror the loving-kindness the agape love of God. Claim this--it's who you really are.
And even though we can't act exactly in the way that God might act, we can get a glimpse of it, and it keeps us desiring more. Richard Rohr once wrote,
"...none of us can experience absolutely unconditional divine love from another human being, we can experience aspects of it. That helps us keep the doors open to God's love."
Second, we need to Recall the Moments When We Show or Have Shown Agape Love. Not only are we imprinted with the DNA of a loving God, we are at our very best as humans when we show agape love to the world. And you know when you have done it. You remember that feeling when you were your best, most loving self.
When you gave sacrificially when you lived outside of yourself in amazing ways you felt the pleasure of the Lord at that moment. You were humming with reverence, and you felt like your heart might burst.
And the question you have to ask yourself at that moment is who does that look like? Why Jesus, of course. Remember, that's the ultimate goal of a Christian isn't it? To become more and more like Jesus.
Third, we need to Live Out Our Loving Mission. And what is our loving mission? Well, it should be familiar to all of you at this point because it's the very same mission that you will find on every one of our publications: To Love God and Love Everybody. These things are bonded. They go hand in hand. You can't do the first if you aren't doing the second.
And it's important for us as a church, a community of faith that we do this well, and to do it with passion and joy. The days of trying to frighten people into following Jesus have to end. Because we cannot scare people into tolerance or terrify them into kindliness. The fruit of fear ends up being distrust, suspicion, and resentment. A joyless religion is fruitless and loveless.
Finally, we need to Embrace Love and Abandon Hate. We can talk all we want to about how we love Jesus and how being a Christian is the most awesome thing in the history of awesome things, but if we harbor fear and hatred in our hearts for others---we're missing the point.
The one thing we cannot do is claim that we love God while refusing to love the sister or brother in front of us. We tell lies when we claim we can love and hate at the same time. It's true that our world is full of uncertainty and turmoil, but the gospel's answer to the human problem of anxiety, mortality, and meaninglessness is simple: God is love.
And we cannot love with an agenda. We need to be concerned first and foremost with our own transformation by love. Writer Ann Voskamp puts it so beautifully when she writes, "What matters most is not if our love makes other people change, but that in loving we change."
Easter people. We need to be speaking about our faith. And we need to answer those hard questions that so many people have about the nature of God with an answer that covers those questions in so much grace and peace.
We need to answer them by living in the loving example set by Jesus---a loving example that flows straight from the Creator's heart.
Because we don't have to wonder what God is like, we just have to look at how God has loved.