What does it mean to love in our world today? Do we love our family the same way we love ice cream? Do we love God in the same way we love our favorite sports team? In this sermon series, we’re going back to the basics of what it means to love the way the Bible teaches us.
SCRIPTURE – I John 4:7-21 – 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 because he first loved us. 20 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. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
Love 101 Sermon Series
#1 – What Is Love
1 John 4:7-21
August 20, 2017
You all have heard me preach enough now that you know I like to start most of my sermons with some sort of ice-breaker. That’s Public Speaking 101, right? Get them laughing and you’ve got them listening. A quip or a funny story or – my favorite – a pun is a great way to get the ball rolling and ensure that I’ll have your attention for at least the next 30 seconds, hopefully longer.
But in the wake of what’s going on in the world lately, I’m not feeling very funny. Instead, my heart feels heavy. At our General Assembly last month, one of our denomination’s prophetic preachers said that the world is too broken for preachers to give cute sermons. Of course, I was in the middle of the “Gospel According to Pixar” sermon series. Ouch. And, in my mind, there’s still room for humor and light-heartedness from the pulpit.
But not now. Not today. Along with my heaviness of heart is a determination of spirit. We have work to do, church, and it starts with going back to the Bible and relearning what it means to be a child of God and a follower of Christ. Because when people can march without masks or hoods and call for violence against others not like them, when people drive vehicles into crowds, killing innocent people, including women and children, I’m not sure even Pixar is creative or courageous enough to provide answers. We need the word of God, both written and alive among us.
So we start a new sermon series today, planned weeks before the events of Charlottesville and Barcelona, called “Love 101: Back to the Basics.” We need to hit the reset button on who we are created and called to be, because this is where the good news of Jesus Christ starts. By the end of this series, you very well may say as you walk out to your car, “Geez! Enough about love already. I’m sick of hearing about love.” But I would hope we never get tired of hearing how much God loves us, and how much we are called to love each other.
So, you want an ice-breaker this morning? Here you go, courtesy of author Phillip Gulley: “For many, religion is how we decide who to love and who to hate.” As a loving Christian, I want to argue with him, but history shows otherwise. In fact, here’s a very unscientific list of the people I know who have been hated in the name of religion: the pagans, the Samaritans, the Jews, the Muslims, women, Protestants, the Jews again, divorced people, indigenous people, the Muslims again, people who dare to translate the Bible into English, the Jews again, black people, people who dance and play cards, homosexuals, people of a different political persuasion, and lets go ahead and throw the Jews and Muslims in there one more time. History shows that Christians have a poor record of finding motivation for loving these people, but have found ample reasons – based in scripture – for hating them.
What we need to name today is that any justification for hating someone that is rooted in scripture is sinful, because the Bible is clear throughout that hate has no place in God’s kingdom. Instead, God’s kingdom is characterized as a place where love abounds. In fact, the Bible goes even further than that, as we heard in today’s scripture. It doesn’t say God is loving, which of course God is. It doesn’t say God loves, which of course God does. It says God is love. So if God is love, and we are created in the image of God, then that means we are created to love. Man, have we messed that up or what? Maybe that’s because we don’t know what Godly love is. So let’s see if John can help us here.
John, wrote his gospel around the year 90 to a specific congregation. John had given birth to this church, but it was struggling to weather external attacks from the Jewish and pagan leaders and internal undermining from false teachers. Sensing that division was going to destroy his church, John wrote three letters of explanation and clarification, which are the three letters of John at the end of the New Testament. One of the things John is addressing is the hateful discourse coming from the mouths of the false teachers, who were trying to split the church and draw people away from the congregation. They were encouraging people to hate those not like them, which leads to our passage today. John is basically saying to his faithful community that they should test the words of this divisive group by using the measure of love. Is what they say loving? Are they demonstrating love in their actions? If not, then they are not of God, because God is love.
What kind of love is this of which John speaks, mentioning it 28 times in this passage? The Greek word for love here is agape. The Greeks actually had several words they used to describe love, which makes sense when you think of all the different kinds of love that exists. There was eros, the romantic kind of love. There is philia, a love between friends. Storge is a kind of family love, like the love siblings would have for each other.
But none of those describe the kind of love John is talking about here. He is talking about agape. Agape is a selfless, other-focused love that represents love in its highest form. When Jesus speaks of the love God has for him, it is agape love. In fact, John opens this passage by calling his readers, “Beloved.” The Greek word is agapetoi. We are agaped by God, and called to agape God and others.
So what separates agape love from the other types of love we experience in our lives? Is it possible to agape ice cream? Can we agape our favorite sports team? That is a completely different kiind of love, in my mind. So what is agape love, this love that defines who God is and how God feels about us?
Well, it’s not something we’re born with. We had a great discussion in Sermon Talkback this week about whether or not we’re born with love, or just the ability to love. We concluded that we’re born with the need to survive, and must learn to love, which often calls us to do things that go against our survival, like sharing our resources or making ourselves vulnerable. We are not born with agape love in our DNA.
So where does it come from? Simple. We learn to love by being loved, just like we learn to hate by being hated. If our parents show us love and teach us to love others, we are filled with love. And if our parents treat us hatefully and teach us that other people should be hated, we are filled with hate. Both the love we feel and the hate we feel is learned from others, and is a direct result of how we are treated and how we learn that God feels about others, especially those different from us.
We’re not born with agape, and we also don’t have the capacity to create agape, because it didn’t come from us to begin with. It’s a gift from God, the key word being “gift.” There’s nothing we can do to earn God’s love. Some folks think that’s the only way to get it. If you believe the right things or behave the right ways, then God will love you. Some folks believe Jesus died on the cross because God was so mad at us that someone had to be murdered in order to set things right. But that doesn’t sound like agape to me. Does it to you? We can’t earn God’s love. It’s a gift.
And it’s a gift given to everybody. Here’s where we humans start to lose the plot. John spells it out pretty plainly: “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.” You can’t wish harm on a person or group of people and love God. Those two things are diametrically opposed. I would go so far as to say you can’t condone hateful behavior, or stay silent while you watch it happen, and love God. The opposite of love is not just hate; it’s also apathy, indifference to the value of others in God’s eyes.
That’s because one of the crucial components in the definition of agape is that it is more than an emotion or a feeling; it is an action. Agape is not just a noun, it’s a verb. God’s love is something that is not just to be perceived or experienced; it is something to be expressed. It is not only expressed in loving others, it is also expressed in standing up to those who promote hate. Love in action is the most faithful way to counter the hate we see around us. Remember what John says: “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
That’s a tall order, right? It’s up to us for God’s love to be perfected? And this is written by a man who, just a one chapter before, calls his opponents “children of the devil.” That’s not very loving! Even John can’t get this exactly right. The truth is I can never love like God loves, because God loves people that I don’t want to love. But agape calls me out of my comfort zone, out of my cushy, insulated world of people who are just like me, into a world where I am challenged to show love for those whom I’d just as soon ignore, dismiss, even write off as children of the devil. Hey, the Bible never says this faith thing was going to be easy.
Trish and I have a lot more to say about this in the coming weeks. And, unfortunately, the world will probably give us a lot more to talk about. Here’s what I want you remember today: You are loved. You are loved. No qualifiers, no conditions. You may not always feel loveable or act loveable, but God that doesn’t stop God from loving you. You are made in God’s image, God is love, so you are loved. But that sentence isn’t complete until we add that you are also called to love others. We talk a lot about love. We sing about love. Love is at the core of our belief in Jesus Christ. But the real question is do we show love toward real-life people in ways that help them understand that God loves them, too.
One final quote, again from Phillip Gulley: “We don’t need to accept Jesus into our hearts; we need to have the same heart as Jesus.” We can go round and round about the political and societal implications of racism and Confederate statues and terrorist and radical agendas, but we have to start here, at the heart of Jesus, at the heart of our faith. We have to stand up against anyone who claims that hate is a part of faith. We have to lift up our voices on behalf of those who are drowned out by racists chants. We have to have the courage to say that all people matter to God, especially those who are told they don’t matter by others. We have to not only say with our mouths but live out with our hands and feet the most basic, fundamental fact of scripture: “God is love.”