Earlier this summer I was part of a conversation that turned to the foibles and frustrations of people. We’ve all had those conversations, haven’t we? It might be about people in general or it might be about one person in particular who makes our lives difficult. In the course of the conversation someone made the comment, people…you gotta love’em! I liked that phrase, and tucked it away as a future sermon title.
This morning, we return to the topic of love, as presented in the book of I John. We return to the topic of love for two reasons – one, because Jesus talked a lot about love. Love was the foundation of everything he did and everything he said. And secondly, because the Bible talks a lot about love. This morning’s Scripture text speaks very powerfully about love.
For our text we turn to I John 4:11-21 –
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.
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.
To be honest, I would feel a lot better if John hadn’t gone from preaching to meddin’. In this passage, he’s really meddlin’ in my life, and I imagine he’s meddlin’ in yours as well. Like Jesus, John doesn’t offer any outs on who we are to love. We might find some individuals who are objectionable, but John doesn’t, and Jesus didn’t either. Jesus, you’ll remember, went so far as to say we are to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44 – But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you). While John doesn’t mention our enemies, he does offer this very blunt declaration – 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.
As John speaks very plainly and succinctly about love, I will attempt to do so as well.
1. Love is the toughest easy thing we will ever do.
I know that is a weird sentence and probably violates at least several rules of writing, but it is true – love is the toughest easy thing we will ever do.
What I mean by that statement is this – love is not hard. If you love someone, you just do. I can tell you that from the first time I saw Tanya, it was not hard for me to love her. I didn’t have to talk myself into love, I didn’t have to reason myself into love, and I didn’t have to be convinced I was in love; love just came as naturally as breathing. I always loved my parents, I always loved my siblings, and I always loved my extended family. Love is easy; it just comes naturally to us.
That’s the good news. But there’s always some, maybe not bad news, but we’ll call it less good news. The scope of Christian love is not limited to those for whom we have a natural affinity and love. Love is to include all people. And there’s the rub. Sometimes, it’s hard to deal with people, but then I remember that, sometimes, I’m one of those people. That’s why this is such a tough passage. It is blunt and to the point. In short, declarative sentences, John challenges us with the reminder that we are to love others.
When I had my first semester of Greek and we began translating, this is the passage to which we first turned. Dr. Henry Webb, my professor at the time, said about the passage, and I quote, it’s easy. I found that to be more than a bit ironic. In terms of structure, language, syntax, and grammar it is an easy passage. In fact, in terms of style it reads very elementary, as though John was writing to a group of children. But in terms of content, it is not easy, is it? It may be written with short, simple, declarative, sentences and an elementary structure, but it is an immensely challenging message.
What is easy about this passage?! Nothing. There are days when I really wish John hadn’t written this. Am I alone in feeling this way? Don’t leave me hanging here; someone nod their head please!
Love is the toughest easy thing we will ever do.
2. John is asking us to live up to our words.
I was reading some research the other day by the Pew organization. I think they do outstanding work and I take to heart what they have to say. Some of their recent research has to do with church attendance, and I found their discoveries to be fascinating. While many people assume that church attendance across the board has been declining, the Pew research found that for 25% of Americans, their involvement in church has actually increased, as well as their religious commitment.
One of the themes found in their research was also the extent to which Americans distrust institutions, which includes religious institutions, which includes, of course, churches. I think that reflects a desire for authenticity. People want to see that the lifestyle matches the message. Honestly, sometimes there is too much of a gap between the two. The message, and the way the message is demonstrated in the lives of the adherents can have, sometimes, a very wide gap.
People often forget our words. Words are important, but in many ways, it’s our actions that really matter. Perhaps there are times when we simply talk too much. People take notice if there is a gap between our words and our deeds, our proclamations and our character, our preaching and our living. Maybe we should talk less, and act more, especially when it comes to love. Anyone, after all, can say they love another person, but it is ultimately our actions that prove whether our words are true.
The phrase, preach often; use words when necessary is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. While we don’t know if the phrase originated with Francis, it is a very good piece of advice. I think that, in some cases, churches have spoken more than they have acted. I am not one to undervalue the importance of words, but words alone are not going to make a difference in this world. Deeds, and actions, are of vital importance. The world would be a far better place if the words I love you were always accompanied by actions that demonstrated their truth.
In verse 20 John says it in very direct, plain language – 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.
John uses the language of family at the end of this passage – using the words brother and sister, and in doing so, he is encouraging us to close that gap that can exist between our words and our deeds. Such language can help to close the gap because we will not give up on a family member. We might have our moments – and all families do – but there is a commitment to family members that demonstrates the bond of love that should exist. Families stick together. I am the second of five children. I have an older and younger brother and two younger sisters. My older brother, Ed, and I always got along very well. It was probably because I did what he told me to do. He would tell me what classes I needed to take, or give me other instructions, and I followed his advice, which was helpful. I tried to do the same with my younger brother, Matt. I often told him what to do, but he didn’t listen to me as I listened to Ed. He and I argued a good deal and had our share of conflict. For many years I worried about him, because when he was a teenager he decided that he was done with church and anything to do with faith. For decades, it appeared to me that he would never return to church, but he had a spiritual reawakening and began studying for the ministry. He preached his first sermon in October of 2008 at Castleman’s Run United Methodist Church, and there was no way I was going to miss it. He preached a great sermon, and I was proud of him, and proud to be there that morning, and thought about how our bond of family held us together over the years. If we had only been friends, we would have no doubt drifted apart many years ago, but our family tie kept us together. That is what love should do.
3. Love is always the greatest good because it lifts us and pulls us to be our best selves, the people God has created us to be.
In several of the verses John makes the connection between our love for God and a love for others. Love ought not only to pull us toward God; it ought to pull us toward others as well. Love ought to remind us that if someone hates, we will not hate in return. If someone is cruel, we will not be cruel in return. If someone plots and schemes to hurt us we will not plot and scheme in return.
I have a story that illustrates this principle. In the previous congregation that I served we had a member name Scott. Scott was a very special young man. When he was born, he had some very serious health challenges and the family was told he might not survive more than a few days. He did, but the family was warned he might only survive for a few months. After he continued to survive the family was told it might be best if Scott was institutionalized. But the family kept Scott at home, and in many ways Scott thrived. Though Scott never developed beyond the mental capacity of a five or six-year-old, he was able to go to school and, in many ways, Scott was very insightful and very smart.
Because of his health problems Scott made frequent trips to the hospital. During one of his stays in the hospital I went to visit with him one evening. It was a busy evening of visitors for him, and at one point there were ten or twelve of us in his room. It was enough people that Scott decided we could become a choir and sing a song for him. None of us were very enthusiastic about the idea, as not all of us were good singers and we didn’t all know each other. Becoming an impromptu choir in a hospital room is just not one of those things that people are enthusiastic about doing. But Scott was always very insistent, and we realized that we might as well go along with him, so we decided to sing Amazing Grace. As we began, I think we all assumed we would just sing one verse, but by the time we finished the first verse the atmosphere in the room had changed; it had become a worshipful moment and we continued to sing, verse after verse, all the way to the end. Scott was able to take a group of visitors to his hospital room and turn them into a choir. Scott passed away at the age of 42, and he left a tremendous legacy of love. I will never forget that evening in his hospital room, and when I think of it, it reminds me of how love brings out the best in each of us and it binds us together.
We often bemoan the fact that our country is so divided. We often bemoan the level of violence in our world. Yes, we are divided. Yes, we live in a violent world. But there is an answer – love. That may sound simplistic, but it is the only real answer. Nothing else has worked. It’s time we try love.