1 John 4:7-21
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” That quote, from verse sixteen, describes the essential nature of God; it describes the essential nature of the relationship that we have with God, and it describes the essential nature of the relationship that we have with one another. And with that statement, I could probably quit right here, and go on to the hymn of response, and start my vacation early because that verse actually says all that we need to know.
But do we believe it? We are prone to wonder, often secretly, in the deepest parts of our hearts, if it is really true that God loves us. Left alone to our most private and most most devastating thoughts, we could very well wonder if God could possibly love someone like us. We all have lists of things that have gone tragically wrong in our lives, and we blame God for some of those things, and we ask, if God has done these things to us, how is it that God can love us?
And then there’s that other list. The list of things that we have messed up all by ourselves; the places where we have made a wreck out of our lives; all of the stupid things that we have done that are clearly our own fault: have we fallen out of favor with God? Have we made ourselves unworthy of God’s love?
So hear this, and hear it well. Ditch the lists. It does not matter one whit what we think. It does not matter how devastatingly destructive those lists are. As sinful human beings, it is out of our realm to question the love that God has for us. We have no business even attempting to do it. God loves us and God favors us, in spite of ourselves. It does not matter what we think, or what we believe. We cannot stop God from loving us. Listen to verse ten: “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.”
So we need to straighten out our understanding of God, don’t we? We must dispense with nagging doubt, we must abolish our images of an angry, irate God, standing by ready to smite us at the moment that we mess up. We need to stop being superstitious. We need to learn to focus on and believe what the Scriptures have to say about God’s love for us, rather than holding fast to our own perverted imaginations. If our feelings about God’s love for us have more authority over us than do the clear words of the Scriptures, then we need to get rid of those feelings. We are not the ones who write the rules about the way in which God does or does not love us.
Verses seventeen and eighteen speak clearly to this: “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. 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.”
That is God’s love for us in it’s fullness. God’s love for us does not threaten judgment or punishment. God’s love is always kind, always welcoming, and always inviting us into deeper and more satisfying relationship. God’s love says, I love you no matter who you are or what you are. I love you in spite of what you think about yourself. My love for you is perfect and whole.
So then, if God loves us in this most amazing way, then we must also learn to love God. And here, the transition should be simple. When it finally dawns on us and becomes true to us that God loves us enthusiastically, we have a choice to make. We can enthusiastically receive that love, or we can reject it. If we choose to receive God’s love the most natural response of one who is loved is to return that love. If we know we are loved by God, we ought to love God in return. A better translation of verse nineteen is, “We love God because he first loved us.”
When that happens, when we love God, lavish love flows back and forth between us and God as if we were created to live this way.
Loving one another, though, can be a different story altogether. Loving God is actually quite simple. Loving one another is not simple. Loving God is quite natural. Loving one another is not natural at all. God’s love for each of us is perfect. Our love for each other is not. We have been prone to hate one another since our father Cain murdered his brother as a culmination of all the hatred that had been building up in his heart. God’s forgiveness of us is complete and total. It is limitless. Our forgiveness of one another is neither complete nor total, and it is hardly limitless. It ought to be, but it is not. When God forgives, our sins go away, and they are no more. God has forgotten them. Our memories tend to be much better than God’s, and so we remember the wounds that have been inflicted upon us, and sometimes we hold a grudge, and sometimes that grudge leads to bitterness. Knowing this ought to teach us not to wound others, but sometimes we are slow learners. Wounded people wound people.
The work of forgiveness has always been hard, agonizing work. We know this because Jesus himself endured the hard and agonizing work of the cross in order to achieve our own forgiveness. Knowing that the work of forgiveness is hard and agonizing should not keep us, however, from being busy with that work. Verses 20 and 21 put this rather bluntly. “Those who say. ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers and 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. The commandment that we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” Unfortunately, that’s quite plain, and quite straightforward, and quite difficult to hear.
But if loving is difficult for us, the writer does not leave us without hope. The hope appears in verse seventeen: “…because as he is, so are we in this world. That is deep, but it is good stuff. God is altogether lovely. We have already established that. We also know that God loves us perfectly and completely. So then, because we bear the awesome image of God, we are like God; we have been built and engineered to be like God.
We are surrounded this morning by people whom God has declared to be altogether loving and altogether lovely, even though we don’t always look or even act like we are. Some times, in spite of what God has declared to be true about us, we aren’t lovely or loving at all.
So here’s the truth, if God can be trusted with the truth. This morning, we are in the midst of an absolute love fest. There is love flowing all over the place. If God is correct, there is love flowing down to us from God, there is love flowing up from us to God, and most miraculously, there is loving going on in and around and all over the pews in this place. I am surprised that we can even breathe with all of this love flowing all over this place. But we can breathe, because it is the breath of God that is flowing among us. We are surrounded by the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit gives us the power to be loving and lovely. “…because as he is, so are we in this world.”
So can there be an unlovely person in this place? Not at all. Is there anyone who should even think that they are unlovely? Not a bit. Should we even feel that we are unlovely? Never in life. God has declared that we are lovely. And if God has declared that, we are not at liberty to challenge the truth of it.
But if we are truly as God is in this world, we ought also to now be declaring that all others in this fellowship are lovely. We cannot make anyone else the slightest bit unlovely. Making someone else unlovely is beyond our ability. We cannot undo the work of God no matter how many delete buttons we might try pushing.
So, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”