Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 25, 2021
1 John 3:16-24 Commentary
“Love” is a word everyone knows and everyone understands. Or so we think. But if that is so, why is it that when we are called to preach on “love,” it can feel so daunting? Maybe it’s because we use the same word for so many things. It would not be unusual, for instance, to hear someone say one moment “I love my children” and then ten minutes later declare, “Oh my goodness, I just love pizza!” Really? Same word for your kids as for a slice with pepperoni and sausage?
Or is it more that “love” is so huge a topic in the Christian faith that there is a sense in which every time we preach it is somehow about love? If so, then when we get to a passage that forces us to concentrate on love, we feel like we’ve got nothing to say that we have not already communicated in 100 different sermons already!
There is a sense in which that is true: every sermon is about love. In addition—as we just noted—to being one of those diaphanous, wispy words that everyone uses but no one can fully define, love is also the keynote of the gospel. God is love. Jesus is love. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son. This is my commandment that you love one another. If I speak in the tongues of men and angels but have not love, I am nothing. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Peter, do you love me? Love your neighbor as yourself. Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love and the greatest of these is love. The fruit of the Spirit is love.
Love is huge. Love’s scope and influence are so vast that it plays a role in the entire sweep of the Christian life. This is something the apostle John seemed to sense better than anyone among the New Testament writers. The letter of I John is by no means the longest letter in the New Testament and yet it far and away contains more references to love than any other New Testament book, including the gospels. The word “love” crops up thirty-five times in this brief letter. By comparison the entire book of Romans has “love” only fourteen times. Even with its elegant ode to love in I Corinthians 13, I Corinthians contains the word “love” just sixteen times. But then, John’s gospel also has the word love almost twice as many times as it comes up in any of the other three gospels.
All in all it is clear that John saw love as the #1 defining trait of God and of those who are children of the heavenly Father (as last week’s lection said). Loving one another in imitation of God is, John writes in verse 11 (just prior to where this lection begins), the message we have heard “from the beginning.” Those of you familiar with John’s theology and style know that he liked to use that word “beginning” as a Genesis-like harkening back to the original creation. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God,” is how John famously opened his gospel. This letter likewise opens, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard and which we have seen with our eyes and touched–this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”
And now in this third chapter John says that love is also “from the beginning.” Love was from the beginning because God was in the beginning. Love, in other words, has something to do with the very creation in which we live and of which we are a part. Creation itself sprang from the bubbling overflow of God’s love. Like a shaken-up bottle of champagne, so also God’s love within the Trinity was so effervescent, so richly pressured and full that sooner or later the cork had to explode out and when it did, a river of sparkling love gushed forth and sprayed everywhere.
Creation is that overflow of love. God wanted to share the life and the love he already had so exquisitely among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Greek theologians of the Trinity in the early church liked to talk about what they termed “perichoresis,” which is a Greek word meaning in essence the interpenetrating dance of love shared by the three persons in the Godhead (our word “choreography” spins out of this word). Whereas in the Western tradition of the church we have tended to depict the Trinity as a triangle, the Eastern church has always preferred a circle. The Trinity is like an ever-moving circle of dance in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit constantly and forever move in and through one another in perfect bliss, harmony, and self-forgetful joy. The three persons of God are so invested in one another, so interested in one another, so caring of one another that although three persons they form just one God. They’ve been serving each other from all eternity and finding holy joy in that loving co-service.
So it is no surprise that at some point those three persons decided that so great was this love, so focused was this love on the other, that they wanted an entire universe of others with whom to further share the love. God was under no compulsion to create anything. Yet it is just so like God to want to create, to want to share the love. God’s motivation to create the world is similar to what motivates us to invite as many friends as we can to the wedding of one of our children or to an anniversary celebration: we want to widen the circle of our own love and joy; we want to share the grand event with those who are close to us. Something very like that was what brought about creation in the first place: the love of God within the Trinity bubbled over in a desire to spread the joy around. “Let us create some more creatures so that we can then invite them to our holy party!”
That’s what love does: it naturally makes us take care of one another so that, in the perfect world and in the perfect congregation, you would not have to worry about yourself because everyone else would already be not only worrying about you but taking very good care of you. The thing we all desire is to feel important, valued, worthwhile. In our sin, and so in our lack of love, we try to achieve those positive feelings by isolating ourselves, by putting others down, by competitions through which we can win (and others therefore lose). We puff ourselves up by deflating others through backbiting gossip, the spread of innuendo and the fostering of suspicion as to the motives of our brothers and sisters.
In all of these ways we try to attain what even God wants us to feel, which is a sense of worthwhileness and importance. But God knows that the way of evil and hate will never accomplish that. Only love for one another can grant to each the dignity we deserve as God’s image-bearers. These are things which, in love, we communicate to each other within community but which, without community, we can never feel. When in pride and arrogance we become self-aggrandized, snooty, proud, we saw off the limb we’re sitting on, cutting ourselves off from the very community which, if only it could be filled with love, would become a place of grand mutual affirmation and care.
But the only way that can happen in a still-sinful world requires something else. In the history of the English language, particularly in the King James Version of the Bible, “love” was regularly rendered as “charity.” Today “charity” carries with it a very different meaning, of course, and yet I want to recover one traditional aspect of this word for love by saying that the only way we can love one another with any kind of caring consistency is if we extend toward each other a very charitable attitude.
Today “charity” is a negative word for many. “I don’t want your charity! Just keep your charity! Charity begins at home!” No one wants to feel condescended to, and so it’s not charity anymore but “assistance.” No one wants to be serviced. That may be why some while back in my state the “Department of Social Services” was changed for a while to “Family Independence Agency.” We prefer to look self-sufficient, in need of, if anything, just a little assistance but not of the kind of wholesale charity that suggests inability and dependency.
But if we transfer such attitudes toward the ultimate charitable Giver, God himself, then we can none of us be saved. We need the love of the Father to condescend to us in our weakness, we need God’s charitable attitude toward us or we’re lost. Taking our cues from God, we see that we need each other’s charity, too. No community on earth can exist for long without love. No congregation can stay together, no marriage can survive, no family can be even remotely happy without love: forgiving love, understanding love, compassionate love, patient love, faithful love, gentle love.
In a profound verse in I John 3:24 John asks what is as vital a question as you could think of: how do we know if God really lives in us? John’s answer: we know it by the Spirit God gave us. And that Spirit, it is clear, is the essence of divine love at work in us.
In one of his many canny passages in The Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis imagines the demon Screwtape writing the following to his nephew Wormwood, “God really does want to fill the universe with little replicas of himself. We want cattle who can finally become food; he wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, he wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; he is full and flows over. Our Father below [the Devil] has drawn all other beings into himself, [God] wants a world full of beings united to him but still distinct.”
Here Lewis captures not just the essence of God and creation but of love versus hate: love always overflows and expands outward to include others. Love reaches out to others not to snuff their distinctiveness but to embrace them for who they are. But hatred seeks to conquer, to eliminate differences until only a single master race of like individuals is all that remains. Hate seeks to eliminate the other so that the self can be all in all. Hate, John writes, makes you like Cain the murderer. Hate seeks to isolate itself for the sake of nursing of your own ego and, if necessary, hate will kill off others if that is what will create a private world in which you not only keep looking out for good old Number One but in which looking out for Number One is the main event.
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