Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 2, 2021
1 John 4:7-21 Commentary
Contrary to the Beatles’ sung claims, all we “need” isn’t “love.” But the full-orbed, whole person love to which this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson summons Jesus’ followers will go a very long way to meeting all sorts of “needs.”
Jesus’ friends might call John’s first letter his “love letter.” That emphasis is, in fact, a theme of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. “Love,” John almost immediately insists in verse 7, “comes from God.” God is, in other words, the source and origin of love.
Even God’s mostly saintly adopted sons and daughters wouldn’t know how to love unless God first both modeled love for us and implanted it within us. After all, while people naturally love ourselves, we don’t naturally want God’s best for our neighbors.
Yet while even Christians sometimes confuse love with romantic and/or lustful feelings, God has graciously shown us a more perfect way. “This is how God showed his love among us,” John writes in verses 9 and following, “He sent his one and only Son into the world … he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
God understands that since even God’s beloved children whom God graciously creates in God’s own image have naturally forgotten how to love, we need a concrete model for love. God graciously gives the world God so deeply loves that model in the gift of God’s Son. That at least suggests that one large element of godly love involves self-giving and –sacrifice.
Of course, even many children who have an age-appropriate faith can articulate something of what I’ve just written. But John’s readers peer into considerably murkier waters as we read more of this 1 John 4. What, for example, we wonder, does John mean when he writes in verses 8 and 16b, “God is love”? The apostle isn’t, after all, professing that love, like mercy and grace, simply characterizes God. Nor does John insist that God simply acts in loving ways, much like God acts in forgiving and patient ways.
No, John insists, “God is love.” It’s not easy to fully explain what the apostle means by that. Preachers and teachers who have opportunities to interact with their hearers might want to explore with them what John means when he insists God “is” love.
But perhaps “God is love” means at least this: everything God does, even God’s judging, is loving. Love defines God. It is God’s chief characteristic. In fact, John might even mean that love sums up all of God’s other character traits. God has always and will always act in love.
It’s hard to quickly come up with a more comprehensive and bold way of thinking about God, God’s world and those God creates in God’s image: God’s posture in regards to all God creates, including creatures that have made themselves God’s enemies, is that of love. It is a love that is so unconditional that even when God must judge what and whom God loves, God always does so in love.
Yet the apostle isn’t done loading chapter 4 with mystery when he insists, “God is love.” In verses 12 and 17 he goes on to add, “if we love one another God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
That’s a hard concept for Christians to understand. In fact, while the NIV translates teleiomenei as “complete,” other translations’ “perfected” may make the apostle’s assertion more difficult to understand. We profess, after all, that God’s love is already perfect and sufficient without God’s people. God doesn’t need our help to fill out God’s love.
Yet perhaps the apostle is saying at least something like this: God’s dearly beloved adopted sons and daughters somehow enhance God’s love when we reproduce something of it in our love for our neighbors. We might even say that Jesus’ followers help others to experience God’s love even more concretely when we’re deliberate and conscious channels of that love. Christians in some ways make God’s love more visible when we love especially people who are least, lost and have made themselves our enemies.
Proclamation of I John 4 will fall, for many of us, less than two weeks after Officer Chauvin’s conviction of the murder of Mr. George Floyd. That makes this a perhaps especially important time to talk about Christ-like love. Mr. Chauvin’s murder of Mr. Floyd was a complete failure of love. It serves to remind Christians of the radical but utterly necessary character of love for those who are different from us. Love for “the other” has historically proven to be very fragile.
But while proclamation of it needs careful nuancing, 1 John 4’s proclaimers also remember that God calls God’s adopted children to also love those who have, like Mr. Chauvin, made themselves our enemies. So we remind both our hearers and ourselves that we don’t get to choose whom we love. While we continue to vigorously hate and condemn Mr. Chauvin’s and similar acts, we follow a Jesus who calls his followers to love even those who don’t deserve it.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s third great mystery may involve verse 18’s, “Perfect love drives out fear.” This, of course, raises the specter addressed above in regards to what John means when he speaks of teleiomenei (“complete” or “perfect”) love.
But verse 18 adds to that mystery the mystery of how complete love “drives out fear.” Again perhaps it’s in some ways as simple as this: those who, by God’s grace and with the Spirit’s help, love don’t have to be afraid of God’s wrath. It may help 1 John’s proclaimers to remind our hearers that exo ballo (“drives out”) is closely related to the ekballo that refers to Jesus’ act of casting out demons. In that light, fear is something as both unnatural and destructive as evil spirits. Since it’s so dangerous, God graciously throws it out of God’s adopted sons and daughters.
A colleague whose name I no longer remember once compared perfect love and fear to oil and water. They’re simply incompatible. The love God equips God’s adopted sons and daughters to show our neighbors is an unmistakable demonstration that God has graciously done God’s work of salvation in and to us.
This may also relate to our posture towards people. Perfect love doesn’t just cast out fear of God. It also casts out the fear of others that sometimes provokes Jesus’ followers to act in unloving ways toward them.
As 1 John 4’s proclaimers reflect with our hearers on it, we might note a couple of “takeaways.” This text won’t let Jesus’ followers play off our love for God against love for our neighbors. Those who love God have no excuse for failing to love our neighbors.
On “the other side of the coin,” as it were, however, Christians don’t get so busy loving our neighbors that we fail to cultivate love for God. In a real sense, we can’t love God without also loving our neighbors. But our neighbors aren’t God. So worship of God and love of neighbor always go hand-in-hand. Neither can replace the other.
What’s more, no matter how God’s dearly beloved people understand “perfect love,” we always remember that growth in love for God and our neighbors always comes through the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s presence alone makes Jesus’ adopted siblings more and more loving, that is, more and more like Jesus Christ. Any love that we generate in response to God’s love isn’t so much our accomplishment, but the result of God’s gracious work.
Finally, love is always based on and grounded in the work of God in Christ. So Christian love isn’t just a matter of making the right choices or just trying harder. Christian love is far more than a laudable human project.
All Christian ethics, including love, are the outgrowth of a conscious imitation of God Christ. While God’s adopted children love in order to promote our neighbors’ well-being, that’s not our sole or even primary reason for loving each other. We love because God first loved us and graciously calls to live in the way for which God created us, in love for both God and our neighbors.
In her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott relates a story told by Jack Kornfield of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California. An eight-year-old boy had a younger sister who was dying of leukemia. His parents told him that without a blood transfusion she would die. They also explained to him that his blood was probably compatible with hers and, if so, he would be a good blood donor.
They asked him if they could test his blood. He said sure. So they did and it was a good match. Then they asked if he would donate to his sister a pint of his blood because it could be her only chance of living. He said he would have to think about it overnight. The next day he went to his parents and said he was willing to donate the blood.
So they took him to the hospital where he was placed on a gurney beside his six-year-old sister. Both of them were hooked up to IV’s. A nurse withdrew a pint of blood from the boy and transferred to his sister’s IV. The boy lay on his gurney in silence while the blood dripped into his sister, until the doctor came over to see how he was doing. The boy opened his eyes and asked, “How soon until I start to die?”
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