April 29th, 2018 “God is Love” Rev. Heather Jepsen
1 John 4:7-21
Unlike most 40 year olds, I spend a lot of time thinking about my funeral. As a person who often offers prayers at funerals for people I know and people I only know through the stories of others, I often find myself imagining my own funeral. I hope it’s a long time away, and I won’t be able to attend of course, but I have some ideas about what I want it to be like. I want us to sing “In the Bulb There is a Flower” that we sang in worship two weeks ago, that is one of my favorite hymns and it has such a good resurrection theme. As far as other hymns there are so many I love I can’t choose today. I do know what scripture I want read though, I want this one, 1 John 4:7-21. This is my religion and this is my life. I have crafted my world around this scripture reading, so if I die before you do, please remember to read this at my funeral.
Like a lot of books in our Bible, we don’t really know who wrote 1st John. The general consensus was that it was probably an elder in the early church community that may or may not have been connected to the gospel of John. While 2nd and 3rd John are clearly letters, 1st John is more like a sermon. Personally, I like to think of this as a sermon written for the early church community. And what a sermon it is! This is a great little treatise on theology, the person and nature of Jesus Christ, and the true marks of the Christian community. This is wonderful writing that is still powerful and meaningful in our own time, thousands of years after it was written.
This writing is so good that it doesn’t make sense for me to read it all to you and then proceed to talk to you about it for 15 minutes like I do most weeks. Instead, I would like us to examine it together to find out what it says. So everyone open your pew Bibles to page 991 and we will let the author speak for himself.
(Read 1 John 4:7-12)
What a marvelously rich paragraph! God is love. And this God is one who spends and expresses that love on us. God loved us and expressed that love in the nature and person of Jesus Christ. Because we are loved by God, then we are able to love others. The author wants us to understand that our ability to love comes from God first; it is not something we are able to do on our own. We don’t love others and then are loved by God. Rather, God loves us first and then we are able to love others. In addition, it is in showing this love to others, it is in living this love in the world, that we are then able to know and comprehend God.
This experience of love is a new birth; it is a new opportunity for every person. Some may say they don’t know the love of God. For these people, the chance to be reborn into the love of God remains. When we are reborn into God’s love, when we see and know God’s love, then we are able to fully love others. We cannot see God, we cannot know God, but we can see and know each other. And when we love others, then we see and know God who lives in us and in them. God is love, and when we live lives of love, then God is within our hearts. We are made perfect in love. This is grace and the forgiveness of sin. Once we were broken, but now we know love and we are able to love others, now we are made whole.
(Read 1 John 4:13-16a)
You can see here how similar this writing is to the gospel of John. This reading sounds a lot like what Mary read about the vine and the branches and about how believers must abide in Jesus Christ. We find lots of language about abiding, and the author continues to spin text around this idea of love.
Here the author is also expanding things theologically. The whole of the trinity is addressed in this passage. It is the work of the Father to send the Son into the world to teach us how to love. It is the work of the Son to show us what love is, thereby offering us salvation. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to move within us to help us see the love of God and accept that love within our own hearts. That same spirit enables us to live the love of God and share that love with others. You can see the working of the Trinity here, enabling us to know and live the love of God.
(Read 1 John 4:16b-21)
Here is where the rubber meets the road. Again our author reminds us that God is love and it is this very love in our hearts and in our world that is the presence and power of God within our midst. Our author has already told us that this love is perfected when we love our neighbors. Now the author takes time to counter false theologies.
First, the theology of fear. I spoke a few weeks ago about how much fear acts as a motivator in our lives. We also know that for many people fear is wrapped up in religious beliefs. There are many churches that operate on a theology of fear, convincing people that our God is a God of judgment and wrath. This religion teaches that God is one who desires suffering and death for all people who do not fit some mold of perfection. Following this is the idea that Jesus was created to suffer this punishment and death on our behalf. Who gets to decide what life is forgiven or what life meets the requirements of perfection? Often their idea of perfection is not gleaned from the scriptures, but from the political leanings of the religious leaders of these churches. Follow our rules and toe the line, these churches teach, or suffer the wrath of God. While fear is certainly a strong motivator to get people to attend church, I don’t think this is a theology that the author of 1st John would support.
I think this text challenges a theology of fear and judgment. The author tells us that if we have the love of God in our hearts, then we need not fear judgment. If we are living a life in love, we will not be judged for we are one with God. There is not some standard of perfection that needs to be achieved. Instead there is freedom in love. It is love that is our salvation, it is love that frees us from judgement, and it is love that frees us from punishment. There is no room for fear when we are awash in the love of God, as perfect love casts out fear. Do not let fear be a religious motivation for you.
The other false theology that is challenged here is that we should love only certain people. Again, there are churches that tell us that some folks are worthy of God’s love and our love and others are not. Our author warns us against such teaching. If we say we love God but do not love our neighbors, all of our neighbors, then we really do not have the love of God in our hearts. If we are to love God, then we must also love those we meet in this world, our brothers and sisters on this planet. This is not a task we can achieve on our own. Rather, this is a gift from God. We love because God first loved us; it is not something we can take credit for.
I started this sermon by telling you that this scripture reading is the core of my theology. When people ask what I believe about God and religion I can point them to this scripture. This is what is within my heart and this is how I try to live each day. This is my religion and it really is quite simple “God loves us, and so we love others. When we love others, then we love God.” That’s it!
This mantra of religion is easy to understand but it can be difficult to put into practice. It is not something we will understand or achieve overnight. Rather this is the work of a lifetime of faith. One is always trying to do better, to love more, and thus to get closer to knowledge of God. This is an area where my heart is always growing.
In my own life, I practice this by trying to think about love. I try to have love at the forefront of my mind and heart when I am interacting with others. Sometimes it is easy, like when I am at church. On Sunday’s I put love on like a comfortable shirt and can wear it everywhere easy as pie. In other places of my life it is not that easy. When I am running errands, I often forget about love in my hurry to get things done. I am focused on my to-do list and so I don’t notice my neighbor as easily and I don’t love my neighbor as well. When I am in traffic and someone cuts me off, I lose sight of love as I curse the other driver as a fool. When I am tried after a long day and someone comes to the church asking for money, I lose sight of love because I just want to go home and be done with the world. When it is Monday morning and I haven’t had any coffee yet and the kids are nagging me and each other, I lose sight of love as I lose my temper.
Just like you, I am not perfect. I think of my life as a workbook of love, a project of love. I know that love is hard, and I know that I will fail. God is love, but I am human. I can live love in some moments, and in others I will miss the mark and live sin instead. But I rest in the assurance that God forgives me; if perfect love casts out fear than I live without fear of judgment. I also try to practice love by offering myself forgiveness for my failings. I try to start each day each moment as a fresh start in love. I accept God’s offer of grace and I am reborn in love each morning and each moment.
I want this read at my funeral because this is the most important text for me. This is the core of who I am and this is how I try to live each day. When I die I don’t want folks to be comforted with thoughts of heaven, while a lovely sentiment that is not how I live. Rather, I hope friends would be motivated to be born afresh in their own hearts, to be persuaded to try this religion of living love. Funerals are more about how we lived then how we died and if this is my last day on earth, which I certainly hope it’s not, but if it is . . . then I want to have done my best. I want to have tried. I want to live love without regrets. If this is all there is for me then I want to love you, because God loves you and God loves me. Love is the only thing that matters. I believe that, and I hope we can live like we believe it together. Love is the only thing that matters.
This morning, our scriptures remind us that God is love, and those who abide in love, abide in God. It really is that simple. May we all strive to practice living lives of love in our messy world. And when we die, may they say of us, that person loved well. Amen.