Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

 

 “God is Love”

Sunday, April 6, 2008

 

 

I John 4: 7-16


Dean

Rev. Dean Snyder

 

“God is love,” the First Epistle of John says. No one had quite said it this way before.

 

The Old Testament spoke of God’s hesed, a Hebrew word that means “steadfast love.”

 

The Apostle Paul suggested that love is eternal. “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (I Cor 13:13)

 

Paul even went so far as to refer to God as “the God of love.”(2 Cor 13:11)

 

But the First Epistle of John goes farther than anywhere else in the Bible. It says: “God is love.” It does not merely say “God loves” or “God is loving.” It says “God is love.”

 

The Gospel and Epistles of John were written by members of an early Jewish-Christian community located in or near Palestine who considered the Apostle John, the “beloved disciple,” to be their patron saint. The Apostle John may have even been the original founder of the congregation. The Gospel of John, as we have it today, was written about 90 CE and the First Epistle of John about ten years later – 100 CE. The Apostle John would have been gone by then. So the First Epistle of John was written by John the Second or maybe even John the Third who was the leader of the johannine church in 100 CE.

 

My guess is that no other biblical writer would have gone this far – to not only say “God loves” or “God is loving,” but to actually say “God is love.”

 

John the Third explains what he means by this in this way. He says, “Those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (I John 4:16)

 

The word “abide” means “to remain in” or “to stay there.”

 

Those who remain in love remain in God and God remains there in them. The way we keep ourselves in communion with God is to keep ourselves in a state of love.

 

John the Third says that we don’t stay in communion with God by certain spiritual practices or by Bible study or by church attendance or by believing the right things; we stay in communion with God by abiding in love. Spiritual practices, Bible study, church participation, believing are all important, but they are important because they are means of abiding in love, so that we will be in communion with God. According to John the Third, there is no way to God that doesn’t mean being in love, and there is no way to abide with God and to have God abide in us if we stop abiding in love. There may be some other biblical writers who would have disagreed with John, but this is his claim.

 

Well, the next question is what does it mean for us to abide in love?

 

Let’s assume, and I think it is an absolutely good assumption, let’s assume all of us have experienced some love in our lives. If for some reason, our parents were not capable of loving us, then a teacher did, or a Sunday school teacher, or a friend we made along the way. Somewhere in each one of our lives we have experienced love. Many of us have experienced lots and lots of love from many, many different people. All of us have experienced some love from somebody.

 

All of us have loved others. If our parents have for some reason not been able to receive our love, there have been others who have let us love them.

 

In Greek there are three words for love: eros, philia, agape. Eros is romantic love, philia is the love of friendship, and agape is love that involves no transaction. It is not “I’ll love you if you love me.” It is love freely given that hopes for love in return but does not require or demand it.

 

Romantic love that is more than lust includes an element of agape. So any of us who have been in love romantically have experienced agape. Friendship that is more than just being allies or a quid pro quo “you scratch my back” relationship includes an element of agape. So any of us who have had an experience of true friendship have experienced agape.

 

God, who is love, is present in our relationships with our partners and our relationships with our friends and family and our relationships with all those we love and who love us.

 

If we abide in love, we abide in God and God abides in us. If we abide in these kinds of relationships, we abide in God and God in us.

 

We can understand this more clearly if we consider the alternatives. There are several alternatives to abiding in love. The most obvious alternative to love is hate. One alternative to abiding in love is to abide in hate.

 

John the Third knew something about this, I think. Certainly he knew something about the temptation to hate. His congregation had been through a schism, just before he wrote the First Epistle. A group within the congregation had left, and the leaving had not been pleasant. They left because of a theological disagreement; they apparently thought that Jesus was not really a flesh-and-blood human being but some kind of spiritual being that just appeared to be human. (I John 4:2) The First Epistle of John hints that these same people probably also objected to the expectation that the more affluent members of the congregation assist the poorer members. (I John 3:17) It was probably some of the more affluent members of the congregation who left.

 

They left and the leaving was painful. In the 2nd chapter of First John, John calls those who left “antichrists,” which was a vicious thing to say at the time. (I John 2: 18-20)  

 

John knew the temptation to hate. Abiding in love means not going there. If we abide in love, we just don’t go there.

 

Who among us has not been tempted by hate? Hatred is a very heady drug. It can even give us a sense of purpose in life but, of course, it destroys us along the way. Some of us have perhaps known somebody whose entire life has been driven by a great hatred and who has lost all joy and contentment along the way, because hate can never be satisfied. Hate is a bottomless pit.

 

There are groups that are bonded together by a shared hate. Shared hate builds a very powerful sense of community that may well be physiological. People who are joined together by a shared hate have a very powerful bond indeed.

 

There are people who hate for what may be some quite understandable reasons. They hate people who hate them. Or they have been victims and they hate those who did whatever they did to them.  There are those who hate someone who injured someone they love. Who wouldn’t understand this? Still, even if it is understandable, it is hate and if we abide in it, it will separate us from God and destroy our souls.

 

Shared hate can even feel like love, but of course it isn’t. It is like people who gather in the same crack-house day after day to smoke together. It may feel like intimacy, but it is not love. The Epistle of John says: “Don’t go there. Abide in love.” The bottom line is that hate separates us from God.

 

There are other alternatives in addition to hate. The first Epistle of John, if we read the verses just after our text, talks about fear as an alternative to love. I used to wonder about this until I read it very carefully. What John is talking about is fear of judgment. “Perfect love casts out fear,” John says, but the fear it casts out is fear of “the day of judgment” and of “punishment.” (I John 4: 17-19)

 

John isn’t talking about the fear of heights or the fear of confined spaces; he is talking about the fear of condemnation – a lack of self-love and self-acceptance. Fear of judgment. He is talking about getting trapped in guilt and shame.

 

Abiding in love means not going there when we are tempted to hate others but also it is about not going there when we are tempted to hate ourselves. We can’t abide in love and we can’t abide in God if we are riddled with guilt and shame and hate ourselves.

 

There are moments of grace all of us have when we feel good about ourselves – we love being who we are – stay there. Abide there.  

 

There are many other alternatives to love, and one or another of them are perhaps likely to tempt us at different stages of our lives. Ennui is an alternative to love that often tempts us when we are young. Ennui is a generalized state of boredom, an attitude of disengagement, a carefulness not to care too much. Ennui is a way of avoiding love to which the young are especially susceptible. Abide in love. Don’t go there.

 

Those of us who are older are perhaps more likely to be tempted by resentment. I remember the late Bill Coffin saying 35 years ago that one of the great temptations in life is to spend our days raking our garden of grievances…raking up and rehearsing our personal resentments. Coffin said that it is an excellent way to avoid caring…to focus on our personal grievances. Abide in love. Don’t go there.

 

All of these things can take over our lives and our personalities. The only way to prevent this is to do what John says. Abide in love. Don’t go there to these places which seek to seduce us and to isolate us.

 

This is different from repressing our feelings, which is not a good thing. Looking at the temptation to hate or to self-disparagement or to ennui or to resentment and deciding against it is different from pretending it doesn’t exist and that we just naturally love everybody and feel blessed by anything at all that happens to us in life. Deciding not to give in to our feelings is different from repressing them.

 

We have more control over the state of our own spirits than I think we want to acknowledge. John thinks we do.

 

This is a week of remembering…painful memories of 40 years ago in Memphis. Soledad O’Brien did an excellent job last evening on CNN of helping us remember and ask “why?”

 

There’s another anniversary I also found myself thinking about this week. Exactly a year-and-a half ago this past Wednesday a man named Charles Roberts shot 10 Amish school girls in a one-room school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Then he shot himself. Four of the girls and Charles Roberts died. It is almost too ghastly to speak about on a Communion Sunday.

 

When Charles Roberts was buried a year-and-a half ago this coming Tuesday in the cemetery of Georgetown United Methodist Church, a few miles from the Nickel Mines one-room schoolhouse, Donald Kraybill says, “Amish families who had buried their own daughters just the day before were in attendance and they hugged the widow, and hugged other members of the killer's family."[i] They helped support Charles Roberts’ widow and children financially.

 

Don’t suppose the Amish didn’t experience all the same feelings we would experience. They did. They surely were tempted to hate, but they decided not to go there. They decided to abide in love, and thus they decided to abide in God and to allow God to abide in them.

 

The Amish family members are still struggling. A counselor who works with them suggests that the forgiving has to happen over and over again one day at a time. They decide to abide in love every day. But, the counselor says, “because the Amish can express that forgiveness, and because they hold no grudges, they are better able to concentrate on the work of their own healing.”[ii]

 

We decide to whether or not to abide in love time and time again, so often it become habitual. Love is habitual. As is hate. As are guilt and shame. As are ennui and resentment. We deicide again and again whether or not to abide in love until it is almost not a decision but a habit that grows from countless decisions that established the habit.

 

If hate or self-hate, or ennui, or resentment or anything else has become our habit, we can decide anew to choose to abide in love. We can decide again and again not to go there but to abide in love until abiding in love and abiding in God becomes our new habit.

 

Rabbi Harold Kushner repeats a story he heard from a Native American tribal chief. The tribal chief, speaking about his inner struggles, said: “There are two dogs inside me. One is mean and evil. The other is good. The mean dog fights the good dog all the time.” Someone asked the tribal chief which dog usually wins. After a moment’s reflection, the tribal chief answered, “The one I feed the most.”[iii]

 

Let us come to the table today to be fed.

 

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[i] Joseph Shapiro, “Amish Forgive School Shooter, Struggle with Grief.” NPR News at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=14900930.

[ii] Jonas Beiler quoted in Shapiro.

[iii] Harold S. Kushner, Living a Life that Matters (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991) 59.