The other night I was talking with a friend of mine. He had seen somebody write something controversial on my Facebook page. My friend said, “As far as I’m concerned, if it’s not in the Bible, it’s wrong.”
To which I said, “Well, then, you’d better take your trousers off, because trousers are not in the Bible.”
It was one of my more subtle pieces of Theology, I’m sure you’ll agree. But my friend didn’t strip off.
Another word that isn’t the Bible is ‘Trinity’. Jehovah’s Witnesses will delight in telling you that. But the data that leads to the doctrine of the Trinity is all in the Bible, and that is why I believe in it.
To say that may make you nervous. Not a sermon on the Trinity! Has Trinity Sunday been secretly moved to November?
No. This is just to say that on a day when our theme is ‘God’s Love And Our Love’ (and hence why every hymn today features the love of God), we’re going to think firstly about God’s love. And in thinking about God’s love, we end up thinking about the Trinity. There’s nothing difficult coming here, just this thought: our passage makes one of the most basic statements in the whole Bible about God. John says, ‘God is love’ (verse 16). God’s very nature is love. How could that be true before creation? Only if it were possible for God to share and express love within God. There, within the Trinity, is love. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit. The Son loves the Father and the Spirit. The Spirit loves the Father and the Son. God is love.
If you accept that, then here is the next thought. Love between people (or beings) needs to go beyond them. The love that a couple or a family shares needs to be extended beyond their boundaries. If they only keep love between themselves, it is no longer love, it is mutual selfishness.
The example I usually give is this. When I prepare a couple for marriage and I take them through the things they need to consider about their relationship, I ask them how the love they share can be a gift to others. The most common expression of this is if they are able to have children. But (unless they are one of the increasing number of couples who have had children prior to marriage) they do not know whether they will be able to have children or not. So I ask them where they will extend their love. Is there something in the community they can do as a couple? Most couples understand that just staying cooped up together is unhealthy.
In a similar way, ask now about the statement ‘God is love’. Can God simply keep love within God? Or does God need to extend love? I would say, ‘yes’. The love that is within God as Trinity extends in the act of love we call creation. God’s inner nature of love is first expressed outwardly in creation. God’s love exploded in creation.
But it doesn’t stop there. John gives us a specific example of God’s love, namely the birth and death of Jesus:
God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 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. (Verses 9-10)
We experience God’s love in the birth of Jesus, who came in humility, poverty and obscurity to bring us life. We experience God’s love in his giving up Jesus even to the Cross for us, so that our sins might be forgiven. We need never think God is indifferent to us, because he has come to us in Jesus and even died for us.
Think for a moment about the news items regarding St Paul’s Cathedral and the Occupy LSX protestors’ camp. You will have seen in the week that eventually the Dean of St Paul’s resigned, due to the sustained criticism of the cathedral’s apparent hostility to the demonstrators. After the Dean resigned, the Bishop of London and some of the remaining cathedral staff went to visit the protestors. To my astonishment, one news report said it was the first time they had met. We do not have to worry about that with God. Not only has he met us in the birth and death of Jesus, he continues to meet us in the gift of the Holy Spirit. As John puts it in verse 13,
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.
So that is our first and fundamental point: God is love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That comes before everything else. It has to be the basis of our responses, due to the way John starts this section:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God (verse 7a).
Hence our second thought is that we love in response to God’s love. As John puts it in verse 19:
We love because he first loved us.
God loves first; we love in response. That is always the order. If we get that wrong, our whole spiritual life shrivels up. If we think that our duty of love comes first, then faith becomes a list of dos and don’ts, it is all about oughts and musts. When we fall into that trap, there are only two possible destinations for the end of our journey: one is pride and the other is condemnation. We shall end up in ugly pride, because we shall delude ourselves that it’s all about us, look at our achievements! We shall be quite happy to draw all the attention to ourselves and perhaps fail to notice that we are deflecting it away from God. Indeed, God will be reduced to no more than Santa’s Little Helper.
The other destination when we put our acts of love before God’s love for us is, as I said, condemnation. We shall become only too aware of our failings. We shall know we get nowhere near God’s standards, and quite probably we shall fall a long way short of our own personal expectations. We shall have a hard time believing God can forgive us, and a difficult task in forgiving ourselves.
Pride and condemnation are pretty unattractive options, don’t you think? But if you put things the right way round, both of them are dealt with. Pride is crucified, and condemnation is healed. When we remember that ‘we love, because God first loved us’, then we see that the spiritual life is not one of relentless rule-keeping, but a life of gratitude. Everything the Christian does is a grateful response to the God of love. I do not seek to lead a holy life, because that is what will earn me enough brownie points with God. I seek to lead a holy life, because I want to please the Lord who loves me. It is similar in some ways to the healthiest of human relationships. When you know that someone wants to spend their life with you, it brings out gratitude. We seek to please them, not because that will make us love them – they already do – rather, we want to please them because they already love us.
There is a small way in which we mark that in the pattern of our Sunday worship. I always place the offering fairly late in the service, and normally after the ministry of the Word, where we have read the Scriptures and heard them expounded in the sermon. The offering only comes in the light of that. We have heard God speak to us through the Bible and an interpretation of it. Now, having heard of his love, we respond by offering our gifts as a sign of offering our very selves in thankfulness that God loves us.
We then carry that pattern out into daily life. All of life is like the saying of grace before a meal. God has given us good things, especially in Jesus. We are truly thankful. This time tomorrow, our lives will be a benediction in response to God’s goodness and love.
Finally, I want to fill out what a life of responsive love looks like, according to John. Near the end of the reading, John gives a couple of examples of what ‘We love, because God first loved us’ means in everyday Christian living.
One is that we have a great sense of security:
Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, 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. (Verses 17-18)
If God loves us in the way I’ve described – in creation, in the Cross and in the gift of the Spirit – if he loves us to that extent – and if we respond by welcoming that love into our lives and responding in gratitude, then what have we to fear, asks John? Certainly we have no need to fear a God who loves that extravagantly. It is not that God’s love is sentimental or slushy. Rather, because God’s love is so generous, outrageous even and sacrificial, one who goes to that extent in love is not about to withdraw it on the hoof. We shall certainly fail in our response of love, but God is faithful. So we can be bold in the face of judgement, and unafraid of punishment from God, because his love has been lavished on us and we have drunk it in.
As I said earlier, all the hymns today feature the love of God. One that didn’t make the final five but which easily could have done would have been ‘And can it be’. Imagine singing those lines Charles Wesley wrote, based not on 1 John 4 but on Romans 8:
No condemnation now I dread,
Jesus and all in him is mine.
Alive in him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine.
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown through Christ my own.
This is the inheritance of the one who knows God loves her or him. Whatever life throws at us, we live without paralysing fear of God, because we know we are accepted and loved beyond measure.
And that leads us to the other sign of living a life of responsive love. Because we are secure in God’s reckless love, we can live dangerously. In particular, we can give ourselves in love to our brothers and sisters.
Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or 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 we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (Verses 20-21)
If God is for us, what is the worst that can happen to us? We can be rejected by human beings, but never by God. So we set out on the adventure of responsive love that not only responds directly to God in the language of worship, we also show responsive love by letting the love of God that has filled us overflow from us to others. If we have heard and received good news, how can we keep it to ourselves?
Or put it another way: when you first learn how to saw a piece of wood, you are taught to cut along the grain. Cutting across the grain is hard work. Therefore, since God made all of creation in love, it is cutting with the grain to love our brothers and sisters as God has loved us. There will be voices that tell us this is not the natural thing to do, but in God’s eyes they are tempting you to cut across the grain. It is not the way he made things to be.
There is a wonderful story in the Old Testament about a group of Israelite lepers who discover that the enemy army besieging their city has surprisingly fled. They go from tent to tent, plundering much-needed goods.
Eventually, one of the lepers says, what we are doing is not good. This is a day of good news! We should go to the city and tell everyone what we have found.
That is the position we are in when we love, because God first loved us. God has led us to discover the most wonderful treasure and the most vital gifts for true living. How can we not love our brothers and sisters by sharing our discovery, by letting God’s love spill over from our lives and flood the lives of others?
Truly, today is a day of good news.
“a difficult task in forgiving ourselves” groan 🙂
Cathedral Service by Peter Kocan
I’m only here because I wandered in
Not knowing that a service would begin,
And had to slide into the nearest pew,
Pretending it was what I’d meant to do.
The tall candles cast their frail light
Upon the priest, the choir clad in white,
The carved and polished and embroidered scene,
The congregation numbers seventeen.
And awkwardly I follow as I’m led
To kneel or stand or sing or bow my head,
Though these specific rites are strange to me,
I know their larger meaning perfectly –
The heritage of twenty centuries
Is symbolised in rituals like these,
In special modes of beauty and grace
Enacted in a certain kind of place.
This faith, although I lack it, is my own,
Inherent to the marrow of the bone,
To this even the unbelieving mind
Submits its unbelief to be defined.
Perhaps the meagre congregation shows
How all of that is drawing to a close,
And remnants only come here to entreat
These dying flickers of the obsolete.
Yet when did this religion ever rest
On weight of numbers as the final test?
Its founder said that it was all the same
When two or three were gathered in his name.