1 John 4:7-21
1 John 4 contains one of the most startling claims in all of Scripture, but it is one that we have heard so often that perhaps its boldness is lost on us. We have to keep in mind that the name of God was so precious to the Jews that they would not speak it. God’s image was so precious and vast that it was not to be depicted in graven images. When God is spoken of throughout the pages of the Bible, it is most often done in metaphor. The writers of Scripture were far more comfortable talking about what God is like than they were to try and say with certainty who God is. But here, in 1 John 4, that carefulness and hesitation is thrown to the side and John writes, “God is love.”
God is love, and because we are made in God’s image, we are to love God and love our brothers and sisters.
God is love. Three words. But, apart from this truth, we have no hope at all. Without God, there is no love because love begins with God. Love begins with God, and love comes from God. While we were still sinners, God sent Jesus to save us because God loves us. Love is central to who God is, and as people created in the image of God, it has to be central to who we are, too. In fact, verse 8 says, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
Do you love?
Sometimes I wonder if radical statements like “God is love” have lost their depth and power when we hear them because we are constantly bombarded with weak concepts of love. We talk about loving certain kinds of food, or loving television shows, or loving sports. We equate love with something that makes us happy or something that makes us feel a certain way, but love extends so far beyond all of that.
Love is unexpected. It often comes to us as the exact opposite of what we thought we’d get. Love is unafraid. It knows that when all is said and done, the One we will stand before is One who loves us. Love wins. Even in the face of struggle and adversity, love will win in the end.
Love is unexpected.
Throughout the pages of the Old Testament we find the cultural idea that bad people get bad things, and good people get good things. Take for example, the book of Job. When suffering befalls Job, his friends jump to the conclusion that he must have done something terrible to deserve it. But, we all know that things do not always work this way. Sometimes people who do terrible things seem to get way with it, or even prosper, and have all kinds of wonderful opportunities fall into their laps. On the flip side, we have watched wonderful people suffer in ways they never could have deserved. And it doesn’t seem fair.
The amazing thing about God’s love is that while we were still sinners, God loved us. While we were completely and utterly undeserving, God sent Jesus to save us. When the wages of sin should have been death, God’s love issued forth a plan for life. When our separation from God should have destroyed us, God found a way to redeem. Before we could ask for it, God had already given. Love is unexpected.
Love is patient when we were probably expecting impatience or anger. Love is kind in an unkind world. Love does not envy or boast, but celebrates with others. Love is not selfish and demanding, but other-centered and giving. Love believes when belief seems crazy. Love hopes when all seems hopeless. Love is unexpected, but love is what endures. So often, when we read the list of what love is in 1 Corinthians 13, we read it as though it was intended as a marital to-do list. But all love comes from God. 1 Corinthians 13 gives us a window into what godly love looks like. Love begins with God. And – as people created in God’s image – we love because God loves.
Along with 1 John 4 in the lectionary for this week, the Acts passage is from Acts 8. This passage is one of my favorites in all of Scripture, but I love the way it springs to life when set next to this passage from 1 John on God’s love. An angel of the Lord tells Philip to go down toward the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza, and as a side note we are told that this is a wilderness road. I don’t know about you, but I think I’d be hesitant to set out toward a wildernes road. But Philip goes, and while he is there, he encounter an Ethiopian eunuch – a the fact that he was a eunuch would have made him unable to convert to Judaism.
And yet, the eunuch is still headed to Jerusalem to worship. He is still reading from the prophet Isaiah. He is still longing to know and understand. Philip goes to him and answers his questions by teaching about Jesus, and the eunuch asks to be baptized. In the nearest water available, in a baptism that wasn’t scripted or planned, Philip baptized someone who had previously been kept at a distance from religious faith. God’s love is unexpected. It is given to us while we did not deserve it. It includes those we might least expect. And sometimes it comes about through unconventional means. Love is unexpected.
Love is unafraid.
I’m not saying that we’ll never have fears. I’m pretty sure I will continue to feel a shiver run down my spine every time I see a spider racing across the baseboard. When John says “perfect love casts out fear,” he isn’t saying we’ll never be afraid of anything. We have to back up and read the rest of the verse right before it:
Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, 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.
We do not have to be afraid of God because God is love. God’s holiness, God’s perfection, and all of God’s vast and infinite attributes have to be held together with God’s perfect love. In John Wesley’s Notes on the Bible he says this of the verse “God is love”:
This little sentence brought St. John more sweetness, even in the time he was writing it, than the whole world can bring. God is often styled holy, righteous, wise; but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom in the abstract, as he is said to be love; intimating that this is his darling, his reigning attribute, the attribute that sheds an amiable glory on all his other perfections.1
Love is the beginning point in the story of salvation, and it begins with God. It doesn’t hinge on our perfection, because if it did God would never have made a way for us in the first place. God is love, and even though God’s love is unexpected, and something we didn’t earn, God gives it to us abundantly. When we live into the fullness of the love that God has shown to us, we won’t be afraid of judgment because we will know that the Judge is the One who made the first move in showing love to us while we were still mired in sin.
Love is unexpected. Love is unafraid.
And, love wins.
In other words, it begins with love, and it will end with love. And this is the best news there could ever be, even though sometimes it seems like a dream too good to be true. We can’t miss the struggle and brokenness of this world. We can’t miss the injustice, the hatred, and the suffering. And even though we know that love will overcome, even though we know that love will win in the end, sometimes we despair. Sometimes we wonder if this is as good as things will ever get.
And we feel afraid. When the hatred seems the strongest, when the costs seem too high, when it seems impossible for love to win in the end, love will triumph. In 1964, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He accepted the award at a time in history when the struggle was still very real, when peace seemed impossible, when justice and freedom and equality seemed like mere pipe dreams. He accepted the award at a time in history that is not much different than the world we face today – with threats of nuclear war, with systemic poverty and injustices – a time in which we may hear the assurance from God that love will overcome, and we find it hard to believe
As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. accepted this Nobel Peace Prize, he acknowledged that peace had not fully come. He acknowledged that the struggle was still real, and powerful, and present. He also said this:
I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even among today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow.2
Even though it is a messy system, God calls us to carry the love of God with us everywhere we go. Even though we are miserably imperfect at sharing God’s love, as people made in God’s image we participate in the love of God by loving others. As it says in verse 19, “We love because he first loved us.”
The love of God is unexpected – it chooses the strange, the outcast, the imperfect, the broken. The love of God is unafraid – we can stand with boldness on the day of judgment because the Judge is the One who made the first move to show love to us. The love of God wins – God’s love began it all and God’s love will see it through to completion.
Today, as we are nourished by God’s Word and at the Table, we are reminded that this meal where we encounter the Lord has often been called a “feast of love.” It is here that we can taste and see. It is here that we can bring our hungers and be fed. It is here that we can shake off the name “Unlovable” given to us by the world, and claim the name “Beloved” that was given to us by God. As we eat, may we we be filled with the love of God so that we may find the courage to go forth into the world with the unexpected, unafraid, and overcoming love of God.
- 1 John Wesley, Notes on the Bible
- 2 from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, 1964