August 15, 2010

Recipricating Love, Part 1

Near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus looked at the crowd gathered around Him and said this: “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man who built his house on the rock.  The rain fell, the rivers rose, and the winds blew and pounded that house.  Yet it didn’t collapse, because its foundation was on the rock.  But everyone who hears these words of Mine and doesn’t act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  The rain fell, the rivers rose, and the winds blew and pounded that house, and it collapsed.  And its collapse was great!”  Now, I suspect that many of you are familiar with this parable.  The point Jesus was making is this: We need a foundation in our lives in order to withstand the storms of this world.  We need a rock of reality on which to build our “houses” so that when things begin to go in ways decidedly other than we would have them, we will be able to stand firm.  Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount form just such a rock on which we can moor ourselves.  Really, this idea that we need some sort of a firm anchor in this world in order to withstand its destructive forces fits right in with what we have been learning from John’s first letter.  First John, more than most other books in the Bible, gives us a clear picture of reality.  As we said a few weeks ago, reality is defined by God.  The characteristics, attributes, and kingdom of God are the constituting features of reality.  Anything that does not cohere with this is simply fantasy.  It may seem very real in the here and now, but in the end it will pass away just like all the other lies of this world.  We have also said previously in this series that the world hates the fact that believers are locked in on reality.  The reason for this is that the stronger we hold on to reality, the more clearly the world’s falsehoods are displayed.  As often as it can, then, it presents us with a constant stream of alluring images designed to get us to leave the safe and secure harbor of reality and enter into the dangerous waters of fantasy.  If it cannot get us to leave the safety of the harbor, it will launch a series of attacks on us aimed at drawing us out and attacking us while we are out in the open.  When this happens (not if), if we are anchored securely to the rock of reality, the foundation of all being, we will not be moved.  We will be able to not only withstand the storms, but to come out even stronger on the other side.

In this vein, we have spent the last several weeks of our journey through 1 John talking about several of the tests he has offered in order to determine and have confidence in our standing before God.  The thought is: if we pass these tests, then we can boldly affirm that we are God’s children and are accordingly heirs to the riches of the kingdom.  These tests have been of both an ethical nature—tests to make sure we are living the Christian life as God would have us—and also, as we saw last week, of a doctrinal nature—tests to make sure we are believing the right things about God.  Yet ultimately, even these tests need anchors.  They too must be rooted in something else that gives them substance and meaning.  Well, as we are going to see this morning and again next week, this something else is this: the love of God.  Not our love for God, but God’s love for us.  Now, John has been talking about love quite a bit throughout this letter.  There is, after all, a reason it is sometimes called the “Love Epistle.”  Starting in 1 John 4:7, however, John begins to unpack the implications of God’s love for us in ways at which he has so far only hinted.  In the end, this all boils down to something very simple.  The only proper response to God’s love for us is for us to love one another.  To put that in a bit more memorable prose: Because God loves me, I love thee.  Find your Bibles and turn with me to 1 John 4:7 as we unpack in some challenging and encouraging ways the implications of God’s love for us.

Well, as I read it, our passage this morning breaks down into five sections that are thematically cohesive.  Let’s look at each of these in turn and then come back to make some broad conclusions.  And for those of you who have picked up a copy of the manuscript, let me ease your fears: this is going to take us both this Sunday and next.  This morning will simply be the first of a two-part sermon.  If you haven’t already opened your Bibles to 1 John 4 go ahead and do so and we’ll start at v. 7: “Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love.  God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent His One and Only Son into the world so that we might live through Him.  Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.  Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another.”

In our passage last week, John talked about how we can discern whether or not someone has come from or speaks on behalf of God.  The way this happens is by our testing their confession to see if it upholds the identity and authority of Christ and by our testing the response they receive from the world.  All of this is well and good, but there’s a potential problem here that can be devastating if not anticipated.  It is a problem John has already identified back in 1:8: “If we say, ‘We have no sin,’ we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”  Though we are new creations in Christ, we still have our sinful natures with which to contend.  Our enemy is going to encourage this in every inconvenient way he can.  When we are performing John’s tests, then, it is very easy for us to become legalistic and rigid and unloving and by virtue of this drive people away from the kingdom unnecessarily.  As an example of this, consider the request the writer of this letter and his brother made of Jesus when He was rejected by a Samaritan town: “Lord, do You want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?”  In this light, it makes perfect sense that the next thing John tells us is to love one another.  The reason for this is that love is from God.  If we are claiming to be from God then we had better be operating out of God’s character, most notably, love (although neither we must undervalue His character of holiness and justice).  Because God fundamentally is love, if we do not love then we quite simply don’t know Him.  Think about it this way.  There are certain things about you that if someone does not know, they cannot really claim to know you.  I am a Kansas Basketball fan.  Some of you are perhaps tired of hearing about that.  But, silly or not, it’s part of who I am and if someone doesn’t know that, they don’t know me very well.  The same goes for God…the fundamental character thing, not the Kansas Basketball part…although that might explain why they’re so good every year…  I should make one more remark here concerning God’s character of love.  God is love, but the reverse—love is god—is not true.  There are not a few people who have been led astray from the faith by inverting this fact and worshiping love instead of God.  Love is a harsh master.  But, the broader point here is clear: if we are going to claim we have experienced the love of God, then we had better be demonstrating that love to others lest our claim ring hollow.  Because God loves me, I love thee.

After establishing the fact of God’s characteristic of love, John goes on to offer the evidence for this, namely, the sending of Jesus as Savior of the world.  Verse 10 makes a couple of vitally important points.  First, love begins with God.  God is love, not us.  Any love that we have or feel or show to others is a reflection of God’s primary love.  It was this love on His part that propelled Him to send His Son.  This sending of Jesus is of course an incredibly important thing theologically, but it is also important in the precedent it set.  God’s love wasn’t merely displayed in words and feelings, but in actions.  Because God didn’t just love with words neither should we.  For example: when you love your kids, you don’t let them do whatever they want to do.  They don’t know what’s good for themselves.  When Noah walks into the kitchen in the mornings so that we can get a cup of milk for him, he immediately shouts “cracker!” which is his word for cookie.  In fact, if he ever grows blue fur and googly eyes, we’re going to get him a job on Sesame Street.  As kids get older their misplaced desires turn to things a bit more sinister than cookies for breakfast (which doesn’t sound so bad to me…)  No, because we love our kids we put boundaries in place within which they can become fully themselves without the junk of the world around them to steer them off-course.  This doesn’t always feel good to them and I suspect you’ve heard about it once or twice.  Here’s the reality of love, though, which stands completely contrary to our culture: love is not a feeling.  Love is a description of our intention towards someone in which everything in us is geared towards seeing them become the very best possible version of themselves.  Got that?  Actually let me say it again because I believe this is such an important, if misunderstood, truth.  Love is not a feeling.  This vicious lie is what has led people to think that if you love someone that it’s okay to have sex with them even if you’re not married.  Love is a description of our intention toward someone in which everything in us is geared towards seeing them become the very best possible version of themselves.  That’s what love is.  This is why we can love our enemies.  We want them to become the best possible version of themselves such that they will no longer be our enemy, but our brother or sister in Christ.  This is the goal of godly reconciliation which is part of the ethic of the kingdom.  This is also why, because God loves me, I love thee.

What I’m getting at is this: the only fitting response to God’s love is for us to reciprocate it to one another.  That’s what John is getting at in v. 11: “If God love us in this way, we also must love one another.”  Now, in the Greek grammar of this verse, the word “if” can rightly be translated as “since” because God does in fact love us this way (“this way” being the sending of Jesus for the salvation of the world).  Thinking of this reciprocating love we should have reminds me of the Liberty Mutual commercials where someone does something nice for another person, someone else sees this and pays it forward, and eventually the good deeds come back around to the first person.  They are really clever commercials and I think they make this point pretty well.  The tag line for the commercial is something along the lines of, “Some people call this being responsible, we call it Liberty Mutual.”  Let’s make that relevant to our current discussion: “Some people call this being responsible, we call it the only fitting response to what God has done for us.”  When we’ve had something given to us or done for us, the best thing we can do is to do for someone else.  To keep it to ourselves reveals that while we might appreciate whatever it was, we were not really impacted by it.  If we know the love of God, it is because someone else has shown it to us.  When we have experienced God’s love in a real way, we have caught a glimpse of what is waiting for us in Heaven.  We’ve caught a glimpse of the possibilities of living a truly human life.  Not the shadow games we often play.  This is a great and glorious thing and who could be selfish enough to not want to share this with others?  Oh wait, that’s right; we could when we are living out of our sinful nature.  You see, God’s love wants to be shared.  Love certainly needs a subject and we have clearly established that it has that in God, but it also needs an object.  The love that we have from God is not content to remain by itself—then it would not be love.  (Incidentally, this is why an orthodox Trinitarian theology is so important for us to have.  If what I’m saying about love is true then if God were not triune in nature—Father, Son, and Spirit—this would imply that before He created the world He was somehow incomplete because He didn’t have an object for His love.  Since He is three in one He can love Himself in ways we cannot.)  Love naturally wants the best for someone else.   This means that it must be directed at someone else.  We cannot simply say that we want to pour all our love out on God and don’t want to waste it on people.  The best thing for God is to see His love expressed to others who do not currently know it as fully as they could.  If we really love God (which means necessarily that we have received His love) then we will seek to pour that love out on others.  Because God loves me, I love thee.

With all that said, the next thing we need to talk about are the results of showing the love of God to others in this way.  But, to best honor your time and to allow plenty of time to really get into it, I’m going to make you wait until next week to get that full picture along with some other pretty powerful implications of God’s love for us.  For now, I want you to leave here with the confident understanding that love is never a feeling, but a conscious decision to see someone else become the best possible version of themselves—to become their God-ordained and designed selves.  Take some time this next week before we come back together to finish this sermon and reflect on how this great truth can and will necessarily shape and reshape the ways you show love to the people around you.  And take this as your memory device to keep your mind focused: because God loves me, I love thee.