Sunday, May 6, 2012

Love, and Other Attachments

1 John 4:7-24
Easter 5
May 5, 2012
William G. Carter

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 

            Unknown to many of you, the last couple of sermons have featured a special word. An expansive vocabulary word. Two weeks ago, the word was physicality. I was talking about the resurrection in light of Earth Day, and trying to make the point that Jesus was raised in the body. Easter was more than a spiritual concern; it was a physical matter. Easter had physicality. That was the vocabulary word for the day.

            Last week, in a sermon structured as before-after-in-between, we considered the baptized life. We are the children of God who are becoming like Jesus Christ. This is the essence of the Easter Life. To describe the journey, the preacher used another ten cent word. Remember what it was? Intentionality. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says this is a philosopher’s word. I felt pretty good about that; my bachelor’s degree was in philosophy. I called my parents to report they had not wasted that tuition money after all. The word was intentionality, meaning the quality of being intentional. It has to do with “sticking at it.”   

            Since I continue on a roll, I decided I need to come up with a word for today. It couldn’t be just any word, it had to be a good word. A significant word! We need a word for this little sermon series on the Easter Life. In fact, it would be good to have a word with physicality and intentionality. I think I have the word. It is an enormous word and a specific word. Some would say this is the most important word of all. Got a pencil? Ready to write this down?

            The word for today is love.

            I hope you saw that coming. Twenty-nine times in fifteen verses, almost twice in each verse, the preacher John speaks of love. He uses the word more than Paul does in 1 Corinthians 13. Over there, Paul says love “nine” times in thirteen verses. So this is the real Love Chapter of the Bible.

            John speaks of the church as “the Beloved.” I don’t think Paul hardly ever talks that way. Paul looks at the church and addresses us as “saints.” Literally “the Holy Ones.” We are holy, not because of our behavior or our abstinence, but holy because of what God is doing in us through Jesus Christ. Paul sends a letter and addresses it to the “Holy Ones” in a certain town.

            By contrast, John calls the church “Beloved,” the Beloved of God. It is love that convenes us. It is love that purifies us. It is love that sends Jesus Christ into the world. It is love that sets the agenda for the children of God. All of that is compressed in these three paragraphs that come from what was probably an early sermon.

 The word for today is love.

            An old tradition says this letter was written by John, the disciple of Jesus, near the end of the first century, perhaps 95 AD. If that’s true, he was greatly advanced in years. He had weathered persecution, adversity, and the ravages of age. Apparently the old man didn't say very much near the end of his life. Faithful church members carried him to worship services. Most Sundays, he sat quietly among the people.

On occasion, however, one of the leaders would turn to him and say, "Brother John, do you have any word from the Lord?" The same thing always happened. The old saint would slowly climb to his feet. He would stare down the congregation. In a few words he would summarize the Gospel of the church. He said, “Love one another as the Lord has loved you." After that he sat down. What else is there to say?

            You know the word for today. You know it's a big word, an enormous word, a many-splendored word. Think of all its shades of meaning. Some of us love ice cream, meaning we want to consume it and take it in. Others of us love baseball, meaning that the sport gives us a great deal of pleasure. Some of us love our friends, pointing to a special bond between people with similar interests and outlooks. Others of us fall in love, signifying a gravitational pull by the spirit of attraction. For some, love is an emotion that sweeps over the soul like a raging brush fire. For others, love is primarily a commitment; I think, for instance, of the sixty-three-year-old son who drives every night to the nursing home to spoon-feed his mother. 

            Love is a big word with a wide embrace. It encompasses all of these things: the consuming of another, the source of pleasure, an interpersonal bond, a magnetic attraction, a burning emotion, and a long-term commitment. Love means all these things, hopes for all these things, believes in all of these things.

            But to hear John sing about it, we realize we only scratch the surface. It's true that he uses the word "love" over and over. Yet did you notice? He also can't stop talking about God. He mentions the word "God" twenty-two times in our text. If you add the five references to Jesus and the Spirit, that makes twenty-seven times. Add up the pronouns, it’s even more. Apparently John cannot talk about love without talking about God.

            The writer makes at least three connections. First, God is the source of love: "Love is from God." Love is not a cloud that floats in the air. Rather, it is a seed that is given to be planted and nurtured. It is a divine gift to us. This kind of love comes down from heaven above to us below. We never asked for it. We do not deserve it. Yet God gives it.

             Second, God is the essence of love: "God is love." Notice the writer doesn't say, "Love is God."  Otherwise we would think that every good feeling is something holy; and that simply isn't true. No, the writer says, "God is love."  That is, "all God's activity is loving activity."[1] If there is anything we need to know about God, it is that God is been inclined in our favor. Our Maker created us in joy. In Christ we are redeemed in delight. Everything God has ever done for the world has been for the world's best interest. That's how God is, and it defines the word: acting in the best interest of your Beloved.

            Third, none of us can love truly unless God is at work in our lives. Or to put it positively, if we love one another, it is because "God lives in us." The point is God doesn't waste gifts. If God plants the seed within us, he wants us to nurture it and harvest its fruit. If God gives us the capacity to love, he wants us to use it or risk losing it. Why? Because God wants to complete what he has given us.

            That's what the writer of 1 John has to say about the subject of love. He can't talk about love without also talking about God.  But what does he mean by that word love? He never defines it. He only points to the Almighty. "Look to God," he says, "and then you will know what love is." So if we want to know love in its purest, highest form, we have to know what God is like.

            I had a revelation in a seminary classroom. Some of us enrolled in a class called, “The Philosophy of Love.” Oh, we were such romantics, back in our twenties. Certainly a class like that would be fun and insightful. And it might be a great way to meet women!

            Well, that was Princeton. “The Philosophy of Love” was the most unromantic experience of my life. Our professor's first name was Diogenes, and he was tough! There was an impossible amount of reading. The demands were high. The assignments were rigorous. One week we had to read and report on a dense two-volume work by a Swedish theologian. The next week, we were told to read three Harlequin romance novels to report on what was "wrong" about them. Then he assigned us to see a romantic comedy that was out in the movie theaters, and demanded from us a critical review of how that movie differed from the Christian conception of love.

            The class was a head trip, or so we thought. We grumbled about the professor. "He has a lot to say about love," we said, "but he sure doesn't show any love toward us." We were wrong, but we didn't know it.

            One day, the bell rang. As we took our seats, he stormed in. He said, "It has come to my attention that there are books in the library that I assigned you to read, and nobody in this class has signed them out yet. I may be wrong about that, so I am going to give you a pop quiz. Take out a piece of paper and answer the following questions on that reading." He asked three questions. Most of us left the sheet blank. He failed the whole class on that quiz.

            The students would not let that go without a protest. "You aren't being fair," we said. "You gave everybody an F, even though most of us have been keeping up with all of our other course work."  "No," he replied, "I'm being perfectly fair. Everybody got an F." 

            "But Prof," someone said, "I've done extra credit for you. Doesn't that count for something?"  "I admire you for it," he replied, "but I show no favorites." 

Someone else complained, "Yeah, but this is a class on love. Giving us a pop quiz wasn't very nice." He said, "Since when did love have anything to do with being nice? Love has to do with giving respect, with caring for others without preference or prejudice."

            Then he said, "Love is not an emotion that comes out of a faucet; it is a way of the heart. Love is not a gushy feeling with a lot of smooching; it is an act toward others with complete fairness. Love preserves each person's inestimable value.  So you have two choices. You can complain about my little pop test. Or you can stop to think that I gave you that test as an act of deep respect."

"You see,” he said, “I love you, and I will do whatever it takes to make you the best students I can."

            I have never forgotten that, because it offers a glimpse of what it means for God to love the world. God's love is not a gushy feeling, but an eternal concern for our welfare. God loves us enough to give us the freedom to fail, yet God will never fails on us or lets us go. God treats everybody fairly, sending the spring rain on the just and the unjust. Yet God cherishes every one of us with infinite value and worth. God stands apart from us, distinct and untangled. Yet God chooses again and again to enter our lives, to act in our best interest, to forgive and to free, to renew and restore.  As a great mystic of the church once put it, "Love consists not in feeling great things, but in having (both) great detachment and in suffering for the beloved."  (St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mt. Carmel)

            We gather around this Table to celebrate such love. We have seen it in the One who offered his body to be broken, his blood to be spilled. We know it in his resurrection, as Christ comes to make this a joyful feast. Around the Table we hear the Spirit remind us once again: "This is my commandment: to love one another as I have loved you."

            Tell me something: is that too much to ask?

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Raymond Brown, The Gospel of John – Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday), p. 515.

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