Since God Has Loved Us... (May 2, 2021)
1 John 4: 11-21
Since God Has Loved Us…
Our reading today is from the letter of First John, which is at the very end of the Bible, one of the last few books. And a book that, I think, is very rarely talked about or touched upon in our normal day-to-day Scripture reading. And so the first thing I’m going to do right at the beginning is to encourage you this week to go back and read the book of first John. It’s only five chapters, and shouldn't take you very long; but it is an excellent argument about love, really diving deep into why we love, who we’re loving, and how we do that. I would encourage you to look at the whole book this week, but we’re going to focus on chapter 4 here today.
Now one of the main things I want to look at is the last line where John says that “if you love God, if you truly love God, you must love your brothers and sisters also.” In order to truly understand what John is saying here, you have to somewhat understand what John is describing as love and how he’s defined this, and how he has defined faith as well.
Earlier in the book John has talked about how faith is this thing that saves you, and you see faith in your life by believing that Christ died in a sacrificial way for you. But then he goes on and talks about how there is only one proper response to believing that: that if you believe Christ has laid down his life for you, and has loved you in that way, then the only proper response to faith is to love others. My personal most known verse out of first John is chapter 3 verse 16 (yet again. Something about that with this particular author). First John 3:16, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” And he goes on to say, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” In other words, if you believe everything we talk about, that Christ gave his life willingly for you, then the only response to that would be for you to give your life willingly for someone else. He states very clearly that this is what faith means, and having faith means that you are pushed, you are drawn magnetically, to loving others, which he defined as “giving of yourself for them.”
And here in chapter 4, following closely after that verse, he’s really centering in and driving home that message. In verse 11 the verb translated in English says “we ought to love one another.” He’s not saying “It’ll be nice to do nice things,” he says “you should do that, you ought to do that.” There’s an amount of judgment there. In verse 12 he points out that the only way to grow in our own faith is to love other people. I’m not 100% sure that that’s the only way, but certainly that is a primary way that God works on us. If God is the Potter and we are the clay, to use that famous imagery, then one of the things turning the potter’s wheel around so that God can mold us is our willingness to love other people.
Now I do want to make clear here John is not talking about salvation. John is not talking about this idea of how we can get to heaven. We get to heaven by having faith in Jesus. We get to heaven because of what Jesus did. Jesus does not require anything from us to save us. What John is talking about is everything that happens after that, in the time that Methodists call Sanctification; the moments where God is taking someone who was converted or who has committed themselves to Christ, and his molding them and shaping them and perfecting them (as the word we use is “perfecting them”). God is making them the best they can be.
If your goal is to get into heaven, then you believe in Jesus and nothing else has to happen, although John would wonder if nothing else is happening if you really believed in Jesus. But if that’s all you’re worried about, then you don’t have to worry about this. Rather this is about becoming the best disciple you can be, becoming the best servant of Christ you can be, becoming the best person that you can be. John says one of the primary ways we strive for becoming the best person we can be, one of the primary ways we strive for perfection, is that we love our brothers and sisters. We sacrifice for them.
And that brings us to the main point of chapter 4 that I alluded to earlier, verses 19 through 21 where John goes on to say, “we love because Jesus loved us.” We’ve seen this love and it overflows from us like a pitcher of water that’s under the sink, and if you leave it in there too long eventually it becomes so full of water it can’t hold anything else, and all the water that goes in comes spewing out. This is what John is saying, that God has loved us, and it has filled our pictures so much that we overflow in love to those around us. “We love because he first loved us.”
But then he goes on to say that if you hate your brothers and sisters then you cannot love God. It’s the same idea as way back in chapter 3, that if you see your brother and sister in need and you don’t give them what you have, then you don’t understand and you don’t love God. If you really believe that God’s done what we say he did, that should change your life and change the way you see the world around you. Here he argues that if you can’t love the person sitting next to you that you can see, how on earth are you going to love this being that you can’t see that we call God. And then those powerful words that if you love God, you must love you brothers and sisters. It’s almost commandment like. What John is saying here is a cause-and-effect: if you have the cause of love of God, the effect of loving others naturally flows.
But then we encounter, I think, a question that comes up more often than I would like to admit, yes sometimes even within my own brain, but certainly a question that comes up on the lips and fingertips online of self-identified Christian people. Way too often. The question essentially boils down to “yeah OK. OK John. Love my brother and sister. Got it. But who is my brother and sister? Can you define the term for me?” Now, they may not be that explicit about saying it, but they’re saying it.
Anytime they say that we are called to love those within the church, that our brothers and sisters clearly refers to those inside the church, our brothers and sisters in Christ, so we are called to love here by John the people next to us in the pew. Anytime you hear a Christian say that, they’re asking “who, exactly, is my brother and sister?” And their answering that in a rather comfortable way.
Anytime you hear someone ask if a person has earned their help. Anytime you hear someone ask what they get out of helping someone else. Anytime you hear someone refuse to give help because this person is lazy and they’re just going to waste the money anyway. Anytime someone withholds giving to some organization or something because they disagree on something theological or some political talking point. All of these, what they’re really saying is “I know I’m called to love my brothers and my sisters God, but who exactly is that?” In other words, where is the boundary? Who’s in this group of people I have to love unconditionally, and maybe even sacrifice for; and who is outside that group, who can I ignore while still getting into Heaven?
And the truth that is we know that humans, even very religious humans, ask this question. And we know what Jesus‘s response to this question would be, because we’ve seen it before in the story of the Good Samaritan. If you remember that story, the lawyer comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to get into heaven. What’s the minimum Jesus? And Jesus gets him to respond, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.” These two go together. And then the lawyer responds, “that’s all well and good Jesus, but who is my neighbor? OK, I have to love my neighbor as myself, which is hard, but what’s the boundary of that? Who is my neighbor and who can I get away with not loving and still be saved?” And of course Jesus responds to that with the parable of the Good Samaritan, where he says the neighbor wasn’t a priest, or a Levite, but a Samaritan; the one who showed mercy. And essentially what Jesus is answering, at least the primary interpretation I’ve ever heard of the story, is that your neighbor is everybody. Everybody.
We ask the question of “who is my brother and sister?” And I think Jesus would respond the same way: “your brother and sister are not the people in your church, the people in the big C global church, Christians in general; it’s everybody. And you’re called to sacrificially love everybody.”
There’s a story of a missionary who was out in some Third World country, some Third World missionary field. And he looked around and realized that there was a famine happening, that there were people starving on the streets, and in particular in this particular country the Jewish population was starving. So the missionary picked up his food, his rations that he had from the the mission complex, and he walked out into the Jewish quarter and he began to pass out his food to the people who were there. And they looked up at him and they wondered what he was doing. They said “we don’t believe in your God, why are you giving this to us?” He said “I know, but you’re hungry and I have food. Eat.” They did. He walked back to the mission complex, and the other missionaries gathered around and asked “What are you doing? Why did you go and give your food to the Jews? Don’t you know that they don’t believe in Jesus?” And he responded with “yes, I know that. But I do. But I do. Because I believe in Jesus, I fed the hungry.” We love because he first loved us.
God is love; and God‘s love pushes us to love those around us. It pushes us to sacrifice for those around us. And I want to be clear about something: that’s not easy. And it’s not something that you’re going to perfect the instant you're converted. This isn’t a light switch, this is a lifetime of work to get yourself in the frame of mind to become the type of person who unquestionably loves everyone around you. But that also is describing the perfected Christian. That also is describing the ideal to which we all are striving.
This week what I want you to do is read first John, it’s only five chapters. But I want you to focus on loving at least one more person tomorrow than you did today. Focus on trying to do at least one more loving action each day. And then at the end of the day I want you to take some time for reflection, to look back and ask how you did, ask God to show you what was one good thing and one thing that maybe could’ve been a little bit better. Reflect each night. And then I want you to take that day and lay it at God’s feet. The good, the bad, the ugly; doesn’t matter. Take it all and lay it at God’s feet. Because it’s in the past, and you can’t change the past. You can only change the future. You can learn from the past in order to change the future. So lay it at God’s feet, and wake up tomorrow striving to learn something you could’ve done better, and try to do it better today. Try to love, reflect and learn, and lay it all at God’s feet before the next day. I think if we are all doing this, we can do some amazing work as the hands and feet of God in Spring Hill. We can do some amazing, amazing work bringing the Kingdom to Spring Hill. So let’s go out there and be the hands and feet of our Lord. Amen.