First Reading Acts 8:26-40
Second Reading: 1 John 4:7-21
Gospel Reading: John 15:1-8
Sermon: “God is a Four Letter Word”
“We love, because he first loved us” says John. the book of 1st John is all about love. Godly love – Where it originates, how we recognize it. How we receive it, how it operates in us and how we are to return it. We are continuing in our journey through John’s followup letter to his gospel. As we have seen, it shares many of the same themes – light, love and life being primary. Of these three, however it is love that he spends the most effort to make sure we understand him well.
The Gospel of John records a lengthy and wondrous message from Jesus to his disciples on the occasion of the his last meal before his arrest and crucifixion – we call it the upper room discourse. In it, John makes sure we hear our Lord’s emphasis on love as well. We heard a part of it in today’s gospel reading: (John 15:9-12 NRSV)  As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.  I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 1 John 4 can well be understood as an extended commentary on these words of our Lord.
The ancient church father, Jerome, said that when the apostle John was in his extreme old age, he was so weak that he had to be carried into the church meetings. At the end of the meeting he would be helped to his feet to give a word of exhortation to the church. Invariably, he would repeat, “Little children, let us love one another.” The disciples began to grow weary of the same words every time, and they finally asked him why he always said the same thing over and over. He replied, “Because it is the Lord’s commandment, and if this only is done, it is enough.” Now, I suspect that they, and perhaps you too, thought it was simplistic and overlooked a lot of other important things.
Recall when Jesus was asked by one of the teachers of the Law: (Matthew 22:36-40 NRSV)  “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
In our reading today, It seems to me as if John is reflecting back and further combining these two thoughts in a thought provoking way: Lets look carefully at verse 7 that begins our reading from 1 John 4:7 – “Beloved” (or “Dear Friends” in some versions), let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” It might at first seem surprising that the old Apostle does not say “Beloved, let us love God”. Rather, it says “Beloved let us love one another.” John assumes that those whom God has designated as “Children of God” do in fact love their Heavenly Father. But he wants us to understand that our Love for God is known, not only by the words we say, or the hymns we sing, but by how we treat others. Loving God MEANS loving our neighbors. They are in fact inseparable and not two different things at all. And of course, as Jesus pointed out in what we usually refer to as the parable of the Good Samaritan – we don’t get to define who our neighbors are – God did that when they were put on this earth – people from wherever in what ever circumstance.
We noted last week that John uses the word love to mean thoughtful and loving deeds – self sacrificing love, tuned to the needs of others. It is not merely emotions and attitude but actions patterned after the self-giving example of our Lord, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. John is relentless in his teaching that Christians who say they love Jesus but don’t live out that love are living a lie. Faith and love come bundled together in a single gracious package. Our theology says that Faith alone is all that is required for salvation – true, however, it is also true that saving Faith is never alone. Faith in Jesus must transforms our hearts so that they become self-giving hearts or something is terribly wrong. Believing AND loving are marks of our new life in Jesus.
Today’s section further explores this type of love. The word here in the original Greek is “Agape” – meaning Godly love – pure, willful, sacrificial that desires another’s highest good. John starts with where it comes from and how we recognize it. Our human hearts are universally hungry for love and yet are perpetually confused about it too. It’s critical that we understand it better, so we can live it more fully. First and foremost: Love begins with God. That is the central truth of Christian faith. Why so? Because, as John tells us twice in this passage “God IS love”. How can we know this? Because we can see what God has done. We have a saying “Actions speak louder than words” and that is exactly John’s point here when he says (1 John 4:9-10 NRSV) “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.” God defines love because it starts with God. We can know it and recognize it because love has been given to us in Human form – in the person of Jesus, the Christ.
So…, if God loves us in such a human way, then we must love others in the same way. It is really only by loving others that we come to learn about God. Love must be the controlling element in our Christian faith. Its our link to the power of God and our protection against many other seemingly good priorities that can, in fact, put us on the wrong track or simply derail us. History shows us that well intentioned religious people have put many things above love and it shows us how that invariably leads to a distorted faith. For instance, if we make moral rectitude the central governing factor, it leads to self-righteousness and judgmentalism. Its why the term puritanical carries such a negative feeling now. At other times, correct doctrine has been the controlling factor. That lead to harshness and exclusion. Both morality and solid doctrine are good, necessary and important but love must govern all, as we are shown in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Love must be the controlling factor. John assures us that God is Love. So when God creates, God does it in love. When God Judges, he judges in love, As God rules, it is with love.
Paul reminds us in Romans 5:6-8 NIV  “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Our love for God, is our response to God’s love. God loved us first and it is God’s love and grace that melts our hardness of heart. Many years ago a church had a mission that used a nice play on words for its slogan ‘Love won (W-O-N) another.’ In loving, we show the nature of God in Jesus Christ. We are loved, therefore we can love. We are forgiven, therefore we can forgive. We are included and claimed, therefore we invite and enfold others. Even those who seem unlovely, even unresponsive or uninterested, perhaps even hostile.
John further teaches us that Godly Love: that is the love we are given by God, backed up by our experience and the testimony of the Holy Spirit within us – that Godly love. drives out fear. A lot of religion over the years has been dominated by fear, and that fear has been used to control and manipulate people. But you can’t generate love and compassion with fear. Fear will not produce tenderness and tolerance. It can only produce suspicion, distrust and resentment. A loveless faith is a joyless faith and likely fruitless as well. The loving relationship we have with God in Christ has a different quality and character from anything we have known before.
In human terms, we don’t fear those we love. Respect — yes, fear — no, not if love is genuine. We might fear letting them down or disappointing them, but not fear of them. That is something of the nature of the relationship that we children of God are to have with our Heavenly Father. God is certainly awesome and holy. There is that Sacred reverence that Old Testament scripture defines as the “fear of the Lord” and “the beginning of wisdom”. But John invites us further in. We know we are accepted as we are now, confident that the Spirit will create new life within us so that we might become what God intends us to be. We don’t have to prove ourselves to get started— He already knows the truth about us more fully than even we are prepared to admit to ourselves and still we were invited and loved. Knowing that, how can we not reach out in love to others?
I began these thoughts by noting Jesus’ teaching of the two greatest commandments – Love for God and Love for neighbor. John reminds us that no one has ever seen God – but we have seen Jesus and that is enough – from the gracious life, atoning death and glorious resurrection of Jesus, we see what we need to know about the nature and love of God. Even though we may not be able to see God in this life, we certainly can see the needs of those around us. Jesus saw those needs and reached out to heal and to feed and to bless. He ate with sinners as well as disciples. He welcomes them and us. John goes so far as to say that in this world, we are to be like Jesus. Jesus’ relationship with the Father is the ultimate model for us. When we see these things, we are to do what Jesus would do – to be “little Christs” as Martin Luther put it. John concludes the section with the commandment – “Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” This is not some alternative social gospel, it is the command of God. The way we show that we have truly received God’s love is by sharing it. For after all, “We love, because he first loved us.”