A sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
Fifth Sunday of Easter May 3, 2015
In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son.
Since Easter, we have been reading First John as our epistle reading each Sunday. The entire discourse is about Christian love. Today’s lesson, which is most of the fourth chapter, is the fullest and perhaps the most famous discussion of love that we have. Maybe you have heard the Greek word for love: Agapē. If you look at the Greek text, that word shows up in various forms three or four times in every sentence in the first part of this lesson.
It is not that this is some special or different kind of love that Christians have. It’s not a secret magic word. Love is a characteristic of human life. But often we forget, misunderstand, postpone or distort love, and hurt one another by not loving one another.
There is nothing weak, sentimental or foolish about love. And love is not something that we achieve, or count up in points to show that we are better lovers than someone else. Fundamental to Christian understanding of love is that God first loves us. Before all things, and in all things and through all things—God is loving us. Love is not an achievement, but the pure grace of our creator, who comes among us and suffered with us that we might live in his love. Love is a gift that may manifest itself in many ways according to who you are, but it is not an optional gift or talent. You can’t have some people who are smart, and others who work hard, and others who lead and yet other people who are loving… Without love, none of the rest of it is real. And it is God who loves us first, and we know that and experience that, in Jesus, whose life makes us real. Because love comes from God to everyone, to all God’s children— no church or group of any sort has a monopoly on love—nor does any sort of special definition of love outweigh the love of God for all people and all creation.
The lesson continues with the audacious statement: God is love. Not “God is like love” or “God is the source of love,” but “God is love.” Simple. Direct. But challenging. This means that love is not my opinion about it, or someone else’s feelings about it. Love is God and God is free, before all things, above all things and in all things. Distortions of love or lying about love would put one at odds with the living God. God loves you and God loves me—and it’s very serious business. In asserting that God is love, we are saying that the essence of all that is, is that bond of caring and striving for the well-being and thriving of one another, that we know in being loved and in loving. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God in them.”
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” There is a lot of fear in our country nowadays. People are afraid about their financial well-being and about violence and wars around the world. But right now, I am thinking about what has been happening in Baltimore over the past couple of weeks and related events over the past year in places like Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island. I have said this before: the underlying dynamic of racism is fear. Fear of losing security, fear of losing privilege, fear of a familiar world passing away. That fear distorts people’s perception of others and it distorts their views of their own behavior. Fear begets anger, and that results in violence—such as unreasonable arrests, panicked use of firearms or maltreatment of persons in custody. And violence results in others being afraid and angry in turn. Tragedy begets tragedy. Fear is a normal and common emotion. But fear is the opposite of love. When we are called to love, we are called to have great courage, because loving doesn’t mean that bad things won’t happen, but that when they happen, we are one with God. Jesus came into this world a stranger. And though he was love, the world feared him and rejected his love and killed him. But we celebrate his resurrection, because even in being killed, his love returns and will not die.
We are in a world with many dangers, but do not fear them. In particular do not fear the stranger and do not fear losing what is familiar. Christ is the stranger and he brings us what is new. Our love is perfected in him and he casts out fear. We abide, not in the things that we remember, or want to hold on to, but in God. And God is Love.
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”