NO ONE HAS GREATER LOVE THAN THIS
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We’re almost at an end of our journey through the 1st letter of John. In many ways, it seems that this journey was inevitably leading us to this point. If this were a symphony it would have been building to this climactic moment. The timpani are pounding and the whole low end is rumbling and the horns are blaring and the cymbals are crashing and the strings are wailing.
It seems right that our journey was always going to take us this place. God. Love. Us. A theology of love. Probably the best concise theology of love in the New Testament (1 Corinthian 13 being a close second if you care to rank them though I’m not such a big fan of ranking). When we say theology we simply mean the study of God. What we believe about God. What we believe about love and God and how this is worked out in our lives. These are the same two things we’ve been talking about September - what is it that we believe and what it is we do. We’ve been getting down to basics.
“Beloved.” Twice John addresses those to whom he is writing here in this short passage in this way – beloved. He is reminding them that they are beloved of God. Reminding them that he loves them. We’ve talked about this since day one. The importance of the sharing that we are to have in one another’s lives as we walk this path together. The importance of mutual love. John was a leader to this group of people. He knew them. He loved them. It’s vital that we know that our leaders love us. If we are up here preaching week after week and you don’t have the slightest sense that we care about you then it is all blah, blah, blah. If your church leaders do not care for you then something vital is missing and sitting around meetings is just blah, blah, blah. Church leaders let us judge ourselves by this standard. I need to judge myself by this standard. I hope and pray that when my time here is at an end that people may look back and say about me, “See how he loved them.” Look how he loved them. I wouldn’t care about anything else. That to me would be successful leadership in the best sense of the word success.
And the message. We heard about the early church story of elderly John being carried into the church in Ephesus and asked to speak. Every week. Every week the same message. “Little children, love one another.” Love one another. We’ve heard about how this marks us as walking in the light. We’ve heard about how this is the message that has been heard from the beginning. Now we come to this – “because love is from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” God is the origin and motivation of love. Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. To follow Christ, to be a disciple of Christ, to be a student of Christ, is to know God and to know God is to love because to know God and to be born of God is to bear a family resemblance and God looks like love.
I must pause a moment to point out that his letter was written to a group of Christ followers. We’re not to look at verses like this and say “Oh is this some new way of being a Christian? By loving? Anyone who loves is a Christian? Anyone who loves is a follower of Christ? ” Not at all. It’s not to say that people outside of a relationship with Christ do not love – that would be a monstrous thing to think. Surely part of our being created by God and created in God’s image is being imbued with a sense to love. A sense that it is right and good to love and not hate or be indifferent. An inclination to at least care for those closest to us. Let us not read more into the text what is there. John is writing to followers of Christ, and so to every follower of Christ - Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God for God is love.
It’s as simple as that.
Simple enough that a child can understand. Complex enough that we never come to an end of our understanding of God’s love on this side of the mirror through which we see dimly.
God is love. It’s the only time this truth is stated like this in the entire NT! God is love. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, we read of God’s steadfast love – God’s hesed. Jesus speaks of the way that God loves the world, of course. He tells his followers about how he has loved them the same way that he is loved by the Father. John puts it so plainly and so profoundly. God is love. As someone has said this is not an exhaustive description but a statement of how God manifests himself to us. This is the thing about God’s love. It’s not just something to be sentimentalized. Not that I’m against sentiment – I’m very sentimental. This is not just something we put on a poster (though there’s nothing wrong with such posters of course).
God’s love was made manifest to us in action, you see. We’ve been talking about how these concepts that we’re talking about are not to be left up here or up here. They are worked out in actions – in the things we do. God’s love has been shown to us in a very concrete and historical way. “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.” Jesus was sent. We’ll come back to this idea. Jesus was sent in a tangible and concrete way. God’s love for us was worked out in a tangible and practical way. Our love for one another is to be worked out in tangible practicable ways and not simply sentiment or even affection. Someone has said love is a personal activity, that God not only is love but does love. What we are enabled and called to do is based on what God has done in Christ.
“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.” God as the source and origin of love. Anything we are called to be or do is grounded in this. We are called to exist rooted in the solid ground of Christ. Who is God. Who is love.
“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.” Same thing we read back in 2:2. It’s not just the incarnation, the coming, the birth and life of Christ to which John is referring here. He’s referring to the self-sacrificing self-effacing act of Jesus on the cross. Something we are to keep in front of us all the time. Jesus showing that to love is to be, as someone put it, “actively and visibly at work for the highest good of others.”
Isn’t this a message that our world needs? There’s a lot of lovelessness out there. Ain’t no love in the heart of the city is how one song put it. Town without pity is how another one goes. People only looking for their own gain. People asking “What’s in this for me?” People looking out for themselves and maybe their immediate family if they’re good and their extended family if they’re really virtuous. In the middle of this we have Jesus and the cross and the kind of self-sacrificing love that asks “What can I do for your good?” and loving actively and visibly for the highest good of others in a most tangible and visible way.
Why did God choose to bring us back to him in this way? I think there’s something about self-sacrifice that we’re wired to understand. “No one has greater love than this,” is how Christ put it, “than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” On November 11th we remember men and women for whom duty and honour and sacrifice were not just words, they were actions taken. We can understand this. Love that is actively and visibly at work for the highest good of others. This is what we see in Christ on the cross. Visible. Public. Taking action. Forgiving even as he was dying. Assuring a dying man that he would be with him that day in paradise. Making sure that his mother and John would look after each other – telling them they were part of a new family. This was always God’s initiative. We are not expected to call up such love on our own. We could never initiate such love on our own. “In this is love, not that we loved God (lest we get too self-congratulatory) but that he loved us and sent his son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” To bring us into loving communion with him and with one another.
John’s making no demands any more than God makes demands on our love. God is not coercive when it comes to love. Neither is John. He makes the invitation. The invitation has been heard for over 2,000 years now. Remain in this or accept the invitation for the first time. What is the fitting and proper and right response to such love? What does it mean to love God? What is that going to look like?
“Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.”
By this will everyone know that you are my disciples. We ought to love one another. This word for ought is more than simply a suggestion. The word signified owing something in a financial transaction. Our due as followers of Christ. We ought to love one another the way God loves us. We ought to love one another so that we are actively and visibly at work for the highest good of one another because this is the way that God loves us. To say “I love God” or to say “I have a very close fellowship with God” and to not love one another actively and visibly in seeking the highest good of one another is to be nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging symbol signifying nothing. Even if we have prophetic powers and faith to move mountains without love it is nothing and even if we give away all our possessions and hand over even our bodies so that we may boast and do not have love then we gain nothing.
God is love. God does love. How are we doing love? We see it in many ways, don’t we?
Finally, friends, we come to this startling and wonderful truth with which we’ll close today. “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
No one has ever seen God. God had to cover Moses in the cleft of a rock so God could pass by. No one has ever seen God but Jesus has made God known to us. Veiled in flesh the God-head see. Two thousand years ago God’s reality was made manifest – made visible in the person of God’s son. The question might be asked, “What does something that happened 2,000 years ago have to do with me today?” The answer is that to claim this truth and to love one another means that God lives in us and his love is perfected or completed in us. Jesus was sent to make the invisible God known. His followers are sent to make the invisible God known, rooted and grounded in Christ with the Holy Spirit of God living in us. We have a role to play here – a vital one. The truly mind-blowing thing here is that in loving one another God’s love is perfected, is made complete. This is what the word means, completed, reaches the goal. It’s not that God’s love is imperfect without us, but that it is brought to its intended completion when we love!
We do this together. We’re talking about what we confess and what we do. What we believe and how we act. We do this together. We don’t do this on our own. God loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. We couldn’t do this on our own. This is what we believe as followers of Christ and this is what we confess. We don’t confess this on our own, a confession needs someone to hear it. If we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. This is what we do and we do this not on our own but together because love needs an object.
Beloved, let us love one another. We never come to an end of understanding this. May God help us to understand it more and more. May God grant that God’s love be present in and among us, and is being made complete in us as we follow Christ together.