Twelve Scriptures project
Text #3: 1 John 4:7-21
We are in week three of our Twelve Scriptures project – each scripture chosen by this congregation – and are making a transition into another theme. Genesis 1 and John 1 both spoke of the Creativity of the Word and the next three scriptures speak of the Primacy of Love. Visually, we are hopping from the first dot to the second dot, and going from red to orange, which sounds like we are down grading some kind of security threat or something.
There’s a couple reasons why this 1 John passage fits especially well here. One is that it connects with last week in that we are still with John, or at least someone in John’s community who is writing in his name and in his style. John 1 was the beginning of his gospel, not to be confused with 1 John which is a letter, or an essay, or maybe even a sermon being written within the faith community that formed around John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, as in Peter, James, and John. So even though we’re onto this other theme, there is that link between last week and this.
Another reason why this fits well here is the way it introduces Love. There is plenty of talk in the Bible and in churches about our need to love others – that’s kind of our thing. John also emphasizes this, many times. But John also says something else. It’s the first phrase of the part of the passage that’s printed in your bulletins, in verse 16. Not only do we love one another, but “God is love.” And in verse 19, “We love because God first loved us.”
Last week I told a story from seminary days about the Word becoming a house through a Habitat for Humanity project, and that must have jogged my memory because here’s another story from that era. I did a summer internship with my home congregation in Bellefontaine and the pastor had one Sunday afternoon a month he would go in and speak to the youth at the Juvenile Detention Center in town. This particular month he happened to be out of town and this was, of course, a good learning opportunity for me to go and do this myself.
So what do you say to a group of troubled youth that you’ve never met before and might never meet again in your life? I didn’t know. I decided I was just going to tell them that God loves them. Can’t go wrong with that. So I went to the facility and was taken to the room: Rows of single desks, no windows. They file in, in their uniforms, and sit obediently in their seats, and wait for me to give my spiel so they can get back to whatever it was they were or weren’t doing before. I introduce myself briefly, and tell them the story of Jesus’ baptism – carefully pointing out that this is before Jesus has done any of his ministry, before he’s really accomplished anything that we know about, and regardless of this at his baptism he hears those words from heaven, You are my Beloved Son. So I proceeded with by talking about how in life we do all sorts of different things and there can be good consequences or bad consequences for the things we do, but there are also things that we don’t’ have any control over. Things that just happen to us whether we like it or not, whether we do anything or not. So, moving in for the main point, I said that I wanted to talk about one of those things that they didn’t have any control over. No matter what they have or haven’t done or will do. It doesn’t matter. No matter how good or bad they think they are, there’s something that holds true. They are beloved children of God. God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Having made my point, I looked around, and, hoping for a little reassurance, asked something to the effect, “So what do you think?”
They didn’t buy it.
Most of them were silent, but the ones who spoke weren’t having any of it. There was one girl in particular who was adamant that this just couldn’t be true. So that was my one and only foray – so far, at least – into the Bellefontaine Juvenile Detention Center.
A few years later I heard the priest Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, who was personal friends with Mother Teresa, talk about how when he preaches about God’s love, he usually feels like he needs to talk for 20 minutes or so and gives lots of examples and illustrations about how God loves us. But, he observed, when Mother Teresa speaks, all she has to do is stand up and say, “God loves you,” and people start crying.
So, having called into question the effectiveness of trying to verbally convince people God loves them, let’s proceed with a few more examples and illustrations.
There’s a story that Slavoj Zizek likes to tell that fits in with this. Zizek is a political philosopher and cultural critic from Slovenia who has gained in popularity in the last couple decades. And if you listen to him enough you’ll hear this story a number of times because he likes to tell it and says it’s his favorite. I think it is a true story, although it might be apocryphal. It’s about Neils Bohr, the guy who won the Nobel Prize in physics a while back. So a friend is visiting Neils Bohr in his country home and notices that there is a horseshoe above the entrance to the door. This is something that was or is common in Europe and is believed to bring good luck to the house. The friend sees this and says to Neils Bohr, “You don’t actually believe that superstition, do you?” to which Neils Bohr replies, “No, of course I don’t believe it. That’s ridiculous.” His friend asks, “So why do you still have the horseshoe above your door?” And Neils Bohr’s response is, “Well, they tell me it works, even if you don’t believe it.”
Zizek uses this to talk about how belief functions in our time and the structure of the unconscious and all these other things, but I think it can also apply to what John is saying here in his letter. It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe God loves you, because it works even if you don’t believe it. Which is to say, Divine love precedes us and is not dependent on us. So see, I’m not trying to convince of you anything. I’m telling you it’s true whether you’re convinced or not. We love because God first loved us. And even if you don’t acknowledge it, it is still coming at you. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says his Father in heaven makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. Being unrighteous doesn’t in any way exclude anyone from sun and rain and air to breathe and Divine love, all of these things being necessary for life itself. You don’t have to know about photons from the sun or the water cycle or how oxygen feeds our cells, in order for these things to sustain your life. You can even believe they don’t exist if you want to. But they’re there, they set the conditions for the possibility of life, and this is how it is with Divine love. “They tell me it works, even if you don’t believe it.”
This is kind of the reverse of the Charlie Brown factor where only he has the dark rain cloud over him and it follows him wherever he goes. Everyone has the Divine love cloud over them. God is love, John repeats multiple times, and there’s no escaping it. And experiencing this love doesn’t have to be a feeling. It’s more like something that makes feeling anything possible in the first place.
The way this usually works is that just about anyone can say they love God. It’s easy to say, and is usually said in all sincerity. I love God, you love God, lots of people love God.
It’s a little harder to say God loves us. It sounds a little pretentious. “God loves me.” “God loves us.” It harder to say with humility. Because how can you really know and claim that?
But John wants to turn all this around. Anybody and everybody can say “God loves me.” We love because God first loved us. God is love. We are breathing it in every moment. It’s the same for those kids who are locked up, Mother Teresa, whoever. God loves us. Whoever says it is always telling the truth. And if you actually believe it, it will change your life.
But, says John, you better watch out when you say you love God. Because it might make a liar out of you. Because how can you really know and claim that? In verse 20, right on the heals of what we’ve been talking about, John says: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters are liars.” Way to be gentle, John. John says this over and over again in chapter four. Those great verses that work so well as memory verses: 1 John 4:7 and 8. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God because God is love.”
This is like the person who had someone knock on her door and ask her if she knew Jesus and was a Christian. And she answered that they should go next door and ask the neighbor. I could tell you whatever I want, she said, but the neighbor will tell you if I’m actually a Christian.
OK, that’s the kind of stuff we’ll be talking about in the next couple of weeks, our side of the deal, how we enact this Divine love which is a pure gift to us. But the point for today is that it is a gift. We are completely and totally loved first, which is what makes all the rest of this possible. God is love.
Jesus lived it. John wrote it. The church received it. Troubled youth struggle to accept it. Mother Teresa whispered it to each child she held. And whether you feel it or not. Believe it or not. God loves you. God’s love is among us. We love because we are loved. God is love.