Here’s the sermon I preached last Sunday at the Regents Park Church of the Nazarene (Johannesburg, RSA). In some ways, love is both the easiest topic to preach on and the most difficult. I’m preaching to myself as much as anyone else.
“What’s love got to do with it?”
Text: 1 John 4:16-21
The word “love” is one of the most powerful words in any language. When we think about music, there’s a whole category of songs that we call “love songs”. So many different lyrics from different songs could be recited, but for some reason what came to mind was Tina Turner’s 1984 hit, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” The words ask:
What’s love got to do, got to do with it
What’s love but a second hand emotion
What’s love got to do, got to do with it
Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken
Now it would be quite a meeting if Tina Turner met the Apostle John, the disciple of Jesus who wrote our Scripture reading today. What would someone from the 1st century have to say to someone from the 21st? What would they talk about? What would they possibly have in common? Yet they have more in common than you might think at first glance. May I suggest that the entire book of 1 John is in fact an extended reply to the question: “What’s love got to do with it?” And the simple answer is: Love has everything to do with it when it comes to our Christian faith. Sure, it’s not the romantic love spoken about by Tina Turner, but it is a deeper love, a more lasting love, a love that brothers and sisters in Christ have for each other – or at least should have – because of our Lord.
Transition and sermon plan
Today, we’ve only read a few verses from the letter. I’d encourage you to take the time later today to read all of 1 John. It’s short, so it shouldn’t take you too long. If you read it all, you’ll see that a single theme is woven through the book like a golden strand. How can we summarize that theme? Here it is: “If you say you love God, then prove it by loving others.” It’s pretty simple, really. But since we don’t have time to see the whole forest, let’s sharpen our focus and at least examine a few of the trees in that forest. The three “trees” are really three short sentences:
- God is love.
- There is no fear in love.
- We love because he first loved us.
God is love.
Let’s jump in. God is love. This is the simple declaration found in the second half of 1 John 4:16. Shall we say those words together? GOD IS LOVE. Where did John ever get this idea? To be honest, there are plenty of places we could turn to in the Bible where God appears to be anything but love. In some stories – like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, or the Destroyer killing the firstborn Egyptian sons – we find an angry God. John was hardly ignorant of those stories, yet he affirms: GOD IS LOVE. Why? As Christians, we believe that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of who God is. Philip asked Jesus: “Show us the Father.” Jesus replied: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
When John wrote this little letter, a wrong idea had started circulating about Jesus. Some had this idea that the eternal Christ – pure in spirit – never would have accepted to take up residence in a corrupt human body. So, they began to teach that Christ seemed to be human, but in reality, he was just a ghost that appeared is a wispy human form. John would have nothing to do with this false doctrine. In fact, he refutes it with all of his might. And so you have the majestic words that open the letter of 1 John: “What was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched…” (1 John 1:1). John – the same John, most likely, who had been the disciple of Jesus for 3 years, the John called in John’s Gospel “the disciple whom Jesus loved” – says: “I heard him, I saw him, I touched him.” Maybe a ghost could say something, and maybe a ghost could somehow appear to the human eye, but you can’t touch a ghost. Ghosts don’t have bodies. So we celebrate Christmas, the festival of the incarnation, of Christ taking on human flesh.
This Jesus who was no ghost also exhibited that most human and divine of attributes: Jesus loved people. And so if – like Jesus said to Philip – whoever has seen Jesus has seen God the Father – and if Jesus loved people, then there’s only one conclusion possible: God loves people. God is love.
Some other time perhaps we can look at the fact that God is also holy. That is a key aspect of his character that we find in other NT passages, but here in 1 John, John keeps it basic. Why does it matter if we say “God is love”? Maybe we could substitute another word for “love” to help us understand better. What if instead of saying “God is love” John had said “God is hate.” Would that be O.K.? Would you be happy worshiping a hateful God? Or how about “God is greed.” Would that be all the same to you to bow your knee to a greedy God? I won’t speak for you, so let me speak for myself. I couldn’t worship a hateful God or a greedy God. To worship such a God would be not different than worshiping the Devil himself! That’s why I could never believe in the doctrine of predestination, that God has chosen before the foundation of the world that certain individuals would be saved and others would be damned. Such a doctrine can never square with John’s claim that “God is love.”
Having said that, neither should we reverse the sentence and say that “love is God”. The very last verse in 1 John is found in chapter 5 verse 21. John cautions: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” And when we reverse the sentence “God is love” and come up with “love is God,” we are setting up love as an idol. Tina Turner is mild in her song compared to many others that take a very sexualized view of love and invite us to put it at the center of who we are, as if the pursuit of physical gratification could ever satisfy the deep need of the human heart. My brothers and sisters, avoid the kind of spiritual dyslexia that gets the order backwards. God is love. Love of a fleshly nature must never rule over us. Love must not become a god.
There is no fear in love.
Besides the sentence “God is love,” there’s a second sentence to consider. The sentence appears at the beginning of 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love.” The verse continues: “But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
One of the most powerful images that I’ve ever seen was a photo taken in November 2013. An unnamed man, horribly disfigured and suffering from the rare genetic disorder of neurofibromatosis, waited in line to see Pope Francis. When it was his turn, he came and knelt in front of Francis and buried his head in the Pope’s robes while the Pope gently laid his hand upon the man’s head. The image instantly went viral over social media and news websites. Later, the Pope commented on Twitter: “True charity requires courage. Let us overcome the fear of getting our hands dirty so as to help those in need.”
Have you ever tried raising your hand and lowering it at the same time? It’s impossible. By definition, if your hand is rising, it can’t be sinking simultaneously. One rules out the other. In the same way, John says it’s not possible to both love someone and to fear them at the same time. If you love them, then your mind will be focused upon how to express that love. Fear will be the furthest thing from your mind. On the other hand, if you allow your mind to focus on how scary someone is, then you won’t be thinking about how you can love them.
Right now because of drought and civil war, there are millions of refugees who have fled Syria. They say that this is the largest refugee migration since World War 2. My country, the United States, has at times in the past responded with compassion. This is not one of them. Instead of our love driving out our fear, our fear has driven out our love. Because of the unlikely possibility that terrorists are among the refugees, many governors have said they will take in no Syrian refugee families. Canada has done much better and has opened its arms to them.
It’s too easy to criticize nations. Let’s bring it closer to home. I wonder how God will use the Regents Park Church of the Nazarene to welcome people from this neighborhood who sometimes can seem scary? Will our love drive out fear, our will our fear drive out love? I pray that I will pass the test.
We love because he first loved us.
So far we’ve looked at 2 simple sentences contained in our Scripture reading from 1 John 4:16-21. First, God is love. That is his nature and it is one key divine attribute that draws us to our knees in worship. Secondly, there is no fear in love. Like I cannot raise and lower my hand at the same time, I cannot love my neighbor as myself if I am overcome by fear. Perfect love casts out fear. But let’s look at the third and final sentence that is part of our study this morning. It’s verse 19: “We love because he first loved us.”
If you’ve ever had an argument with someone, it’s easy to think that it’s up to the other person to make the first move to mend the relationship. You might think: “I’m not calling her, after all that she said about me! She’s just going to have to call me.” After the disobedience of Adam and Eve, God could have had the same attitude. I’m glad he didn’t! Listen to the words of Paul in Romans 5:8:
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (TNIV).
When I look at the Cross, I don’t see God’s anger. I see God’s love. In a manger in Bethlehem and at a Cross on the hill called Golgotha, God took the initiative. Theologians call that prevenient grace. It’s God’s Holy Spirit wooing us, calling us to come to Jesus.
Now John does what he so often does. He’s not content to talk about the vertical dimension, about what God in Christ did for us. No – he insists on moving to the horizontal dimension, relationship between human beings or – to be more precise – relationship between brothers and sisters in the church. Since God first loved us, then we have no choice but to love each other.
The story is told of two villages where a strange disease overtook the citizens. In both villages, paralysis of the elbows struck, making it impossible for people to bend their arms. Since there was no doctor in the villages, a boy climbed on his bicycle and set out for the city to fetch someone who could come and make a diagnosis and – hopefully – provide a cure.
Meanwhile, hours turned into days until finally the doctor came. In the first village, she found emaciated people. “What happened?” the doctor asked. Angrily, they replied her: “What do you mean, what happened? How could we eat when we can’t bend our elbows? Have you ever tried to eat, doctor, with such a condition?”
Later, she went to the second village. There, much to the doctor’s surprise, she found villagers who were well fed and content, even though they could not bend their elbows. Curious, she asked the first person she saw: “How is it that you haven’t lost any weight? Did you somehow figure out how to feed yourself even with this strange condition?” Smiling, the villager replied: “No, we soon realized that it was impossible for each of us to feed ourselves like we would normally have done. So instead, we fed each other.”
Those villagers learned the lesson of love. Because God has first loved us, so we too must love one another, care for each other.
Why did Christianity grow so quickly in the early centuries? Was it because faith in Christ resulted in great riches? Hardly – while there were believers who had wealthy, most were simple laborers who lived from hand-to-mouth. Was it because faith in Christ guaranteed security and protection in a hostile world? Hardly – there were times even when Christians were considered enemies of the state and were thrown to the lions. So why did Christianity spread like wildfire? It was love! One example was that it became a tradition for Christians to fast certain meals together. Then, they would put together the money saved to give food to the poor, widows and orphans. They would care for the disabled and for lepers, for prostitutes and slaves.
And so we come back to the question: Why do we love? We love because God first loved us. I like how John puts it at the end of verse 17: “In this world, we are like Jesus.” I wonder: If people looked at my life for a week – if they observed how I live my life for 7 days – is that the conclusion they would reach? “In this world, Greg is like Jesus.” What about you? What conclusion would they reach for you? Would they say: “In this world, Hubert is like Jesus.” After watching, would they say: “In this world, Perola is like Jesus”? Too often in my own life, I’m afraid they might conclude the opposite. Yet I believe that what was true yesterday and what might still be true today need not be true tomorrow! With God’s love inside me, I believe that it can spill out and touch others like it never has before. And what about you? Are you willing for God to so fill you by his Holy Spirit that you overflow with love for others, even those we might normally consider the untouchables?
Summing it all up
John’s first letter is challenging at so many levels yet simple. Its primary theme is an answer to the question: What’s love got to do with it? When it comes to our Christian faith, love is everything. God is love, there is no fear in love, and we love because God first loved us. In this new year 2016, let’s resolve to be the people of God by being people of love.
LET US PRAY.
Photo credit (Pope): NYPost.com