1 John 4:7-21
One of the greatest blessings of my adult life is the relationship I have with my sisters and my brother. We though we all live in different states and don’t get to see each other but a few times a year, we are a great support system for one another. When we do get together, whether we’re on some adventure my mother has planned for us or just sitting around watching a movie, we have a heck of a lot of fun just being together. While we drive each other occasionally crazy, we really enjoy spending time with each other.
Yeah, it wasn’t always that good. Oh boy, it wasn’t. My sisters Neli and Dawn didn’t join the family until a few years ago, so growing up, it was just Beth, Ted, and me. And the three of us – well, we fought – and fought dirty. I won’t bore you with all the details, but we each had our tactics for getting what we wanted (one of Beth’s favorites was being so melodramatic about Ted’s or my “mistreatment” of her that our parents would rush to her defense – oh, she was good!). We each knew which buttons to push on the others and how. We rarely ganged up against each other, only because we were too busy fighting to form any sort of alliance.
My poor parents. It was a rare day that all three of us were getting along. I have no idea how they survived the day to day, let alone listening to us fight on those long family road trips. The folks never forced us to be the best of friends, to have Brady Bunch moments, but they did make us put up with one another. Whenever one of us went too far in our little battles, we got in serious trouble. And whenever one of us was expressing extreme frustration with a sibling, Mom or Dad would help us to see (even if we didn’t want to) where our sibling was coming from, helped us to see the other side. My parents never demanded that we smile and like each other, but they did make sure that under all our bickering, we had respect for each other, that we loved each other.
My folks taught that lesson well. When I was a kid, I would pick on my siblings all I wanted – but if an outsider even cast a disparaging look at them, it was over. That person was in for a severe tongue lashing the likes of which they had probably never seen. Because while Beth and Ted might drive me crazy, they were my sister and brother. I may not like my siblings all that much, but I loved them.
While I know the author of this epistle wasn’t referring to our biological brothers and sisters, it is in part because of this undercurrent of love I had for my sister and brother, even when they drove me up the wall by getting in my stuff, or – horror, of horrors – tagging along, that I can appreciate when the writer of 1 John says: “those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” If I want to be able to say “I love the Lord!” I have to be able to say, I love the Lord’s people. Because if I truly do love God, God who is love, I will follow God’s commandment for me, I will love my neighbor, my brother, my sister.
It’s not that hard of a commandment to follow. At least when the brother or sister you have to love is one that is just a pest. Loving because God first loved you is easy enough when those you are to love’s greatest flaw is that they are occasionally annoying. You can just roll your eyes at their behavior and think “I love you, I love you, I love you.” But following that commandment isn’t always that easy. When those we are called to love act in ways that make it challenging to understand how they too could be God’s creation, it gets hard. Very hard. I read in the news about people whose actions distort the image of God within them, those who reject others’ and even their own humanity, and wonder: how can I feel towards you any semblance of what I call love?
As hard as it is to follow God’s commandment with people like that, I believe there is even a greater challenge. Greater because it deals with what we face much more regularly. Most of us don’t go to school with or attend community functions with or even sit in the same church pew with mass murderers. We haven’t seen those brothers or sisters. But we have seen and do interact regularly with people who have personally hurt us or frustrated us. We do go to school, to work, and church with those whose beliefs strongly contradict our own. And the challenging questions for us is what do we do when the people we see in our day to day, the people are called to love, are the people who have hurt us with words or actions, people who do disagree with on issues close to our hearts? What do we do when we are supposed to love those who disdain the beliefs and values we hold as the core of who we are?
These are the kinds of questions I would imagine the Johannine community would have had after getting this letter. For the community that was originally told: “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars” and “those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” was a community dealing with deep division and suffering the sorrow of schism. This was a community where feelings were hurt, insults hurled, relationships broken because of strongly held and sharply differing beliefs.
Within this Christian community, there was a group that had broken away. This group differed with the Johannine Christians we would see as more orthodox on issues like who Christ was and on the importance of his salvation. While Johannine Christians argued that Christ set a moral standard in the way he walked, the way he lived, this breakway group argued that it was just enough to believe in the Word, what you do isn’t important just as what Christ did wasn’t important. Content to simply believe, they weren’t interested in living as disciples. We don’t know for sure but this group may have been a forerunner for the Gnostic Christians – those who understood this world and the flesh as false, who saw the purpose of life as pursuit of special knowledge from God.
We don’t know exactly how this schism developed. We don’t know who the leaders were, who may have said what about whom. Even though we don’t know the details on this particular division, given the reactions over such similar situations over whole course of our church’s history, it’s probably safe to assume it wasn’t pretty. When there is such passion, it doesn’t take much for disagreements to get personal. And this community isn’t just a bridge club, this community is family. And whatever happened, things got so bad that family split.
In the midst of the most passionate, personal of disagreements, of differences, where things got so bad people just broke off relationships and left, is this letter and its reminder that we are commanded to love our brothers and our sisters, that we are to love because God first loved us.
And so I can only imagine that this community was left with the same question we have – one we have whether faced with someone we vehemently disagree with or someone who has personally hurt us: how do you love?
It’s a good question, a hard question, a question I know I want the answer to. But before we can try to answer that question, there’s this voice inside that reminds me we have to ask another. Before we can talk about how we manage to love those we find it difficult to, we have to ask ourselves what we even mean by love? We talk about loving our brothers and sisters, struggle sometimes with that love, but what exactly are we talking about, struggling with? What is love?
Now that’s an even bigger question. There was a whole course at my college dedicated to that question. Now, trying to understand love for us today, I didn’t run out and take a college course on love, but I have been doing some research. Look love up in the dictionary and you get several, interesting answers. The most appropriate one I found was “unselfish concern and benevolent concern for the good of another.” That sounds good. In fact, it sounds quite similar to a definition for agape, the Greek word for love which used in this passage, which is often translated as something like unconditional, self-sacrificing love. That sounds pretty Christian, like something the writer of this epistle would be in favor of. We should all be able to get on board with that. And yet, I am not completely satisfied with that definition for love because but while interacting with our brothers and sisters in unselfish concern may sound like a beautiful thing, I think it can – on occasion - be problematic. As people who have found themselves in abusive relationships of one kind or another might tell you, sometimes you need to be a little more selfish and a little less self-sacrificing in your concern of certain others. Our understanding of love – if we are to love all our brothers and sisters, has to be broader than even our definition for agape love.
So along with looking up various definitions of love, I’ve been immersing myself in a little bit of pop culture. Even though we’re well past Valentine’s Day, love is at the forefront of much of our culture. So I’ve been beeping my eyes and ears open for any definitions or descriptions that seem to just fit. I’ve heard some good ones (according to my yoga tape love is what’s left when we let go of everything we don’t need) and some pretty ridiculous ones: (love is like pizza, when it’s good it’s really good, when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good). The best descriptions and definitions, though, seem to come from music, not surprising when you think that most songs on the radio seem to be about falling in or out of love. I’ll give you a few of my favorites
Love is more than just a game for two.
Love is a battlefield.
Love is the groove in which we move.
Love is real, real is love.
Love is just a fancy word for compromise.
Love is a piano dropped from a four story window.
Love is just like breathing when it’s true.
Love is but a song we sing.
Love is sacrifice.
Love is all there is, it makes the world go round.
Love is like sweet dark chocolate.
Love is not some victory march, it’s a cold and broken Hallelujah.
Love is the saddest thing when it goes away.
Love is seldom what it seems.
Love is blindness.
Love is a temple – love a higher law.
Love is bigger, is bigger than us.
Now these are great lyrics, good definitions, and I don’t much disagree with anything they say about love, but still, none quite encompass all we need love to be if we are to love all. So where do we find our definition of love? Where do we find the answer to our question of how to love?
Well, as John Calvin said “the word of the Lord is the sole way that can lead us in our search.” In other words, in my search for understanding what love is, I never should have left the text. And what does the text say about love? “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent the only Son into the world so that we might live through him.” Our love, which comes from God is known in the Son. It was right that no one definition or expression of love, or even a combination of several, could completely satisfy me. For when we are searching for what it is to love as God commands us, we are not searching for a perfect definition, we aren’t searching for the best understanding, we are searching for God who is love. We are searching for the one who came as proof of love, as love living. For whether the person we are to love us one that just annoys us, one that has hurt us, or even one that we struggle to see as human, we can find what that love is within Christ and we can find the strength to love in Christ.
And Christ’s love is not a fixed definition. Christ’s love is not a static love, is not an immovable, unchanging love. Christ loved in different ways because he loved different people, he loved all people. He loved those who were his disciples, his friends; loved those whom he healed, he taught; he loved those that argued with him; he loved those who were threatened by him and threatened him. He loved all. And in his love, he would offer kindness and compassion; in his love, he would challenge the ways people thought and acted; in his love, he would be disappointed and even angry. In his love, whether it was gentle or “tough,” Christ moved people toward becoming the whole souls – what he called fruit bearing branches - God longed for them to be.
This love, Christ’s love, is the one we are to have. A love that may take on as many different definitions and forms as there are love songs. We are called to love our brothers and sisters but we are not called to love them all in the exact same ways. The love we offer is a love that – as did Christ’s – moves people toward being whole, love that will help them bear much fruit.
Knowing that the love we are offer is Christ’s love, we can too know and believe how it is we do love. For Christ tells us that “those who abide in me and I in them will bear much fruit, because apart from you can do nothing.” We can bear much fruit, can be true disciples and lovers of the Lord, because we abide in Christ. We can and do love knowing because we are not alone in our love. When we love, truly love, we draw on the strength of God, the wisdom of God, the courage of God. God commands us to love but does not leave us alone as we strive to do so. We can love and do love only because God first loved us and because God lives in us as we love each other. For God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.
Love truly is bigger, bigger than us and for that we can all be thankful. Amen.