Monday, 4 May 2015

God is Love- 1 John 4




Since around the time I became a Christian our reading from John’s first letter has been very important to me. I’ve told my story before, but maybe there are a few who haven’t heard it before. As a teenager I didn’t like Christians or Christianity much as all. In fact, I was very negative about it all. I felt pretty sure that there was something out there that we might call “God” or “the Force” or the “Divine”, but I was also pretty sure that the church didn’t get it and didn’t really have anything to offer in terms of getting to know that “something out there”. I actually suspected Christians and the Church might have been in the way of getting to know that “something out there”. I did search. The idea of life being only what we see was not really all that attractive to me. I believed we were more than just molecules and DNA trying to replicate. I believed there was something more to reality than what we normally saw and felt.

Two things happened to me that dramatically affected me. The first was an encounter in a bar and the second was a dream. First, I had just arrived at a bar and had gone to get drinks for me and my friends. When I was walking back to the table where my friends were I was overcome with what I can only call “love”, but I want to capitalize it- “Love”. It was love of a different kind. It was intense and I had the sense that the love I knew was a kind of shadow of this love I was experiencing. I felt like it was part of the foundation of reality. It was a self-forgetting love, and it was directed to all equally. I didn’t love my friends more than the strangers in the bar. On reflection I felt like it wasn’t coming from me. It was like I was caught up in it- like I was floating down a river. I don’t know how long I was standing there. It could have been 5 minutes or 10 minutes or more. Time seemed to vanish. I was left feeling like I had to somehow understand what that was, and if it was possible, I wanted to learn to live in it. I knew that I would be happy if I could find a way to live in that love.

The second thing that happened to me was a dream. It felt like more than an ordinary dream. It involved the Dalai Lama- who is the leader of the Tibetan people and the Tibetan Buddhist religion. In my dream I told the Dalai Lama that I wanted to become a Buddhist, which I was taking quite seriously. The Dalai Lama laughed at me and told me I was a Christian. I woke up annoyed, but I had this strange feeling that I couldn’t shake.

I eventually picked up a Bible and for some reason started reading in the gospel of Matthew. By the time I got through the Sermon on the Mount, which ends in chapter 7, I was blown away. This was not the Jesus or the Christianity I thought I knew and thought I was rejecting. I was very taken by Jesus and his teachings. I tried to imagine what the world would be like if everyone lived his teachings- not judging, loving our enemies, dealing with our anger and lust in healthy ways, If we considered our treasure to be with God rather than on earth (so we didn't have to horde it or protect it), lived in faith rather than fear, treating others the way we wanted to be treated, etc.. What kind of a world would that make? That thought blew me away. Later on I read about Jesus praying for the forgiveness of those that were killing him on the cross.

As I kept reading I eventually came to John’s first letter that we heard read today. Verse 8 blew me away, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8). For me, this made sense of the love that I felt. I came to believe that what I experienced in the bar was God’s love. It flowed out towards everyone equally, regardless of who they were, or what they had done. It wasn’t dependent on them, it wasn’t earned, and it wasn’t deserved. It flowed to them because that’s who God is. That’s how it flowed towards those who were crucifying Jesus- it didn’t depend on them. In 1st John we read that, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins“ (4:10). “God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (4:9). God sent his son and loved us while we were still sinners. We didn’t earn it, and it wasn’t deserved. God loves this way because it isn’t just something He does but it is because “God is love” (4:8). It is in His very nature. The way cold goes with ice. And curves go with a sphere. And that means whatever God does it is done from that center- creating, saving, even judging. It is all ultimately an expression of His love (which means we haven't understood it if we don't see love in His actions).

But it also made sense to me that being connected to God would mean that this incredible love would flow through you towards others. That love expressed towards others was what I sensed in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. John’s letter says, “let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (4:7-8). “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar” (4:19-20), and “whoever loves God must also love his brother” (4:21). The love of God and the love of brother/sister/neighbour are not really two separate things. They are deeply interrelated.

This letter is dripping with the word “love”. In 14 verses our reading says love 28 times. This is even more intense when we look at the original Greek. In our reading we see that the word “beloved” appears twice. The Greek word being translated is “Ἀγαπητοί” (agapetoi). The word used for love is “ἀγάπη” (agape). So the letter is addressed to the “agapetoi” (Ἀγαπητοί) and it is about “agape” (ἀγάπη). “Beloved” is a good translation in the sense that “love” is contained within the word.

In normal human relationships it’s like we have concentric rings of love. Closest to the center, in the innermost ring, we usually have our immediate family. Then, the next ring contains our friends. Then in the next ring we have acquaintances. And in the next ring we have strangers, maybe strangers that live close to you. And the next ring might have strangers that live far from you. At the very outer ring would be those who have betrayed us- those who are dangerous- Those we don’t trust and don’t like- enemies.

In this letter John is primarily speaking about love to fellow Christians in the church. What I think is happening is that the church is the place where we are to learn love. We learn to love people that are different than us, who make different decisions than us- people from different levels of income and different ethnicities. I don’t think the letter is saying that we should only love our fellow Christians. I think we learn love in the church- in our close relationships- with others who want to learn this love as well. Some of the Saints called the church a "school of love". As we deepen in this love we allow it to penetrate into to those other circles- to acquaintances- strangers- then even to enemies. At that point we begin to imitate God’s love, that doesn’t depend on whether the person has earned your love. We learn that God doesn't have concentric circles that define loving people in one ring more than another. When we are swept up in this love it changes who you are. The core of who you are- the very center of your being- is love. If God is love and you “abide” (4:12,16) in God then the core of who you are will be love. This is what it means to be perfected in God’s love (4:12). It is a love that is more than just warm feelings towards a person. It is a self-sacrificial love. It is a cross-shaped love. It is a love that is willing to go to extraordinary lengths for the benefit of the other.

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