1 John 4: 7-21
If I were preaching to a different crowd, I might focus on how God’s self-giving love in Christ is how we know what love is. If I were preaching to another crowd, I might direct your attention to the strong and simple statement in verse 16, “God is love.” If this were another group on another night, I might stay with the fact that God’s love propels and enables us to love other people.
I might end up saying some of those things tonight. They are pretty basic to the Christian faith and certainly worth being reminded of from time to time. They keep us focused and headed in the direction of our call. They remind us that God doesn’t “reward” us for love –as if we invented it ourselves – but instead forms us into the kind of people who are able to know and express love. Love is not our achievement but our response to having been loved by God in the first place.
But since I’m here with you on this last night of worship for this academic year…since I’m here with you who live and breathe Wesley…since I see evidence every single day that attests to the fact that you get where love comes from and what we’re supposed to do about it, I want to focus instead on something the writer of 1 John might not have been intending. I think it’s in the text, congruent with the meaning of the text, and utterly like the God of love we’re talking about, but you can let me know if you think I missed the point.
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (v. 16). What if that means exactly what it says? God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. In other words, since God is love, then anyone who abides in love also abides in God and God, of course, abides in them.
Maybe you see where I’m going with this. Maybe you see and you’re thinking, Whoa there, Deborah! People call lots of things “love” that aren’t really love. People get confused all the time about what love is in a given relationship or situation.
If that’s what you are thinking, you’d be right. We are often horribly misguided about love. George Hughley probably claimed to love Yeardley Love but his actions didn’t bear out that claim. Just because someone says they love doesn’t make it true.
But we have the ultimate barometer of love in Christ. We know exactly what it looks like to walk around on this earth with real, annoying, fallible people and to try to love them. We know because we have seen how Jesus did it. Sometimes love looks like “tough love,” throwing tables and money around and reprimanding others when we are woefully off course. Sometimes it looks like telling a seeker he has to do the one thing he doesn’t want to do – sell everything he has – and then letting him walk away without seeming to get what he came for. Sometimes it looks like telling someone the straight truth about who he is and how badly he messes up and will mess up again and then, when the cock crows, forgiving him and loving him more. Sometimes love looks like a feast you weren’t prepared to offer, with a starving crowd miraculously fed and food left over. Sometimes it looks like tenderness and touch and receiving the gifts someone else has to offer, allowing someone to anoint and caress his feet and to wipe them with her hair. Sometimes love is expressed in grief and remorse, as when Jesus arrived late to the tomb that held Lazarus. Sometimes love looks like a dying blessing, providing for strangers and orphans to be one another’s new family…(Matthew 21: 12-17; Mark 10: 17-22; Matthew 26: 31ff; Luke 9 : 10-17; John 12: 1-8; John 11; John 19: 25-27).
We’ve seen many, many witnesses to Love. Love divine, all loves excelling! (Charles Wesley, UMH #384). When we get confused about it we have these old, old stories to set us straight and remind us of the facets and surprises and guises love takes.
Love is vast and specific, forceful and tender, surprising and constant. And, I want to suggest, it doesn’t belong to us, to Christians. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Since God is love, then anyone who abides in loves also abides in God and God, of course, abides in them. Anyone. Anyone who loves.
Maybe you see where I’m headed now and you’re thinking now, Whoa again! “Anyone”??! I thought this was about Christians. One of the great things about the Bible is that it is absolutely for us. Though any given passage or book was written millennia ago for very different people in very different circumstances, it is the living Word of God for us, too. So while it’s true that you can’t just make any part mean anything you want it to mean, it is also true that it rarely only means one, static thing. As I mentioned earlier, I’m pretty sure the writer of 1 John was thinking about and writing to Christians. But I think there is more truth in these words than that.
If God is Love and God loves all of creation and if we are enabled and empowered to love because of God’s prevenient love, then I don’t think we’re the only ones. There are so many ways we abide in and witness to that love and, as Christians, we have the ultimate example in Christ of how this looks. But if we Christians let the Word come alive and live in us, then I think we have to admit that we are not the only ones. We are not the only ones God loves. We have demonstrated that we have an uncanny knack for screwing up and getting it wrong and for sometimes calling something “love” that is not love. And, if all this is true, then what are we missing out on when we ignore the love abiding “out there”?
I’m not telling you to go looking for Love in all the wrong places or to try making love out of nothing at all. I’m not saying the church is all out of love, so you have to find it someplace else (“Lookin’ for Love” by Wanda Mallette, Bob Morrison, and Patti Ryan; “Making Love at of Nothing At All” and “All Out of Love” by Air Supply). I’m saying that we could spend our whole lives hot on the trail of love and never come to the end of it. So why stop at the church doors? Why would you want to miss out on more God by deciding you already have enough? Why would you want to miss out on the opportunity to love the people God loves?
I surprised myself by watching way more General Conference live streaming than I thought I would these past couple of weeks. Thursday I was so hopeful that our church would change the Discipline to be more honest in reflecting where we are as a church on issues of sexuality, specifically LGBT sexuality. We had the opportunity to say more explicitly that we are deeply divided as a church and that there is a lot of pain on both sides about this situation (http://www.gc2012conversations.com/2012/05/03/hamiltonslaughter-substitution-related-to-ci-513/). The proposal didn’t concede much ground to either side but it seemed to open up the windows to let more air in, to maybe start a more genuine conversation. But we didn’t do it. We didn’t change anything – including any minds or hearts.
Sometimes the way forward is not clear.
What is abundantly clear to me is that I know more about Love, more about God, more about how and who God loves because of my relationships with people in the LGBT community. My life and faith have been strengthened by finding God in these people – both within and outside of the church. I’m happy to talk more with any one of you about this, but my point here is that we are called to be hot on the trail of God, wherever we find that God-Love. So pay attention. In church and in all the other places you go.
We’ll be leaving Wesley this week but, believe me, God is out there. If God is love and Christians don’t have a monopoly on God-Love, then how much bigger is God? What could we learn from observing and participating in loving relationships with non-Christian or non-church people, in non-church settings or groups? What could we learn about and experience and see and how could we feel God differently if we hung out in the other places God abides? What if we approached life like detectives or Jane Goodall-style anthropologists (lovologists!)? Notebooks in hand, binoculars up. What if we said to ourselves, Wherever I find love, I’m going to pause and make some notes about how God is showing up in that place and that person? Visiting the prison, buying groceries, sitting in class, going out on Friday night, working at the pool this summer, visiting at a family reunion, riding the Metro to the National Mall on July 4th…What if we went to some places we tend to think are off-limits to us, or to love? The Republican National Convention, the Democratic National Convention, the library summer book club group, an AA meeting, a QSU meeting, Rugby Road? Wherever it is you are certain God isn’t abiding – when’s the last time you took a good, long, loving look?
Thanks be to God!
©2012 Deborah E. Lewis