Love is the Sine qua Non
1 John 4:7-21, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, April 29, 2018
This section of First John is so familiar and so rich with basic concepts that we can hardly hear it. We assume that we have known this from childhood: “Love one another,” and “God is love.” But it is always a challenge to us. It’s like a bone a dog never gets tired of chewing on. I want to begin with my own paraphrase of the key verses (7-12, 16b, 19-21):
God is the source of love. Love comes from knowledge of God. God’s essence is love. The true nature of love has been revealed in the sending of the Son and in giving him as a sacrifice.
Our love for God did not begin with us: he loved us first, and therefore we love. God’s love for us is the source of our love for one another. If we love one another, it means that God is living in us. God’s love reaches its goal when we love one another. If we remain in love, we remain in God and God remains in us. God’s very nature is faithful love.
God is the starting point of all love; our love is a response to God’s. If anyone claims to love God but hates a person in God’s family, that one is a liar. If we do not love the family member we see, we cannot claim to love God whom we cannot see. It was God himself, speaking through Jesus, who gave us this new command: If you love me, love one another.
John begins by addressing his readers as “Beloved.” It’s not just a polite address; it’s a word formed from the Greek agape. I am shifting gears now, he is saying. I’ve been writing about conflicts in the church and the dangers of false teachers, but now I am addressing you as those who are deeply loved—and not just loved by me but loved by God. I want you to live every moment in that reality of being loved.
John says that the love that we have for one another in the church comes from God. God lives in people who love, he abides in their lives, he stays there with persistence. If we are able to love, it’s because we have been born spiritually through God’s action in our lives. If we’re not able to love, it’s because we don’t know God. If you find that you cannot love some people in the church, you need to revisit the question of whether you actually know God at all. Maybe you’ve just been faking it; maybe you’re just going along with tradition; because if you knew God—the God who’s been revealed in Jesus—you would have this love in your heart that would make you act with kindness toward everyone. If we come to know God, it means we have encountered in a profound way the truth that God loves us no matter what, in spite of all our selfish acts and all our failures. And if we know we have been loved like that, we can’t be hard on others. We can’t demand perfection of them when we have been loved as we are.
The Greeks used eros as a word for love that wants to possess; they used agape to mean love that gives without any self-interest. That’s the kind of love that God has, that God is. Every day in the news we see evidence of self-serving love—love that appreciates people who praise me, love of those who remind me of myself. This is tribal love, clan love, based on solidarity with those like me. But there is another kind of love that begins with God rather than with the self. That is the love that reaches out to those who are different from me, those who can do nothing for me, even those who seek to harm me. That is the God kind of love.
John makes his most famous philosophical statement: “God is love.” He does not just say that God is loving. He is not saying that one of God’s activities is to love us. Instead, he says that love is the essence of God’s being. All of God’s activity is loving—whether it looks to us like justice, or creation, or discipline, it’s all love. We do not have a Jekyll and Hyde God, who is sometimes loving and sometimes wrathful, good cop alternating with bad cop. However we might perceive God, the truth behind appearances is that God is all love all the time.
An awful lot of people who grew up in church think of God as a policeman or a judge, someone who is out to catch them and enforce law and order. One commentary on First John I read [Gary Burge, NIV Application Commentary, Letter of John]is by a professor at Wheaton College, an evangelical school near Chicago. He was teaching the contrast between law and grace in Galatians, and he asked his students to write a one-page essay on this question: “Has your life been shaped more by the threat of law or the wonder of God’s grace?” The professor was dismayed when 90% of the students wrote that the possibility of God’s disfavor had shaped their lives since childhood. “God’s gonna get you!” God’s love was not in the forefront of their minds. They said that Christianity is about following the rules. Arg! How many people in church have been raised to be good Pharisees, not believing anything Jesus said—or Paul or John? God loved you while you were yet sinners! We are saved by grace, not by following the rules, so no one can boast.
It is not a self-evident truth that God is love. Aristotle said that God is pure intelligence. Plato said that God is the Good, the Good beyond Being. Everyday Greeks believed in the gods of the myths, so they believed God is fickle, or God is selfish. That’s certainly one way to explain why the world is so messed up. How do we know God is love? If you just looked at nature, you might think that God is creative or complex or a lover of variety or beauty, but you’d have no reason to think that God is love. If you looked at human history, you might think that God designed the world for conflict and competition, or that God punishes people with earthquakes and plagues, but you wouldn’t conclude from history that God is love. John tells us how we know that God is love: we know it because God sent his only Son, Jesus, into the world (from outside it) so that we humans might come alive through him and have our sins forgiven. Jesus is the revelation of God’s nature. He is God’s self-definition so that we can know God.
Love is not an emotion that God has, some warm feeling he has for the human race. Love is a way of being in the world that is for the other person. This word agape that John and Paul use is the New Testament equivalent for the Hebrew word hesed, which is translated faithful love, steadfast love, or covenant love. Remember the shout in every verse of Psalm 136 as the psalmist recounts creation and the deliverance from Egypt? “His steadfast love endures forever!” His love shows itself in his action to save us from our oppressors. And now, John says, God’s steadfast love has brought us life through Jesus, through love demonstrated on the cross. This is now the definition of love for us—giving life to someone else at a cost to yourself. Augustine asked, “What sort of face does love have?” He answered that love looks like Jesus.
No one has ever seen God, John says—even though he says in the early verses of this letter that he saw Jesus with his own eyes and touched him with his own hands—but if we love one another, then the invisible God lives in us, and we can see God in each other’s lives. God’s love, John says, is perfected in us. He doesn’t mean that love makes us perfect. That word “perfected” comes from the word that means goal or end-point. When we love one another, God’s love that he put in us has reached its planned destination. The goal of God loving us is not only to draw us to himself, but to bind us together in love, so when we love one another, God’s love has reached its goal and fulfilled its purpose.
In fact, another Greek note is that the word “in”—God’s love is perfected in us—can also be translated “among” us. God’s love reaches its goal among us as the space between us in the church is filled with love. In verse 17 they translate it that way: “God’s love has been perfected among us.” Here’s the thing: the love that we experience in Christian fellowship is not merely a human response to God’s love—“God loved us, so we love him.” It is a supernatural kind of love that God places within us, so that we can love people we wouldn’t naturally like. We can love people on the opposite side of the political divide in this country. We can love people who want to take the church in a different direction. We can even love those who hurt us or are angry with us. That is a love that comes from God, mediated by Christ and by the Spirit.
A few of you would love me naturally if we just met at a bar. But I know that most of you don’t love me because I’m so loveable. Some of you love me simply because I am your pastor. You love me because I am a part of the body of Christ that you are a part of. Some of you recognize the presence of Christ in me, and it is the Christ in me that you love. It is the Christ in you that acknowledges the Christ in me. It is God’s love living in you that pushes you to show love to me. You love me not naturally, but supernaturally. That is the miracle of church, and the miracle of God’s love accomplishing its purpose.
As in John’s church, there are still people in churches today who hate fellow church members. Frankly, I’m not currently aware of a situation like that in our congregation, but then, I’m not the first person you would tell. There are certainly people in our community who claim to be Christians who act hatefully toward some of their neighbors and have nothing good to say about them. Some people refuse to speak to one another. Some people cross the street to avoid having to say hi to me, and I’m not the only one! Some people think unkind thoughts about immigrants, legal and otherwise. Who knows, there may be some citizens planning to get ugly at the financial town meeting tomorrow!
John comes down pretty hard on Christians like that. If they say they love God but hate people, they are just liars. That is, they don’t really love God. If they loved God, and understood how God had loved them in spite of their unloveliness, they would have God’s love demonstrated in their lives. You can’t possibly love the invisible God if you can’t love the human standing right in front of you. The commandment that Jesus gave us was very clear. He gave it to us on the night he was betrayed, the night he washed our feet: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
We’re going to sing a hymn based on 1 Corinthians 13, the other famous “love” passage in the New Testament. Paul says that if he can speak in tongues, or prophesy, or know everything, or work miracles, or die a martyr, if he doesn’t have love, he’s nothing. In the Christian life, love is the whole ball of wax, the whole enchilada. But there’s a better idiom for that in Latin: love is the sine qua non. Love is the “without which nothing.” Love is the one thing without which you have nothing at all. Love is the one thing needful, the one thing you absolutely must have in order to be a follower of Jesus, indeed, in order to be fully human. The good news is that such love is readily available. You are already beloved. You have already been forgiven. God’s love is in the pipeline, ready to be pumped into your heart. Open yourself to that love, and God will make you alive, and live in you.