Many of years ago now I remember strolling through the streets of Manhattan, when I came across a fine stone neo-Gothic structure advertising itself as the Church of the Incarnation. I am always curious to look inside church buildings. (You can call it an occupational hazard—ask Karen how many churches and cathedrals we have visited on our vacations.) So I walked in, and there at the far end I could see a larger-than-life full-length marble statue of a clergyman. The inscription beneath it read that it was of none other than Phillips Brooks, the fifth Bishop of Massachusetts, one of the greatest preachers of the nineteenth century, and most renowned of all as the author of “O little town of Bethlehem”. “Oh,” I thought to myself, “so Phillips Brooks was the rector of this church.” But I soon found out that that was not the case. Next to the towering statue was a modest bust of the Rev. Arthur Brooks, Phillips Brooks’ lesser-known brother, who had served there from 1875 to 1895.
I suspect that for much of his life poor Arthur Brooks lived in the shadow of his famous brother. And something similar could be said of our Epistle passage this morning, from 1 John 4. When you think of love in the Bible, where does your mind automatically turn? To this passage before us, or to Paul’s soaring prose in 1 Corinthians 13? “Though I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal…” I suspect that there are some of us who could recite the whole chapter by heart. But how many could say the same of 1 John 4? Yet the fifteen verses that we have read this morning contain some of the most incredibly concentrated and profound teaching on love to be found anywhere in the Bible. In 1 Corinthians 13 we find Paul using the word “love” nine times. In this passage it occurs an amazing twenty-nine times. So let us take the next few minutes to see what John has to teach us about love.
The nature of love
The first thing I take from these verses has to do with the nature of love. What do we think of, where do our minds usually go, when we hear the word “love”? I think for most people it has to do with emotions, indeed a whole spectrum of them running all the way from a warm feeling we have towards someone else as a fellow human being or even for a dog or a cat, all the way to the uncontrollable chemical explosion that we call “falling in love”. While emotions play no little part in it, however, the kind of love that John is writing about is not essentially a feeling. Nor is it merely a theoretical concept or a pious wish.
No, the love that John is writing about—and, for that matter, that we find throughout the Bible from beginning to end—is a love that by definition shows itself in action. How does John describe the love he is writing about? “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son…” The words parallel those that we find in the gospel. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” It’s not just that God thought kind thoughts about us. No, his is a love that invariably expresses itself in concrete, practical action.
One of the wisest and most pastoral men I have ever encountered, Bishop Stephen Neill, once wrote this about love:
Love in the Bible sense of the word is always concerned with self-giving. It is never merely feeling; it always includes “a steady direction of the will towards another’s lasting good”.
“A steady direction of the will towards another’s lasting good.” Those words have echoed through my mind for decades. And if you’ve ever been to a wedding where I have presided, you will likely have heard me repeat them in my remarks to the bride and groom. I don’t know of a better definition, or one that more accurately reflects what underlies what John is saying in this passage.
“No one has ever seen God,” John wrote in the prologue to his gospel. “It is God the Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18). Now in this chapter we hear the same words again: “No one has ever seen God,” but this time John continues, “if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” God is invisible, but we do gain a glimpse of him when Christians exhibit practical love.
Several years ago a number of us drove across town to hear Christian philosopher Dallas Willard. At the end of his talk one member of the audience told of how she had tried again and again to bear witness and explain the Christian faith to another person for years, but much to her frustration her words seemed to bear no result. What should she do? Willard’s reply was classic: “Have you tried sending them a birthday card?” We have all been told that a picture is worth a thousand words. The same is true of love. One caring act can mean far more than a thousand words. It is what puts flesh on what is otherwise nothing more than an ethereal concept.
The source of love
Such is the nature of love. From here John goes on to write about the source of love. It’s almost fifty years since the Beatles first recorded their song, “All you need is love”. It was a #1 hit and captured the ideals and beliefs of a generation. That kind of thinking is still popular in the world today. John, however, says that, like so much of the world’s thinking, they got it backwards. Not, “Love is God,” as the song implies, but, “God is love.”
There is a world of difference between the two philosophies. God is not defined by our notions about love, which are bound to be imperfect at best and can be twisted and destructive at their worst. Rather, our understanding of love arises out of God and what he has revealed of himself. What do we mean, then, when we claim that God is love? I believe it arises out of our knowledge of God as Trinity, which among other things tells us that love is incorporated into God’s very being. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit. The Son loves the Father and the Spirit. The Spirit loves the Father and the Son. It is what theologians call “perichoresis”. The word comes from peri, which means “around” or “near”, and choros, which means “dance” and from which we derive our English words “chorus” and “choreography”. So think of a chorus of singers, whose voices are so perfectly balanced and blended that they combine to form a single whole. Or picture in your mind a troupe of dancers elegantly sweeping across the floor and supporting one another in such a way that you can’t separate them without destroying the whole. According to one definition, “Perichoresis is the fellowship of three co-equal Beings perfectly embraced in love and harmony and expressing an intimacy that no one can humanly comprehend.”
Such is the love that binds together the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And that love flows out in acts of self-giving—in creation, in redemption, in the daily presence and empowering of the Holy Spirit. It also yearns to draw others into its warmth. It is the love that reaches out to us, seeks us as a shepherd seeks his lost sheep, stops for us on the road and binds up our wounds, weeps for us, rejoices with us, suffers for us, dies for us. “So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.”
The fruits of love
What I have said thus far is based on two of the many remarkable statements that we come across in this passage: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us” (verse 10) and, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (verse 16). Before we leave, there is a third and it is found in verse 18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Here John brings us from the nature of love and the source of love to the fruits of love.
Of course as long as we live in this world there will be fears. As many of us have learned in our recent Adult Education series, fear is a part of our primal nature. It is necessary for survival. But that ordinary, inbuilt fear is not the kind of fear that John is referring to. What John is writing about is fear of judgment, the fear that keeps us away from God, the fear that gnaws away at our soul and holds us captive to negativity and gloom.
Knowing that God loves me is like opening a blind on a shuttered room. It dispels the darkness and gives light in every direction. It allows us to enter into a relationship of intimacy with God, in which there is no need to hide anything from him because his desire is only for our good. It is what Charles Wesley wrote about in his classic hymn:
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in him, is mine!
Alive in him, my living head,
And clothed in righteousness divine…
Jesus, and all in him, is mine!
Alive in him, my living head,
And clothed in righteousness divine…
More broadly, knowing that we have a God who loves us and cares for our every need frees us from fear about material things. It is what Jesus spoke about in the Sermon on the Mount when he said to his disciples,
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear… Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them… And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For … your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.
Thirdly, God’s love frees us from fear in relationships. It impels us to emerge from our shells of self-absorption to love others with the same quality of love that God has shown to us. “Beloved,” John exhorts us in verse 11, “if God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” And if that were not clear enough, he turns his exhortation into a commandment in verse 21: “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” “Let us make no mistake,” writes Bishop Stephen Neill again. “ ‘Love thy neighbor’ is not good advice… It is a command; and in the Bible, if commands are given, it is because they are expected to be obeyed.”
As we pause this morning to consider the love of God, may the vision of it draw us out of the shadows of fear to open our hearts more fully to him. May it move us to trust him to care for us and lead us through life. And may we allow that love to flow through us into the lives of others. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God.”