Sermon from 2nd May 2021 (Easter 5)

1 John 1:7-21 (ESV)
7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 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. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world. 15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgement, because as he is so also are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God”, and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.

Dear heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit on us so we may love as you love us through your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sometimes we’re very capable of loving others. Sometimes we struggle to love them.

For example, let’s say a young man meets a young woman.

He likes what he sees. She likes what she sees. They talk and laugh and generally ‘hit it off’ with each other. They start courting or ‘going out’. One day they even confess their love for each other and are willing to focus a lot of time and energy on the other person.

One day he nervously proposes to her and she willingly accepts through tears of joy and love. They work together toward their wedding day, overcoming the normal hassles and arguments over mother-in-law’s demands, planning the ceremony and celebrations, seating arrangements, and how to keep their spending on budget.

Their wedding day is memorable and filled with many expressions of love and faithfulness. Their early years of marriage are filled with excitement as they get to know each other.

But then one day they discover they do know each other, and they don’t necessarily like what they’ve come to know. Sooner or later all married couples find they can’t hide their true selves from each other forever. They might struggle to love the other’s person’s idiosyncrasies or quirks or habits, even though some of these things are what attracted them to the other in the first place!

As they justify to themselves all the reasons not to love the other, they start to push each other’s buttons at home and seek to embarrass each other in public. They seek to create distances between each other by putting more time and energy into their work or sport or children or community events or some other excuse to get away from their spouse.

Or, perhaps a beautiful child is born.

Both parents look with love at their new-born and are willing to do so much for this dependent and adorable child. Their child needs so much care and attention and they’re willing to freely give their time, energy, and loving attention to this little human being made in the image of God.

But it doesn’t take long before the child screams and the parent’s nerves and patience are tested. The child continues to assert itself as it grows up and throws tantrums if it doesn’t get its own way. He or she screams to make sure everyone hears their demands, and sulks if they don’t get what they want.

The parents also struggle to deal with the child’s messes. Firstly, they have to deal with the messes in their child’s nappies (which they ‘lovingly’ clean up), then it’s the messes the child makes in their room and home (which the child rarely cleans up), but the worst is when their little prince or princess messes with the parent’s minds, which is almost impossible to clean up!

The more parents and children get to know each other (and their messes), the harder it can be to love each other.

Or, let’s say a new pastor comes to a congregation.

At first, he’s willingly welcomed and accepted. He preaches good sermons, works well with the young and the old, and seems to do a great job. In return, he likes what he sees among the people. They welcome him and allow him into their homes and lives. Everyone seems happy!

But one day he discovers the truth about the people he serves. They’re not as perfect as they’ve made out to be. They can be grumpy, selfish, pride-filled, demanding, and jealous. They say or do things which offend him and his family. He doesn’t feel as welcome as he used to.

On the other hand, they discover he’s not perfect either. He lets people down and won’t listen to what they feel are ‘reasonable requests’. He says ‘no’ when people want him to say ‘yes’, and ‘yes’ when others want him to say ‘no’. His priorities don’t match the people’s priorities and so he fails to meet their expectations. He may even say or do some things which offend a few, who subsequently want nothing more to do with him.

You see, sooner or later a pastor and his people do get to know each other. They don’t always like what they come to know and can struggle to love each other.

Now I’d like to suggest that any resemblance of these examples to anyone living or dead is not intended, but these scenarios can be all too familiar!

I think you’d agree that no matter what kind of relationship we have; sooner or later we struggle to love because of what we see, hear, or experience from each other. We struggle to love them because of what they say and do. We want to punish them for not meeting our expectations. We even try to blame them for our own disobedience to God’s command to love each other.

Not surprisingly, we Christians aren’t immune from relationship struggles and can find it difficult to love as a result of what we’ve come to know about each other. In response, we create distances and barriers around ourselves to protect ourselves from further pain. Sometimes we’ll seek to punish fellow Christians because they didn’t meet our standards. Some will even remove themselves from the fellowship of God’s holy community and excuse themselves from loving his people. They may even deceive themselves into thinking their unloving actions are ok with God.

But we hear in our text today: ‘If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love the people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see’? (1 John 1:20)

Therefore, if we judge and criticise and try to stay away from our fellow believers, then we’re not being consistent or true to our confessions of love for our Triune God. How can you love Jesus the Groom and not love his Bride, the Church? God has married us together through faith in Jesus Christ. No-one should separate what God has joined together!

So, we have a problem. I believe it would be a lie to say anyone here has never had a problem loving others. Many of us have been hurt by others and it’s logical and completely understandable to want to protect ourselves from further hurt. However, this doesn’t excuse us from obeying God’s command to love each other.

So that we may understand what type of love St John is talking about, it helps to know the root word for ‘love’ used 27 times in this text is agapé. This specific word for ‘love’ describes a warm regard for, and interest in, another. This type of love is different to the love which describes friendship, lust or affection. It’s a love which gives and is willing to keep on giving, even when this giving involves risk, possible rejection, and pain.

C. S. Lewis, in his book titled ‘The Four Loves’ calls this type of love ‘Charity’ or ‘Gift-love’. He says: “Divine Gift-love in the man enables him to love what is not naturally lovable; lepers, criminals, enemies, morons, the sulky, the superior and the sneering” (‘The Four Loves’, Fontana Books, 1960, p117).

The reason we often struggle to love this way is because our selfish forms of love is usually dependent on others. Our love is usually a ‘pay-back’ kind of love. This means, if someone’s loving toward us, it’s very easy to respond in the same way. But if someone hurts us, then we figure we’re justified to withdraw our love and replace it with criticism, grudge-holding and payback.

In other words, our love is often a love which keeps ledgers. When everyone keeps ledgers of love and payback, it’s no wonder relationships within marriages, families, and churches break down.

But in the church (and therefore especially within Christian families), we’re to love each other without keeping ledgers because this Divine Gift-love never keeps ledgers; it simply gives and keeps on giving.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this kind of love doesn’t come naturally. This kind of love has only one source. As verses 10-11 say: ‘This is real love – not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other’. (1 John 4:10-11)

Understanding that we struggle to love someone this way once we know their grumpy, irritable, selfish, greedy, proud, and lazy sides (just to name some of their characteristics), we need to go back to the source of this Divine Gift-love so that we can love as God commands us to.

In this case, we learn God showed his love for us in such a way that, even though he knows us and all our grumpy, irritable, selfish, greedy, proud and lazy sides so intimately and completely (along with all our other faults and failures), he still chose to love us anyway!

God knows every dark secret you keep from others. He knows every secret sin you’ve attempted to hide. He knows what you’ve done and what you’ve left undone. He knows the motivations of your heart. He knows how you hurt others. He also knows when you’ve been hurt by others. He knows who you’re struggling to love or forgive.

And guess what?

Despite how sinful and unworthy you are, despite what he truly knows about you, and despite your struggles to love others (including him), he still loves you so much he sent his only beloved faithful and obedient Son to die on the cruel and bloody cross in order to forgive you and make you holy.

God’s love for you isn’t dependent on you loving him because you can’t love him enough. God’s love for you isn’t dependent on you loving others either. God loves you anyway and there’s nothing you can do to stop this!

But get this; the more you know and understand the love which comes from God, and the more you rejoice as you receive this unconditional love, the more willing and able you’ll be to love the same way toward others, because this kind of sacrificial and undeserving love can only come from him.

By concentrating on other people’s love (or lack of love), or even by concentrating on your own love (or lack of it), of course you’ll find excuses not to love. They’re not worthy of your love and you’re not as loving as you think you are. But by looking to, and trusting, God’s Divine Gift-love for you that he generously and mercifully gives you through faith in Jesus Christ, then you’ll learn to love his way.

To use an analogy, imagine a teacher putting a carnation into a glass of ink. After a while, the petals on that flower will match the colour of the ink. It can’t help it. It produces what it’s dwelling in. It’s similar with us.

Love which is only centred on fear, or pain, or pay-back, or hate, won’t result in truly loving actions, because it will only produce what it’s dwelling on.

But love founded on, relying on, and dwelling on, the undeserving Gift-love from God, will naturally result in us producing the same kind of love toward fellow Christians, no matter how hard others find it to love them. When we believe and trust God’s unconditional love for you and me, then we’ll produce the same love toward others.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, ‘let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. After all, if God so loved us, then we also ought to love one another.’ (1 John 4:7, 11)

In this way, may the peace and love of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.