A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church July 14, 2018
1 John 4:7-21
And all that we struggle with appears to also have been a challenge for John’s community. You know things aren’t going well when someone has to tell you, “beloved, let us love one another, because love comes from God”. When you’ve forgotten to love each other, and when you forget that God is love—what does that society look like?
Oh yeah, I guess we know.
I hate it when scripture is so darn relevant.
Maybe it’s comforting to know early Christians needed the same reminders we need. They need the reminder to love one another as God loved them.
The idea of God loving the world is present in the Hebrew bible long before Jesus showed up. Jesus isn’t the first clue that God so loved the world. Scripture is full of language and stories of God’s love for the world. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. God’s mercy never comes to an end, as Lamentations, ch 3, tells us.
The author of 1st John rephrases how we know God’s love:
God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.
God’s love was present from the beginning of the world, and also God moved closer, living among us, revealing divine love through the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This is a reminder that the incarnation is something that happens through messy, complicated, human interaction. We know God’s love perfectly in imperfect, messy, human relationship.
Love is always something that begins with God. God loves us so we can love others. 1st John doesn’t say “because God loved us, so we should love God”. It says “since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another”. The love of God, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, has to then be incarnate in us, directed toward other people.
It’s hard for us to love from far off. We have to “move into the neighborhood”, which is how one translator paraphrases the word “incarnation”.
It is good and right to give food and money and help for our neighbors in need. Money and food and hats and gloves will help people. But they won’t connect us, they won’t make God’s love perfect in us.
One thing I really want for us is to get to know our actual neighbors, to be in relationship with them. Volunteering at the food pantry, as some of you have done, is a good way to start those relationships. Having dinner with refugee families, as another house church did this past year, is a good way to start those relationships. Volunteering at Borah and Grace Jordan is another good way to start those relationships.
The PW are now collecting school supplies and back packs so they can help kids across our community start the school year with their own school supplies. On Monday, Aug 13, when they deliver those backpacks, how many of you can help? How would it transform what we do if those backpack deliveries turned into relationships with those schools?
I want to challenge us all to not stop with financial and other donations. How can those be the beginning and not the ending, of the way we incarnate God’s love?
This week I had the privilege of going to Interfaith Sanctuary, and leading a time of prayer and reflection for the staff and community of homeless people who use Interfaith, and Corpus Christi House, and Boise Rescue Mission. A colleague and I were called in because the man who stabbed the refugees had been staying in that community over the past month. And he helped carry in groceries, and was polite and friendly enough.
Until he stabbed those people.
How would we feel if that had happened in our home, our church?
If we had met and interacted with him, we would be shaken. Some would wonder if there was anything we could have done, or seen, or known to have prevented the attack from happening. Some of us would be more afraid to show up in community. All of those feelings seemed present for the staff and residents at the vigil too.
At the vigil, one man stood up and spoke about how we’re all made in the imago dei, the image of God. And how it is hard, but important, to remember each of us is made in the image of God when events like this happen. I was grateful for that witness and testimony at the vigil.
Timmy Kinner, or TK, as he’s known, is a man who was created in the image of God. And is a man who committed an evil act. TK disregarded the image of God in the people he attacked. And we run the risk of disregarding the image of God in TK because it is easier to see him as an evil entity, not human at all. He remains a child of God, created in the image of God.
As I was reflecting on my visit to Interfaith, I realized we have an imago dei problem in our world that is connected for our reluctance to move into the neighborhoods of people who seem to be “other”.
It’s too easy to forget someone else is made in the image of God.
It’s much harder to see God’s image in a person we don’t understand, or in a person who commits violent acts, or in a person we think is so different than we are.
1st John seems to take the biblical understanding of us being made in the image of God and struggles with it, explores it. We can see people, and say they are made in the image of God, but then not understand how they could kill people, or exact cruelty on children and families. There are things that do not reflect God’s love to the world. The image of God is not visible in evil acts, cruel policies, hateful language.
For the author of 1st John, the image of God is love. We are all created in the image of God, as scripture tells us. But the way we are able to reflect that image is in relationships of love. He writes:
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this…”
Perfection is not one of my favorite words. I’ve seen it lead too many people to self loathing and an unearned sense of failure because they can’t reach some arbitrary metric of whatever “perfect” might be. The word in Greek here is the word ‘telos’, which means “complete”, as in something that is finished, or at the end, or completion, or fulfillment.
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been fulfilled among us in this…”
God’s love is fulfilled when we love one another.
The idea of God’s work being fulfilled or completed is not unique to 1st John. The Gospel of John uses the word often. In English, it is translated into lots of words, so it’s hard to see how prevalent it is. Completed. Fulfilled. Finished. Perfect—are all ways it’s translated.
As Jesus is on the cross, a victim of a senseless tragedy at the hands of an unjust government, right before he dies, he says, “It is finished”. How different would it sound if translators had instead written, “It is perfected”? In the crucifixion, in the worst of our human imperfection, God’s love is perfected, completed, and finished. Jesus perfected God’s love, and showed us what the image of God looks like, all while refusing to deny the image of God in his executioners.
Here’s how 1st John picks up on Jesus’ words from the cross:
In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent the Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.
As messy and complicated as it is to move close enough to people to love them, the Good News reminds us it is actually quite simple. If we love people, we love God. If we hate our brothers and sisters, we don’t. How do we want to live? How do we want to love?
It’s all that easy, and it’s all that hard.