1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8
We are digging down into the multiple layers of what the resurrection means for us, and how these layers point us forward to life in the Spirit, which we celebrate at Pentecost. Last week, we dug into the first layer: we are in the first place freed for feasting, for enjoying creation. Christ’s resurrection assures us of forgiveness of sins, freeing us from anxiety about not only our past mistakes, but the infinite call of duty upon us, all the things we become aware of that we could be doing—and nothing brings that home like the enormous scope of our environmental problems. The first meaning of resurrection, then, is recognizable as freedom, the freedom to enjoy the goods made available to us, without self-deception or guilt, by the grace of creation.
But today we go another layer deeper into the good news of the Resurrection: abiding in love. And this next layer is also freedom, but calling it that might confuse us. Because especially we Americans think freedom is purely an individual thing. I am freed from all my responsibilities, all the expectations laid on me, all the roles I have to play; free to be me, to do my own thing. One of our favorite images for freedom, often seen in moves, is zooming down an open stretch of highway, all alone, no cops in sight. And that can be a genuine good of our created being.
But let’s consider the greatest joy I’ve ever known: being a parent. I entered into this freely, I suppose, although it doesn’t always work out that way—and I bet some of you know what I’m talking about. But more than a free choice, becoming a parent grew out of my love for Jessica, and that’s how it should be (again, doesn’t always work out that way). So becoming a father wasn’t at the start really about my individual freedom; I didn’t do it for me. And now that I’m a father, I’m not free to stop being one. Some fathers have tried to stop being fathers; it never works. You just become a lousy father. But the un-freedom of parenthood is bound up closely with the joy of parenthood. My life is now indelibly bound with this other life, and it always will be. I live no longer for myself; I live for another. And in his way, he lives for me, though that mutual love always comes to me like an unexpected bonus (like every time I get an “I love you, Daddy” card). / Parenthood teaches us that the very best joys of life are never had by me doing my own thing. I’ll take being a father or husband over the freedom to go skiing or skydiving or roaring down the highway (on my dinky scooter), any day. Or, putting it differently, real freedom is found only in love. Real freedom is to be freed from loneliness, and to be united with another, with someone beyond yourself. Ultimately, of course, real freedom is found in loving union with God and with all things in God.
But today we’re focusing on abiding in love with one another. We get the message loud and clear from the First Letter of John: Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” And later: “God is love, and those who abide [or remain] in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” This is the strongest and clearest connection made in the whole Bible between the very nature of God as love and what we do as a loving community. We the church, when we are true, have the same essence as God does: love. John’s not saying just that God feels love, but God is love. God’s very being is love. God is not like some Grampa in the sky who is a big softie, spoiling us with goodies and neglecting to correct us. Our triune God’s very life is revealed to be like a loving relationship and mutual giving between the Father or Mother, the source of all, and the loving and obedient child, best displayed in Jesus the Christ, and the loving effects of that mutual giving on the circle of witnesses and followers which includes us—that’s the Spirit. These are three forms of love: the source of love from deep within and beyond all things; the perfection by which Christ displays and mirrors that love from within creation; and the inspiration and growth of love within Godly community. God is all of that; God is love.
God is in the love we share as a community. Really. When you say the word “God,” just throw out that image of the old man in the sky. Throw out the idea of the Wizard of Oz behind the scene of your life, pulling strings. Instead, look around you. God is not only here in this room. But if there’s love in this room, God is in this room. Consider what is perhaps the key sentence, one easily overlooked: “As he is [as God is], so we are in this world.” By our love for one another, we are God’s existence in the world.
That much is clear, although still very mysterious and hard to grasp. It is simple, but we keep wanting to stick God up there in some beyond, or sometimes in me, secluded in my private heart. Even if we grasp what John is saying, we have an even harder time really living up to the love that God is, right here among us. And in an odd way, John’s letter mirrors the evasiveness of this simple truth, that God is love abiding in us, and mirrors our confusion about it. That at least is my attempt to put a positive spin on the fact that I find John’s writing baffling and a little annoying. Every sentence reads like a gnomic utterance, something a robed wise one might say from the top of a mountain. And then another, and another. And the gnomic utterances pile up and seem to jut into each other, leaving you to say, “Wha?” We’d much prefer something like: “Ten (or better, five) easy steps to being a more loving you.” Instead, each of John’s sentences starts from a different beginning; there’s nothing step-by-step about it. He says all of this: You know God by loving. You only know God because God loved us. You only know God (and thus know love) because of Christ Jesus. God only sent Jesus because God loved us. God only lives in us because of the Spirit. God only lives in us because we testify that Jesus is God’s son. Which is it?
Maybe it’s all of them. Maybe John is trying to blow our minds with all the multiple dimensions of the love we have in community. It does seem to make sense for him, because after the jumble of sentences, he comes back to the simple and lucid truth of it in verse 16: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them,”—in us plural, notice, not in us individually. I think John is brilliantly grasping the profound truth of the Trinity. So whether we are talking about God above, or Jesus Christ revealed in the fullness of time 2000 years ago, or the Spirit which is the power of God among us today, or even if we are talking about us as a loving community—all of this is God, and it all goes together. And if you try to remove any of the pieces, the fullness of the whole thing is lost. You don’t have the God who is love without Jesus Christ; you don’t have God’s love in Christ without the Spirit reaching out to us; but even if you know all about Jesus and the Spirit, you don’t really have or understand the God of love if your community is not practicing love.
It might not boil down to “The five easy steps,” but there is a right order to this Trinitarian display of love. It begins with a proclamation about God first loving us; indeed, John says that: “We love because God first loved us.” God loved first, God chose to be love, we might say. Second, but equal with God’s first loving, Jesus Christ revealed that love long before we were born. This is the message of Easter, when we simply proclaim what God has done.
And indeed, John even seems to say that wherever there is love, there is God. Knowing that the same Jesus who showed us love is one with the creator, we can even proclaim that God is everywhere that love is found. And this would hold for people of other religions, or of no religion. It is not false to say, anyone who loves knows God. (But to be sure, John wants to affirm that the fullness of knowing God as love is to be found in knowing Jesus.)
The order continues: from God’s love first and above us, to Christ’s love beside us but before us, to the love presently found among us. But we can’t proclaim ourselves, if we are honest. God is with us and in us but we are not God. So when it comes to us, what began as an Easter proclamation leads to a solemn charge: “We also ought to love one another.” And even warnings: “Whoever does not love, does not know God.” “Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Our Easter proclamation finds its completion in a Pentecost-directed summons: We must complete the love of God in ourselves. We are called to live up to John’s assertion: “Love has been perfected in us.” When we can affirm that, we shall also be full of God’s Spirit, and we shall have no fear.
We are not yet at Pentecost. We are not yet full of the Spirit. Yet I’m not going to dwell on our shortcomings; that belongs in Lent. Easter is the time to deepen our understanding of just what the resurrection means for us. Beyond receiving back the simple joy of being alive, the resurrection also redeems us, delivers us, saves us from bondage to ourselves and frees us for love. It brings us forgiveness of sins, yes, but also fills us with the tremendous opportunity and gift of a new way of life, life of under the reign of love that we would otherwise have no knowledge of. And this life of love is a mighty summons, not to cringe in fear or guilt, but to aspire to perfection. Perfection is possible, because perfect love casts out all fear, and for the reason that we can love because God first loved us.
How perfect is the love among us will be tested. Tested especially whenever we have crises in our community. There will be eruptions of chaos; breeches in the smooth sailing. Marriages will fail. Friendships will falter. Parents will fall short. Children will go astray. People will make mistakes. We will all at one time or another be found in a potentially embarrassing or shameful situation. And our character as a community of love will be revealed not by whether we share a friendly hello in the parking lot; not by our ability to make pleasant small talk at fellowship hour—though these are something like the regular heartbeat of loving one another. But our love will be proven in the moments of trial and how each of us responds to the chaos erupting in another’s life. When that happens, the only safe and loving response is: “I’m so sorry. What can I do to help?” The safe response is to say something directly to the person or people affected, reaffirming our indelible love for one another, just when that person is wondering, will that love still be there for me now? And beyond direct words of love, we should hold silence. As soon as we say to a third party, “Did you hear what happened to…,” we are in dangerous territory. We might say that out of love, out of concern, but information also becomes currency in the market called gossip. And I catch myself thinking, “Wait ‘til so and so hears about this one.” Believe me, Ginette and I are tempted to gossip about all of you in the office. But that’s not loving. That’s just giving ourselves a rush by divulging third-person secrets.
This church has done that, like just about any other community. And each little act of it seems relatively harmless: I’m just going to tell so and so. But as a result, there are people who no longer want to entrust the chaos of their lives to us for compassion and healing. There are those who no longer believe that God’s love can reliably be found among us, pure and true. And the loss of that trust means the difference between someone finding God’s own being here in our loving midst, and finding disappointment, the same old disappointing humanity that we encounter just about everywhere.
Thanks to Christ we have this tremendous gift, the gift of establishing a community of real love and absolute trust in one another. Where else are people even trying to do that? But as First John reminds us, this gift is also a momentous responsibility. We can lose the divine presence among us, every time we speak and act falsely in a time of each other’s need. We can dispel the Spirit of God, the love of God in us, with a mere thoughtless word. There are times in the church when everything, God’s own being, is riding on the smallest word.
The life we share in Christian community is no free ride, knowing God will forgive us anyway. But neither do I mean to say that we should be paralyzed with guilty and fearful consciences; perfect love drives out fear. Life in Christian community is neither easier nor harder than ordinary life, it’s just way more intense: the goods are higher, the bads are lower, because we are living in the presence of the eternal and perfect God. Let us honor this life, not in fear but in joy, celebrating the many times that we have brought the love of God to each other with just the right word, gesture, or feeling, and anticipating that at any or maybe every moment, that opportunity will present itself to us again. And when you hear that temptation poking you, saying: “Ooh! Can’t you hardly wait to tell so and so about this?” Say “Be gone, Satan! I’m going to let love and compassion and mercy and justice rule in my heart and my word and my deed, to the glory of Christ and the Holy Spirit in us.”