Living in God’s Love
The First Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| June 2, 2013| 1 John 4:16-21
And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love Him because He first loved us. If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also. 1 John 4:16-21
God knows what love is. That’s because God is love. The world talks about love. It boasts of its love. But God does what love requires. Love is not about feeling something. It is about doing something. God reveals true love. He reveals it on the cross where his Son suffered and died. A few verses before our text St. John writes, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10) True love is where God took away his judgment against us by judging his innocent Son in our place. Christ’s vicarious suffering and death took away the anger of God against sinners. That’s what propitiation means. That’s what love is all about. It is about God addressing our fear of punishment in the only way that works. He takes away any reason we would have of being afraid. As St. John points out, “Fear involves torment.” God’s love is perfected, that is, it meets its goal in us by casting out our fear of being punished for our sins.
But would a God of love – could a God of love – punish sinners for their sins? Many people argue that a loving God could not damn anyone to hell. They deny the anger of God. They insist that to teach an angry God is to deny a loving God. But if a loving God cannot punish sinners for their sins, then neither can he define what sin is, what love is, what hate is, and good is and what evil is. And so it is that the god made in the image of those who deny divine wrath cannot teach us anything about love. That we must figure out on our own. And that’s precisely what people do.
They decide what love is on the basis of their feelings. That would be fine if they felt only holy thoughts. But they don’t. They are not God. They are sinners. What they feel is good and right and holy and loving is anything else but. Their feelings reflect their sinful desires that cause hurt. Their notions of love are wrongheaded. They do harm, not good. But until they are willing to be taught by God they will go on judging right and wrong, good and bad, love and hate, by what they feel within. Oh, how blind this world is! How utterly blind to what is good!
God is love. Listen to him define love for us. Love is as love does. It isn’t primarily a feeling. It is doing. God summarizes for us what love does and does not do in the Ten Commandments. If you love God you will have no other gods besides him, you will not misuse his name, you will faithfully go to church, and listen to God’s word. That’s what you will do if you love God.
And if you love God, whom you have not seen, you will also love your brother and your sister that you see every day. If you claim to love God and don’t love your brother and your sister, you’re a liar. If you love your brother and your sister you will honor your parents, show them respect, and obey the rules the government establishes whether you agree with them or not. You won’t put yourself above human law as if you’re God’s gift to the world. If you love your brother and sister you will not hurt anyone by doing him bodily harm or by turning him away when he needs your help. If you love your brother and sister you will not engage in sexual intimacy with anyone but your own husband or wife. If you love your brother and sister you will respect the private property of others and not try to get it in any dishonest way. If you love your brother and sister you will speak kindly about them, putting the best construction on everything they say and so. If you love your brother and sister you will be satisfied with what you have and not covet what they have.
Love is as love does. God who is love is the one who tells us what love does. The Church teaches God’s word or she isn’t the Church. When she does, she is accused of hate. Consider God’s teaching about marriage. It is his teaching about love. Why does God condemn sexual intimacy between unmarried couples? Why does he condemn sexual intimacy between members of the same sex? These activities are contrary to love. They contradict love. The God who teaches us what love is has given his Church the duty to teach what love is. She must do so, and she must do so in love, even when the godless accuse her of hate. The godless don’t know what love is or what hate is. They don’t know because they are estranged from God. They ground their notions of love and hate in their own feelings instead of in God’s word. But we must listen to God’s word if we are to know what love requires and if we are to be faithful Christians.
God’s word requires not only that we do what loves demands; it also requires us to want, sincerely from our hearts, what it demands. The law requires a perfect heart. It is the lack of this perfect heart that makes us afraid of God and of his judgment. Indeed, this is why people invent their own version of love to replace God’s version of love as revealed in the Ten Commandments. They can tailor love to fit what they want even when what they want is sin. So they rail against those who defend God’s law while they indulge in sin that God’s law condemns and they do it all in the name of love.
We could resent them. Or we could try to curry their favor. After all, they appear to be on the rise while we traditional Christians appear to be on the decline. But we don’t need their love. We need God’s love. And it is living in God’s love that enables us to love them, yes, even those who are our enemies because they hate what we love and deny what we believe.
God is love. Those who live in God live in love. To live in God is to live by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us. Faith doesn’t do. It trusts in the doing of another. It trusts in the doing of Christ. Faith doesn’t do. It knows the love of God, not by loving, but by believing. Faith rests in God’s love. It is confident of God’s love. It sees sin within and sin without. It experiences hatred within and suffers hatred from without. But it knows that God, for Christ’s sake, forgives the hatred. Fear of punishment is removed. From removing our fear of punishment, God transforms fear from being afraid of God into loving God, and fearing him in reverence and devotion. God’s love does this. Our love does not do this. Our love does not propitiate God. It does not remove God’s anger against our sins. Our love is rather the fruit of our faith, the faith that knows that as God is, so are we in this world.
God is holy. So are we. God is righteous. So are we. For as God is, so are we. God has joined the human race and has loved – fully and perfectly. The humanity of the Lord Jesus is our humanity, for he took upon himself our human nature. And the obedience of our Lord Jesus is our obedience, because he took our place and lived the life of perfect love as our representative. We have Christ. Therefore, we are covered by the love of God. We live in the love we have received and we’re not afraid of Judgment Day. Christ has faced our judgment for us, and this doing of Jesus is ours. His perfect love casts out our fear of punishment. Since we aren’t living under judgment we can live. We can love.
Love does. The fruit of faith is love. From faith love is born. Faith does nothing but receive. Then love does what God commands. The law that condemned us cannot condemn us anymore because we are protected by God’s perfect love. So then we can do what the law requires and we can do it with joy and without resentment. We can love willingly and from the heart because we live in God’s love and that love fills us and transforms us.
When we Christians take our stand on God’s word and teach that what God says is good is good and what God says is bad is bad we do so out of love. And when we are accused of hate we respond in love. That’s what God did. He loved the world that hated him. He who is love did not permit hate to overcome his love. When Jesus faced the mockery, the cries of bloodlust screaming for his crucifixion, and the hatred of those he loved, he remained constant in his love for them, praying his Father to forgive them.
As he is, so are we in this world. Sometimes the Bible tells us to love our neighbor. Sometimes God tells us to love our brother. Sometimes he tells us to love our enemy. Sometimes the brother, the neighbor, and the enemy are the same person. The forgiveness we have received through faith and through faith alone is how we receive perfect love. In that perfect love we gain the power to love, even the most unlovable.
Talk is cheap. God’s talk is expensive. When he says he loves us he pays the price of love. When we live in his love, we are called upon to pay the price of love. This means placing what we feel and what we want underneath what benefits our neighbor. The rich man who ignored the suffering of Lazarus did not ignore his own desires. He fed them. He reveled in satisfying his own cravings. He lived for himself in service to himself. I doubt he had issues with self-esteem – why, he loved himself very much. But he did not love his brother. The reason he did not love him is because the love of God had not entered into his life. That is to say, he had no faith. He was an unbeliever.
God didn’t send the rich man to hell because he was rich. He sent him to hell because that’s where he belonged. Hell is where no love can ever enter. No cool water can quench the parched tongue, for selfishness has triumphed over love for the neighbor. Leave Lazarus outside the gate. Ignore him.
Have you ever wondered how the rich man felt about Lazarus? I think he felt sorry for him. I think he felt bad about his miserable condition. A beggar, unable to make a living, covered with sores, hungry and alone, helpless to help himself – why it is inconceivable that the rich man felt no pity for the poor man.
But love isn’t a feeling. Love is doing. The rich man ignored Lazarus and did nothing for him. He did not love him. He did not love him because he had not received love. We love God by loving our brother. We love because God loved us. The rich man did not love because he had not received love. You cannot give what you do not have. Only those who have received God’s love in Christ can love God or anyone else.
This is why we love the gospel so. The gospel is not a message about what we must do. It is a message about God’s love for us in Christ, a love that has covered all our sins and given us true and eternal life. We love the gospel because it sets our hearts at peace, takes away our fear, and makes us friends with God.
Faith and love go together. The one always has the other. And when our love fails; when we sin against the law of love; when our conscience is afraid because our sins against God and one another accuse us and call for God’s judgment; then we take refuge in God’s love for us. We don’t try to find our love in order to find God. We claim as God’s children, baptized in his name, the love that covers all our sins and defines us as saints. From that love, our fearful hearts are set at peace, and from that peace of God that passes all understanding we learn to love again. In love, in God’s love, we can love one another. Amen