First Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| June 18, 2006| 1 John 4:16-21
There is the love of a mother and a father for their children. There is the love between a man and a woman. There is the love between brothers and sisters. Then there is God’s love. This is the source of our love for God. St. Paul sums up God’s entire law with the words, “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
This love is explained in the Ten Commandments. What does it mean to love God? It means to have no other gods. It means to use God’s name faithfully. It means to listen to what God says. What does it mean to love one another? It means to honor our parents and others in authority over us. It means to do no physical harm to anyone and to help those in need. It means to live chaste lives, reserving sexual intimacy for the marriage bed alone. It means to respect our neighbor’s property and to honor his good name. There should be no question about what love means. It means what God has always said it means.
And, of course, true love can be seen only at the cross. Just a few verses before the Epistle Lesson for this morning 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.” That is, he sent his Son to drink up the holy wrath of God against all sinners by becoming the sacrifice to take away the sin of the world. If we are to know what true love required of God, we must look to the suffering of Jesus. And if we are to know what true love requires of us, we must look to the Ten Commandments. Sad to say, so much of what passes for Christianity today looks in neither one of these places.
I ask you to consider with me three things we learn from these inspired words of St. John about true love:
First, true love comes from God. Second, true love is not afraid of God. Third, true love for God cannot be separated from true love for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
True love comes from God. As St. John puts it, “God is love, and he who abides love abides in God.” God and love are here identified. There cannot be the one without the other. So there can be no possibility of anyone loving anyone unless one is first loved by God. This is what the Apostle says: “We love Him because He first loved us.” What kind of love is he talking about?
He’s not talking about the love of popular religious imagination. The true display of divine love is revealed on Calvary’s cross. The love with which God loved us is a hard love, a strong love, a love that will be violent when it needs to be, and it needs to be. It is a painful love. It is a love that goes where sin goes and chases it down to destroy it so that it won’t destroy us. It’s a love that required Jesus to suffer and die on the cross, drinking to the bitter dregs the cup of God’s wrath against this sinful world.
The danger of modern theology is not just that it calls into question various details in the Bible or questions some of the supernatural claims of the Bible. The real danger is that it fights against blood theology. That is, it doesn’t like to talk about the suffering of Jesus for sinners. But there is no love from God apart from that suffering. We cannot know God, we cannot know love, we cannot have God, and we cannot be loved apart from the sacrifice of Jesus’ body and blood on the cross. This God knows, even if we forget, and this is why our dear Lord Jesus Christ instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood on the night before he was crucified for us. He wanted us always to know the love of God.
A famous Reformation Era sketch of Jesus suffering on the cross shows blood flowing out of his side with an angel catching his blood in a chalice. This depicts for us how the blood of Jesus that took away our sins on the cross is given to us in the Lord’s Supper. Jesus himself says, “Drink of it, all of you, this cup is the New Testament in my blood, shed for you for the remission of sins.” Through this precious sacrament, Jesus today gives us God’s love most literally. True love comes from God. This is how and where it comes.
Second, true love is not afraid of God. “Perfect love casts out fear.” So writes St. John. But this seems to contradict what the Bible says elsewhere, as for example in Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.” Are we to fear God or not?
There are two different kinds of fear, two different ways of fearing God. There is the fear of the one who does not know God’s love in Christ. This person is afraid that God will come to him. Then there is the fear of the one who knows God’s love in Christ. This person is afraid that God will leave him. Those who don’t know God’s love in Christ cannot stand the idea of a judgment day. It brings them fear because they don’t know how they will be able to stand before God the righteous judge. Judgment – the very idea that God will judge the world – makes them afraid. God’s love has not been made perfect in them. That is, God’s love had not yet met its goal in them, the word, perfect, meaning having reached its goal.
Those who know God’s love in Christ, on the other hand, have no fear of Judgment Day. In fact, as St. John says, such people are bold in the face of judgment. They have nothing to fear from God. Why? He says, “Because as He is, so are we in this world.” As Christ is, so are we. For we have Christ. He has borne our sins, so they cannot burden us. He has felt the terror of hell, so we won’t have to face it. He has brought us that love that casts out all fear. We are as he is. His righteousness is ours. His holiness is ours. His life is ours. We fear God as those who are afraid, not of God, but of offending him, of dishonoring his name, of despising his teaching. We fear God as sons and daughters, not as slaves. We fear God as only those who know his love can fear him. We fear God as those who cling to Jesus in simple faith, not as those who would run away from the God who stands ready to judge them.
Third, true love for God cannot be separated from true love for our brothers and sisters in Christ. St. John writes:
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.
There is a unity in love. True love is indivisible. We cannot divide our love for God from our love for one another anymore than we can divide the Father from the Son or the Son from the Holy Ghost. Just as God cannot be divided, neither can love be divided. It is vanity to think that we can love God without loving our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Elsewhere the Bible says to love our neighbor as ourselves. It tells us to love even our enemies. St. John speaks here specifically about loving our brother. A brother is a fellow Christian, one who has received the same love from the same God through the same gospel and sacraments. So we are one. We love God; we love our brother. What a precious gift it is when brotherly love prevails in the church! First we see our dire need for God’s love even though we don’t deserve it and indeed deserve God’s contempt. Then we see God’s love displayed in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross where he suffered God’s wrath against us and removed it forever. Then this love comes to us in the precious gospel and holy sacraments and casts out of our hearts that fear of God that would have us run away from him. Then, from receiving God’s love, we love one another in his name.
In recent years, another gospel has replaced the Christian gospel throughout large portions of the Church. It is the false gospel of self-esteem. It is another gospel that false under the condemnation given in Galatians 1:8, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.” This other gospel places self-love as the most important religious virtue. The teachers of this false gospel argue that we cannot love God or our brothers until we first learn to love ourselves. The reason people do bad things, according to this other gospel, is because they don’t love themselves enough. Self-love is the foundation for loving God and others, so they say.
But they don’t speak the truth. The truth is that love comes from God, not from us. The truth is that nowhere in all of the Scriptures does God tell me to love myself. Nowhere. Rather, he tells me to love my brother and my sister. It is in loving others that we find true value for our own lives, because it is in loving others whom we see every day that we learn how to love the God we cannot see. On Judgment Day, Jesus will commend the little acts of love that were done to the least of his brothers. He will accept them as having been done for him. The gospel of self-esteem teaches us to look inward to ourselves for the source of our true worth. That is a false source; rather, within us in the sin for which Jesus had to die. No, we look to Christ to find our true worth, for it is his holy, precious, blood and his innocent suffering and death that has been paid for us, and now we gain a new worth, a new value from the love of God in Christ. And this is what serves as the source of our love for one another.
Is love ever an option that may be ignored? Is it ever just a good idea, but not God’s permanent and irrevocable command? No. God is love. That’s what he is. He cannot not be love. And so it is with his children. We cannot but love. Whoever hates his brother denies what he is as a child of God. So we pray for the grace to love even the most unlovable, even in the most trying of circumstances, even when our love is not requited. We must love. As we come to receive God’s love in the Lord’s Supper, we receive with our mouths the very body and blood by which that love is given to us. We come forgiving our brothers and sisters whatever sins they have done against us, even as God in this holy meal out of his boundless love gives us full forgiveness of all our sins.