The Second Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| June 5, 2005| 1 John 3:13-18
Do not marvel, my brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.
Faith, hope, and love endure. Love is greater than faith or hope because love lasts forever while faith and hope will give way to sight on the last day. We sing in the words of the Christmas hymn, “Of the Father’s love begotten, e’er the worlds began to be.” The eternal Son was begotten in love of the eternal Father in eternity. The Father loved the Son before there was a world, before there was a single human being to inhabit the world, before there was a man or a woman for God to love. Before time began there was love. There never was a time when the Father did not love His only begotten Son. God is love. Our communion with God is communion in love.
To know love is to know God. To know God is to know love. But what is love? St. John tells us that we know we have passed from death to life because we love our Christian brothers and sisters. But he doesn’t tell us that we know what love is by looking at our love, whether for God or for one another. No, if we want to know what love is we must look to Christ. John writes, “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us.” That’s how we know love. We know love only in knowing Christ crucified for us. You can’t find this love anywhere else and you can’t produce it apart from communion with God through faith in Jesus.
Years ago when I was in high school a girl in my class came to me one day to complain about our pastor because while he had agreed to let the kids have a so called “Youth Service” he had vetoed a song she really wanted to sing. I think it was the number one pop song at the time, sung by a group called the Youngbloods. She thought he was being very closed minded because the song was about love and aren’t Christians in favor of love? What could be wrong with singing about love? Here’s the refrain of that song. Perhaps you are familiar with it:
Come on people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try and love one another right now.
Try and love. But that’s the whole problem. We try. And we fail. But we don’t like admitting our failure. So we blame the one we refuse to love. We find in him some fault that makes him unlovable. In this way we excuse our hatred. But we don’t call it hatred. We call it something else. We define hatred in terms that apply to others so that we won’t have to face the fact that deep within our hearts is an evil that we cannot overcome. It is a hatred that spawns death. “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”
The sad fact of human existence is that we’re not all brothers and sisters as the writers of songs imagine us to be. The world is not a family. We are separated by hatred and that hatred brings death, not life. The only way we can become brothers and sisters is by passing out of death into life. This can only happen when our hatred is swallowed up in love. When He who was begotten of the Father’s love from eternity and became our flesh and blood brother in time was nailed to the cross, it was then that love confronted hatred in the battle of the ages. Love defeated hatred. Love did not give way to hatred.
When Jesus laid down His life for us He bore our sin. He bore our hatred. He bore the hatred of the whole world. I cannot understand it, but I know it is true because the Bible says so. St. Paul says that He was made to be sin. But that was not by committing a sin for He never did that. It was by having sin reckoned or imputed to Him. In that imputation of sin He who was love begotten and love incarnate overcame all hatred. He overcame it by love. He loved when all the hatred of the world was laid upon Him.
What a battle this was! The purest of pure love that could not give way to hatred nevertheless suffered every effect of pain and guilt and judgment and punishment that hatred brings. In His laying down His life for us all Jesus destroyed the power of hatred with the power of His own pure and eternal love.
This is the love in which we trust. This is the love that overcomes the world. This is not only the motive and the power for our love; it is the very love with which we love one another. That is to say, when we love one another as Christians we are simply saying “Amen” to the love that God has for each one of us. We are agreeing with Jesus. We are saying “yes” to His laying down His life for our brothers and sisters. That’s what love is. It is not a human thing. It is divine. It is from God. It is from God to us. And it is from God through us to one another. It is eternal but we can’t leap up out of our time and space to catch it, as if it is floating up in heaven somewhere and we must find our way to it. It comes to us here and now where we live whenever God speaks His gospel to us. The gospel is always the word of God forgiving us our sins, setting us free from guilt, bringing peace to us, and rescuing us from death and punishment all for the sake of Jesus laying down His life for us all. This is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to suffer on the cross to take away our sins and set aside His judgment against us.
So don’t talk about love as if it originates in the efforts of humanity. Love is of God and He who loves is born of God.
We ought not to be surprised if the world hates us. The world loves its own. Christians are those who, in looking within themselves, see nothing but sin and death. Christians are those who have found in Christ alone the love to replace hatred. And so, Christians do not respect the religiosity of this world. If the love of which we are capable were sufficient then Jesus died for no purpose. If human efforts could prevail then Jesus has done no more than to provide us with a moral example. But if every form of love that has its origin within the human heart is inadequate to bring us true and lasting life, why then every human effort to overcome hatred must fail.
The unbelieving world does not want to admit this. This is why people reject the Christian gospel and its doctrine of love. They want to believe in their own love and they don’t want to admit that their love fails. Songs will be sung about it and dreams will be dreamed, but the human race will never learn how to do what the Youngbloods so plaintively urged us all to do. The final verse of that popular song went like this:
If you hear the song I sing
You will understand (listen!)
You hold the key to love and fear
All in your trembling hand
Just one key unlocks them both
It’s there at you command
But it’s not there at your command. No, the key to love is in Christ laying down His life for us. It’s not there at our command. It’s there in Christ’s blood. It doesn’t originate in the human heart as it tries to love. It originates in our Father’s heart as He does what love requires for us all.
A sentimental and humanistic notion of love often parades itself as being Christian, deceiving Christians. In one of Ibsen’s plays the main character is an uncompromising pastor by the name of Brand whose wife chided him one day for his failure to love. To which he replied:
Of what the paltering world calls love,
I will not know, I cannot speak;
I know but His who reigns above,
And His is neither mild nor weak;
Hard even unto death is this,
And smiting with its awful kiss.
What was the answer of God’s love
Of old, when in the olive-grove
In anguish-sweat His own Son lay;
And prayed, O, Take this cup away?
Did God take from him then the cup?
No, child; His Son must drink it up!
God’s love for us is not mild or weak. And neither is the love God expresses through us to one another. If a brother or sister in Christ needs what we can give we give because this is what love requires. This isn’t simply a matter of giving to charity. That’s just an obvious example. It’s a matter of doing whatever it is that love requires at the moment that love requires it. Love doesn’t need a rulebook. It needs only an opportunity. But what does it do? What do the Commandments say? Love honors father and mother. Love respects human life and helps those in physical need. Love honors the marriage vow and avoids sexual sins. Love respects private property. Love protects the reputation of others. Love is content with what God provides, not seeking to take advantage of others in getting more. Love does whatever is to the benefit of others without asking for anything in return. Love keeps no record of wrongs. Love forgives even when the one who has sinned repeats the sin again and again. Love lays down its life for the brothers and the sisters. Love never fails.
But you fail. I fail. Every single Christian in this world fails. We fail every day. And when hatred bubbles up within us and the accuser and slanderer of God’s children would convince us that God’s love for us has been exhausted by our repeated failures, our God silences the devil’s lies with the gospel. That gospel reveals to our penitent hearts the unfailing love of Christ who laid down His life for us. That holy death, wherein love conquered hate once and for all, remains the source of God’s forgiveness of all our sins. Christ invites us to His supper, and we come as we are. He feeds us with His grace. He forgives us all our sin, cleanses our guilty conscience, and delivers us from the devil’s power. This is what His love does and will continue to do for us all the days of our lives. We know this is true because Jesus laid down His life for us. And that, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is the source and strength of every act of love we will ever do.