Family therapist and author, Frank Pittman, posed the following question to a group of 4 to 8-year olds: “Love is what makes you smile when you’re tired.” “Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.” “Love is when you tell a guy you like his shirt, then he wears it everyday.” “You really shouldn’t say ‘I love you’ unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget.”
If there is a more slippery word in the English language, I don’t know what it is. Lots of stuff people do in the name of love is not love. In fact, I think we have done to love like we’ve done to bacon, or rather bacon bits. Looks like bacon, smells and tastes mostly like bacon, but do you know what they are? Vegetable protein, artificial flavors and colors—not bacon.
Love is used for “things” that are related to each other but are bit different.
There is love that is really just a strong preference for something or somewhere, as in “I love a new car smell,” “I love New York.” “Don’t you just love Denise’s new home?” Then there’s the ubiquitous red heart: “I heart sailing,” “I heart Florida,” “I heart pasta.” But this is really not love; it’s a preference.
Another close relation to love is when we love someone if they love us, as in if they do nice things for us. And this can include people we’re very close to. Now I’m not saying we don’t love them but love isn’t what is occurring at the time when we’re demanding/expecting a transaction or a quid pro quo.
A good test of this is if you give a gift or go out of your way to serve someone, and then they don’t show appreciation. Give your spouse or partner a fantastic neck or back rub and expect nothing in return. Then if you’re shown little appreciation or thanks, check how you’re feeling right then. If you’re angry or resentful, that’s not love. That’s expectation.
Another favorite cousin is the euphoria of love. This is pop culture’s favorite foil for the real thing. Movies, songs, advertisements all romanticize and emotionalize love as the falling in love, the love at first sight. This is love as a feeling, a high, an adrenaline rush, a hormonal high tide pumping through the brain and body system. This love is often a lot closer to lust than it is to love. But like many things in life, the good Lord is able to work with what is and make it into what it’s supposed to be.
So what is love? One woman who had been married twenty years and had six children said this way: “Love is what you have been through with somebody.” This is exactly right because if love is anything, it’s about the whole package: for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.
When it’s all said and done, love is the miracle that gives meaning to our lives.
In our reading love comes to the forefront. The word love dominates 1 John 4:7-5:3. It will show up 32 times in this section alone and 43 in the entire letter. John begins 4:7 as he began 4:1, “Beloved” (agapetoi), or “dear friends.” It is both a term of tenderness and transition to a new subject. The new subject is love. John’s overall discussion has a double peak in 4:8 and 16 when he declares twice, “God is love.”
In a real sense John is the expert on love. Paul is the apostle of faith. James is the apostle of works. Peter is the apostle of hope, but John is the apostle of love.
In our reading John insists that love is the very nature of God, the very being of God. God is both love as a verb and as a noun, perfectly united, action and essence.
But John doesn’t just leave it at this. You see, John doesn’t really care about making a theological statement. He informs us in order to transform us.
That’s why the statement, God is love, isn’t a statement as much as it is an equation. And it goes like this: Because God is love and because we are from God, then we are to be loving. Or because God is love and God loved us then we who want to be like God are to love. Or since God is love and God loved us we are only as real and a part of God as we are what God is and do what God does.
But the truth is we see many damaged and broken lives. And so, it’s not a difficult leap to go from what we see and know is true to asking how we Christians can claim God is love. If there’s so little of this, how come the Bible says this is what God is? I guess the shortest answer would be, we’re often a long way from home.
Fred Craddock is a great preacher and a great story-teller. One of his stories took place on a trip in which he and his wife went back to their native Tennessee. They drove up to a small restaurant in Gatlinburg, tired and hungry.
As they sat down and settled in, Fred looked up from the menu and saw
a gray-headed older man going from table to table speaking to customers. Fred turned to his wife and with fatigue said, “Oh, I hope he doesn’t come to our table.”
But, lo and behold, he came and stood by their table. He said, “What do you do?” “I teach homiletics. I teach people how to preach.” “That’s good,” said the stranger, “I have a preacher’s story for you,” and he pulled up a chair and sat down.
“I was born not far from here, just over the mountain. My mother had never been married, and the shame that fell on her also fell on me. When I went to school they called me such horrible names that I would take my lunch and go out onto the playground and eat alone. But the worst was on Saturdays when I would have to go into town. I could hear people whispering behind my back, ‘Who do you think his father is? Honestly, who’s his father?’
I didn’t go to church because we didn’t feel we were good enough. Then, when I was 14 years old, a minister came to speak at a school assembly. He moved my heart. I decided to go and hear him preach in his church. I would go in and then leave immediately after the sermon was over. I didn’t stay around because I didn’t want them to say to me, ‘What’s a boy like you doing in church?’ I dreaded rejection more than anything else.
One Sunday after worship, I didn’t get out of the pew fast enough. When I got to the door, people were blocking my way, so I had to stand in line. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder, and I turned around, and there was the preacher. His eyes were looking right into mine as he asked loud enough for others to hear, ‘Who are you, son? Whose boy are you.’ I couldn’t say anything and it seemed like an eternity of me looking down.
But then the preacher with his hand still on my shoulder said, ‘That’s all right, son. Don’t answer. But I see a family resemblance in you. Yes, I do. You are a child of God. You’re God’s child! Go claim that heritage for all you’re worth. Go out, boy, in pride.’
Those words, “You are God’s child,’ were the most transforming words I’d ever heard. They changed my life forever.”
There isn’t enough love in the world because we’re not very good messengers of it often enough.
Loving others isn’t easy but that’s mostly because we get confused about liking someone vs. loving someone. C.S. Lewis said, “Thank God he did not command me to like everybody.” I may find my neighbor, a
colleague, a stranger or a family member distinctly unlikeable, but even if I feel this way, I can still care for him or her as a fellow human being.
Does that sound banal or ineffective? Does it sound unimportant, as if there is something more significant you are to be doing in your Christian walk with the Lord?
Let me put it this way: How often have we ourselves made a mistake, done the wrong thing, said the wrong thing, jumped to a conclusion about someone, brought a negative perspective from somewhere else to another person and then unloaded that on them.
I mean, how often are we the one who is unlikable, the one who should by our own way of doing things be judged by these actions, words, even thoughts? And don’t we beg for a reprieve! Mustn’t we rely on someone not reducing our whole worth and value to that one statement, to that one moment, to that one act. Don’t we ask not to be dismissed so easily? Don’t we hope for reconciliation with someone we offended or harmed?
It’s easy for us to see how we shouldn’t be judged by some one thing said or done. But I guess that’s because we’re lovable. We’re worth more than a moment or two or ten or a hundred that show that we’re actually merely human. What we turn to in those times is John’s whole theme: God is love and we’re God’s own. The point is simply this: What we are so quick to claim for ourselves, shouldn’t that be claimed for others—in our hearts, in our view of them?
Stop being so nit-picky. Build up some love muscles. Get to work on digging into your soul so that it gets big enough to handle discomfort, disagreement. Get on a mission in your life to be a real follower of Christ, a real lover of God’s creation, God’s children, even when, especially when it isn’t so pretty or easy.
John also does something more than turn God statements into God and human equations. He tells us God has made this love come alive, that is, come to be seen. This love of God manifested among us has a beginning and an end, you might say, a place of arrival and departure. It’s in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I know this isn’t a very popular opinion for a lot of people these days. They see things differently. If God is love, they say in agreement with us, then we don’t need to look at one person or at one instance of it. If God is love, then it’s all around us, or within us. Who needs Christ?
Of course it’s easier to say that or think that afterward, after all so much
time has passed and teaching on this matter has occurred, the effect of which has settled into our minds to the point we don’t even recognize it. People don’t take a historical view and ask themselves what would have the world been like if there had been no Christ and no Christian faith. (Not that its teaching haven’t been severely distorted and put to the test by the actions over the centuries of those who profess to be Christians.)
But what we take for granted now can only be taken for granted because of Christian faith, faith that was born from Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Without Jesus Christ, “God is love” isn’t seen or revealed.
You know, it’s easy to graduate from fifth grade with what your teacher taught you, walk out the door, move on to middle school, and so on, and never look back, never think of how much your teacher’s gift meant to you, that is, what it did for you and to you. As the saying goes, it’s easy to bite the hand that feeds you, not that I really mean to be too tough on folks.
The love of God in Christ is the religious and spiritual air we breathe, It’s the basis for so many of the beliefs we have; it’s the possibility of the forgiveness we seek, the never-ending hope we hold on to. It’s the light that shows us where the path back home is. It’s in the call and the whisper and the kindness and the mercy that hovers above us and blows from behind us and tugs us forward and lifts us from beneath.
Today is a good day to love the Lord—as is each and every day. Give thanks for God’s gift in Jesus Christ. Don’t give the most precious gift you have away. Hold on to Christ in faith, in worship, in service, and most importantly by loving others as God first loved us.