Love Perfected in Us
Love is Perfected in Us
1 St. John 4:7-21
Last Sunday we began the Trinity Season by affirming the importance of our belief in the Holy Trinity—not just as an abstract set of sometimes hard to understand doctrinal propositions, but ultimately in the Holy Trinity as a person—or, more specifically as three persons united, one God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Last Sunday’s Gospel, the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night and Jesus telling him that he needed to be born again of water and the Spirit—that Gospel showed us the three persons of the Trinity in action, together offering forgiveness and renewal: the Father electing and sending; the Son coming, dying, and rising again; and the Holy Spirit renewing, regenerating, and uniting us with Jesus.
And now this week our Epistle from the First John begins with words that are, if we really let them sink in, are utterly challenging and overwhelming: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). Alongside the Epistle the Church gives us the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in our Gospel. It was a parable spoken to Pharisees who had convinced themselves that certain types of people, people who stood under God’s condemnation, were unworthy of being shown love. And we’re prone to thinking that that’s not us. We could never be like that. But all too often we are. The situations and the people are different, but our response is sometimes just as unloving. Think of the last time you felt burning anger and hatred against someone. Think of the last time you complained about someone and maybe it was your spouse or your child or a friend or the Spirit himself who reminded you to forgive and you struggled with that reminder. Maybe you even squashed it into silence. Think of the last time you watched the news or listened to a politician or a political pundit ranting about the evils of so and so or of this or that group of people and you found yourself responding with hate. Love is a challenge. Sometimes it seems just plain impossible. And yet John tells us that not only are we as Christians called to love, he goes so far as to say that those who don’t love don’t know God.
These verses fall right on the heels of what John says about false prophets. He warns: Lots of people claim the name of the Holy Spirit, but many of them are false prophets. John’s test is this: Do these people who claim to be followers of Jesus, do these people who claim to be united to him by the Spirit, do they confess that Jesus came in the flesh? Because if they don’t, they are not of God—whatever they may claim, they’re “anti-Christ”, they’re opposed to Jesus. And by asking if Jesus came in the flesh, what John is getting at is this whole story the Church has taken through over the first half of the year: Jesus as the divine Word incarnate in human flesh; Jesus innocent, but rejected, abused, and crucified; Jesus risen from the grave; Jesus vindicated by his Father and ascended to his throne—all for the sake of us sinners and the creation we’ve made such a mess of. There’s a reason we affirm that Jesus really did these things in the Creed. In the Creed we confess that Jesus has come in the flesh. Like the doctrine of the Trinity, we confess it with our mouths. But it’s more than an abstract set of doctrines to which we give our intellectual assent. In reciting these words we remind ourselves of the redeeming acts of God in history. And in them we recall God’s love for us. As we read in last Sunday’s Gospel: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Brothers and Sisters, Jesus reveals—especially, but not least, in his Incarnation and in his sacrificial death—that God is love. We may struggle with that. Some people get it backwards, turning love itself into a god. No. Love is not our god, but our God is love. And sometimes we struggle to wrap out minds around love itself. We struggle with the abusive parents or spouses who hurt us while saying they loved us and as a result the idea of love has been tainted in our minds. Or we think of the way our culture often speaks of love when what it’s really talking about is permissiveness and promiscuity—never speaking out against sin and evil, while affirming people in whatever they want to do like parents who refuse to discipline their kids and call it love.
But this is why we have to come back to Jesus. If we want to know what love is we look to him and we think back on what he’s done for us. John says in verses 9 and 10: “This is how God’s love was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world, so that we should live through him. Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the sacrifice that would atone for our sins.” In this we see God’s perfect goodness. We’re the “bad guys”, we’re the rebels, we’re the sinners whose love is tainted by our selfishness. We’re the ones who rejected the goodness of God. We’re the ones who rejected his love. (Remember, he didn’t have to create us. He chose to create us in order to shower his love on us.) He could have thrown in the towel and given up on us. He could have destroyed his creation and started over just as easily as he started in the beginning. But instead he shows his perfect and abundant love in giving himself as a sacrifice for our sins that we might be restored to his presence. That’s what real love looks like.
This is the heart of the Christian faith. The Trinity and the Incarnation aren’t just tests of doctrinal purity. They’re what Christianity is all about—that God reveals himself in Jesus the Messiah. Not only that, but in the death and resurrection of Jesus God reconciles sinners to himself. This is the love on which our faith is based and it’s the love that should be revealed in our lives as people of this faith. We can’t be people of Jesus without the love of Jesus being revealed through us.
But, again and as we all can attest, it’s not easy. I hope we all leave today wanting to go out to love and serve the Lord. He’s fed us at his Table today. We’ve heard his Word read and once again been reminded of his love for us and how that love was made manifest in Jesus and at the cross. But how long does it last when we get back to work on Monday and something goes wrong? How long does it last when your spouse or your kids push the button that sets you off? Maybe all it takes is the drive home from church and someone drives too slowly in front of you or cuts you off. Love isn’t easy. Even in the church it’s not easy. I was listening to a fellow pastor this week talk about the abuse he was taking from his church. I was listening to another person who left the Church because of the terrible way she’d been treated by Christians. It’s sad but true: sometimes we eat our own. But it shouldn’t be that way.
Brothers and Sisters, as often as we fail to show the love of Jesus in our lives we need to keep coming back to Jesus. We need to keep coming back to the one who, though he was in the form of God thought it not a thing to be exploited, but poured himself out, humbling himself and becoming one of us. We need to come back to Jesus, despised, rejected, abused, and crucified not for his sake, but for our sake. As often as we fail to live the love of God in our lives we need to come back to the story of redemption and remind ourselves of, think on, and meditate on the lengths to which God has gone to reconcile sinners to himself. The love of God in Jesus changed the world and God intends for it to keep changing the world as it wells up in our lives and manifests itself to the world—as we live it out.
John goes on in verse 11: “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” It’s easy to hear that as nothing more than “Jesus set an example, now go follow it.” Its’ true that he did and that we should. But that’s not what John is getting at. He goes deeper in verse 12: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
John says something very similar at the beginning of his Gospel. In John 1:18 he writes, “No one has ever seen God. It is only God the Son who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” What John’s saying there in his Gospel is that no one can truly know God apart from Jesus. In Jesus—in the humble act of his incarnation and in his offering of himself as a sacrifice for our sins—God goes from being abstract divinity or from being the “Big Guy upstairs” to being the Creator who seeks to be intimately known by his people and who loves us infinitely. Jesus reveals that. And what John says here in our Epistle is very similar. God’s love—the love he’s put into action in Jesus—is made complete in his people as they are forgiven and restored and as his Spirit makes them—makes us new. And so it’s through us that people come to know who God is. Jesus came and proclaimed that God’s kingdom was breaking into the world and he called men and women to repent and enter his kingdom by faith. Now, in us, the world sees that kingdom. Jesus calls us to proclaim his kingdom with our mouths and to call people to repentance and faith, but it’s in our lives—and our love for each other—that the world sees what Jesus has done. Just as God’s love is manifest in Jesus, who took our flesh upon himself, so, John says in 3:18, we are called to love, not so much in word or speech (although we should do that too!), but to love in truth and action, made manifest in our flesh and blood.
At the end of our lesson, in verse 21, John warns: “This is the commandment we have from him: Those who love God must also love their brothers and sisters.” John is talking specifically about loving our fellow Christians, but our love shouldn’t be restricted by the walls of the church. That was Israel’s problem and it’s what Jesus condemns in our Gospel today. But John’s point is that you can’t claim to love God while not loving others. If you say you love God but you hate your brother or your sisters, you’re a liar. It’s that simple. Granted, I don’t know anyone who’s learned to love with the perfection of Jesus, but we ought to be trying. We ought to feel remorse when we fail to love. We ought to recoil when we see hate in a brother or sister—and we ought to desire to bring correction. John writes, “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.” And the Holy Spirit changes hearts and minds. The Holy Spirit gives life to our dead wood and makes us bear fruit, the greatest of which is love.
Again, this is a challenge. Just think over the last week—or maybe just the last twenty-four hours—and I think we can all find some way in which we failed to be loving—probably more than one. I remember thinking about this when I was younger and it was new to me and I looked at my own life and I was afraid. I knew I wasn’t living up to the standard John describes and I worried that one day I’d be saying, “Lord, Lord” and Jesus would tell me to depart because he didn’t know me. But that’s not where John takes us. Instead, John tells us in verses 17 and 18 about the confidence we can have before God. “Love has been perfected in us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear. Fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”
The love of God manifested in the flesh and blood of Jesus is made complete in us as we in turn devote our flesh and blood to God’s love. And despite our struggles and our failures, we have no need to be afraid that we’re outside the redeeming grace of God. If the love of God has been completed or perfected in love this way in us it has only happened because we are in Christ. Imagine a circle. God loves us. He manifests his love by giving Jesus so that we can be forgiven and restored. We grab bold of Jesus in faith. He pours his Spirit into us and transforms us. We start bearing fruit and the love of God pours out of us to others and back to God. And the more we think and meditate on it all the more we’ll be driven to love. Brothers and Sisters, if you’re struggling to love, steep yourself in the Word and meditate on Jesus and the cross. If you’re struggling to love, come to the Table this morning and think on Jesus, the Son of God, giving his flesh and blood for your sake. If you’re struggling with a half-hearted commitment to love, if we’re struggling to take love seriously, consider and meditate on just how seriously God has taken his love for us. In love he gave his Son for us. In love he sent his Spirit to make us new. And if we will immerse ourselves in the love of God poured out on us in Jesus and the Spirit, the Father will surely perfect his love in us.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, in the Collect we acknowledged that in our mortal weakness we can do no good thing. It is by your grace that we are transformed. Remind us each day, we pray of the loving grace you have shown to us in giving Jesus, your Son, as a sacrifice for our sins. Remind us each day of the gift of the Spirit, whom you have poured into us and the gift of your Word that the Spirit has caused to be written—the witness to your mighty and saving deeds witnessed through the prophets and apostles and finally in Jesus. Immerse us in the means of grace you have given: in your Word, in your Sacraments, in the loving fellowship of your church where we find exhortation and discipline. Complete your love in us, we pray, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.