Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
1 John 4:7-12 God Is Love
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
First, I have a few questions: if someone says they love you and then takes your favorite shirt without asking, are they behaving in a loving way? If someone says they love you and then pinches your arm really hard, are they behaving in a loving way? If someone says they love you, and then puts peanuts in your food, even though you are allergic, are they behaving in a loving way? If someone says they love you, and then makes it illegal to talk about your family at your job, are they behaving in a loving way?
We’re not sure who wrote the letter that became known as 1 John. Scholar Pheme Perkins, in his introduction to this book, that a tradition developed that credited John the Evangelist as the author of the letter, though most scholars believe that it was actually written by a follower of the Evangelist’s teaching, rather than John himself. This author is writing to both offer instruction to other Christians but also to remind them of the core of the faith they to know through the Gospel of John: That Jesus offers creation a particular connection to God’s love and that the people who follow Jesus should live lives shaped by that love.
In preparing this sermon, I read part of a book called All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks. When hooks died in December, the world lost one of the most important theorists and practitioners of love in action in the last 40 years. In All About Love, hooks talks about how people both yearn for and struggle with love. In this book, written 20 years ago while also feeling like it could be written for this very moment, hooks wonders if we, as a society, might better be able to learn how to love if we actually all agreed about what love means. She suggests, first, that it is best to understand love not as a noun, a person, place, or thing that just is, but instead, to use love as a verb, that is, an action... something we do.
With this idea of love as an action in mind, she suggests a definition of love written by a psychiatrist named M. Scott Peck. Peck says that love is “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” According to hooks, Peck goes on to explain: “Love is as love does. Love is an act of will- namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.” hooks herself goes to describe the various elements that are a part of love: care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust. She also says that honest and open communication is part of the act of love.
You know those questions that I asked at the beginning of the sermon? I wanted to ask them because hooks argues that you can’t say you love someone and then turn around and harm them. Just because the word love is on your lips that doesn’t mean that you are being loving with your actions. If love is something you choose to do, your actions must reflect care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust. That doesn’t mean that we don’t sometimes hurt people we love. Because we all will hurt someone we love. But, if we are choosing to love them, we can choose to apologize and make amends because our love makes us accountable to them. On the other hand, if we keep saying we love someone and keep hurting them, then we aren’t really loving them.
The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus said this to his disciples: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The first letter of John carries this commandment forward, beyond the first disciples, through to the Christian community that followed about 70 years later. As it turns out, followers of Christ have disagreed for about 2000 years on how to do that best. Competing teachers shared different ideas about who Jesus was then and now. Disagreements about what to believe about Jesus and how to follow him threatened to split the community to whom this letter was addressed. When considering any theology or practice of the faith, the author of the letter holds up The New Commandment as the standard: You should have love for one another. You should make the choice to behave in loving ways to one another.
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” If you heard that alone, you might be tempted to understand love as simply a thing, a noun, a gift given. But, I don’t think the author of 1 John, or Jesus for that matter, intended it that way. Love is an action extended through Christ to creation. And, it is a behavior in which we may choose to participate. “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” God sent Jesus as an act of Love. Jesus offered healing and forgiveness as acts of love. If God acts in love this way towards us, we ought to also act towards each other lovingly. Or, as Dr. hooks might say, with care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment honesty, and trust. And, Dr. Gafney argues, our acts of love are part of God’s acts of love. In the version we heard this morning, it says that God’s love is perfected in us. Dr. Gafney argues that this word “perfected” is intended to convey wholeness or completion, not simply to say the love is made very good. God’s acts of love are made complete in our acts of love.
This week, I hope that you can spend some time with these ideas about love. Consider how you can act in love. Remember times that you have felt loved. Rev. Jayne Davis, whose work on spiritual practices we’ve been reading through this Lent, speaks of gratitude as a spiritual practice. Maybe each day this week, try to think of three ways you’ve been loved or offered love and say a prayer of thanksgiving for them. May you revel in these memories of love this week. And, may the inspire your loving actions in the days to come.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Wil Gafney, "Lent IV," A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 2000)
Pheme Perkins' introduction to The First Letter of John in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Jayne Davis: https://www.churchleadership.com/leading-ideas/7-spiritual-practices-for-the-new-year
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.