Our summer sermon series has centered on the topic of ‘Incarnational Living’. Pastor Brent Rood kicked off the series talking about what this sort of living means for the Christian. Phil Higley followed with a message from James on social compassion and that true religion is to look after the widow and the orphan.
What is the incarnation? Karl Barth writes in ‘Dogmatics in Outline’: “The nativity mystery ‘conceived from the Holy Spirit and born from the Virgin Mary’, means, that God became human, truly human out of his own grace. The miracle of the existence of Jesus , his ‘climbing down of God’ is: Holy Spirit and Virgin Mary! Here is a human being, the Virgin Mary, and as he comes from God, Jesus comes also from this human being. Born of the Virgin Mary means a human origin for God. Jesus Christ is not only truly God, he is human like every one of us. He is human without limitation. He is not only similar to us, he is like us.”
Therefore, ‘Incarnational Living’ for us Christians who want to imitate Jesus’ spirit of going and genuinely living among our neighbors showing social compassion, being a representative of the holy gospel and, what we are going to think about today, loving with no strings attached or unconditional love.
Please turn to 1 John 4:7-12.
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another . No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us.’
Background: The writer of 1 John was a part of a Johannine community that existed around the ancient city of Ephesus. There were two major camps at play within this early Christian community based on the teaching and witness of John. There were Jewish-Christians who had expressed a commitment to Jesus but also felt a loyalty to Judasim- to the Law. They may have felt it difficult to accept the Messiahship of Jesus. The second group were Hellenistic Christians who had emerged from a pagan religious background and were influenced by Hellenistic ideas of salvation or Gnosticism (an early rival of Biblical Christianity). This group would have found it hard to accept the full humanity of Jesus.
The gospel of John was written first and was the last gospel written. Then these letters of John were written. The theology contained in these Johannine gospel and epistle is heavily Christological as you have probably noticed as you have read through them.
This community of Christians took care of one another even while being massively persecuted. One will also notice the focus on having correct doctrine but also the importance of unity. John also persuasively addresses the vitalness of Jesus’ unity with God and with us and finally, the importance of righteousness and love in a believer’s life.
With doctrinal errors and persecution all around, one of John’s primary emphasis’s here is love.
Let’s look at our passage today verse by verse:
Verse 7 and 8: ‘Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.’
A straight forward command for believers in this community to love one another with unconditional love. John is saying that the demand for believers to love each other is grounded in the nature and character of who God is. God is the source of all unconditional love.
Verse 9: ‘In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into he world so that we might live through Him.’
God sent Jesus to die for our sins on the cross as an ultimate demonstration of His unfailing and unconditional love. Not only is that true but we can also live through Christ which perhaps indicates the simultaneous purpose of God sending Christ and also the result.
Verse 10: ‘In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.’
God initiates unconditional love while we were sinners and far from Him. He demonstrated His love by sending Jesus to be a propitiation meaning the wrath or judgment or justice that we deserved and that was coming for us, was diverted and placed upon Jesus on the cross.
Verse 11: ‘Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.’
Again, John communicates that the source of love is God. God is also our inspiration to love and also our empowerment.
Verse 12: ‘No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us.’
We obviously have not physically seen God but when we love- unconditionally- God’s unmistakeable presence is known by both parties. Because of the power of Christ and the work of His Holy Spirit, God can show up in community, friendships, and relationships when agape love is sincere and genuine.
Let’ s dig deeper to explore what this passage means.
Going back to the start of the passage in verse 7 and 8 and 9, John is clearly making the connection with the expression of unconditional (agape) love having its source in God. The Greeks treated love and its expressions, with language, a little clearer then we do. I could say, ‘I love pizza’ because I do. I could also say, ‘I love Michelle’. Now, hopefully those sayings mean two drastically different things although I’m using the same word. The Greeks had different words for love which makes it clearer to us.
***Eros- The Greek word for love means ‘sexual passion’.
***Philia- This Greek word for love refers to friendship or brotherly love or sisterhood love.
***Storge- This Greek word refers to love, affection between parents and children. Also can refer to someone’s love of their country or their favorite sports team.
***Agape- The type of Greek love that means ‘unconditional love’. Love with no strings attached. Thomas Aquinas defined this as to ‘will the good of another.’
Agape is the word that John is using here throughout this passage. God is love. The author and Creator of this sacred expression. The apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13:13 ‘So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love’ a passage I’m sure that most of us are familiar with. Faith and hope are important virtues. They are vital but the supreme value is love. Jesus summed up the entire law and will of God simply saying ‘Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.’ All throughout Scripture, God reveals His love and faithful saints strive to embody this love as representatives of God’s kingdom.
In the John passage, if there is not evidence that we are striving to love one another, care for one another, hold each other in high esteem, and sacrifice for one another- all of the different values that show love- then we cannot claim to know God or to be born again (or John’s phrase here: born of God). We would have missed the central value and expression of God’s holy Gospel. Having love in our soul’s for the community of believers and the world is the primary evidence of someone having genuine faith in Jesus.
John uses the word ‘manifest’ in us regarding love. He sent His Son so that we can live through Him. Live here is almost certainly in reference to reversing the charted course of spiritual death. Christ is the way to live and see the effects of the Fall reversed. In the Greek, live is in the aorist tense and is ingressive which indicates this is the beginning of an ongoing process. Live, however, may also speak toward a purpose or goal in life. Something to live for. We finished up he book of Ecclesiastes not too long ago which dealt with existential dread, purpose, what matters in life. Well, John is giving us a big goal and target here in 1 John. Love one another as this practically flows from the work of Jesus in our lives.
John continues. We did not love God first. He loved us first and sent Jesus as the propitiation for our sins. Daniel Akin states in ‘The New American Commentary’: ‘This marvelous act was prompted not by man’s love for God but God’s love for man, so that ‘the sending of God’s Son was both the revelation of His love and indeed the very essence of love itself. It is not our love that is primary, but God’s free, uncaused and spontaneous. All our love is but a reflection of his and a response to it. The origin of love lies beyond human effort and initiative. Left to ourselves, we would not love Him. We would hate Him and oppose Him. It took His boundless, sacrificial love to break our hearts of stone and bring us to Himself.’ God shows His love through propitiation.
I explained about propitiation before. This is a crucial belief and element of Christianity because it simultaneously shows God’s love and His justice. Unfortunately today (and certainly during times of the past) this idea is under attack even from professing Christian theologians. Brian McClaren, and others on the progressive end (in the emergent village) in his book ‘A Generous Orthodoxy’ and some of his writings in blogs questions penal/ substitutionary atonement which goes along with the idea of propitiation. Christ taking the penalty for our sins is a core issue of the gospel. It also is an issue of justice. We cry out for justice and for wrongs to be made right. That is a core aspect of Christ’s death on the cross. It is an empowerment for us to love as God has loved us. Christ’s death is also a legal declaration of Christ taking upon Himself our sins (diverting God’s justice) and moving us to being justified in God’s sight which is essentially most of Paul’s argument in the book of Romans. This is crucial to the Christian faith, as John is mentioning in this passage, God is demonstrating His love for us through this sacrifice and is directly using this event to empower us to love God, to love our community and to love others.
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. God went this far to demonstrate, if His love was this powerful, this all encompassing, this life changing, than we ought to strive to love others in the same way- with no strings attached.
Thesis: When we choose to love as God does, we will experience pain and suffering. This is what is involved with the highest form of love. Do we love the people in our lives sacrificially in this manner.
Matter: The challenge for us is that we live in a world/ culture that often only ‘loves’ based upon what we can do for them. This is love with strings attached. I’m probably dating myself here and I don’t really know why this song popped into my head while writing this sermon but let’s go for it: 1986. Janet Jackson. Song: ‘What Have You Done For Me Lately?’
‘Used to be a time when you would pamper me
Used to brag about it all the time
You’re friends seem to think you are so peachy keen
But my friends say neglect is on your mind
What have you done for me lately?
Used to go to dinner almost every night
Dancin til I thought I’d lose my breath
I never ask for more than I deserve
You know it’s the truth
You seem to think you’re God’s gift to this earth
I’m telling you no way
What have you done for me lately?’
I actually filled with cheesy pop songs this morning. ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ by The Supremes has these lyrics:
‘You can’t hurry love/ no, you just have to wait/ she said that love don’t come easy/ it’s a game of give and take.’ The view of love as a give and take. A back and forth. In other words, political. If we keep a list of all these things that we do for somebody else and then argue that we are owed something in return, is that sacrificial love? No, it’s not.
Seeing this definition of love from John is crucial because we live in a world that is upside down from how things are supposed to be. The notion of love in a highly materialistic culture has become vapid, shallow, and meaningless.
Struggle: Our culture often preaches in direct ways and many subtle ways that we love people based upon what they do for us. Having somebody on our arm that gives us a higher status or more popularity in the eyes of society. Loving someone exclusively because of an upper class lifestyle they can provide. In other words, I have this long list of demands and if someone doesn’t meet all or most of them, they are out.
The musician Derek Webb sings hauntingly, ‘I love what I can control….so I don’t love very much.’ And if our loves in society cannot be predicted by us or micromanaged, do we actually love? Do we love when things are risky or even more severely in American culture, when we are inconvenienced? If we are rattled from our comfort, shaken from our preconceived notions, then are we actually going to take the effort to love?
Since our society has gone off the rails in practicing a sacrificial kind of love and has replaced it with a self-interested and self-absorbed love, it may be helpful to further define the love that John is talking about in our epistle today. One of my friends actually had a great definition of love and he probably got this from a book somewhere but he defines love like this: ‘Love is a learned response to commitment that is tested by time.’ Deep. I like that this acknowledges love as a commitment, first and foremost, but also that love is something that grows. We learn more and more as we respond to commitment and are tested by the trials of time.
Last week, Jimmy Mallory while introducing AJS, defined love as seeking the highest good for someone for the longest period of time. This resonated with me too. I may not always know what is good for me and might desire things that are bad for me. That is the strength of having Michelle, Naomi, my parents and community in my life. If love is here, than we are all seeking the greatest good for one another according to the will of Jesus.
When we think of love, we mostly probably are thinking in the context of marriage or a romantic relationship and it certainly applies there. In dealing with the challenges of marriage, any couple has to practice sacrificial love and an empathy to actively listen and understand where the other person is coming from during a storm or trial within the relationship.
But John’s unconditional love here in this epistle doesn’t just apply to romantic relationships. This also applies to friendships and our community and our society. John is actually talking about this very thing in the passage we are looking at today. We are to love one another within our community and this is paired with Jesus’ charge that summed up the law was to unconditionally love our neighbors. Do we love people within our community based upon what they can do for us? Do we love the people who annoy us or cause us problems and how do we love them? In our community, do we love people with different political beliefs than us?
Being the church at Seed, we need to practice this sacrificial love as we strive to be a light for Christ and pursue justice in our little corner of the world. John, Paul and other Biblical authors assign love as the highest value, the preeminent category of being connected with Jesus and living the Christian life.
We struggle with sacrificial love in our society because hate is all around us in the world in both overt ways and in more subtle ways. We see all kinds of examples of hate based upon someone hurting us or hurting our family. Where I work, there is a personality that is, shall we say, difficult to deal with. I’m quite positive that everyone in the office has struggled with hating this person including myself. This is a type of personality that will go through all the work that someone is doing up to and including even going through one’s garbage. Now, this is annoying but I have nothing to hide so I take the ultimate position of ‘if this person wants to waste their time and life doing this, well, have at it.’ When she does find something incriminating on someone in the office or something someone has done wrong, it is an immediate reporting of the incident to the boss. As you can imagine, this ruffles feathers constantly and creates a great deal of toxicity. The thing that makes me mad though and struggle with agape love is not necessarily her wrath or accusatory nature (even for things which are blown way out of proportion) it is the irrationality of even trying to have a conversation about what happened and what the facts are. That is what makes me want to give up and not have a conversation and say, ‘whatever?!?’ It takes a strong connection with God, prayer and trying to see the world as Christ does in order to unconditionally love people like this. It is an ongoing struggle in my life.
Outside of work environments or the communities that we are a part of, we also see what the lack of love does to our culture at large. When we do not love our neighbors by not listening and not being empathetic, we cannot claim that we are living incarnationally. On a societal level, when we see communities of people who have actively been hated, experienced rampant injustice often with no recourse, we see the fractures, fault lines and devastating fallout of what comes out of that.
In our news, which I’m sure we all have seen these past few years, are these disturbing videos of brutality and violence happening to our brothers and sisters in the African-American community. And now we have seen police officers targeted for simply doing their jobs. This is not just a problem. It is a nightmare of epic portions. Our media seems to want to divide people up- we are either for or against cops -OR- for or against protestors (most of which are absolutely peaceful). The media and certain personalities further try and divide by seemingly making it impossible to be against unwarranted violence and brutality against e African American community and against violence toward police officers. Can’t we be horrified by both?!?
The crux of this issue though is a sickness in the soul. We live in a society that in many respects is drinking from a poisoned well on race relations. Sin and hatred are certainly an individual thing but the matter can also be societal. If Christians know a few things, one of those things is that we can hang a law on the wall, civil rights acts and voting rights acts, but a law hanging on a wall does not necessarily change people’s hearts. A law does not change a fallen soul.
History is an informer of the present. Oppression, brutality and violence being perpetuated against a community of citizens (image bearers of God) creates these fractures in our culture. Broken community. Divisions. Hatred.
Roughly 250 years of slavery. About 77 years of Jim Crow laws. Segregation. Separation. History informs our present circumstance. Horrific violence against people didn’t just start with the advent of cameras on cell phones. It has been going on for a long time.
I used to dismiss a lot of these issues regarding race. I would think to myself that people are way over exaggerating situations that happen or I would think that horrible situations that we see in the news are just outliers. In some of my worst thoughts, I would say that, ‘well, this community has these certain issues and they bring this upon themselves.’ By thinking those things, I have had to repent and I was wrong,
I was not loving sacrificially or incarnationally. When friends or acquaintances or others are telling me that there is something really wrong going on and I stick my head in the sand and ignore it, I can’t claim to love them.
Tim Keller, on Twitter a couple weeks back, tweeted out this: ‘The opposite of love is not anger (or for our purposes hate), it’s indifference.’ I don’t care. Apathy. To have our brothers and sisters in the African-American community tell us that there our problems that they face and for us to ignore that call is indifference and therefore, not agape love.
I will never know what it is like to be a black man in America but the closest I can get is to listen to somebody who has that experience and does know what it is like. Listening carefully and thereby being Incarnational, is aspiring to this high form of love that John is calling us too.
Cornel West, a sometimes controversial figure, had a brilliant tweet a few weeks back which said: ‘Interrogate your hidden assumptions’. What do we really believe in the core of our souls? What are our reactions to people even people different then us? Do we have irrational reactions? What is the motivating force behind why we think of people the way that we do?
Hope: The motivating force for the Christian should be a connection to the gospel of Jesus, the very source of sacrificial love so that we in turn can love this way. John says elsewhere in his epistle that if we do not love our brothers or sisters, we walk in darkness. A genuine sign that we know God is to love. Regarding the recent issues in our society, there is not much politicians can do. They cannot hire an army of bureaucrats to walk around, peering into the souls of everyone looking for racists or haters. The only cure for hate is by being transformed by Jesus, experiencing his demonstration of love as he died for our sins and being empowered to live toward others in this matter.
Whether there are issues in society, at work with difficult personalities or in a marriage that is struggling, God moves us to love unconditionally. We cannot love like this on our own because this kind of love is exclusive to God. We human beings, including myself, will always struggle to love with strings attached. With the help of God’s Spirit, we can attain a higher level.
There is so much going on in our world right now. People may be afraid of politics stuff, coups in other countries, violence in our own society, instability in our world. The world is always a scary place. Most of us are not worth hundreds of millions of dollars or billions. We don’t have positions of strategic influence in political leadership so what can we do?
We can love everyone in our life with this love that John talks about. Your spouse, your kids, your friends, your church community, your neighbors and co-workers. We can raise our children with the values of agape love and exhort them to see the world as Jesus does. It’s our own, small corner of the world here but we can be impactful with the help of God.