7-8-18 “God is Love3” (to the 3rd power)
In an episode of the epic television series “The Twilight Zone,” a Chicago-style mobster of the 1920s, who lived a life of endless debauchery, is gunned down and we find him in the afterlife. There, he’s enjoying everything he ever wanted - all the things that he lied, stole, and otherwise lived a life of crime to acquire - wine, women, endless poker games where he just can’t lose, and more money than he can spend. In fact, in death he’s living it up. There’s an “angelic” presence, played by Sebastian Cabot, the butler from the show “Family Affair,” with him almost at his beckon call. It doesn’t take long, however, before he finds himself growing frustrated and increasingly bored with the tedium and lack of challenge with his lot in death. Turning to his other-worldly host, he says, “This is becoming boring. I don’t know how long I can take this. Maybe I should go down to the other place,” to which the angel replies, “This IS the other place.”
Author Mark Dawidziak, in his new book, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone, points out that in that classic television series of the 1960s, the irony that played out in nearly every episode was that the foil in each show was paid back in spades with whatever it was they brought into the story. If they were a person who sought control, it was lack of control that did them in. If they were a person who elevated physical beauty to near idolatry, it was beauty that brought them crashing down. It’s a classic representation of the idea that we reap what we sow. So the irony in the episode about the gangster is that that which he pursued in his life through crime, violence, and reckless disregard of others turned out in the end not to be the heaven he thought it would be, but his eternal hell.
We often don’t consider that possibility in the midst of our own pursuits of heaven - whether in the afterlife or in a “heaven on earth.” We have ideas of what heaven is or isn’t - some taken literally from scripture including mansions and streets of gold, and others taken from our earthly perception that “if this or that isn’t there it can’t be heaven” (read that for me as, “if there are no golf courses, it’s not heaven!”).
So while we won’t know what heaven is like until we get there, the French philosopher, paleontologist, geologist, Jesuit priest and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote that “the physical structure of the universe is love.” And picking up on that understanding, Fr. Richard Rohr writes that, “If a loving Creator started this whole thing—the Big Bang, the evolution of diverse and beautiful life forms—then there has to be a ‘DNA connection,’ as it were, between the One who creates and what is created. The basic template of reality is Trinitarian, it’s relational. God is relationship.” And he goes on to say that the Hebrew writer of Genesis used plural pronouns for some wonderful reason when describing God’s words in Creation, “Let us create in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves.”
So the “DNA connection” that Rohr refers to is between the Creator and the creation and reflects not only the make-up of the Creator but the nature of the Creator as well. We know the nature of God as Trinitarian, right? The three-in-one nature or relationship of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer in relationship with the Christ and the Holy Spirit. And de Chardin confirms in his writing what the author of 1 John tells us in his, that the structure of the universe has the same DNA as the one who created it, the one who is love. So God is love, and that DNA fingerprint of God is found in and on everything in all of Creation - from the heavens to the earth and everything in between.
In our reading for today, the elder gets to the point of what he has been leading us to since chapter 1: God is love. In fact, he so wants to make this point clear to us that he says it twice, in verse 8 and again in verse 16; God is love. And with that claim of who and how God is framed within our trinitarian understanding of God as the loving relationship of three-in-one, then the elder’s words take possession of us: “the person who does not love, does not know God.” And that claim should produce a hard swallow and nervous downcast eyes within each of us, because who among us does not “not love” someone?
Lest we forget, love as used in scripture is less about an emotion or feeling and more about action. Loving another, loving God, is as much something we do as it is something we feel. So that resonates with us as we hear the elder’s continued message: “This is love: it is not that we loved God, but that God loved us.” God took action for us. God gave us love. God gave us love in Jesus Christ and God gave us love in all of creation.
And he goes on, “Dear friends, if God loved us this way, we also ought to love each other. 12 No one has ever seen God. If we love each other, God remains in us and [God’s] love is made perfect in us. 13 This is how we know we remain in [God] and [God] remains in us…” It’s a conditional statement: “IF we love each other, God remains in us and God’s love is made perfect in us.” IF we love each other. The alternative, then, is also true. IF WE DO NOT love each other, then God’s love DOES NOT remain in us.
Now, I know your heads might be churning a bit.
I can hear that question forming in your thoughts: “Pastor Jay, you always preach Romans 8 that says ‘nothing can separate us from the love of God,’ but now you’re saying that if we don’t love each other God’s love doesn’t remain in us.” How can that be?
Well, I’m glad you asked. Let me come at that from a different direction to see if it helps. Have you ever accidentally taken a drink of milk or taken a bite of food only to realize too late that it had spoiled? Something had changed in its nature, in its biological or chemical makeup that made it no longer edible or at least palatable, right? Or try this one, have you ever had an encounter with, oh let’s say a pastor, who in the midst of a bad moment or a bad day, said or did something that didn’t seem very pastoral?
Unlike the curdled milk, which gave way to a natural biological process that is part of its nature, the aforementioned pastor in that moment, didn’t change his or her nature, but momentarily denied it. As Richard Rohr puts it, as humans we sometimes deny our true selves - our true nature as beloved children of God, as the beloved community of God - and give in to our false selves when we deny the nature of God that is created in us from the beginning. We do that, he suggests, when we fail to love each other as God created us to. It is a denial of the nature of God within us; the DNA connection between God and all of creation; the image of God in which we are all created.
It doesn’t mean that God no longer loves us, it means that in those moments we are not fully loving God.
Why do we do this? We claim that we always love God, but to paraphrase the elder, actions speak louder than words. Often, if we really think about it, our failure to love God comes down to a fear of something or someone. Greed, for example, often manifests itself as a result of a fear of running out, of not having enough, or that someone else is going to get more than us.
Xenophobia, the fear of strangers or those who are not like us, often comes from a lack of understanding, a lack of relationship with the very people we fear.
Hate of another is often the result of a personal, deep-seated fear of inadequacy.
Consumerism, materialism, idolatry are often born out of a fear or lack of trust in God, that God won’t really provide all that we need, or particularly all that we want, so we put the acquisition of things above God.
Our scripture addresses this, though, saying,
“God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them. This is how love has been perfected in us, so that we can have confidence on the Judgment Day…” Note he says so that we can have confidence, not fear, “because we are exactly the same as God is in this world.” We are made in the image, with the same DNA, as God. And it continues, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love. 19 We love because God first loved us. 20 If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, he is a liar, because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister who can be seen can’t love God, who can’t be seen.
21 This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.”
Because love is the true nature of God, and we are made in God’s image, it is also the nature of our true selves as well. Love in relationship with God and with one another.
In John’s gospel, Jesus says to the disciples,
“As the Father loved me, I too have loved you.
Remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.
11 I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete.”
Jesus said that just as God loved him, he has loved them. And then he commands them, and us, to love our neighbors in the same way. And in another place he tells them that God will send the Holy Spirit as a companion to help them, and us. It is in that relationship that we experience the never-ending, all-encompassing love of God.
As Rohr suggests, “…here love characterizes God, whose expressions of love create relationships between God’s self and others. The love that defines who God is, finds expression in what God does through [the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ].
The highest manifestation of love is to lay down one’s life for another (Jn 15:13). [To demonstrate that God’s love is more powerful than fear, more powerful than hate, more powerful than empire, more powerful than torture, more powerful than death,] Jesus laid down his life and was, in turn, lifted up by God.”
God’s love is “perfected” in us, the passage says, when we love one another. The Greek words translated here as perfected are based on the word “telos,” which means “goal,” or “purpose,” “desire,” or even “God’s preferred future.” The idea is that God’s love reaches its goal or desired end when it creates relationships of love with people among people - when we live into our true selves as we were created to be. As an abstraction, that is when we disconnect from God by giving in to our false selves, love falls short of that goal. It is imperfect.
There is hope, however. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice.”
That is, God’s desired end will win out in the long run. However, we live in the short run. Protestant pastor and political leader Rev. Dr. Willam Barber addressed that, saying, “As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saw clearly in the last years of his life, we face a real choice between chaos and community—we need a moral revolution. If that was true fifty years ago, then we must be clear today: America needs a moral revival to bring about beloved community.”
And what Barber goes on to suggest is that this “moral revival” is a natural outgrowth of realizing how connected we already are: what we do unto others or to the earth, we really do to ourselves.That is, when we sow anger, we reap anger; when we sow hate and fear, that is our harvest as well.
In an almost Twilight Zone kind of way, whatever we bring into the story will ultimately decide our fate in the story.
William Barber writes, “The main obstacle to beloved community continues to be the fear that people in power have used for generations to divide and conquer God’s children who are, whatever our differences, all in the same boat.” When the love of God finds expression in human love, there the goal is reached.
I want to share part of an article I read recently by a young woman named Madisyn Taylor. She’s not an overtly religious or faith-based writer, more like one of those Spiritual-But-Not-Religious folks I told you about last week, but her words preach. And she writes, “Love is often presented as the opposite of fear, but true love is not opposite anything.
True love is far more powerful than any negative emotions, as it is the environment in which all things arise. Negative emotions/actions are like sharks swimming in the ocean of love. All things beautiful and fearful, ugly and kind, powerful and small, come into existence, do their thing, and disappear within the context of this great ocean. At the same time, they are made of the very love in which they swim and can never be separated. We are made of this love and live our whole lives at one with it, whether we know it or not.
“It is only the illusion that we are separate from this great love that causes us to believe that choosing anything other than love makes sense or is even possible. In the relative, dualistic world of positive and negative, darkness and light, male and female, we make choices and we learn from them…
Underlying these relative choices, though, is the choice to be conscious of what we are, which is love, or to be unconscious of it. When we choose to be conscious of it, we choose love. We will still exist in the relative world of opposites and choices and cause and effect, and we will need to make our way here, but doing so with an awareness that we are all made of this love will enable us to be more playful, more joyful, more loving and wise, as we make our way. Ultimately, the choices we make will shed light on the love that makes us all one, enabling those who have forgotten to return to the source.
“This world makes it easy to forget this great love, which is part of why we are here. We are here to remember and, when we forget, to remember again to choose love.”
This fourth chapter of 1 John is one of the Bible’s great “love” chapters. At its core is that “God is love” (4:8, 16), and we share that perfect love modeled in the Trinity - God’s love to the third power. God is the subject and love is the descriptor. God is a living being, whose identity and nature is defined by love. Love characterizes God, whose expressions of love create relationships between God’s self and others. The love that defines who God is, finds expression in what God does through Jesus Christ, and that then is displayed to all of creation by those of us who claim to be Christ’s followers. The moral revolution that the world needs will come only when we as the beloved children of God, as Christ’s hands and feet on earth, live into the DNA of God that is birthed within us and live into our true selves. When we do that, when we choose love over fear, or hate, or anger, or anything that denies our true selves, then we can offer HOPE to the world. We do that when we choose to:
Be HOSPITABLE. Welcome others as God in Christ has welcomed us. When we reach out and receive all persons. All hunger for something more and better than the world is offering. No one is outside the love of God.
OFFER them Christ. The Jesus story is an irresistible story. Take the opportunity to learn, to be shaped and formed as Jesus followers, and then live into the image of who God created you to be to the world.
PRACTICE: Practice your faith. Participate in prayer, in study, in service, in worship; talk about your faith and be encouraged to put your faith into action. Be invitational and not just informational.
ENGAGE: Engage with the community, with the neighbors and neighborhood around us. Build relationships and connect the Gospel and the love of God to activities going on in our community.
Offer HOPE and remember: Perfect love casts out fear. In a time of great fear, focus upon the love of God. Hold before all people the love of God we have experienced in and through Jesus. I pray that you will be courageous, not cautious. Hold before all people the hope we have in and through Jesus Christ. Remember, God has the final word. And that word is LOVE. Amen.