We must lift up God’s love: Easter 5

We must lift up God’s love: Easter 5

Fifth Sunday In Easter,   April 29, 2018

5 Easter, Year B: Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:24-30, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

NOTE: No recording for this sermon. The text is below:

Fifty-one years ago, the British Broadcasting System, also known as the BBC, commissioned the Beatles to write a song for the United Kingdom’s contribution to a T.V. show, called “Our World”, which was the first live global television link.

The Beatles were asked to write and perform a song that would contain a simple message to be understood by all nations. What was the song that they wrote? “All you need is love.” And with that song, the Beatles struck a nerve that was felt around the world, as it hit home in the heart of over 400 million television viewers. They quickly released it in the UK, where it soared to the top of the charts to number one, and then after that, they released the song in the US where it also reached number one on the Billboard charts.

I expect some of us will have that earworm for the rest of the day – “all you need is love”.

There are many popular songs about love from Broadway musicals to pop and rap. Some of them are good, some not so good.

The concept of love reaches down into the deepest part of almost every human being’s heart and soul. It has such an appeal to the human race that Amazon has over 245,000 books with the word “Love” in its title.  If you do a Google search on the word “love” you will find that it has over 474 million entries on it.

While I think these are fascinating aspects of love, we need to understand that the love we need is God’s love and that we are instructed in today’s epistle “Beloved, let us love one another”.

The dominant theme in all of the First Letter of John pertains to the command that we must love one another. In the fifteen verses of today’s reading, the word “love” is used 29 times, over 2 times more than any other chapter in all of Scripture. That’s statistically significant! and I think it addresses any question of how important God’s love is to us, as individuals and as a church, and how important our love for others is.

This passage of Scripture emphasizes that God is love and that each person in the Trinity plays a part in making God’s love known to us. God showed God’s love by sending God’s Son for us[1]. God the Son showed his love by laying down his life for us[2]. God the Spirit affirms God’s love by dwelling in us.[3]

“Beloved, let us love one another”. We are called to love one another because “love is of God”. In fact, God is the source of true love. God is the initiator of love. God is the example of love, and God is the Creator of love. By loving one another we establish that we have been “born of God”, and that we “know” God[4]. Whoever does not love others does not “know” God.[5]

In this passage, we see why love is important. The reason love is important is because God is love, the very source of love. And because God is the source of love, all that are impacted by God can become conduits of God’s love.

The Greek word John uses for us “loving one another” is agapao while the word he uses to describe the “love from God” is agape.

Agapao is a verb in the present tense. It is the verb for the noun agape, which is God’s unconditional, unwavering love for us. Because God is agape, we as God’s followers must display agapao.

In English: Because God is love, we must live our lives by loving others. This is essential to the faith. In fact, what we hear in our reading is that agapao (love in action) towards others is what proves that we have been “born of God”, and that we “know God”.

Let me give you an example. As a young college student, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I was struggling more than anyone, including myself, knew. I recall being sure that I would be the student to drop out. In some classes, where I was motivated, I did very well. In other classes, I didn’t even turn the papers in. I had an academic advisor, however, who believed in me. She worked very hard to make sure I graduated.

In my spiritual autobiography, which every aspiring priest must write several times along the way, Eleanor Rice was always a major player in it. I wrote that “God’s transforming love was certainly manifested in Eleanor”. When I think of the agapao that Eleanor demonstrated I think of one of the greatest novels of the 19th century that became one of the greatest musicals of the 20th and 21st centuries: Les Misérables.

At its core, the message is about the redemption of Jean Valjean. That redemption though would not be possible without the love, grace and mercy shown to him by the Bishop. In a seminal scene, the Bishop declares to Jean Valjean, “I have saved your soul for God”. How has the Bishop done that? By showing Jean Valjean agapao.

Each and every time someone does something to express his or her love for us in word and in deed, as Eleanor did, as the Bishop did in Hugo’s novel and as so many others throughout our lives often do, even when we don’t know it, we receive the benefit of that love.

It isn’t always that easy though is it? The lack of love among those who follow Jesus Christ is not only a problem we know in our own experience; it has bedeviled the church from its earliest days. Wars have been fought in the name of the church. Yet, our reading today is pretty clear and pretty straightforward: “Beloved, let us love one another”.

A week or so ago some of you might have noticed a post on Beckford Parish’s Facebook page that said, “the mark of an effective church is not how many people come, but how many people who live differently as a result of having been there”. The way I would phrase that based on John’s epistle is “the mark of a faithful community is how it loves, not who are its members”.

Love is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. If we are to live as authentic believers we cannot proclaim to love God if we do not love one another.

How is it that a small, breakaway sect of Judaism grew and succeeded two thousand years ago? Some have argued that the criterion of love for one another was an identifying mark of Christians. That love for another was what allowed the community to thrive and spread the message of love to others and include them in the community.

We love others because they are children of God, just as we are, no more, no less. Because God loves us, we in turn love whom God loves.

Perhaps, we sometimes proclaim this too glibly. Perhaps we sentimentalize this love. Perhaps we, when things are going all right for ourselves, forget that this is not the case for everyone. We forget that God’s love is not obvious to everybody.

Think of how the vast majority of this planet’s inhabitants experience life: poverty, infant mortality, recurring famine, fatal epidemic, natural disasters, deadly war. And even in Europe and North America, as so many struggle with joblessness and foreclosure, to claim that God is love goes against so much of our common, human experience.

To proclaim that “God is love” is counter-intuitive to people suffering. To believe that God is love is to commit ourselves to a counter-cultural, even a radical confession and acts of love.

That is the way of the Gospel. To be bearers of the message that God is love.

In Christ, God brought divine love to common human experience, not to trick us, not to judge us or condemn us, but to join us, to live fully our common human experience, to be born, to live, to suffer, to die, all out of love–and to rise again to show that nothing, not even death, can extinguish this love. This is our hope, our calling, and our mission.

Love will always be difficult for the humans who live on the face of the earth, but that cannot deter us from our mission. To get involved with God makes us vulnerable to God. It is sometimes painful and difficult, but we must open ourselves up to love and be loved.

French philosopher René Descartes wrote, “I think, therefore I am”. The great preacher William Sloane Coffin said in response: “Nonsense! I love, therefore I am.”

The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” almost gets it right. I think the closest Broadway song that expresses the love found in our readings is “Fill the World with Love”, a song from Goodbye, Mr. Chips. “And the blessing I shall ask is that God will grant me to be brave, and strong and true, and to fill the world with love”.

Was I brave and strong and true?

Our mission as Christians is to lift up God’s love, revealed in Jesus Christ in the world and to fill the world with love. Being loved by God, we must love, and not just those closest to us or those who are easiest to love; our love must extend to places and to people where love is foreign, where love is absent, where faith in love has faded or died. We must live our faith as a sign to those who cannot accept it, to those who are broken and have lost hope.

“For God is love”. We must not tell of this improbable and glorious truth, but through our character show how it is true, by our lives and actions. Today, we do so through our prayers, in our song and in the sharing of the body of Christ today. Through word and deed today, we abide in God’s love.

[1] 1 John 4:9

[2] 1 John 4:10

[3] 1 John 4:13

[4] 1 John 4:7b

[5] 1 John 4:8

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