Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10).
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was an English major at the University of North Florida, and following in the grand tradition of college seniors, I chose my very last class because it met at a convenient time. This particular capstone course focused on Caribbean literature and was taught by a professor who, as an avid practitioner of voodoo, invited me on multiple occasions to worship at his local priestess’s animal sacrifices. I, in turn, invited him to embrace the one sacrifice for sin at our local church, but he preferred to stick with his chickens. During this class, we read of the horror of slavery and revolt in the country of Haiti. The part of the narrative that has stuck with me ever since was the stories of enslaved women who would murder their children in the womb or just after birth to ‘free’ them from a life of bondage. During class discussions, it never failed to amaze me how my fellow students—well steeped in the fallen world’s view of love—saw these homicidal acts as expressions of love in its purest form. One particularly excitable undergraduate volunteered that she would kill her own future children to prevent them from being slaves—‘it is,’ she said, fighting back tears, ‘the loving thing to do.’
In that classroom, and in the hearts of millions, two terrible principles were on display. Two principles that should grieve our hearts and show why St. John’s epistles are desperately important in our confused and disordered age. First, the most terrible evils in our world are always done by those who think they are doing good: the most terrible evils in our world are done in the name of love. Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi general who sent millions of Jews to their deaths, went home every night and kissed his wife and played with his kids. He did his job, in this case genocide, because he loved his family. We now know that in the days before he was hanged, his wife petitioned the Israeli government to see him one last time. This banal butcher loved and was loved back. Is that beautiful or tragic? If the word love is simply a label we use to temporarily bless our feelings for another person then are we not forced to look at this genocidal monster and his wife and say, ‘love is love’?
The second principle is really an answer to that question. St. John shows us today that anyone who uses the word ‘love’ without mentioning God is talking about an inhuman love—a dehumanizing love. Just one look at the Haitian slavers and slaves shows us this truth. The slavers self-servingly thought they were displaying love by protecting those they wrongly deemed less than fully human, just as the slaves responded to the denial of their humanity by engaging in a sustained campaign of slaughter not witnessed in the most grotesque corners of the animal kingdom. Any love that does not begin and end with the God who is the author of true love and true humanity will inevitably be a dark counterfeit of the true love that is our purpose for existence.
The terror that lives in these examples is that the people involved were simply living out the cultural expectations which surrounded them. If all we know is being treated like an animal, then we will act like animals; if all we know is murdering or enslaving, then we will murder and enslave; if all we know is the selfish, animalistic love we are constantly indoctrinated to accept, then we will willingly live in the darkness and lies of phrases like ‘love is love.’
How so very different from this meaningless mantra is St. John’s transcendent definition of love: ‘In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 4:9-10). Love, we find, is not a slogan but the activity of the God who is love. More than a feeling or even a promise, true love is the acted out self-sacrifice of God for those whose blindness causes them to call everything they touch in their own personal darkness, ‘love.’ God the Father and God the Son reveal a higher love to humanity by loving us when we were at our most unloveable, by giving a broken humanity eternal life through the eternal love of God. Jesus Christ allowed an evil creation to murder Him with iron and wood because real love is not about what we say or think or feel; real love is only unveiled through the actions which reveal a complete trust and faith in divine love—in the God given love which transforms, ‘I will love you forever,’ from a ridiculous lie into something worth dying for. Without eternal life, all love is as temporary as the fragile frames in which we reside, but with the loving, unmerited gift of eternal life, we can love with freedom and abandon even as those we love are cut down by disease or violence or age.
But more than being free to sacrificially love with what a dying world considers crazy abandon, we who are the recipients of God’s life-giving love are now called to fearlessly confess that love in everything we say and do. As St. John writes, ‘Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him’ (1 St. John 4:15-16). What does it mean to confess? In the vocabulary of Christianity, it means to proclaim one’s faith in the face of opposition, to suffer for the truth in order to better understand and trust the suffering that saved the world. To live in the love of Christ is only possible when we lovingly follow our Savior and live and love as He did in a world that hated Him. What does this mean in our lives? It means everything. It means there is no space in our lives that is not to be penetrated by the sacrificial love of God. It means asking ourselves on a day to day basis, ‘How can I use my work and leisure to sacrificially love God and sacrificially love my neighbor? Asking ourselves, ‘Where has God put me in my life, right now, and how can I use what little time I have left to love God and my neighbor as He loved me on that cross?’ That mission to love, the church’s mission, is to be visibly lived out in every single thing we do.
The exciting thing about this revelation is that there are thousands of ways in which we can hook into this love which animates and saves the created universe. We don’t have to be smart or rich or beautiful or powerful to be an important force for true love in the world—we just have to be faithful and loving unto death, for any human who does not lovingly die for God and for others does not know God, for the love of God is a love unto death. Our lives then are meant to be living revelations of the eternal love which allows people to see and feel the love of God. Our family and neighbors and enemies are to see more than the cross in our churches or around our necks, they are to see our entire lives shaped and broken around the cross. The cross is our purpose to bear.
But, let us be honest. John tells us today that there is no fear in love, but in my wounded heart I do have fears. My greatest fear is that my children will fall away from the Lord: that true love will be choked in the soil of their hearts. My second greatest fear is that I will fail you as a pastor, that I won’t be able to convince you through my words and example that we have been led astray by the lies of our age, that I will have to watch a generation of people I love choke to death on the seductive false loves of a dying world. My great and abiding comfort when I wake up in the middle of the night and face the thought of standing before our Lord and answering for the state of your souls is that I too am being perfected in Christ’s love, and He will work through even the most unworthy vessels to add sheep to His flock. The question today is, ‘How is God’s love working in you?’ When we look at the love St. John is describing, love he and the apostles lived out until they were killed for it, we see a love which St. John holds up as the sign to men and devils that God has remade the world. John can’t help but talk about God’s love because he knows it is the only real source of life in the world. Do we see ourselves in this good news? Do we want a love which will take over our lives; a love that drives us to make the Gospel the center of our very existence?
I can tell you, we do not naturally want this love because it will hurt, and our entire lives in the West are now centered around comfort and feelings management. We are taught to settle for a love that can be obtained with a credit card and a cellphone app. The good news is that the Holy Spirit is stronger than all the lies and temporary pleasures of an evil world; the bad news for our comfort is that God wants us in our weakness and terror to be the love of God in the world. Every second of every day is another opportunity to consecrate our lives in the love that is saving the world; every heartbeat of our lives is another moment to carve out a beachhead of holiness in a world which enslaves and murders and calls it love—to plant a flag in the sand and claim the very earth we stand on for its rightful king. That won’t happen by accident; we won’t learn how to love and suffer and win by accident, and that is why we are still here. We are here, on this planet, in this moment, to learn the language of God’s love and loudly sing it into the darkness until the devils in Hell can hear us. Let them hear our love today, and everyday, until our king returns, and love reigns forever.