1 John 3:16-24

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

We hear the word love a lot. Especially in Church. We hear the word in our Bible readings, we use it in our prayers, we sing it in our hymns. “God is love” “Love one another” “God so loved the world” “Love divine, all loves excelling”.

We hear it in our personal lives, in families, in friendships, in courtship; we hear it in popular culture – it’s the core theme of a pretty large proportion of movies and songs and works of art.

There is – as I often say when I speak at weddings – probably no more influential factor in human history, no treasure more sort after, no power so able to change people for good, or drive them to despair, than the desire to love and to be loved.

And, of course, ‘love’ is to be found at the heart of Jesus’ summary of the law: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength, and love your neighbour as yourself”, and his new commandment: “love one another as I have loved you.”

But of course, the danger with any word that gets so much is that is loses its meaning – or rather, that it gets diluted by use. I say, “God loves me” I say, “I love you” to my children – but I also say “I love to relax in the evening with an ice-cream sandwich”.

It’s a strange thing about this word, that we use it so lightly, as well as at the most important moments of our lives. We whisper “I love you” to our sleeping children, to our spouses, to elderly friends and relatives as they come close to death. We speak of love at many of the important moments of our lives – at baptism, in courtship, at farewells and welcome homes, weddings and funerals – these are the moments that give shape to our life, and we give them shape with this word love.

But what is it? Like most things that are really important, love seems to be very hard to define. Like trying to say what makes a flower beautiful, or to describe the taste of chocolate, when we try to pin down exactly what love is, it eludes us. And yet, we know it when we see it.

And we know too, that the love that we know, the love that we give, the love that we experience, must fall short of the love that God speaks of in the gospel. But there are some hints in our readings today that give us an idea of what it means when God speaks of love, what it means when Jesus commands his friends to love one another, to love their neighbours, and to love their enemies.

And it starts with John’s pithy description of what love is not; or at least, what love is not just.

let us love, not in word or speech

Now I don’t think it’s reasonable to read these words as condemning those declarations of love that we make to those closest to us. Surely John is not telling us that it is somehow wrong to assure our children, our parents, our spouses, our friends, of our love for them.

So perhaps one might safely add the word ‘just’: let us love, not just in word and speech, but also in truth and action.

But I fear that by doing so we run the risk of watering down the power of John’s words, taming them, making them safe and palatable.

For the love that John is calling us to, that Jesus called us to, is not love in word. For if you look at how John goes on, he immediately starts to speak about our love for those we see who are in need, when we ourselves are in plenty. And when those in need are those who we would easily speak to with words of love, we don’t need to be told to love also in action. We don’t tell our children we love them and then deny them the necessities of life when we have more than we need.

So John isn’t talking about our relationships with those who we would already naturally, automatically, reach out to help. His words are a challenge to go further, to include in our generosity, our sacrificial giving, people we wouldn’t automatically include. Of course, in this challenge he is echoing the teachings of Jesus: “what reward is there for those who love those who love them? I say to you, love your enemies”.

So John is talking about how we love those who aren’t part of our close circle. And suddenly his admonition not to love in word and speech makes a lot more sense. It’s not just that words are not enough – but the declaration of love in word is not just useless, but worse than useless, when “truth and action” are absent.

For when action is absent, as in John’s picture of “one who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help”, to say “I love you” – or worse, perhaps “God loves you” is to make a mockery of love. God’s love, John assures us, does not abide there.

How often has the Church spoken words of the love of God while complacently allowing – or even contributing to – others to be harmed? Supporting, tacitly, or actively, the colonial abuses of empire, taking land and resources and even freedom from native peoples while declaring the love of God? Or standing by while leaders imprison the innocent for the crime of fleeing persecution? Or declaring God’s love to gay or transgender children while making it quite clear they are not welcome?

Or holding on to our wealth while our sisters and brothers in much of the world struggle to feed their children? Or send “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of racial hatred, sexual assault, or domestic violence, but refuse to do anything to address the underlying matters of justice?

When love is spoken but not enacted (by those who have capacity – of course there are times when we are unable to act), it is worse that useless; for to declare the love of God without action is to make a liar of God.

The Biblical description of love has little to do with words and a lot to do with actions. The God of love is the God who acts – the God who acted to create the universe, who continues to sustain it, to send the sun and rain, to cause the plants to grow and the trees to bear fruit. And, of course, the God who sent his Son to live and die for us, and who sends us to live for the kingdom, for the world.

And human love, too, acts. The parent provides for their child – food, clothing, shelter, comfort, encouragement, discipline. The loving friend is the friend who sees when we need something done, and takes action. As has been said “If you see someone who needs help, don’t ask them ‘is there anything I can do?’. Think of something, and do it.”.

Love is practical. If we are the Church of God (and we are), if we are the Body of Christ (and we are), if we are instruments of the Spirit of God, making God’s Kingdom real on earth (and we are), then our faith will express itself in practical love. We will look outside our walls at those who need love, and we will think of something, and do it.

And love, when it is in truth and action, is effective. John tells us that we will receive, when we live in love, whatever we ask. Now this is a hard passage to read and understand, especially when sometimes it seems that our prayers go unheard or unanswered, but I think it means something like this: that when we are living in the practical, sacrificial love of God, the things that we long for will be the things of the kingdom, the things God is bringing to be, and we will see them happen. Not everytime, not as we would perhaps like, but we will see the world changed, we will see the kingdom of God become little by little more real, when we live in love.

That, at least, is our calling; to be people of the love of God, love in truth and action. For this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth.