Love is from God
1 John 4:7-21 | John 10:11-18
Some years ago, I was telling the story of the Good Shepherd to a Kindy scripture class. As the story unfolded, one of the kids interjected “the Good Shepherd sounds really nice”. Her neighbour, with all the confidence of a child who has heard the story before, piped up. “Yes, that’s God. God’s always nice.”
When Karl Barth, one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century was asked towards the end of his life what was the most profound thought he had ever had, or ever heard, he replied “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so”.
This week we’re starting a short series, mostly taken from the first letter of John, on the theme of love; Love is God’s Way. In the next couple of weeks we’ll be exploring together what love is, what it does, and why it matters so much; why ‘love’ is, in fact, the most important word in the Christian faith.
Love is the central truth of our faith. For God is love.
And we start this week, as it were, at the beginning; the origin, if you like, of love. In John’s words: Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God.
John is writing to the early Church, believers in Jesus, and this is how he addresses them: “Beloved”. You who are loved.
With this very first word, John begins his argument. If you were here a couple of weeks ago when Sureka spoke, you’ll remember that she pointed out that the Lord’s Prayer begins with a statement of identity: as we say the words “Our Father in heaven” and in doing so declare ourselves to be who we are, claim our identity as children of God.
John, too, begins with a declaration of identity: Beloved. You who are loved.
The starting point for John’s call to action – for John’s language of love is certainly not that of passivity or bland emotion – is this: he addresses his readers as “you who are loved”.
And it is from there that he can go on – “beloved, let us love on another”. You who are loved, you who have received love: love one another.
Pay it forward. You have been loved, so take that gift and pass it on, share it. Love one another.
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God”.
And there’s the punchline. The love that you have received, the love that declares you to be “beloved” – that love is from God. It’s not some human construct, or just a strange side-effect of evolutionary processes; it’s not something we have dreamed up or invented or imagined: love is from God.
Love is God’s idea. And, as he will say a little later on, “we love because God first loved us”.
So, you who are beloved; know this: the origin of that love that you have experienced is God, the creator and sustained of the universe. “God is love”, as the hymn says, “so love forever over the universe shall reign”.
So, you who have known love, love one another.
But John doesn’t leave it at that. Left there, “love one another” would be one command among many, one aspect of the life of discipleship to consider, one facet of our lives together.
No, for John love isn’t just one thing among many. For he continues:
everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God
Love is not some part of the way; love is the way. Love is not one aspect of being born of God; it is the defining mark of the knowledge of God. Whoever loves, knows God, whoever doesn’t love, does not know God.
And why? John ends these opening words with the simple but outrageous declaration
…for God is Love
Those who love, know God, because God is love. Those who do not love, do not know God. For God is love.
Now of course it’s a truism that God is so beyond us, so beyond our ability to reason or describe, so beyond the grasp of human language or understanding, that whenever we speak of God we always do so metaphorically. Whether we name God as parent, or as Good shepherd, or as rock or lion or mother hen or any of the countless images for God found in the Bible – and, indeed, beyond – we are always using the limited imagery of human language to try to describe the indescribable.
So we need to know, to understand, that in this declaration “God is Love” we are not limiting God to our understanding of love. In particular, we are not declaring, as popular culture seems often to assert, that love is God – that love (and in particular, romantic love) is the thing ultimately to be sought after, valued, and, really, worshipped.
God is not just love. But nor is love just one of God’s characteristics, at least according to John.
For there is one way of thinking about God; popular with the more philosophically inclined; which is to enumerate the attributes of God as, as it were, a list: God is creator, God is eternal, God is just, God is loving, God is all-powerful, and so on.
In such a way of thinking, John could have made all his other arguments unchanged, and simply declared “God is loving” instead of “God is love”.
So I don’t think he is here simply naming love as a characteristic of God; but instead claiming that love is the core truth out of which the rest follows; the motivating reality of God.
That is to say, when we declare that God is the creator, we name creation as an act of love. Love creates, because love wants there to be others who can be loved.
And God’s justice, too, we declare as an act of love; love that protects the weak from the strong, and the strong from themselves.
And God’s power, more clearly still, we see as the power of love: power that does not control or exploit, but delights in giving freedom.
Love is not one characteristic of God among many; love is the shape of all of God’s ways.
So John takes the ultimate unknowability of God – no-one has ever seen God, he writes – and declares that it is love that makes God known. If we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected, made complete, in us.
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.