“A Community Founded Upon Love”
Easter Living: A Journey with the First Letter of John 1 John 4: 7-21
Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ May 6, 2018
One of the ways that I paid my way through theology school was as a church caretaker. Just like Steve and Tammy here at Northwood, I lovingly cleaned and prepared my church so that it would be a welcoming place for people to gather, to worship and to find community. This church was unique in that it had a live-in suite for a caretaker to take care of overnight emergencies. So when the live-in caretaker moved on and I was offered the chance to live inside the church, I jumped at the opportunity. In downtown Vancouver, I met some very colourful characters as I would respond through the midnight hours and, as ordination approached, I certainly knew what I was getting in for. In my role, I was given many different titles: I was the church caretaker, the church janitor, the church security person, the host. There was one title that I was given; however, that I will never forget. The title came from a four-year old boy who would faithfully come with his Mom to the Sunday evening service. Just like here at Northwood, our evening service was a smaller, intimate setting. Just a dozen or so folks would attend. Little Jo and his Mom Anna, were two of the regulars. On Sunday night, I would be found setting up chairs, preparing coffee and tea and (what little Jo was most interested in) spreading out the hand-made quilt and laying out some of the toys. My job was to have everything ready for the people to arrive for worship. I soon learned that the name given by little Jo was “God”. I was not the caretaker, or the janitor, or the host, or the security person. Joe’s title for me was “God”. It was innocent and logical enough in the inquisitive mind of a four year old as Jo told me the story. They got in the car… “where are we going Mom?” … “We are going to God’s house”… “Oh, OK. I like God”. And going to ‘God’s house’ in young Joe’s mind meant going to Scott’s house because that was where I lived and that made me “God”. Now don’t’ worry, I haven’t taken to putting this title on a business card and I’m sure if I ever let this go to my head, the fine folks of Northwood will bring me back to earth quite quickly! But it does make us ponder what makes this place “God’s house”? It makes us wonder what identifies this community as “Christ’s people”? What are the signs and markers of the Risen Christ at Northwood as we engage in Christ’s ministry with the community and the world?
So, now that we have clarified that I am not God (and very far from it), I would like for us to ponder what it is that guides us to call this place “God’s House”? What identifies us as “God’s people”? As we turn to this morning’s text in 1 John 4, we find that the answer is Love. Love is the defining feature that defines God’s people; love is the defining feature that is found in God’s people; love is the ever-present element found that proclaims us to be unique from any other community. The Christian community is first and foremost the community founded upon love. This text before us is considered by some scholars to provide the most profound analysis of love in a Christian context that we find throughout the entire New Testament. Even more than the passage we all know so well from Paul’s letter to the community of Corinth that has been read at many a wedding: “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not jealous or envious or arrogant or bold…” this morning’s passage does more than define love, it is a call to channel God’s love through your living. And I must say that when I considered focusing on the first letter of John, I was most excited to build our reflections up to this part of the letter!
The text begins: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love”. As we consider the community whom this letter is first written, we can think of a community that has witnessed and lived acts of love. Some have stood at the foot of the cross and watched the suffering and pains of outstretched love on a cross. Some have prepared the body for burial, seeing first hands the wounds inflicted by human sin and met with love. Still others have doubted only to have their doubts transformed by the presence of a love that cannot and would not die. In all, they have found God as love in a community that have seen God in these acts of self-giving love. Indeed, believing and also seeing are the marks of the new Easter creation ~ believing and seeing are the marks of a new creature who has been born anew through the Risen Christ. Seeing and believing are not enough. They are just the beginning point of coming to know God. We come to know God in the fullest and most authentic sense when the love of God flows through. As the letter opens: “whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love”. It is amazing how many times that Jesus’ teaching ends in some version of “Go and do likewise”. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus asks the question who was the neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers. When the answer is given “the one who showed him mercy” ~ when they ‘got it’ / understood and believed ~ Jesus said “go and do likewise”. Seeing and believing are not enough. We must allow God’s love to extend through our loving. We also see this in the case of Jesus demonstrating the call to servant discipleship in his action of washing his disciples’ feet in the Upper Room. He concludes the teaching saying “so if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet”. Seeing and believing are not enough. We must allow God’s love to extend through our loving. We also see it in Jesus’ concluding parable in Matthew, often called the judgement of the nations: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Seeing and believing are not enough. We must allow God’s love to extend through our loving.
Now that sounds all well and good. And perhaps, nothing too out of character for a Sunday reflection. There is, however, a profound challenge as we continue to read through this section in the letter. This passage calls us to enter into the self-sacrificing way of our God’s way of love. The word for love being used in this passage is ‘agape’, which is a sacrificial form of love ~ a love that gives without expecting anything in return. Agape love is so important that it is used three times in the first verse! ‘agapetoi’ / “beloved … let us love / ‘agape’ ~ one another, because love / ‘agape’ is born from God. There is quite a vigorous debate over the translation of the first word, a derivation of ‘agape’ - ‘agapetoi’ ~ some versions have translated it as “dear friends” whereas others more accurately translate it as “beloved”. This letter is about how to live a self-sacrificing love ~ ‘agape’ and it is written to the “beloved” ~ the ones charged to live out that same form of self-sacrificing love that Christ first gathered them together in. We are more than just “Dear friends”, we are Christ’s ‘agapetoi’ ~ we are Christ’s “beloved” ~ ones charged to allow God’s self-sacrificing love flow through our living.
In the challenge, the writer knew that this call to live love would be profoundly difficult because there have always been profound differences between nations, religions, genders, generations, social status, and the list goes on. Each group have their own set of rules that decide who will be included in that loving circle, and who will not. And the text offers a challenge to draw our circle of love widely. Towards the end of the text it boldly proclaims “those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God who them have not seen”. All kidding aside about how dysfunctional our families are; how challenging is to love our family ~ not much…they are family. However, Jesus had broadened the definition of who our brothers and sister are a long time before this letter was written. The challenge in this letter is in how we express our love towards those who differ from us. I recall being so very moved when we hosted the closing event for Interfaith Harmony Week earlier this year. At the Interfaith Celebration, we heard from twelve different faith groups on their different understandings of peace and harmonious relations towards others. We heard prayers, and chants, and songs ~ we heard living love lived out to brothers and sisters. Last year, we heard a transgender person speak as we were considering the Affirm movement in the United Church. We heard her beautiful faith, her challenging journey of being a man trapped inside a woman’s body until after her transition. And as we considered the call to simply love our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ community, we heard the call to love. We constantly have people coming through these doors who are hungry for food, for comfort, for good. They often have very colourful language and curse; they might not smell as if they have come from a fresh shower. Yet, we offer them food from the pantry; we offer them clothes from the Thrift Store. We simply offer love. You have your own stories of the people who you come across that your are called to simply…love…not judge…or condemn…just simply to allow God’s love that you know to flow through to them. And you know the challenges you and I face in doing that. You and I know the fears we hold; the prejudices we carry. And as we consider all of that, this letter challenges us to put that all aside and simply allow God’s love to flow.
It is important, I think, to point out something as we consider loving others who are very different from us. Notice that the letter does not say that we need to “like” others; we are called to “love” them. And I think there is a difference and a challenge in this language. I am a dad and usually…I am a proud dad. But sometimes…I am not. And, I am sure others can relate to that nuance. I do not always “like” my children, but I always, always, always try to “love” them. Do I like the language that comes out of their teenage mouths at times ~ no. But my goal is always to love them. Do I like the fact that they push the boundaries of what is right and what is wrong ~ no. But my goal is always to love them. Liking is that action of judgement, and we know that judgement is not our task, it is God’s. We are not called to judge someone as ‘likeable’ or not. We are called to allow the love that we know from God to flow through our actions as we love others. “those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God who them have not seen”
In a moment, we will be invited to gather around this table. One of the most beautiful things that we do as a people ~ the sacrament of holy communion. You may already know this, but it is good to be reminded that this was originally an ‘agape feast’ ~ a love feast. It was not a symbolic meal with a tiny peace of bread and a dip of grape juice. It was a time when the entire community came together. It was a place where people shared their bounty; it was a place where others could receive who were in need. It was place of community where all were included, loved and fed. And perhaps, this morning, it is a reminder of these profoundly beautiful and challenging words: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love”.