Title: The boundaries of God’s love
Date: April 26, 2009 (3rd Sunday of Easter)
Texts: Psalm 4, Acts 3:12-19, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36b-48
Author: Thomas Lehman
When I started to prepare this message I was drawn to the passage from 1 John Ch. 3. Verse two deserves special mention before I take up the passage as a whole. It reads: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” This is a candid admission that the author doesn’t know what God intends to do to conclude this chapter of history; he makes no wild end-times prophecy, nothing that could be made into a best-selling book or Hollywood movie. He is content, as we should be, to say that the end is in God’s hands, and we are his children. A purely human analogy is this: when the family starts on a vacation trip, little children have no idea what lies ahead. Nor do we, in contemplating an end to history as we know it.
I was attracted to 1 John Ch 3 because I have seldom developed a sermon entirely around any passage found behind the book of Acts; the first words of the chapter have great appeal: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God.” The assertion of God’s great love for humanity is a cornerstone of Christian belief, and ought to be proclaimed.
Before long I was not so sure I had made a good choice. The first reason is this: Even a moment’s reflection might convince you that the most difficult sermons to write can be those on the most familiar themes, because everyone has heard them expounded many times. (Ryan met the challenge very well on Easter.) William Willimon, former dean of the chapel at Duke, has said this quite bluntly in a reference to preaching at Christmas, and it seems almost as true for me at this moment.
To get started, I read all three books: 1, 2, and 3 John to see how the writer’s mind worked. (This takes only a few minutes.) This reading revealed a few traits that trouble me, along with lots of good advice to young believers.
Lectionary passages are usually whole paragraphs in the familiar Bible translations. This time that is not the case. We have consecutive verses from two paragraphs; what is omitted is significant, as we have come to expect when the Lectionary does this. Note that the writer of 1 John refers to himself as “the elder,” and so does the following comment, in which I slightly paraphrase the opinion of one NT scholar: “Here the modern reader encounters some startling claims about just and unjust conduct… Discomfort with the elder’s language is a typical reaction. This may explain the Revised Common Lectionary’s decision (for this Sunday) to select only Chapter 3, verses 1-7, omitting the three verses at the end of the paragraph. The reaction of many to 1 John 3:4-10 is: ‘Perhaps the preacher should take a hint from the Lectionary and take a vacation from this text.’” Isaac, did you know what you were doing to me?
My biggest problem with the text has to do with the writer’s great fondness for dualities, i.e., for seeing the world in simple either/or categories such as light and darkness, good and evil, flesh and spirit, truth and falsehood, always assuming that each term is sharply defined and each pair embraces everything. This is perfectly illustrated by 1 John 3:7, which is in today’s passage, and verse 8, which is not. Here they are together: “Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.” There they are–perfect little children and little devils; the duality hits you in the face. Moreover, the writer contradicts it in 1 John 1:8: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” So much for “Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil.” The duality breaks down at once.
Some genuine dualities exist –– computers store and manipulate information entirely as a string of ones and zeros. A light bulb is either on or off. Then there are fuzzy or even false dualities: We usually think of politics in the United States as a competition between Republicans and Democrats, but candidates from four other parties were on the presidential ballot in 2008. The obvious human distinction between male and female might seem to be a perfect duality, but modern surgery has allowed a few people to migrate across the chasm from one to the other. From about 1950 to 1990 the so-called two superpowers imposed a political duality on practically all nations of the world: you were either on the side of the Soviet Union or the United States, with no neutral ground. This was dreadfully harmful.
Soon after 9/11 President George W. Bush said “”Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Hillary Clinton said much the same thing a few days earlier. Jesus also expressed the same idea in Matthew 12:30 and elsewhere.
I am suspicious of dualities. They are often flawed; the bad ones describe reality too narrowly, and thus deceive us. The world is rarely so simple. However, we find it easy to think in terms of them. I consulted Chris Huebner, who says that dualities can have a place in Christian thought by pointing people in one direction rather than the other, though he shares my suspicion of dualities. Whether they are important enough to support an entire world-view is the question. Dualism is the philosophy that sees the whole of human experience in terms of dualities. People who see the world this way are not my kind of people because they oversimplify and distort things.
So ends my harangue against dualities and dualism. The good news – and remember that the word ‘gospel’ means good news – is that to proclaim that “God is love” in no way commits us to cast this as one end of a duality. For Christians, it stands by itself as a fundamental truth. God is love.
The Westminster Confession of Faith describes God in a burst of twenty superlative terms. The writer of 1 John expresses his entire doctrine of God in three words: God is love. (Handbook of Christian theology, 1958, p. 217)
Albert Schweitzer, speaking of Jesus, said nearly the same thing in these words: “The subject of all His preaching is love, and, more generally, the preparation of the heart for the Kingdom.” [Out of my Life and Thought, Ch. 6] Love is the one essential quality of Christian life. Love trumps everything else, including understanding. We are to love even those whose ways we do not or cannot understand, and that is hard. Christianity is not easy.
God’s love for humanity requires God to express a personal aspect, all the while being a greater God than we can comprehend. Love is inexpressible between two beings that have absolutely nothing in common and cannot communicate with each other. (See A. E. McGrath in Theology: the Basics. Blackwell, 2004, Ch 2.) God’s love for us is a divine-human bond. Does it mean that we should love all of God’s creation? In this week of Earth Day it is tempting to say “Amen,” though I will not do so, because I cannot imagine that God loves all the bacteria that attack and sometimes end human life. We can say, however, that we should faithfully care for creation and for the quality of life.
First, second and third John were written to a beloved community. God’s love for us in 1 John 3 and elsewhere is to become the love of the community members for each other, and this attracts others into the community. (Swartley, Covenant of Peace, ch. 10) The writer makes this very clear in a later verse that is not in any lectionary passage, so I use it here: 1 John 3:11 reads “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.” Unless we reflect God’s love to others, how are they to know that God loves them? Our love for others is much more than smiles and handshakes; it takes various forms¬– patient listening, sustained collaboration, and sometimes hard work, and sacrifice.
The elder, the author of 1 John, asserts that God loves us before we do righteous deeds; we cannot earn God’s love. (Paraphrase of comment in NIB p 410) He assumes that children love their parents and imitate them, and moreover that we are all the children of a loving heavenly Father. Thus we should acquire Godly traits as we imitate our Father in heaven.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that parents are in a way the first representatives of God for their children. (See A. E. McGrath in Theology: the Basics. Blackwell, 2004, p 34) Today the parents of Nora Claire Plummer declare their intention to raise her “in the strong and tender providence of God.” (Hymnal, 791) In this we join them, for it is the sacred duty of all of us to express the love of God to each other and especially to the young children in this congregation. They should know, as soon as they are able to perceive it, that they are loved, admired and valued by this community of believers, and I can hardly imagine any of them going seriously astray when raised in an environment of sustained and sustaining love.
Much the same idea was beautifully expressed by the anthropologist Loren Eiseley in an essay entitled “An Evolutionist Looks at Modern Man.” (Adventures of the Mind, Knopf, 1959, pp, 7, 13) “(T)he human infant enters the world in a peculiarly helpless and undeveloped condition…no creature in the world demands more love than man; no creature is less adapted to survive without it.”
Looking beyond ourselves to a needy world, we must remember that “(t)he church is a family with an open heart, not a business with a bottom line.” (NIB p 411) At the next Congregational Life Meeting a short list of suggested service projects will be offered; a Habitat work day has already been scheduled. One can wield a shovel or swing a hammer to show God’s love for humanity, as MCC and Mennonite Disaster Service have long demonstrated.
To say that God is love is both comfort and challenge; a comfort to all of us as we try to lead Christian lives, and sometimes fail; and a challenge to radiate the love of God in all directions. We should do no less. The boundaries of God’s love for humankind are determined solely by how far we extend them.