This summer our family will take its first vacation to Florida. We will be going to the Gulf Coast area near Pensacola. Now while I am looking forward to a chance to get away and spend some time at the beach, what really excites me is the opportunity to go to some places I haven’t seen for thirty years.
The first seven years of my life that I can actually remember were spent in Pensacola. There are a couple of places I would like to see if time permits, but in particular I am hoping that we will be able to attend the Divine Service at Redeemer Lutheran Church. I attended church there and also went to the parochial school from first to third grade, when we then moved to Indiana.
It was while I was in the setting of Redeemer and her school that I became sure that I wanted to become a pastor. While there were certainly family examples and influences – I’m not exactly the first person during the last six generations to do this – it was at Redeemer that I came to recognize that I just liked being at church; that it just felt right.
As many of you know, my experience in school only served to confirm that the ministry was the right choice for me. Math and science were not my thing. Now don’t get me wrong – I got all A’s – but I didn’t enjoy it and I knew that I would never excel at it. Foreign languages, history and literature – the humanities in general – was what I enjoyed and was really good at.
And so in the fall of 1988 I went off to Concordia College in Ann Arbor, MI as a pre-seminary student. There, in addition to Greek and Hebrew, I got my first real taste of studying theology and church history. And it was a rush. I had never encountered anything that fired my mind like this – not even trains. The subject was both intellectually stimulating and spiritually important because it was about God and his salvation for us.
Studying theology was like a drug – it provided a kind of spiritual and intellectual high. I was hooked … and I still am. The day I stop studying and writing about theology is the day I am dead or just mentally incapable of doing it anymore.
But along the way, some things have changed. To this day I appreciate learning things that are new, interesting and profound. But there was a time when I would have sort of turned up my nose at a text like our epistle lesson for this morning. It’s really very straightforward. Its focus is rather mundane.
However, along the way I got married; and had children; and became a parish pastor for a decade. And in those experiences I learned that frankly, this is what the Christian faith and life is all about. In the midst of its simplicity, there is a profundity here that we spend our whole lives trying to understand and to put into practice. It is a message that we need to hear again and again because of who we are and because of what God has done for us in his Son, Jesus Christ.
The first words of our text this morning say, “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.” Unfortunately, this drops us right into the middle of the conversation. John is talking about knowing and believing God’s love for us. He does so because of what he said just prior to the start of our text.
There John wrote, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
John is going to talk a lot about love. He is going to talk a lot about loving one another. But the starting point for this whole discussion is the love that God that has shown for us in Christ. In our text John says, “We love because he first loved us.” We see that he is summarizing what he had just said. John tells us that God is love. But this love is not some abstract principle. It is not some kind of divine warm fuzzy. Instead, God is love and this love is made known in action.
God made known his love for us by sending his Son into the world in the incarnation. He sent him to die on the cross as the sacrifice – as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. By his death, God executed his judgment against our sin. And by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, God has conquered death and brought us life. As those who have been born again through water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism, we have come to share in this life. Eternal life is already ours now, and we will share in its consummation when Christ raises and transforms our bodies to live with him forever. As John said in the previous chapter, “Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”
This is the love we have received from God. As we believe in the Son of God, we remain in this love and God remains in us. John says in our text, “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.”
This love from God is not an aimless thing. It has a goal. It has a purpose. The love of God in Christ reached its goal when our Lord died on the cross and rose from the dead. And now God wants that same love to reach its goal in us. In our text John writes, “By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment.” The word translated here as “perfected” here means to accomplish or complete. Because of baptism and faith, God’s love in Christ has reached its goal with us and so we have confidence for the day of judgment. We know that we are the forgiven children of God who will enjoy the fullness of resurrection life in the new creation.
But God wants his love in Christ to be perfected – to reach its goal - in another way as well. Just before our text John wrote, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” God’s love is perfected – it reaches its goal – when we love one another.
Now the opposite of love, is of course, hate. And so John goes on to say in our text, “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
The Christian life is very simple. The Gospel says that because God has loved you in Christ, you don’t get to hate other people. You can’t choose to stay angry with other people. You can’t harm other people by what you do and say.
And likewise, because God has loved you in Christ – because he acted to help you – now you act to help other people. John says in the previous chapter, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
John says that talk is cheap. Instead, love acts in ways that serve and help the brother or sister. And you know who is first on that list? The members of your family – your husband or wife; your son or daughter; you mother and father; your brother or sister. You know who is next on that list? The members of this congregation and the other Christians you know, because those are the ones to whom John refers first and foremost when he uses the term “brothers.” And you know who else is on the list? All of the other people you encounter in your various vocations, because God’s love is a love that extends to the whole world.
The Gospel that John shares with us today is a message that is profoundly simple. It is simple because it says this: God loved you in Christ, and so now as those born again by this love, you love others. It is profound because the entire basis for the Gospel is the fact that the creator of the cosmos became flesh and served us. It is profound because God’s Spirit has acted upon you to change you – to give you new life and make this life of love possible.
And it is also the same message that you hear every single week. It is the same message that you need to hear every week, because while you do see this love present and at work in our life, you don’t see it all the time. And in fact, at the beginning of the letter John says that this is the way things are. In words that are so familiar to you he writes, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
The old man, the sinful nature remains and it battles against the new man who has been born through water and the Word. In that struggle this past week, you know the times and ways that the old man got the upper hand. You know those times when rather than struggling against the old man, you in fact embraced him.
And that is why every week we need to hear this good news: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” In that forgiveness – in that love – we find peace and strength to go forth as we start a new week. We go forth strengthened by the Spirit of God with this knowledge from our text: “We love because he first loved us.”