1 John 4:7-21

What Is Love?

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1 John 4:7-21

What Is Love?

Dr. Philip W. McLarty

The fourth chapter of John’s letter could well be called, “the other love chapter,” referring, of course, to the 13th chapter of First Corinthians, where Paul says,

“If I speak with the languages of men and of angels,
but don’t have love,
I have become sounding brass,
or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Corinthians 13:1)

Paul’s words have inspired many a wedding, as he describes what love is. He writes,

“Love is patient and is kind;
love doesn’t envy.
Love doesn’t brag, is not proud,
doesn’t behave itself inappropriately,
doesn’t seek its own way,
is not provoked,
takes no account of evil;
doesn’t rejoice in unrighteousness,
but rejoices with the truth;
bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.
Love never fails.”
(1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

And, while all that may be true, deep down inside we know there’s more to it than this, and we’re left wondering, “What is love?” Children are quick to give us an answer. When asked what love is, one child had this to say:

“When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn’t bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too. That’s love.”

Another said, “Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.”

And still another said, “There are two kinds of love – our love and God’s love – but God makes them both.”

And my favorite: “When you love somebody, your eyelashes go up and down and little stars come out of you.”

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What is love? That’s what I’d like for us to think about this morning and, as far as I know, only John has been bold enough to answer the question without hedging. He says simply, “God is love,” and that means if God is love, then love is God.

This simple truth came home to me in a big way in the first church I served. I was student pastor of the Prosper Methodist Church in Prosper, Texas, just north of Dallas. It was a small church that had by been served by seminary students for years.

The folks at Prosper considered this their mission – to raise up young preachers. In fact, they delighted in having someone like me, who, when I got there, had preached a total of two sermons in my life. As far as they were concerned, the greener, the better. They considered it a challenge to coax and nurture beginning preachers into being respectable ministers of word and sacrament.

The sanctuary of the Prosper Methodist Church was a large, red-brick structure that sat high atop a limestone ridge running north and south. It was one of those old-fashioned churches with high ceilings, tall windows and curved oak pews. The pulpit was in the center of a raised, rounded chancel and overhead stood a large arch with big blocked lettering that read: God Is Love.

Those three words, set in the context of my relationship to the congregation of the Prosper Methodist Church, helped me understand better the meaning of love.

First, there was the unconditional nature of our relationship. No matter how bad the sermon on Sunday morning – and I can tell you, they heard some doozies – they weren’t going to run us off. Looking back, it’s amazing how they were willing to put up with my immaturity and lack of experience. For the first full year I was flying by the seat of my pants. I had no idea what I was doing. It’s a wonder nobody got hurt. They took it in all in stride. They’d say things like,

• “Now that’s a sermon I’ll long remember.”
• “Preacher, you explained that passage in a way I’d never heard before.”
• “One of these days you’re going to be a great preacher.”

As Paul would say, they were patient and kind. They endured all things. They never lost hope. Through it all, they gave far more than they received.

We lived in the parsonage on the south side of the church. When folks dropped by, they came to the back door. It didn’t matter whether or not we were at home. We’d drive up and find a small sack of groceries left for us on the steps. If it was something perishable, they’d put it on the kitchen table or in the refrigerator. If the door happened to be locked, they had a key.

They loved us unconditionally. They overlooked our faults and focused on our potential. They accepted what we had to offer with gratitude. They appreciated our meager efforts. And so, when I think of what love is, I think of the folks at Prosper and what it means to be accepted and affirmed and valued, warts and all.

That’s not to say love is altogether soft and mushy. The folks at Prosper had certain expectations of their minister and, when you fell short, they’d tell you.

For example, one of my older members was a self-imposed shut-in, who lived a block from the church. I say “self-imposed” because she had the ability to get out and go places when she wanted to – for example, she never missed her appointment at the beauty shop – but, for the most part, she preferred to operate out of the comfort of her own home and have folks come to her. In particular, she expected her pastor to call on her once a week.

As you might imagine, I fell short. I didn’t drop by nearly as often or stay nearly as long as she would’ve liked. And, from time to time, she’d let me know about it. She kept a journal of who came by, and on what day, and how long they stayed. I was always in arrears.

I had other church members who wanted me to attend school functions and drop by the coffee shop in the early morning hours and make an appearance at circle meetings. I did my best. Understand, they weren’t mean-spirited or unforgiving; they just had clear expectations as to what their pastor should – and shouldn’t – be doing.

We call this, “tough love.” Tough love is based on thoughts more than feelings; on objectivity, rather than subjectivity. It asks hard questions like, “Where were you? What have you done? What were you thinking?”

Tough love holds others accountable. It requires them to take responsibility. It sets clear boundaries and, as often, expresses itself in the negative, rather than the positive: “No, I won’t do it for you; you’ll have to figure it out for yourself.” “I love you, but the answer is no.”

The story is told of a young woman watching a butterfly trying to break free from its cocoon. She watched as the larva tore and scratched at the shell. It worked and worked but succeeded in opening just a slight tear. The poor creature was exhausted and seemed ready to die. A few moments later it tried again, this time even harder, and the tear grew slightly, but not nearly enough for it to get out. She watched as it seemed to give up altogether. It just broke her heart to see the poor thing suffer. So, with every good intention, she took a pair of surgical scissors and carefully snipped the wall of the cocoon, setting the larva free. She watched with pleasure as it popped out and stretched its colorful wings. But as it began to hobble around, she realized what she’d done: The long, tiring struggle was part of the process by which the butterfly would develop the strength needed to fly. By making it easy to get out of the cocoon, she had crippled it for life.

In his book, Strength to Love, Martin Luther King, Jr. talks about the need to be both tough-minded and tenderhearted. He writes:

“The idealists are not usually realistic,
and the realists are not usually idealistic.
The militant are not generally known to be passive,
nor the passive to be militant.
Seldom are the humble self-assertive,
or the self-assertive humble.
But life at its best is a creative synthesis
of opposites in fruitful harmony.” (p. 9)

He goes on to say that Jesus recognized the need for blending opposites when he taught his disciples to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. (Matthew 10:16) He says,

“We must combine the toughness of the serpent
and the softness of the dove,
a tough mind and a tender heart.” (p. 10)

This is a word we need to hear because, in our day, we’re prone to thinking of love simply as tenderheartedness – doing nice things for those we love and looking the other way when they do things we don’t approve of.

Love is more than that. It’s more than an emotions and gushy feelings; it’s a thoughtful process of prayerful deliberation that tempers compassion with reason and leads to an unselfish commitment to acting in the best interest of all, no matter how difficult, painful or disappointing.

Well, by now you know I’m just skimming the surface on the meaning of love. If you Google the word, you’ll find there’s as much written on love as just about any subject in the history of civilization. It’s baffled the mind of poets and scholars since the beginning of time.

That’s because of two things: One, it’s a mystery—you can’t pin it down exactly; and two, it’s abstract – that’s why we find the best expressions love in art and music and poetry.

When it comes to religion love often boils down to a code of ethics and moral behavior: To love God and neighbor is to do—and refrain from doing—certain things. But in the Christian faith, love is made visible in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the embodiment of love and so, just as God is love, love is … Jesus. That being the case, what can we learn from Jesus?

• For one thing, he was compassionate. Tired and weary from a long day of teaching and healing, he saw the crowds coming his way and scripture says, “He was moved with compassion for them, because they were harassed and scattered, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36) Once when a leper approached him, Mark says, “Being moved with compassion, he stretched out his hand, and touched him.” (Mark 1:41)

• Jesus felt deeply for those he loved. When he was told that his friend, Lazarus, had died, John says simply, “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)

• He also wept over Jerusalem because it was so far-removed from the Kingdom of God. He said,

“If you, even you, had known today
the things which belong to your peace!
But now, they are hidden from your eyes”
(Luke 19:42).

• That’s not to say he was touchy-feely sort of person. He all but called a Syro-Phoenecian woman a Canaanite dog, but then he went on to heal her daughter. (Mark 7:27-29)

• He once called Herod a fox (Luke 13:32) and the Pharisees whitewashed tombs (Matthew 23:27). He called a spade a spade.

Yet, in every way, Jesus was a living example of love. Everything he did and said exemplified the love of God. He was love Incarnate.

But his greatest demonstration of love was when he took the weight of our sins upon himself and bore them to the cross. Paul put it this way,

“But God commends his own love toward us,
in that while we were yet sinners,
Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

Jesus told his disciples,

“This is my commandment,
that you love one another,
even as I have loved you.
Greater love has no one than this,
that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
(John 15:12-13)

And so, if you want to know what love is, look to Jesus. In Jesus, love takes on human form and becomes for us more than a mystery and more than an abstract concept; it becomes a living example to follow, day by day. I’ve known many people over the years who’ve done just that.

• One is my daughter-in-law, Trina, who donated one of her kidneys to try to save her brother’s life.

• Another is my best friend, Lee, who spent a whole year researching a combat veteran’s death and writing a book about it in order to give the man’s grandchildren a legacy to be proud of.

• Another is Laura, the director of a shelter for battered women, who, on a moment’s notice, would go out in the middle of the night to befriend a woman in distress.

• And then there’s Pete, the director of Faith Mission who openly chided the men off the street for being such bums – they’d be standing out in front of the Mission gazing up at the sky and Pete would say, “See those guys? They’re looking for work!” – but he never refused to serve them a hot meal or give them a clean bunk on which to spend the night.

You get the point: Love is Jesus, and to love one another is to walk in his footsteps and lay down your life for others, devoting your time, talent, resources and imagination to the glory of his name.

Quickly, here are two thoughts to take home with you: One, we love because God first loved us. True love is but a grateful response to the gift of God’s love in Jesus Christ; and two, to love God is to love your neighbor. That’s how the Spirit comes to life in us and we become one in Christ. No one knew this better than Charles Wesley, who taught us to pray:

Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling;
All thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus, Thou art all compassion,
Pure unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation;
Enter every trembling heart.

Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.

Copyright 2009, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.