The story is told of a congregation who had just called a new minister. Everyone was excited about meeting their new pastor and hearing him preach. Come Sunday morning, the sanctuary was packed. The people sat on the edge of their pews in anticipation of his first sermon. Sure enough, it was a doozy. He selected as his text, 1 John 4:11, “Beloved, if God loved us in this way, we also ought to love one another.” As the sermon ended, heads nodded, and the Pastor Nominating Committee breathed a huge sigh of relief. He was a keeper.
But the next Sunday, as the new minister read the text for the day, a few of the old saints raised their eyebrows, for it was the same text as the Sunday before – 1 John 4:11, “Beloved, if God loved us in this way, we also ought to love one another.” They’d never heard two consecutive sermons on the same text before, but, to give the new preacher the benefit of the doubt, they listened carefully and tried to be open-minded. But as the preacher began his sermon, lo and behold, it was the exact same sermon they’d heard the week before, word for word.
They didn’t know what to make of it. “Was this some sort of joke?” they wondered. “Were they supposed to get some deeper meaning the second time around?” “Was he even aware that he was repeating himself?” Out of courtesy, they didn’t say anything. They just listened politely and, when the service was over, shook hands at the door and said something like, “That was a mighty interesting sermon you had for us today, Reverend.”
The next Sunday, everyone was on pins and needles. The tension was thick as the service began. One could sense that a storm was brewing. When the new minister began reading the text, the congregation began squirming in their seats, for, once again, he read from 1 John 4:11, “Beloved, if God loved us in this way, we also ought to love one another.” And, to their dismay, he began the sermon with the same exact words as the two Sundays before.
But before he could get past the introduction, one of the elders jumped up and said, “Preacher, we’ve heard this sermon twice now. What gives?” The minister looked at the elder and said, “Why, nothing, really. Do this, and I’ll give you another sermon next week!”
“Beloved, if God loved us in this way, we also ought to love one another.” This is the heart and soul of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s what distinguishes us as Christians. In the words of the old camp song, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” God loves us, and we, in turn, love one another – that’s the essence of the Christian faith. Yet, when you try to put love into action, it’s a lot easier said than done.
Face it, sometimes we don’t feel very loving, and, to be honest, some folks are a lot easier to love than others.
This morning I’d like for us to look behind the admonition, to love one another as God loves us, in order that we might rediscover what is the source of love, and, in so doing, tap into the well-spring of a love that is both encompassing of all those we meet and enduring over the changing seasons of our lives. To cut to the chase, let’s begin with the first two verses of the text for today, where John says,
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God;
and everyone who loves is born of God, and knows God.
He who doesn’t love doesn’t know God,
for God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)
If you want a sermon outline, here’s your thesis: The source of all love is God, for God is love.
When I first entered the ministry in 1971, I was appointed to serve as the student pastor of the Prosper Methodist Church in Prosper, Texas, just north of Dallas. The church sat high on a ridge that ran from north to south through the center of town. It was a large Romanesque structure with a lofty, peaked roof rising above the tree line, majestic steps leading up from the street, and twin columns flanking the entrance. Inside, the pews were arranged in a semi-circular pattern with the focal point being the pulpit, and, high above the pulpit, there was a massive arch with the words emblazoned in gold, “God is Love.” Somehow, having that inscription above me when I preached gave me confidence that, no matter how far short of the mark I might fall, the folks would never fail to get the essential message of gospel, that God is love and, as such, loves us unconditionally and invites us to love each other in return.
The source of all love is God, for God is love. It sounds so obvious; yet it’s not, because, unconsciously, we believe that, somehow, the source of love is within us, that we have the capacity to love, separate and apart from God. This is the subject of endless songs, movies and romance novels – when a man loves a woman, and a woman loves a man. We talk about love of friends and family, patriotism and love of country. Except for those of religious persuasion, it’s as if God doesn’t have anything to do with it at all.
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When you think about it, the word, love, for us is a generic term that conjures up a variety of meanings and connotations. It can refer to a feeling powerful enough to cause us to do crazy things, and it can just as easily refer to a devotion to an individual or group that demands loyalty, fidelity, commitment and sacrifice. Love can be as fickle as a passing whim – as in, “I just love Starbuck’s new Caramel Frappacino drink” – or, it can be as enduring as life itself – as in, “Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down…”
Poets and writers and mystics through the ages have expressed the meaning of love in countless ways, but none more eloquently than the Apostle Paul, who wrote,
“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 13:4-8a)
I’m often asked to read this passage in a wedding service. When I do, I like to point out the fact that, as much as we might like to think of love in this way, this is hardly descriptive of the love we know. Our experience of love is often anything but patient and kind. We are prone to jealousy when someone we love shows too much attention to someone else. We can’t help boasting when we do something extraordinary, or being arrogant and rude when others fall short of our expectations. Most of us, from about age two on, want to do things our way, and we tend to get pretty irritable and resentful when we’re forced into submission to others. We’d like to think that we genuinely wish the best for others, but, to be honest, we can’t help but snicker when some big shot gets what’s coming to him.
All this is to say, there’s a big difference between the love Paul describes to the Corinthians and the love we experience from day to day. How do you explain this? The answer is, humanly speaking, we don’t have the capacity to love, separate and apart from God. We can feel infatuation, and we can practice reciprocity, returning a favor to someone who does something nice for us. But, as for love – genuine love – that can only come from God.
The Good News is, when we’re willing to place God at the center of our lives, God’s love fills our hearts and gives us the grace to love one another, not just in part and for the moment; but fully, intimately, completely, and for all time. Only love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Only love such as this lasts forever.
And so, contrary to what the world would have us believe, the source of love is not within us; it’s within the very being of God, for “God is love, and he who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him.” (1 John 4:16)
Having said that, we should hasten to add, God’s love is anything but abstract. Perhaps in literature, love is a concept, an ideal, a principal on which to base lofty philosophical notions.
But, in the Christian faith, God’s love is concrete and specific. In the words of our text today:
“By this God’s love was revealed in us,
that God has sent his one and only Son into the world
that we might live through him.
In this is love,
not that we loved God, but that he loved us,
and sent his Son as the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:9-10)
The death and resurrection of Jesus is the starting place to a life of devotion to God and service to others. It’s the source of our ability to love God, neighbor and self. Because Christ died for our sins, we’re free to live in gratitude to God and share the Good News of forgiveness with others. Because, through Christ, we’re reconciled to God, we’re free to offer the possibility of reconciliation to others. And because, in Christ, God supplies the things we need for a full and abundant life, we’re free to reach out to others in the name of Jesus Christ with gifts of kindness and generosity. The truth is, in a word, “We love him, because he first loved us,” (1 John 4:19) and the tangible proof of God’s love is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
God’s love is anything but abstract. It’s concrete and specific, and this is the way we’re called to love one another, not with gushy feelings, but with deeds of loving kindness. As the writer of the Letter of James puts it:
“And if a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food,
and one of you tells them,
“Go in peace, be warmed and filled;”
and yet you didn’t give them the things the body needs,
what good is it?” (James 2:15-16)
In 1975, I was asked to serve as the pastor of a church in Quinlan, Texas, just east of Dallas near Lake Tawakoni. When I arrived, I learned that the former pastor had set up a bank account to help those who called on the church for assistance. He called it the “Love in Action” fund. One day a young couple dropped by the church on their way through town. It seems they’d had a run of bad luck. They’d lost their jobs and had to move out of their apartment.
They’d gone to his parents’ house, but his parents were unable to help. They’d gone to her parents’ house, but her parents asked them to leave. They’d been sleeping in the car for the past week, pooling their money for peanut butter and crackers, cokes and sardines. Now, they were out of money, about out of gas, completely exhausted and ready to throw in the towel. They had decided to split up and go their separate ways, not because they no longer loved each other, but because they simply didn’t know what else to do. When they saw a car in front of the church, they decided to drop by, more or less as a last-ditch effort.
I asked them to sit down, and we began to talk, but it was obvious, we weren’t going to make much headway, as tired as they were. So, I sent them out to a small motel on the edge of town where I agreed to pay for their room for two nights, plus meals at the adjacent café. They said they’d come back and see me on the third day. Sure enough, three days later they knocked at the door of my study. I couldn’t believe the transformation. They didn’t look like the same couple as before. They were clean and fresh, with bright smiles on their faces. Their clothes were washed and ironed. What’s more, they had a plan. They said they were going to drive to Commerce, where he would enroll at East Texas State University, and she knew a place to get a job. They figured they could get into married students’ housing, and he could get a job on campus, if he needed to. As for counseling, they just looked at each other and laughed and said, “No thanks. We just came by to say thank you.”
What’s funny about this story is that, a few days later, the treasurer of the church got the bill from the motel. He called and asked me what was going on. “What do you mean?” I asked, “Did the motel overcharge us?” He said, “Oh, no, they gave us a great rate.” “So, what’s the problem?” I asked. He laughed and said, “Oh, I don’t know, it’s just that, when we set up the account, I had no idea this is what we meant by love in action!”
The source of our love is God, and God’s love is concrete and specific, first in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and repeated, over and over again, in deeds of loving kindness we’re able to share with others in Christ’s name.
“We love him, because he first loved us.” And, if we’re faithful, our love is seen in countless ways – like building a Habitat house for a deserving family, or tutoring a child at Anson Jones Elementary, or serving as one of the Voices for Children, or delivering meals on wheels, or visiting the homebound, or praying with those who are going through a difficult time, or taking time to play with a child, or listening to a young person, or taking a plate of cookies to a newcomer on the block.
God is the source of all love, and the miracle is, the more you give away, the more God gives you in return.
Well, here’s what I hope you’ll take home with you today: 1 John 4:11, “Beloved, if God loved us in this way, we also ought to love one another.” Do this, and I’ll give you another sermon next week!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Copyright 2003, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.