“What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” That may be true, but what is love and where does it come from? Do we need to just sing some silly love songs, because, as Paul McCartney put it, “some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs, and what’s wrong with that?”
If what the world needs now is love, then we need to define our terms. Is love a feeling, an emotion, or something else? The love songs that fill the air usually speak of tender feelings between two people, because “when I fall in love, it will be forever, or I’ll never fall in love.” If we’re honest with ourselves, each of us has probably “fallen in love” a couple of times. It’s possible that we have found a love that “will be forever,” but perhaps not.
When Jesus shared the two love commands, which he drew from the Hebrew Bible, he had more in mind than feelings. He used the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate neighborly love. You know the story, a person gets mugged, and one by one the people you expect to be good neighbors pass by on the other side. When someone does stop, it’s a stranger who comes from a despised people. Here is the good neighbor. The hero of Jesus’ story would have shocked his first century audience. I will leave it to you to imagine whom Jesus might use today (Lk 10:29-37). While the person in the ditch might have evoked a sense of compassion in the heart of the Samaritan, it takes more than feelings to stop and help a stranger in distress.
The first word in today’s reading from 1 John is “Beloved.” John addresses his readers with the Greek word agapētoi. I wanted to share this Greek word, because a form of the word agapē appears twenty-six more times by my count in this passage. So, whatever John means by love in this passage is wrapped up in this Greek word.
John invites the “beloved” community to “love one another, because love is from God.” We can share love with one another because God “first loved us.” One of the commentators I was reading spoke of the relationship of the indicative to the imperative. In this passage the indicative, or descriptive verb, always comes before the imperative, or command. We can’t put the imperative first, because that suggests we can earn God’s love. But, we can’t separate the indicative from the imperative, because God’s love should lead to our love of God and neighbor.
This is one of the most beloved passages of Scripture, because of its declaration that God is love. Not only is God love, but we can abide or live in that love. We do this by loving our brothers and sisters. That’s because you can’t hate your brother or sister, whom you can see, and then say you love God, whom you can’t see.
Getting back to definitions, we use the word “love” to cover a lot of territory. For example, I love the Giants. I also love Cheryl. But, these two loves are not the same. The Greek language offers us several words that we translate as love, including phileo, eros, storgē, as well as agapē. Each of these forms of love have their own meanings and purposes. Sometimes they’re used interchangeably, but not in this case. John uses a very specific word, which suggests that he has a very specific meaning in mind.
So what does agapē mean? Tom Oord defines this word as “acting intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being, in response to that which produces ill-being.” He goes on to further define agapē as a form of love that “promotes, extends, or attempts to establish shalom in response to that which promotes sin and evil.” [Oord, Nature of Love, p. 56]. In 1 John the evil that is being promoted is division within the Christian community.
When John writes that God is love and that those who love God will love their brothers and sisters, he isn’t thinking in terms of feelings. He’s speaking of a commitment to the welfare of the other. While the audience of this message is a congregation; that is the starting point and not the end point. I think we can extend this to the broader community. A good example of this movement beyond the congregation is the Iftar Dinner we will host on May 23rd with the Turkish American Society. These dinners, which we have hosted over the past few years build solidarity between this congregation and our Muslim friends, some of whom have family members who are in prison or threatened with prison in Turkey because of their affiliations. This dinner is an act of love that binds two communities together.
We can speak of love in the abstract, but ultimately true love must be embodied. While true love may not always involve emotion, it always is relational. When John speaks of love here, he has in mind God’s relationship with creation. He also has our relationships with each other another in mind. According to John, all of this starts with God, who makes the first relational move, just like a loving parent first reaches out to their baby.
I titled the sermon “abiding in God’s love,” because that is the invitation I hear John offering us. To “abide in God’s love,” is to rest in God’s loving and protective embrace. We might turn to the parental relationship as an illustration. Although a parent’s love has an emotional component, it runs deeper than emotions. Parents reach out to their new born in love, embracing the child, before that infant can ever reciprocate. I realize that in the first century parent-child relationships were different from today’s relationships, but for our own purposes can we imagine this relationship illustrating God’s love for creation? Early in life, as a parent tends to the needs of that baby who provides no material benefit, a bond is forged. Getting up in the middle of the night to feed a hungry baby can do that to you! While I don’t know that John had the parent-child relationship in mind, it seems to fit, doesn’t it? If you’ve been a mom or a dad, you know what it’s like to bond with your child.
Whenever I talk about God and love, I tend to look to theologian Tom Oord for guidance. Tom agrees with John that God is love, but love isn’t just one of God’s characteristics, it’s the defining characteristic of God’s nature. Everything about God flows from love. According to Tom, “God’s love is necessarily self-giving and others empowering” (Uncontrolling Love, p. 5). That means that God doesn’t love because God feels like it or expects to receive something in return. God loves, because that is who God is. God’s love empowers us so we can love. That is important for this time and place in history.
John speaks to one of our primal experiences, and that is fear. Fear is rooted in the reptilian part of our brain. It’s a built-in defense mechanism, a sort of virus protection, that is rooted in our early evolutionary development. Unfortunately, it tends to take over when we feel threatened or uncomfortable, and that can be devastating to our relationships. There is a version of the song “What the Word needs Now,” that was put together by a Detroit DJ named Tom Clay. It mixes the song with references to the Vietnam war, the Civil Rights Movement, and the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. This mix contains a series of questions posed to a child about the words segregation, hate, bigotry, and prejudice. While he didn’t know the definition of the words, when it came to the word prejudice, he answers: “I think it’s when someone is sick.” Indeed!
What the world needs now is love, the kind of love that addresses our fears. As John puts it, “there is no fear in love.” In fact, “perfect love casts out fear.” To abide in God is to abide in love, and to abide in love is to root out fear and hatred. Prejudice, hate, bigotry, segregation, these are all signs, in the words of that young boy in that old mixed song, that “someone is sick.” To abide in love, is to abide in God, and therefore, to find healing and wholeness.
So have no fear, because God, who is love, is here among us. Jesus, the Son, embodied that love. We experience that love now through the presence of the Spirit, who brings healing, wholeness, and empowerment, so that we might love one another, as Christ has loved us. That’s true, even when we might not have tender feelings toward the other.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
April 29, 2018