Rev. Caroline Barnett
In the Thick of It
1 John 4:7-21
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.
And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.
We love because he first loved us.
Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
If I had to guess, and now I may be way off base, but I think that John is trying to tell us something about love here. Just a hunch I have.
Here are the clues: in this 14 verse pericope, he uses some form of the word agape— which means love in Greek— a total of 27 times. There are only three verses that do not include the word love.
So I would have to guess that John has something to say about love.
God loves us.
We love God.
We should love one another.
Like a closed loop, these three statements encircle John’s theology, each informing one another.
You can’t have one without another—
You cannot love God without loving others.
It is by being loved by others that God’s love is made real to us.
And regardless of what we do, God is love.
And so they keep going— God loves, love God, love others. Over and over again.
It is a clear— if a little repetitive— reminder that God’s love is not a one-way hierarchy, but a mutual connection that continually loops us back to God.
God loves, love God, love others.
And it is made all the more clear (if it weren’t already) by the second and third most used phrases: “abide in me” and “God abides in you.”
At no point, does one phrase come without the other. You cannot abide in God, without understanding that God already abides in you. God abides in you, you abide in God.
This love John is so keen to talk about understands that divine love requires mutuality, reciprocity, and connection.
Which, if you think about it, is a bold statement to make.
It is one thing for us to love God, for humans to direct our love, worship, and devotion to the divine being that set this world into motion.
It is another entirely to say that the very same God who formed the mountains and stars and sky, God who rules the universe also loves us— loves you, loves me— deeply.
And for the people of the ancient world, who live a world order that went
- Enslaved humans
- peasants and merchants,
- kings and emperors
it’s even more outlandish.
In a stratified world order, humans point their devotion to a god who is far above them, and in return, the gods might extend favor toward you.
So, it is almost unthinkable, to say that not only should we give our affection to God, that we should seek to abide in God, but that God first loved us, and first abided in us.
Divine love has a way of flattening any human-made hierarchy into a circle with no beginning or end.
But we know this is true. Perhaps we have experienced this divine love in our own lives, but if we need a reminder, we can look to the stories of God in scripture.
Because our God didn’t just set the world in motion, rest and let it be. No, God got back up from God's sabbath and kept on loving the world.
If God’s love needed the hierarchy that put distance between God and everything else, there would have been no need for creation that God carefully crafted and called good.
There would have been no need for God to create covenants with Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob that said, "I will be with you and your descendants."
There would be no need poetry to remind us that God walks besides God’s people in the darkest valley, offering them rest and care as only a shepherd can.
And if God’s love wanted distance, one-way devotion, and hierarchy there would have been no need for Jesus.
Because the incarnation of Jesus is the embodiment of God abiding in humanity.
It is love in the thick of it: up close and personal.
It is the love of mother who gives her birth to son, knowing full well the pain human existence brings.
It is the love encased in a body that grows and breathes and bleeds and might have even done something so human as to have sneezed on occasion.
(Think for a minute, about the implications of worshipping a God who knows what it’s like to sneeze.)
God’s love exists in human bones and flesh and breath. And so God’s love exists in your human bones and flesh and breath.
In a world of hierarchy and order, this sort of abiding and embodied love is uncomfortable.
So uncomfortable that there were some within the early church who could not believe that the incarnate God-in-Jesus experienced human, bodily pain. Unable to grasp how humanity and divinity could abide together, they said that Jesus was not actually human, but only pretended to be so.
Though not explicitly mentioned in this passage, but elsewhere in this letter, John speaks directly against the people who state that Christ cannot be fully divine AND fully human. He goes so far as to call them anti-Christs— not because they are some supernatural demons—but because to deny the humanity of Christ— and therefore deny the way divine love abides in our world— is antithetical to the Gospel message.
Though I understand the impulse to say that God cannot suffer, that God cannot be humiliated, that God would not do something so ordinarily human as sneeze, the implication is that God does not know what it is like to be human— the good, the bad, the boring—and that God is above us, separate from us.
It would say that God does not abide in us, that God’s love isn’t actually reciprocal and mutual, but hierarchal and distant.
But as John makes a point to say, God is love, and it is a love that abides in us, just as it abides in Christ.
And then, it is a love that adds another layer to the mix — it’s not just us loving God and God loving us, but us loving others and being loved by others because of God.
Our love for one another must similarly bypass the hierarchies in our own lives and the belief that some people are worthy of love and dignity while others are not.
It is a love that is not scared by the pain of our human existence, instead it a love that compels us to enter into the thick of it with others.
In 2012, Nicole Teague learned she had terminal cancer at the age of 34. Her husband Matthew was with her every step of the way— as we expect and hope of partners and family members— but what was unexpected was that their friend Dane was there with them.
Dane, who they had met in college, who had no familial or marital obligation to them, visited one day— and he simply never left. For over two years, until after Nicole died, he stayed to care for the both of them. He gave up his job and apartment in another city. His other relationships couldn’t understand his decision, but still Dane moved in.
He saw everything. All the unpleasant, bodily pain that accompanies illness. All the emotional trauma that grief creates. He was in the thick of it, witnessing the starkest, grimmest details of life and death. The details we tend to hide from one another when we want to appear strong; the ones that end up making us human. The details of humanity Christ also experienced.
In reflecting on Nicole’s death, Matthew writes: “The only remarkable element was Dane. I had married into this situation, but how had he gotten here? Love is not a big-enough word. He stood and faced the reality of death for my sake. He is my friend.”
Love is not a big enough word.
Love is not a big enough word to describe Dane’s relationship with Matthew and Nicole.
It is not a big enough word to describe the millions of ways we show for one another in the thick of life.
Love is not a big enough word to describe the circle that is God, you, and me.
So perhaps, this is why John repeats so many times.
Because John knows those four letters—five in the Greek— cannot capture all of who God is and all of who we can be. And yet, that is the word we have, so John uses it as much as he possibly can.
In that one word, God shortens the distance between the divine and the humanity, implodes the hierarchy, and makes space for a way of being that this relational, mutual, and abiding.
Over and over again, that one word connects us to God and one another when we are in the thick of it.