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1 John 4.7-21

 The fourteenth century was a tough time to be alive in England. In 1337, the Hundred Years War with France began, and lasted for 116 years. There was also a war with Scotland and struggles between kings and barons. The Bubonic Plague was a recurring threat. The Black Death broke out in 1348 and, in two years, killed between a third and half of England’s population. In 1361, there occurred a less severe, but still devastating outbreak, which became known as the Grey Death. Around 1370, another outbreak struck Norwich, England’s second largest city. Among other things, the repeated outbreaks of plague led to a labor shortage, which, combined with bad harvests, high taxes and prices, and low wages, led to civil unrest, climaxing in 1381 in the Peasants Revolt, the largest such uprising of the Middle Ages. In the church, things weren’t much better. The papacy was in exile in southern France and, back in England, aggressive campaigns to stamp our heresy led to public burnings at the stake.

          In the midst of all this death, violence, and fear, an unknown woman from Norwich received a revelation of love and hope. On May 8 [or perhaps May 13], 1373, at the age of 30, Julian of Norwich lay in bed, so sick that the priest was called to administer last rites. He held a crucifix before her and bade her look upon her savior and take comfort. When she did, she was surprised to see blood flowing from beneath the crown of thorns. So began a series of 16 visions which, after recovering from her illness, she would record in two books, each bearing the title “Shewings” or “Revelations of Divine Love,” the first books written by a woman in the English language.

          Though her visions center on Christ’s suffering and death, their content is remarkably hopeful. In the final chapter of her revised version of “Shewings,” Julian summarizes the message of the visions. She tells us that she had meditated on the visions for 15 years, trying to discern their meaning. Finally, she received an answer in what she calls “ghostly (or spiritual) understanding.” She was told:

“What, would you know your lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well: love was the meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did God show you? Love. Why did God show it: For love. Hold on to that, and you will understand more of the same. But apart from that, you will never understand anything.”

So [says Julian] I was taught that love is our Lord’s meaning. I saw most surely in this and in all that our God made that God loved us, and this love never was satisfied and never will be. All God’s works have been done in this love, and in this love God has made everything that is for our benefit, and in this love our life is everlasting. In our creation, we had a beginning, but the love in which God made us was in God without beginning. In this love we have our beginning. All this we will see in God without end. (Encounter with God’s Love, Upper Room Spiritual Classics, ed. Beasley-Topliffe, 65-66)

In an age of anxiety and judgement, an age of vivid descriptions and visions of Hell, an age of war, uprising and disease, love was revealed to Julian as both the Divine nature and purpose. It was and is a message that casts out fear and gives hope.

          Love is also a central message of 1 John. God is love, the writer declares. Not power. Not judgement. Not a king. Not even goodness. Love. This is the very nature of God—agape: self-giving, purely gratuitous love. As Hans urs von Balthasar observed, “God is not, in the first place, ‘absolute power’, but ‘absolute love.’” [Richard Clements, ed., The Meaning of the World is Love: Selected Texts from Hans urs von Balthasar with Commentary, p. 45]  God is love that gives of itself for others, that makes space for others, that seeks their good, that sacrifices for the sake of others.  

Everything that God does is an expression of love. As William Self observes, “If God creates, God does it in love. If God rules, God does it in love. If God judges, God does it in love. [If God forgives, God does it in love. If God gives, God does it in love.] God cannot help it—God is love.” [Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, 469]

God is ultimately beyond our comprehension. However, this much we can know, this much has been shown to us: God is love. Love is, says Ronald Cole-Turner, “God’s chosen self-definition.” [Ibid., 468]   This truth is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins (v. 10).  We were separated from God by our sin, cut off by our own failure to love God and neighbor. Out of a great love for us, God came to us in Jesus so that we might be reconciled, so that we might be at one with God. The Father sent his Son to be the Savior of the world (v. 14). Christ embodies God’s love, enacts God’s compassion, communicates God’s gracious forgiveness, and effects our adoption as beloved children of God. He came so that we might have abundant life: the life of love here in this world and thereafter eternal life in the presence of the God who is love.  In all of this, in this great life-giving work of salvation, says Balthasar, “God…has shown himself to be pure, free, absolute love: not an ‘idea of love,’ but love itself, concrete and active.” [Clements, ed., The Meaning of the World is Love: Selected Texts from Hans urs von Balthasar, p. 97]

Therefore, we, who have received love, ought to love as God loves. Indeed, this is the sign that we are God’s children: the one who loves is born of God. (v. 7) God’s love is primary. God loves us first and this love calls forth our love. God’s love is at once both the model for our love and the power which enables us to love. [Robert Kysar, 1 John, NIB Study Bible, note on p. 2200] Cole-Turner presents John’s argument succinctly, “To know the God of love is to live the love of God.” (468)

If God empowers us to love, then it is also God who perfects our love, who brings our love to maturity. Perfect love sounds intimidating and unachievable. But let us recall Gregory of Nyssa’s definition of perfection not as a static state, but as a state of ongoing change for the better, as a continuous growth in goodness. [On Perfection] Thus, we may understand perfect love as love that is becoming ever more mature, growing to more fully, more accurately mirror God’s own love. Such love is grounded in our experience of and trust in God’s love. We have seen God’s love displayed in Jesus. The more we trust this love, the more we believe that God really does look on us in compassion, mercy, and care, the more fully we are able to love other people. If we abide in God’s love, we will bear the fruits of love.

Love is ultimately transformative. The love of God, demonstrated in Christ and poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, remakes us in God’s image. We are enabled to grow in our capacity to love so that more and more we love others as God loves us. Our love of God and our love of neighbor are two sides of the same coin. As the influential German theologian Jürgen Moltmann has observed, “The nearer we come to Christ, the nearer we come together.” [Moltmann, “Ecumenism Beneath the Cross,” The Passionist, No. 3, 1976, p. 18]

The sixth century monk Dorotheus of Gaza provides us with a brilliant metaphor for this truth. In one of his sermons, he is exhorting his fellow monks to love one another: to forgive, act patiently, help one another and live peaceably together. He asks his audience to imagine a perfect circle, drawn with a compass so that every point on the circle is an identical distance from the center. Then he says they should imagine straight lines drawn from points on the circle to the center, like the spokes of a wagon wheel. Got that image in your heads?  He continues, “Let us suppose that this circle is the world and that God himself is the center: the straight lines drawn from the [circle[i]] to the center [,the spokes, they] are the lives of human beings.” Then, he asks us to imagine that we are traveling down the spokes of our lives, closer to the center, journeying closer to God. What happens as the spokes draw closer to the center? They converge. What happens in our lives as we draw closer to God? Our lives converge; we draw closer to one another. As our love of God increases, our love of one another necessarily increases. As we draw closer to the Parent, we draw closer to the children. And, the opposite is also true, if we move away from the children, if fear or prejudice or pride or greed decreases our love for each other, we are moving away from God.

          As Roberta Bondi has observed, “Dorotheus’s metaphor [of the circle] suggests that neither the love of God without love of people nor love of people without the love of God is possible. Human beings are made in the image of God, and this means that we cannot love God without at the same time loving God’s image.” [Bondi, To Love as God Loves, p. 27, Dorotheus’ metaphor is on p. 25] As 1 John reminds us, we cannot love God whom we don’t see, if we do not love our brothers and sisters who we do see right in front of us and there beside us. Whoever loves the Parent, will love the child; whoever loves God must learn to love God’s human children.

This is not easy. But because we know the fullness and depth of God’s love for us and the world, we will progressively become more and more able to overcome our fears and risk loving one another.     

          Philip Yancey tells of how the Lasalle Street Church in Chicago put aside fear to embody God’s love for a brother in need. There was a young man named Adolphus, an African-American veteran of Vietnam.  

He had “a wild, angry look in his eye—war had not been kind to his mind and heart… Adolphus started coming to church at LaSalle. He couldn’t keep a job, his fits of rage and bizarre behavior often landing him for a stint in the psyche ward. If he took his medication on Sunday, he was manageable. Otherwise, well, church could be even more exciting than usual. Adolphus might start at the back and high hurdle his way over the pews down to the altar. He might raise his arms in the air

during a hymn and make obscene gestures. He might wear headphones and

listen to rap music rather than the sermon.

Part of the worship service at LaSalle is called Prayers of the People

where folks stand and call out a prayer [concern]—for peace in the world, for the healing of the sick, for justice in the community—and the congregation responds with, Lord, hear our prayer after each request. Well, Adolphus figured out that the Prayers of the People was an ideal platform to air his concerns. “Lord, thank you for creating Whitney Houston and her magnificent body!” he would pray. After a

puzzled pause, a few folks would chime in weakly, “Lord, hear our prayer.” “Thank you for the big recording contract I signed last week!” Those who knew

Adolphus knew that to be nothing more than a fantasy but would dutifully join in,

“Lord, hear our prayer!”

Adolphus had already been kicked out of three other churches. He liked

making people squirm. But a group at LaSalle, including a doctor and a

psychiatrist, decided to take him on as their ministry. Whenever he had an

outburst, they’d pull him aside and talk it through--used the word “inappropriate”

a lot. “Adolphus, your anger may be justified,” they’d say, “but there are

appropriate and inappropriate ways to express it. Praying for the pastor’s house

to burn down is inappropriate.” The people of LaSalle learned that he often

walked five miles to church on Sunday because he couldn’t afford the bus fare,

so they began giving him rides to church. Some had him over for meals. Most

Christmases he spent with a staff member’s family. And against all odds,

Adolphus’ story began to take on a happy ending. He calmed down, started

calling people in the church when he felt the craziness coming on, even got

married. And after a long, long struggle, Adolphus became an official member of

the LaSalle Street Church, being able to demonstrate that he understood what it

means to be a follower of Jesus.”  [quoted from (the sermon, accessed in late 2016, is no longer posted); that sermon appears to have relied heavily upon C. Philip Green’s sermon, “Feed the Dogs,” 10/16/2009.  Yancey told the story of Adolphus in Philip Yancey, “Taking My Stand with the Church,” Leadership, Spring 1996; later posted on]

How did this redemption, this reclamation take place? Love overcame fear. Many people would have called the police and had Adolphus removed. Many would have kept their distance. But folks at LaSalle Street choose love over fear. They made the deliberate decision to care for and help Adolphus. People who had experienced the love of God, embodied it to this challenging, disruptive man. Because God loved them, they loved Adolphus.  They acted for his good, setting aside their own comfort and convenience. The Holy Spirit was at work pouring the love of God into their hearts, remaking them in the Divine image. So, they loved their brother Adolphus. Their concrete, active, embodied love of him was transformative. And, that love was evidence of their love of God and a witness to and a reflection of God’s love for Adolphus and all people.

No one has ever seen God [with their eyes], but if we love one another, love the people we see around us each day, then God lives in us and God’s love is perfected in us (v. 12), enabling us to know God more deeply and filling us with the ability and the courage to love one another more fully.

Beloved children of God, let us abide in God so that we might be shaped ever more into the image of God who is love. Let us abide in Christ so that we might be nurtured by Divine love and enabled to bear the fruit of love. Let us abide in that perfect love which casts out fear, so that we may be bold and love one another as God has loved us.