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1 John 5.1-5.6 & John 15.9-17

One of my seminary professors, E. Glenn Hinson, was a long-time faculty member at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville. When a well-organized group of fundamentalists, uber-conservative Christians, began a takeover of the seminary, he was one of the faculty members they really went after. This was partially because his theology was too “liberal” by their standards, but also because he dared speak out against what they were doing. I don’t know all the details of that tumultuous time, but it was obvious to me that Dr. Hinson had been deeply hurt.

          Often during class, he would launch into a beautiful, eloquent discourse on the boundless wonders of God’s love. On occasion, he would conclude by underlining the truth that “God loves everyone.” And then, with a sly smile, he would add, “Even fundamentalists!” There was a measure of pain behind those words, but there was grace as well. I think that Dr. Hinson was reminding us, and himself in the process, of the amazing fact that God’s love embraces even those we think undeserving, those who have hurt us, those we call enemies. Indeed, God had already embraced the fundamentalists, for they too were baptized believers in Christ. They were fellow children of God. They too had been born of God.  Thinking back, I hear in Hinson’s statement an invitation; an invitation to love as God loves, embracing our brothers and sisters just as God has embraced all of us.

          A long and deep relationship with God had shaped Dr. Hinson and made him one of the most gracious persons I have ever met. Now he was reminding himself of the depth and breadth of God’s love and trying, with God’s help, to imitate it by leaving open the door of reconciliation with the fellow Christians who had been his foes. Because he loved his Divine Parent, he also loved his fellow children.

          The author of 1 John leaves no doubt that we should love God. God, he says emphatically, is love (4.8, 16).  God’s love has been shown in the sending of God’s Son as “the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (v.10) The natural response to such love is for us to love God in return. But Christians cannot stop at loving God. The author is clear that love for God will naturally lead to love for our brothers and sisters. If we love our Heavenly Parent, we must love each of God’s children. Indeed, we are enabled to love one another because we have been born of God and the Holy Spirit has been given to us [3.24 & 5.6].

          Thomas Merton might have had our scripture in mind when he wrote these words in a meditation on contemplative prayer:

The more I become identified with God, the more will I be identified with all the others who are identified with Him. [God’s] love will live in all of us. [God’s] Spirit will be our One Life, the Life of all of us and the life of God. And we shall love one another and God with the same love with which He loves us and Himself. This love is God Himself…. [Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, “We Are One Man,” 65]      

          Merton echoes the elder’s assertion that our love of God naturally flows outward as love of others. To be a child of God is to be like God, for children resemble their parents. So, if God is love, as we grow in faith, we will become more and more loving. As we draw closer to God, we draw closer to one another; the more we love the Parent, the more we love the children.

          Recall last week’s illustration of this point from Dorotheus of Gaza. In a sermon 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 something like a wagon wheel: a perfect circle, on which every point is an identical distance from the center, with radii or spokes running from those points to the center. The circle is the world, the center point is God and the spokes are human lives. As we travel down the spokes of our lives toward the center, we draw closer to God. At the same time, because all those spokes—all our lives—are converging on the center, we also draw closer to each other.  To draw closer to God is naturally and inevitably to draw closer to one another.  

As I pointed out last week, when 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.

          Commenting on Dorotheus’ metaphor, Roberta Bondi observes, “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] We cannot love God without loving one another; at the same time, when we love one another, it is an expression of our love of God. 

This love flows from belief. For the Elder, belief and love are two sides of the same coin. Indeed, these are the commandments he refers to in our reading [5.2-3]: the commandment to believe in Jesus as the embodiment and revelation of God’s saving love [3.23] and the commandment to love God and others [4.21].  [David Regensberger, The Epistles of John, Westminster Bible Companion, p. 85] Believing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, who became human and died for us and our salvation, enables us to understand how great is God’s love for us. And in response, we show our love for God and our friendship with Jesus by keeping the commandment to love one another; we imitate God’s self-giving love for us by loving others as we have been loved. Whoever loves the Parent, will love the child.       

          Well that sounds simple enough: Christians should love their fellow Christians. Of course, we know only too well that Christians are subject to the same shortcomings as non-Christians. We too are sinners—not to mention being finite and fallible—so we too have trouble, often great trouble, loving each other. The Elder knows this: 1 John was written in response to the serious theological disagreements which had split the community. So, when we disagree (as we inevitably will), we must do so in a spirit of love. Like Dr. Hinson, we must continually remind ourselves that we are all loved by God, that Jesus came for the salvation of us all, and that the Spirit has formed us all together into the church. This is the content of our faith, and the basis of our love: God first loved us and showed us that love in Jesus, God’s Son. As Merton observed, “The root of Christian love is not the will to love, but the faith that one is loved. The faith that one is loved by God. [New Seeds, “A Body of Broken Bones,” p. 75] This faith that one is loved by God is the faith which conquers the world, for it enables us to keep the commandment to love each other and thus overcome all the divisions and separations that characterize our world.  

Lyndsay Jacobs tells a story of how love between those born of God can overcome the way of the world. When he was 13, he was a Sunday School teaching assistant. At a teachers’ meeting it was decided to repaint one of the Sunday School rooms. The decision was almost unanimous—the elderly Sunday School treasurer was the lone holdout.  The following Saturday morning, Jacobs arrived early to help with the painting. Only one other person had arrived and the young man was shocked to discover it was the treasurer. He greeted the older man and then admitted, “I really didn’t expect to see you here today.” “Why not?” the treasurer replied, “we decided to paint the room.” [source unknown, taken my sermon of May 9, 2004 on John 13.31-35]

What a remarkable act. Instead of holding a grudge because he “lost,” this man modeled love for his brothers and sisters. With great humility, he took the first step toward reconciliation, the first step to assuring that no permanent division occurred because of the disagreement. By doing so he demonstrated love by laying down his life for his friends [John 15.13]. He knew that unity and mutual support, care and concern for the other, are more important than being “right.” He knew that sometimes love means giving up our own desires and agendas and seeking the good of the community.

Just as we must love our brothers and sisters within our congregation, we must also love our brothers and sisters in other congregations and denominations.  Several years ago, Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Indianapolis decided to celebrate Catholic Schools Week by devoting each day of the week to some sort of outreach.

On Thursday the focus was neighborhood outreach. The students choose to hold a “dollar dress day” fundraiser. For a $1 donation, students could wear something other than their normal school uniforms. Many donated out of their own allowances and together they raised $170, which they gave to Downey Avenue Christian Church. The Disciples congregation, located a half a block from the school, had been damaged by a fire in December. The students were aware of what had happened and wanted to help. So, they devised a creative way to reach out to their Christian neighbors. By doing so, they, like the man who helped paint the youth room, were obedient to Jesus’ commandment that “we love one another as he has loved us.” (John 15.12) [DisciplesWorld, May 2006]

One further example. You may have heard about some of the decisions made at the United Methodist Church’s General Conference which was meeting in Charlotte this week. The headline grabbing votes were the affirmation of LGBTQ clergy, allowing for same-sex weddings (though not requiring clergy or congregations to perform them), and several other changes that make the denomination far more welcoming of queer folks. Now, I see these decisions in and of themselves as a powerful statement of the Methodist denomination’s determination to love one another as God has loved us. Some of you may not agree with me. Not everyone in the UMC agrees. But, and this is a significant reason that I am bringing up situation, they are committed to unity and love despite their disagreements.

Last night I heard a story about these decisions on the radio. I was struck by two comments made by folks at the General Conference. Tracy Smith Malone is chair of the Council of Bishops. A supporter of the changes, she acknowledged the disagreement. She quoted Methodist founder John Wesley: “Although we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”

Rev. John Stephens, a pastor in Houston, is on the other side of the issue; he holds more traditionalist views. Yet he too spoke for unity with his brothers and sisters in Christ. He said, “I think that we can live together as the church. We can be in unity together. We can be in mission together, even though there are going to be…not maybe just this [issue]. There will be other things that we will disagree on.” [Jason DeRose, “United Methodist Church lifts bans on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex weddings,” heard on All Things Considered, May 4, 2024, 5:54 p.m.;]

Loving one another doesn’t require agreement; it requires an acknowledgement of the inherent value of the other, a recognition of the image of God in them; it requires belief that Jesus became incarnate, lived, died and was resurrected for them as well as for us. Loving one another requires a commitment to life together with that person or persons; it requires remembering and prioritizing our shared status as God’s children and Christ’s friends, as well as prioritizing our common mission to share the revelation of God’s love in Jesus Christ with all the world through both our words and our actions.             

There are many reasons to keep God’s commandments. We may do so out of fear, hoping to avoid punishment. [1 John 4.18]  We may do so out of a belief that we can earn God’s favor. But by far the best reason to keep the commandments is out of love. Then obedience will not be a burden, because it will be done not out of obligation, but out of love. [Kysar, NISB, 2201] Because we have faith that God has first loved us, apart from anything we did to deserve God’s love, we love God in return and that love expresses itself in obedience to the commandment to love one another. In response to God’s loving kindness to us, we do good to each other, feeding one another when hungry, clothing those who are naked, weeping with those who mourn, celebrating with those who have cause for joy, sharing the Good News with those in spiritual distress, and thereby manifesting to each other and to the world the wondrous, boundless love of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. This is what the church is called to be, a community united to God, united to each other and united to all humanity in the bonds of Divine love. We are called to be God’s family, God’s Beloved Community. God is our parent and we are all of us siblings. As we grow to love our Parent, we grow to love each other.  May the Holy Spirit draw us closer to God and one another so that the whole church may be united together in faith and love and thereby let our light shine so that others, seeing our compassion and generosity, may themselves be drawn to God who is the center and source all true community. Amen.