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Love Has Won, Showing (2018-0408)

. 10 min read

Thanks to Joel Shuman for preaching on this date!
Acts
4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-5;
4:7-21;
John 20:19-31
We declare to you
what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes,
what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life
– this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to
you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we
declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship
with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus
Christ. We are writing these things so that your joy may be complete.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is
light, and in him there is no darkness at all…

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.

What
we have heard. What we have seen. What we have looked at and touched with our
hands. God is love.
Two
weeks ago, I experienced one of those rare moments that teachers live for. I
was sitting at a table with the ten women and men who make up my honors course
in moral theology. The topic of the day was love – as in “Love one another.” The
readings included a chapter from the course textbook, a poem by the German poet
Rilke, and a passage from 1 John that included some of the verses I just read
to you.
Because
this class is small, and the students bright and highly motivated, it often
nearly runs itself. Students take turns bringing questions for discussion based
on the readings. The woman who was leading the class that day is a wonderful
student and a great kid, who just happens to be an avowed atheist. It’s not
something she makes a big deal about, nor is she at all hostile toward belief –
she just doesn’t believe. This makes her an almost-perfect interlocutor for the
rest of the class.
As I
expected, the conversation began well. After all, nearly everyone has something
to say about love. About fifteen or twenty minutes in, when I sensed that the
group had exhausted the question on the table, I indicated to our leader that
she should pose her next question.
“So,”
she began, “reading this chapter, one of the main themes seems to be that
Christian love is somehow supposed to be different
from what we usually mean when we use the word “love.” How would you explain
that difference?”
She was
looking directly at me.
Those
who know me best will tell you that keeping my mouth shut is not my strong suit.
For once, though, I had the sense not to rush to answer. As the question hung
there in the silence, and as her eyes and mine remained locked, I recalled a
famous aphorism from the philosopher Wittgenstein, who said: “What can be shown
cannot be said.” I allowed that sentence to roll around in my head with her
question for a moment, then asked, “How would you explain ‘green’?”
She
never broke eye contact. She was thinking. Slowly, the corners of her mouth
began turning upward. That upturning became a smile, which soon very nearly turned
into a grin. She had understood my answer, or rather, the one I had not given:
I would not explain Christian love
to her, because I could not explain it, and I could not explain it because it cannot be explained. Rather, it can only
be shown, which is to say, as the author of 1 John puts it, heard, and seen,
and looked at, and touched with our hands.
What
we have heard. What we have seen. What we have looked at and touched with our
hands… God is love.
The
first epistle of John is a love letter, primarily in the sense that it’s a
letter to Christians about love. It has two overarching themes: The first of
these is that love – the Greek word is agapē
(αγάπη) – is the underpinning, not simply for the Christian life, but for everything. Love is that which has brought
all things into existence. It is the energy moving all things toward their
perfection. It is the cement that binds all things together. Love, to use the
words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is “the most durable power in
the world.”
Love is the
reason there is something rather than nothing. Everything that is, just to the
extent that it is, is beloved. The universe and all its inhabitants have been
created by love. It is love that has and is redeeming them. And they are being sustained
by love, for the God who creates, redeems, and sustains Creation is
love.
You and
I are loved. If we were not loved, we would not be – period. This is true not
only of you and me, but of every person who ever has, does, and someday will
inhabit this planet. Every last one is unendingly and unconditionally beloved
of God.
The
second overarching theme of 1 John is that God’s love calls for a response from
God’s beloved; those who have experienced God’s love, and who understand
themselves as beloved of God, are to make that love present to Creation by loving – by loving one another, by loving
our neighbors, and by loving our enemies. This is not something we do because
we owe God and are required to make good on that debt, as if that were by any
stretch of the imagination possible; rather, it is something we do simply because
it is who we truly are – creatures made in the image and likeness of the God
who is love, creatures being healed by love of our many brokennesses and thereby
empowered to make healing love present to the world. The late Pope John Paul II
put it this way: He said that love was “the fundamental and innate vocation of
every human being.”
But here
is where things get tricky, and maybe a bit uncomfortable. The love of which
the author of 1 John speaks is neither a sentiment nor a romantic ideal. It may
include, but is always more than, affection and mutuality, and it commences and
continues even in the absence of affection or mutuality. To borrow from Saint
Paul, this love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things,
endures all things. [It] never ends.
Love of
this sort is not notion, but action; it cannot be said except as it is shown or
experienced. As the author of 1 John describes it: “We know love by this, that
he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one
another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees
a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love,
not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
This
kind of love is the subject of the first lesson in this week’s lectionary
readings, from the book of Acts. The author of that text, who was likely Paul’s
friend Luke, tells us the story of the first church, a Spirit-laden community where
no
one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was
held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the
resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was
not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them
and brought the proceeds of what was sold.” Those disciples’ love for each
other surpassed their love for wealth, and because of that, the watching world
noticed that they were a whole other kind of people.
An old
friend of mine named Keith Wasserman has for as long as I’ve known him signed all
of his correspondence, “love is a verb.” Keith knows whence he speaks; as an
undergraduate at Ohio University, Keith caught a serious dose of Jesus. When he
graduated college in 1981, he took the money he had saved from his college job
delivering pizzas and bought a house in a working class neighborhood there in
Athens. Soon thereafter he quietly began inviting homeless men to live with him.
When it became obvious to his neighbors that something was up, he went to the
Athens City Council and persuaded them to license his house as a shelter for
the homeless. They agreed, and Good Works was born. The enterprise persisted,
and grew, and eventually became a comprehensive ministry to the homeless and
otherwise marginalized in the Appalachian region of Southeastern Ohio. Good Works
aims to help its guests become what Pope Francis has called “full participants
in society,” and now includes (among many other things) vocational training, a subsistence
farm, help with substance abuse, and a transitional house where residents learn
the life skills they’ll need to live independently. Every year hundreds of
college students from all over the middle Atlantic region come to good works,
ostensibly to work, but truly to learn to love.
What
we have heard. What we have seen. What we have looked at and touched with our
hands. God is love.
Such
love as this is difficult and costly, and may even be dangerous. I do not think
it an accident that in the same passage of scripture where Jesus commands us to
love our enemies he also says, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute
you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” In his relatively
unknown but remarkably powerful sermon on loving our enemies, Dr. King
acknowledges the difficulties and potential dangers of loving our enemies, and then
declares those difficulties and dangers as ultimately being beside the point
for those who seek to follow Jesus. With stunning rhetorical power, he
declares:
My
friends, we have followed the so-called practical way for too long a time now,
and it has led inexorably to deeper confusion and chaos. Time is cluttered with
the wreckage of communities which surrendered to hatred and violence. For the
salvation of our nation and the salvation of mankind, we must follow another
way… This is the only way to create the beloved community.
To
our most bitter opponents we say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict
suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical
force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you…
Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of
violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half
dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down
by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for
ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win
you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.
Dr.
King, too, knew whence he spoke; he and those he inspired and taught lived the
way of love, and their nonviolent resistance to the hatred called Jim Crow led
to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Their work continued well
beyond 1964, and continued to meet hateful and often violent opposition. Dr.
King eventually paid for his commitment with his life; he was martyred 50 years
ago this past week. That struggle against hatred continues today wherever women
and men seek to build the Beloved Community for which Dr. King longed.
What
we have heard. What we have seen. What we have looked at and touched with our
hands. God is love.
The
stories I have told you this morning are inspiring. They are also daunting, and
even threatening. But we dare not allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by these
extraordinary tales of voluntary poverty and intentional community; of opening
our homes to the homeless; of losing our lives at the hands of those we have
sought to love. For there are many relatively less difficult ways to show love,
and we can do no more than start where we are. Perhaps that might mean
forgiving a wrong suffered long ago, or seeking reconciliation with an
estranged member of the body of Christ, or regularly committing a few dollars or
hours to caring for the poor we encounter as we move through our days.  Each of those acts is a place to start, for
each, in its own way, is an act of love.
In the
same way we dare not allow ourselves to be overwhelmed, however, neither do we
dare allow ourselves to think that these stories are solely the province of some
exclusive corps of radical super-Christians. For we are all called to love, and
that love is liable at any time to reach the point where it may cost us things
with which we’d rather not part – from our pride to our wealth to our safety
and security.
Whether
such love “works” in the short term is not the point – that’s God’s business.
Our business is to show it. That
showing begins with recognizing, and believing, that we are capable of such
love, not because we are especially good, but because we have first and freely been
loved with the love that has already won, the love that has already determined
the outcome of history.
What
does such love look like today, here in Mountain Top; Luzerne County; Pennsylvania;
the United States; the world? Near the end of the fourth century, when Saint
Augustine was asked what love looked like, he replied that love “
has the hands to
help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to
see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That
is what love looks like.
What
does love look like? When you leave here today, go home and look in the mirror;
that’s what love looks like.
Thanks
be to God.