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11.11.18 Serving God in Love 1 John 4:7-12, Ephesians 4:25-5:2 Sermon Summary

by on November 19, 2018

In a letter that moves between invitations to love and particular religious requirements, we find a gem that balances the two with service.

This is the final installment of our fall sermon series on the Practices of Faith. There are five practices and it doesn’t matter where you start. Each one leads to the others. All are a matter of practice because contrary to what we were told as children, practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes better. We never arrive at perfection.

In the past ten weeks we’ve looked at the five practices (see the earlier entries in this blog):

On the practice of meaningful Worship:

  • being centered on loving God and loving neighbor
  • Christians are guided not by what is lawful, but what is loving
  • in Jesus walls are broken down between God and us and between people groups
  • and instead arches joining the groups are constructed

On the practice of Prayer:

  • the Lord’s Prayer is a guide for worship at home
  • God delights in the diversity of prayer and the personalization of prayer
  • prayer impacts our vertical and horizontal relationships
  • prayer is rest in the presence of God through stormy seas and dark nights, for God is always present

On the practice of knowing and applying the Bible:

  • it guides to a godly life and perseverance through trials
  • it deepens our relationship with Christ and experience of salvation
  • it helps us to situate our stories into God’s story

On the practice of making Spiritual Friends

  • we grow as disciples together
  • we’re created for community as in God’s triune image
  • Paul had three ways of pursuing spiritual friendships
  • Jesus had one way
  • God even uses annoying people to help us grow

Now on the Practice of Service . . .

Small communities can often teach us about love, but they can also be quite closed. On one hand, people in small communities know each other well, look over one another’s faults, and choose to stay together. They are loving communities. But small communities also sometimes have particular characteristics and can become exclusivist.

The community that produced the Newer Testament books bearing the name “John” appears to have been a small community. First John toggles back and forth between encouragement to love and precise doctrinal standards. It appears there may have been some dissent within the community, or the fear of dissent.

It’s somewhat satisfying that embedded in the passage for today is this theological and psychological gem: “This is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us, and sent his Son as the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)

First John knows that love isn’t something we can determine. We all know this is true of romantic love. We were sure we were in love . . . But it’s true of a higher love as well. Part of reason is our persistent self-interest. This is the “altruism question” of psychologists: Can we ever not be self-interested? Is love possible only in the absence of self-interest?

Counter to this assumption, First John 4:10 establishes an external reference point—God, not us; and a concrete example—Christ’s sending to save us. High, true, divine love is not affection only, and not affinity only. This love is action in the interest of the other. More precisely, it is sacrificial action in the interest of the other.

Since God has loved us this way, 1 John argues, so we also ought to love one another—with action, even sacrifice, in the interest of the other. Christian love is actually both: Free of self-interest but also serving self-interest. This is because Ephesians reminds us that “we are members of one another.” Caring for others is also caring for self. This is one of the implications of the metaphor of the church as the Body of Christ.

So for example the thief who steals from others is redirected to work for wages in order to give to others. (An added point here—there are actually two ways to be a thief: Steal from others, or withhold generosity towards others.)

For John, this active, sacrificial love reveals God in two ways. First it reveals God TO us who receive the benefits of Christ’s action: “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.”

Then it reveals God THROUGH us who love in this same way: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” What does John mean by God’s love is “perfected in us”? God’s love isn’t perfect in itself? Divine love within the Trinity is incomplete? Heavenly love shared among celestial beings isn’t enough?

Apparently not. Divine love acts in the interest of the other, so as long as there is a need divine love still acts. That is good news for us. We are always in need. And it’s also good news for others for we are called not only to receive love but to channel it, to act in the interest of the other. We’re called to perfect God’s love.

The point is this. We may know God in our heads. We may have affection for God in our hearts. But loving with our hands is true knowledge and affection. This is the biblical understanding of knowledge and love.

Perfect love doesn’t choose WHOM to love. It chooses HOW to love. Perfect love chooses to serve the interest of others—all others, regardless of race, religion, nationality, sex, gender, ability, socio-economic status, even our enemies.

And this kind of love takes practice, life-long practice. So don’t be discouraged. Start with a close situation and grow a little bit in love. Eventually God’s love will be perfected in us, and we will be perfected in God. And like the God depicted in Jesus’ parable of the great banquet, eventually we will love the whole world.


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