1 John 4, the passage we are focusing on today, is deceptively simple, in that while is sounds easy enough, it’s actually quite complicated when it comes to our lived experiences. Statements about love, like “Love wins,” for example, sound well enough on a bumper sticker. Christians repeat again and again that we are to love one another, love is from God, abide in love. Love, love, love. Love can become our go-to description of Christian ethics. “You just gotta love…” And while I suppose I basically agree with that, if our text today tells us anything it is that love is more difficult than we sometimes want to believe. And love – this kind of love – finds its beginning and end in God. “In this is love,” the author of 1 John writes, “not that we loved God but that [God] loved us.”
So the question remains: what does love really mean, according to 1 John? What does love actually do?
My pastor in Chapel Hill says every preacher really only has one sermon that she or he preaches over and over again in different ways, and I have a hunch that mine might be about this word, love. And, if love really is some kind of summation of the gospel – love God, and love your neighbor as yourself – then I suppose I can’t apologize if I come back to it again and again. It is an inexhaustible topic, because as followers of Christ this is what we’re called to spend our lives doing: learning to love one another, as an outpouring of the love God has for us. Becoming people who love, as well as learning to be loved ourselves, is lifelong work. Perhaps that is why it comes up in the bible so often.
1 John 4 is a passage that rings familiarly in my head, but as I meditated on the text this week I kept coming back to two particular things: first, the idea that love abides – “abide” not being a word we often use, in my experience. Second, the assertion that “perfect love casts out fear.” So I first want to invite you all to think with me about what it means to abide:
To abide can mean to accept or bear (even abiding someone or something unpleasant), or it can mean to stay or live somewhere, to remain or continue. These last are what comes most readily to my mind when I read 1 John. We are called to live in, to continue in, love. It’s a sustained sense of being in a place – a place of love, perhaps a community of love.
As I tried to think about what living in love like that means, a book I am reading right now gave me a glimpse. In Wanted, Chris Hoke shares stories from his life and work as a chaplain in a small county jail, and as I read about his work there and about what pulled him in and kept him in that unlikely community, it struck me that what he found there was a place to abide.
See, contrary to what most of us probably imagine for a jail chaplain, Chris implies that what kept him coming back was his own loneliness. He was looking for friends – looking for love, and for God – looking, it seemed to me as I read these stories, for a place to abide. And he tells about what he found – or, perhaps, who found him. I won’t do a disservice to the book or the lives shared therein by trying to summarize it, though I definitely recommend reading it and letting those stories speak for themselves – but I do want to share a couple moments and what I think they might illuminate about our text from 1 John.
Chris shares about the friendships he formed with men in jail, connections which were raw, vulnerable, physical, as they held hands and prayed, as they embraced – these tough guys, who loved getting hugs from the chaplain. And then he talks about what changed when the county jail “caught up” to the rest of the prison system by instituting a no-contact policy. The ability to touch one another was taken away, creating a barrier – in some cases a literal barrier of plexiglass that stood between him and friends he now had to talk to through a little phone, a wall in place he could see through but not cross. But, also, invisible barriers when he could be in a room with people he was not allowed to touch.
Chris’s story got me thinking about how such barriers prevent us from abiding with one another, and in so doing, from abiding with God. And – here, again, coming back to the text, it seems like most of the barriers we live with, the ways we are cut off from our neighbors, stem from fear – which the second part of our text that I want to focus on.
Fear is the enemy of love, according to 1 John. And love is that which banishes fear.
We – whether “we” is our government, our communities, or us as individuals – construct barriers to protect ourselves from that which we fear. We build walls so that we cannot see the things – or often, the people – that scare us. We are like my cat, when she burrows her face into a blanket at the veterinary office: If she can’t see the thing that scares her, perhaps it’s not really there.
But of course it is. And, while my cat perhaps has good reason to be a little nervous about the vet, the vet is also good for her, vital to her thriving life. I think that often we are hiding not from real danger but from the possibility of love – messy, challenging, vulnerable sorts of love, but love nonetheless. Our fears, the author of 1 John implies, cut us off from God – a refusal to abide with one another is a refusal to abide with God. A refusal of love. When we cut ourselves off from one another, we cut ourselves off from the source of life.
The text closes with a hard hitting assertion: those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.
How, he seems to be asking, can you claim to love God – who, let’s face it, is not always easily discernible – when you don’t see the people right in front of you? When sometimes you willfully look away? When we put up walls – sometimes literally – between us and our neighbors? Between ourselves and our fellow children of God?
1 John addresses the reader as beloved. It names us as loved, and calls us to bear with one another, to stand in the same space, to inhabit the world together, and to look at one another without blinking, without fear. I do not think the author expects we will like everything we see, at least not at first – but love drives out fear, and looking on one another with God’s love cannot help but propel us past our divisions, and together, toward God.