God is Love !Dr. R. Dale McAbee 1 John 4:7-21 Year B - Fifth Sunday of Easter
I take as my text today the simple affirmation from the Epistle reading, “God is love.” Of course, that’s not everything that can be said about God, otherwise I would have wasted years in seminary. But sometimes, we need to say what’s important in words as short and succinct as possible.
I think that’s why churches and businesses have vision and mission statements. Short and sometimes memorable summaries of our reason for being.
We say here at the hospital where I work
The vision of Baptist Louisville is to lead the transformation to healthier communities.
Baptist Louisville will live out its Christ-centered mission to others and achieve its vision guided by the values of integrity, respect, excellence, collaboration, compassion, and joy.
Words like integrity, respect, compassion and joy help flesh out the content of one’s character. It lets us know who we are and the goal of what we are trying to become. To say, “God is love” lets us know who God is. Perhaps all of salvation history, that is, the entire mission of God, is God saying to us, “love is who I am; love is what I do.”
So, what are some worthy mission statements? Years ago, I read a little book called “Being Me” by Grady Nutt. His thesis was “I am a person of worth, created in the image of God, to relate and to live.” I have always loved its elegance and symmetry.
A friend of mine who teaches Pastoral Theology articulates her mission as follows:
“In teaching, and in pastoral care and counseling settings, I seek to provide a safe space for people to explore and deepen their participation in the mysteries of the Christian faith and life. These encounters can offer comfort, challenge, or simply companionship, as together we question, grow and ultimately embrace our respective sacred journeys.”
Another friend’s church adopted the following mission statement:
The Riverside Church is an interdenominational, interracial, international, open, welcoming, and affirming church and congregation.
Whoever you are: You are safe here. You are loved here. You are invited into full participation in our life together.
Just as these mission statements name core images and values that are foundational to identity, so “God is love” is foundational to Christian living and trusting.
But we use the word “love” in so many different situations, don’t we? I’ve heard people say, “I love Diet Coke, I love my cats, I love my husband, I love my children.” Those are probably all different experiences. I would hope that loving Diet Coke would not be equal to loving one’s husband.
So, the writer of 1 John is very careful to anchor his understanding of God’s love, not in our human experience of love but rather God’s generous act of giving Jesus to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
And how was that accomplished? The simplest way for me to understand that love so amazing, so divine, is to think of relationship. Jesus came preaching the kingdom and healing human brokenness. His ministry upset the power structure of his day and religious leaders colluding with the power of the state conspired to execute Jesus. But even in the unjustness of that atrocity, Jesus could not be pulled away from his mission. He said, “Do your worst to me and I’ll still keep loving you. I will not return violence. I will keep loving you no matter what.” So Jesus lived out God’s radical generosity.
Several years ago, at an Ash Wednesday service, I heard the preacher quote St. Augustine, “non poena, sed amor.” “Not the suffering but the love.” I think that is a nice corrective whenever we begin to talk about “atoning sacrifice.” The Bible offers many images and metaphors to try to speak meaningfully of what Jesus’ death truly accomplished.
The Mel Gibson movie “The Passion of Christ” portrays the suffering in excruciating detail. The movie was a favorite among our brothers and sisters who find the substitutionary theory of the atonement the most compelling. And there are biblical images that support that particular interpretation. Words like price, debt and payment tend to reinforce the notion that a debt had to be paid. In the sacrificial system Jesus becomes the innocent lamb slain to pay the debt and finally accomplish reconciliation. The sacrifice allowed God to accept us so it was an action designed to change God’s mind about us.
If I am a pre-modern person, when I become aware of my sinfulness, I sense estrangement from God, and in that awareness, I conclude, “I have incurred a debt and it must be paid.” A sacrifice is offered and atonement is accomplished.
But from a relational perspective, only the offended one, not the offender, has the power to accomplish “at-one-ment” which when pronounced that way gets to a profound insight into the death of Jesus.
Duns Scotus is compelling when he says “Jesus wasn’t changing God’s mind about us; rather, he was changing our minds about God.”
The atonement, for me is best understood as God saying definitively, “We are meant to be together, you have gotten lost, I have come to find you, my power to love is greater than your power to hate and kill. I will not return violence, I will break the cycle, and you will live your life in union with me, so that together we can be the body of Christ, for the world.”
Why is Jesus’ death relevant to our world today? Jesus’ death provides us a model of what a life of love is. It reminds us that following Jesus might be going against the grain of the conventional way of doing things. Jesus’ new wine is always bursting old wineskins. Something always has to die if something else is to live. But more than a model, Jesus’ presence in the world, in this room, in you and in me. His real living crucified presence is a power at work. A power powerful enough to transform. A power powerful enough to bring down the walls of injustice and hatred. A power to create a new beginning in an old world.
Getting back to The Passion of the Christ. The limitation of that artistic vision and indeed many Christians’ preoccupation with the suffering of Jesus is that it limits Jesus’ Passion to the events of his last week. It turns the last event into the main event.
This passion of Christ finds its truest meaning only when it is connected to his life’s all-consuming passion – the kingdom of God.
To be in Christ is to be grasped by the power of his suffering love for the sake of the kingdom. Not morbid masochism, but confidence that Rabbi Jesus, his vision, his teaching, will win the day.
About the writer:
For twenty-four years, Dr. R. Dale McAbee worked with Rehabilitation and Psychiatric patients at Baptist Health Louisville as well as those in treatment for Substance Use Disorder. Recently he has become the Oncology Chaplain. He is a Fellow of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. For the last eight years, he has been Choirmaster at Concordia Lutheran Church and prior to that served St. Mark United Methodist for 13 years, Church of the Ascension in Frankfort for 2 years and Tunnel Hill Christian Church for 2 years as music minister.
He is a native of Spartanburg, South Carolina and earned the BA in Music from Furman University, the Master of Divinity in Pastoral Care and Counseling at Southern Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Columbia Seminary. In the spring of 2009 and summer of 2017, he served as Adjunct Professor of Pastoral Care at Saint Meinrad Seminary, Saint Meinrad, Indiana.
Scripture and Music:
1 John 4:7-21
I Need Thee Every Hour
O Perfect Love
Where Charity and Love Prevail
There’s A Wideness in God s Mercy
For the Beauty of the Earth
Stand Up and Bless the Lord
My Jesus, I Love Thee
To God Be the Glory
For the Beauty of the Earth (John Rutter)
Lead On, Eternal Sovereign (Hal Hopson)
Like the Murmur of the Dove s Song
Come to the Water (Joseph Martin)
Wondrous Love (Shaw/Parker)
I Am the Vine (John Michael Talbot)
Great Is the Lord (Smith)
Love, Crucified Arose (Card)