(Anthea Craigmyle, The Prodigal Son and his Father feasting)
7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 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. 10 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. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. I John 4:7-12
Imagine for a moment that when you hear, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love,” that this isn’t a shaming statement, but a simple declarative sentence, a statement of fact. If you don’t love, you don’t know God. If you love, that means you know God, for God is love. You can’t know God and not love. Everyone—hear this, everyone—who loves is born of God. That means you can’t love and not know God. There is no love in the world separate from God’s love. There are things we call “love” that are very different than this. But love comes from God because God is love.
We are called to love one another. We learn what love is when people love us. “Oh, I get it! That’s how it works!” We learn to love by experiencing 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.” Now we believe in a Triune God, so this should be a little mind-bending to us. If it’s not, that means we aren’t understanding it. “Tim’s love was revealed among us in this way, Tim sent Mike into the world.” Is that a parallel of what John is saying here? Nope, on so many levels.
Tim and Mike are separate people. When we read that God sent his only Son into the world, we’re also reading that God chose to enter into the world. Separate, but not separate, because always the same, always one. Whenever we hear anything about “God sent,” we have to remember that God chose to go as well as to send. In the same act. Tim sent Mike, so Mike goes. God sent Jesus, so God-in-Jesus goes. Tim doesn’t go when Tim sends Mike. God does go when God sends Jesus. Because God is Jesus.
How’s your brain? Need more coffee?
This is how God revealed God’s love among us, by this action: God-in-Jesus entered into our world. God sent Jesus into the world. God came into the world as Jesus. I don’t understand this perfectly, but I know it’s true and I know it makes a huge difference. All the difference. Again, if it feels clean and separate, that means someone took a break from thinking trinitarian, which is easier on the brain, but has the small drawback of being…inaccurate. God didn’t just enter into our world as a means of showing love, like a nice example; God entered into the world so that we might live through Jesus. We aren’t just learning by watching, we are entering into relationship with the Trinity. We are entering into love so that we, too, can love. We are living through God. All of that together is how God showed us love.
“In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
This is what we mean by “love.” Not any version of “love” that we might substitute, but God’s definition of love, as best we can comprehend it. Nothing we initiate, nothing we do in our own power or summon up out of our own goodness. God loved us first. That’s where I started this series. You haven’t and can’t do anything to make God not love you. God loved you first. God loved you and you did bad things and God loved you. God loved you and God chose to become the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Remember, God sent, but also God came and God is. It has to be all of these for us to believe in a Trinity. If we separate them, we don’t understand God as Triune Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (By the way, all the Hebrew references for Holy Spirit are in the feminine, but that’s a conversation for another day.)
I appreciate how The Message translation expresses this: This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.
God cleared away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God. God atoned for our sins. Atone means “make amends or reparation.” God heals and repairs what we’ve damaged in our relationship with Jesus by repairing it. We aren’t fixing this; God is fixing this. God has fixed this and is fixing this. That’s one thing God’s love means: “I will not let you be separated from me by your own self-injury and bad choices and sabotage.”
How does the father of the prodigal in Luke 15 welcome home his son? Yes, the son walked home. That means the son chooses to have the relationship. The father then does all the reparation. The son offers his version of the reparation–”I could just be a slave here and you could keep me from starving and treat me like you don’t love me–” and the father just waves that off, interrupts, interjects his plan for restoration: robe, sandals, ring, party!
“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.”
Now what if, instead of hearing this as a burden, or as one of those “Oughts” and “Shoulds” that make us feel guilty, we heard this as the invitation to the party?
What if our situation is this: God-in-Jesus-Christ comes rushing out and restores the lost, miserable child, gives back identity which was never lost but was rejected—the child didn’t become not-the-son, but did start living as if he weren’t the son, though he always, always was. You can tell the father never disowned nor disinherited him. That’s how our God treats us; that’s how our God treats everyone else who is lost.
What if our situation is simply that we are deciding whether we will invite other people to the party and attend it ourselves? What if “We also ought to love one another” simply means, “Tell people they are welcome to God’s party?” Tell people who don’t believe that God wants them to attend that they are, in fact, the guests of honor. In a kind way, let them know their “Yabuts” make no difference to God.
“Yabut, I’m no longer worthy–”
“Sorry, just let me interrupt you right there. Yes, you are worthy. You always have been. You’re still a beloved child. You always have been.”
What if our decision is whether we will attend the party or refuse?
What if “we also ought to love one another” is a decision whether we insist on standing out in the yard, with our hands on our hips, judging our filthy failure of a younger brother while telling our loving father off
instead welcoming everyone to the party as we, ourselves, are welcomed?
I’m not saying by this that loving is easy. Often it’s not. Sometimes it takes more than all we have and then we pray that God gives us more. It’s not easy. But often it is simple.
Join the party. Refuse the party.
“No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
Last verse, last point. Again John is giving us an “if…then” statement. First, no one has ever seen God. Period. But God is more present than our merely getting to see God or even getting to hang out with Jesus. If we love one another, then God lives in us. If we love one another, then God’s love is perfected in us.
That’s a mighty big promise.
If we love one another, then God lives in and and God’s love is perfected in us.
I’m going to tell you the truth right now: I can’t grasp what “God’s love perfected in us” means. I can believe that God is perfect, but there’s nothing about me that feels perfect. But I do know that God lives in me. I do know that in my own feeble, imperfect way I try to love others. So here is a crazy promise, given to us by John, who knew Jesus, hugged him, and laughed at his jokes: when we try to love like Jesus loves, when we accept our invitation to the party and invite others, God will perfect his love in us. I don’t know how long that will take. That might be the work of eternity. However long it takes, I’m in.
But for now, since “perfected in us” might be more than we can grasp, take this along with you: As we love one another, all those reasons you had that God wouldn’t invite you to the party? God is transforming those to make you more and more like Jesus.
When we love one another, God lives in us. Because God is love.