Readings 1 John 4:7-12 and John 3:11-17
How much of our lives do you think we have devoted to other people’s love stories? How much time have we spent invested in, inquiring about, investigating, or imagining the love lives of others? This might be the hours spent watching and rewatching the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice. Alternatively it might be in the stories we tell each other – of how people have met, or who they are currently crushing on, or the story of a person loved and lost. This might be in the hours spent at engagement parties or weddings across the span of our life, witnessing to the public affirmation and commitment of two people in love. Whatever the form and the context, the fact is that, unless we take drastic measures, it is difficult to live in this world and not be drawn into other people’s love stories.
Now this can be wonderful – we turn to our favourite romantic movies and books on dreary rainy days, we cry at weddings, we laugh and cringe with friends as they recount whatever devastatingly embarrassing thing they did in front of a crush that they will never ever recover from. But it can also be painful – especially in those seasons where our own experience of feeling unloved or unlovable makes the dazzling exuberance of public affection and commitment too much to bear. Or those seasons spent in the wake of lost love, a loss that might be manageable until the moment it is not.
And so far I’ve only focused on the romantic love stories, but we have all – I hope – encountered, witnessed, and experienced profound forms of love that go far beyond romantic coupling. The deep love of friendship, of those caring for those who cannot display or reciprocate love in the ways we are accustomed, the love shown in communities struggling in the wake of catastrophe, the love shown by strangers with no anticipation of return, a love that defies all rules of sensible economics and self-protections.
In many ways the power of other people’s love stories is unsurprising. We’re empathetic creatures who witness and experience (a memory, a yearning, an pang, a joy), we’re also socially conditioned creatures who witness and associate (taught to conjoin particular kinds of love with virtue, others with success, others with reproach). So yes, in many ways the power and potency of witnessing the love between people is unsurprising… and yet, having reflected and considered the readings of today, particularly the one from 1 John, I now wonder whether the power and potency of witnessing the love between people is actually underappreciated. Are we actually diminishing a whole dimension of all this love that we see across our lives? Is the actual take away that all this love we spend our lives orbiting is actually more powerful, more important, and more profound than we have let on?
In his letter, John writes:
God no one has seen. Yet if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is made complete in us.
He writes: everyone who loves is born of God and knows God
He writes: Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
Nowhere else in scripture is God so immediately, intimately and emphatically identified with a virtue or act. God creates, God redeems, God exercises judgment and bestows mercy… but God is not creation, is not judgment… God might be like a father, or a lion, or a woman searching for her lost coin… but even these very true statements about God’s attributes have some distance in-built in them… not here. Here there is no distance or qualification, equivocation or explanation… God is love. It is God’s essence, God’s nature, God’s identity – there is no God without it, no comprehensible or faithful way of speaking of the nature, will, and way of God that is not in keeping with the central truth that God is love.
And because of that, human love is swept up in God and made different. If we love each other God lives in us and God’s love is made complete in us. God abides and lives (takes up a dwelling place) within those who love – and what’s more, God’s love is completed and perfected in us – not apart from us! Because God is love that means if we know love we know God. The Christian tradition speaks of knowing God as one of the chief ends and purposes of the human life, and here we see that it is accomplished through what – love, the love of one another. And thus the flip – who are those who don’t know God? Not those who skip bible study, but those who do not love.
God and humanity are bound together by love (first and foremost by God’s love which was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him – sent him not to condemn but to love the world). God’s love binds us together and brings us into life – but then the love keeps going… our love of one another allows us to know God, while at the same time our love of one another means God lives in us, which means at the same time God’s love (that love which sent the son to be light and life of the world) is perfected and completed in us!
It’s a hurricane of colliding love that explodes past words!!
In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo wrote: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” That one line is a pretty perfect sermon on today’s reading. And yet the power of our love for one another, the power of the love between people in so many manners and contexts, is still not readily realised and recognised for what it is: God’s love being made complete, God’s presence residing, God’s nature becoming known.
We might admire and celebrate the love we see in the world, in our neighbourhoods and families, and hold it up as example or as analogous for the love that is divine. And yet we are still tempted to insert some distance, to speak of it in a rougher and imperfect way compared to the love we shower with churchy language and holy words; reserved for a particularly Christian or heavenly kind of love.
And while there is reason to remember that it is God’s love that grounds and makes possible all human love, and also important to remember that no human love can be perfect in the way God’s love is – John does not make it so easy for us to place this distance between the ordinary, mundane, and earthly love between people and the love of God.
And here’s why I think this matters.
In our reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus says this: If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
If our search for an understanding of God and God’s love is forever hung up on and concerned with parsing the mysteries and majesty of God’s heavenly love, but we cannot recognise and be transformed by the earthly love all around us, the former will be forever out of our grasp. For if we can’t give and receive, see and celebrate earthly signs of love, how will we be able to see and receive and embrace the heavenly love of God?
In his final teachings to his disciples in John – just the place where you might expect heavenly and mysterious wisdom reserved for the very elect, a secret scribe or incantation. Jesus says, I’m giving you a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you.
The great paradox is, that this is the most heavenly and powerful of commandments, for when we love one another God lives in us and God’s love is made complete in us… is there a more heavenly thing?
So let us notice the love we have for one another, let us notice the moments of love we witness between others – gestures small and large, moments of kindness and tenderness, care and caress. Because in this love God dwells, in this love someone knows God and God’s love is made complete.
Through this love we will come, all the more, to know and appreciate our God. Our God is who is love. Our God who first loved us. Our God who so loved the world that God sent Jesus into the world so that we might live through him. God loves, so we may love, so that God’s love becomes perfected in us. It explodes past words, doesn’t it?
(As an activity for reflection, I’m going to ask us to write down a moment you witnessed love these past weeks – it could be personally – love you experienced from someone in your life, it could be a gesture or grace you saw in the neighbourhood, it could be a story you read in the news, I want you to write it down and bring it forward (or pass it to someone to bring forward) and we’re going to fix it to the door, a reminder to the places we have – and may continue – to witness where God lives, where God’s love is perfected, where God might be known.)
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