By Any Other Name

This sermon was preached on May 2, 2021 (Easter 5B). The text of the day was 1 John 4:7-21.

John Newton was a clergyman in 18th century England. The name might be familiar because he is the author of the beloved hymn “Amazing Grace,” written after his slow but full conversion to Christianity. The hymn is especially poignant when you realize he spent at least 15 years working on a slave ship as part of the international slave trade; he became to see the wretchedness of that former life, no doubt alluded to when we sing “who saved a wretch like me.”

Well, once when Newton was serving in one of his churches, a fellow minister wrote to him on the occasion of a controversy. A third minister lacked sufficient “orthodoxy” or right belief. It’s not known what this third minister was accused of believing falsely, only that it was grave enough in Newton’s companion’s eyes to warrant public backlash and accusal – maybe the 18th-century equivalency of “censorship” or “canceling.” This companion wrote to Newton to share his intention to call out their clergy colleague and Newton wrote back with some advice—don’t do it.

Here is a little of Newton’s reasoning on account of his companion’s “opponent:” “The Lord loves him and bears with him; therefore you must not despise him, or treat him harshly. The Lord bears with you likewise, and expects that you should show tenderness to others, from a sense of the much forgiveness you need yourself. In a little while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon earth is to you now. Anticipate that period in your thoughts; and though you may find it necessary to oppose his errors, view him personally as a kindred soul, with whom you are to be happy in Christ forever.[1]

Newton doesn’t appeal to his companion’s “better angels.” Newton doesn’t try and convince him to be the “bigger man.” Newton doesn’t say that the opponent isn’t “worth it.”

Instead, Newton sings along with Dave Matthews:

Let us not forget these early days
Remember we begin the same
We lose our way in fear and pain

Oh joy begin.[2]

But instead of joy, Newton sings along with 1 John – love. Let love begin. Let love be your guiding light. Let love be the thing you remember. Remember even you needed love.

For 1 John, for Newton, for us as Christians, love isn’t some sort of wispy feeling we wantonly throw around. It isn’t an over-the-top description of the things we enjoy: “I love jalapeno kettle chips” or “I love the Chicago Cubs” or “I love sitting by the beach.” It isn’t even the love we feel for our family and loved ones, those chosen for us and those we have chosen.

No, God’s love is the genesis of our love. Love originates beyond us, starting in God’s movement toward us. Love isn’t an abstract idea but finds its source in God and how God has acted and continues to act in the world. Augustine asked the question, “what sort of face hath love?” and 1 John provides the answer – We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us (1 John 3:16) and again 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. 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. (1 John 4:9-10)

Love isn’t good feelings. It isn’t affection. It isn’t even a toddler tackle, when a toddler is so excited to see you she sprints down the hall to hug you. When we try to conjure up an image for love, let it be The Cross.

John Newton didn’t tell his companion to just love the opponent, as if he could muster up that feeling from some deep well of love he had stored inside. No, Newton reminded his companion of that status God gave him. Remember the Lord is with you. Remember the forgiveness you need. Remember the grace you’ve been given. Remember what God has done for you.

Newton is just picking up what the author of 1 John was doing. 1 John, also known as the First Letter of John, was written to a divided community. Some had left the rest of the Church viewing themselves as more knowledgeable, more holy, simply “better” Christians, and those who were left over were wondering what to do.

What do you do when the community has been torn asunder? What do you do when your status before God has been thrown into question? What do you do when you’ve experienced hate and division?

We know what hate and division do to communities. We know what it feels like for people to decide they want nothing to do with us. We know what these types of splits look like. We’re living through a time ripe with division, saturated with self-justification, and inundated with the feeling that if you aren’t 100% pure, you aren’t worthy of being associated with.

So what do you do?

Well, if you go the way of the world, you fight fire with fire. You take a scorched earth approach tearing down your opponent and burning any potential bridges. You refuse to admit you’ve done anything wrong, denigrating your opponent’s credentials, their beliefs, their personality, anything which would turn public opinion against them and toward you. You do what John Newton’s companion wanted to do to his opponent: hang out their dirty laundry for all to see, disparaging them for all they’ve done to hurt you. Sick society on them to make yourself feel better.

1 John obviously takes a different tactic, love. To be sure, he has choice words about those who have separated themselves from the rest of the church (see 1 John 2:18-19), but the majority of the author’s focus remains on those who remain within the community and how their identity informs their activity. And right from the beginning of our scripture, he turns our eyes away from “those” people and toward our status in the eyes of God— “Beloved.”

In identifying us as “Beloved,” he is already subtly reminding the gathered Church they’ve already been loved. God loved us before we loved anyone. God is the source of our love. We love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). All the preaching and exhorting the author does hinges on that first part, that God loves us. That God came down to us in Christ. That God died to atone, deal with, wipe away, cleanse us of, take away, and forget our sins (those our “enemies” would only be too quick to reveal to the world). That God raised Christ to new life, defeating death for good. God’s love is forgiveness, full stop. Forgiveness of those sins done and undone.

1 John puts it plainly; God loves us because it is in God’s nature to love. That’s what the author means when he writes God is love (1 John 4:8). Our status as beloved children of God is irrevocable because it is in God’s nature to love, as shown in the grace and mercy of The Cross. God’s nature is shot through with grace and mercy, self-sacrificial love on behalf and for you.

Reminds me of a story author Anne Lamott heard, “An eight-year-old boy had a younger sister who was dying of leukemia, and he was told that without a blood transfusion she would die. His parents explained to him that his blood was probably compatible with hers and, if so, he would be the blood donor. They asked him if they could test his blood. He said sure. So they did and it was a good match. Then they asked if he would donate to his sister a pint of his blood, that it could be her only chance of living. He said he would have to think about it overnight. The next day he went to his parents and said he was willing to donate the blood. So they took him to the hospital where he was placed on a gurney beside his six-year-old sister. Both of them were hooked up to IV’s. A nurse withdrew a pint of blood from the boy, which was then transferred to the girl’s IV. The boy lay on his gurney in silence while the blood dripped into his sister, until the doctor came over to see how he was doing. Then the boy opened his eyes and asked, “How soon until I start to die?[3]

Love on behalf of others. Love when the person doesn’t deserve Love irrespective of self. That’s a glimpse of how God loves us. That’s a glimpse of just who God is for you.

Here’s how C. Clifton Black puts it: “God has decided in our favor apart from our ability to reciprocate, gracing us with love prior to and independent of any response we might offer, for no other reason than that love is the very nature of God that is knowable to human beings.[4]

In a world that demands us to show our worth, prove our status, display our purity or orthodoxy (or else!), God starts with one word: “Beloved.” You are Beloved. You are God’s Beloved. And there is nothing that can change that.

God loves you, all the way to the Cross and beyond.

I think that’s a good place to start.

Amen.


[1] John Newton “On Controversy” https://www.ligonier.org/blog/oncontroversy/

[2] Dave Matthews Band, “Samurai Cop (Oh Joy Begin!)

[3] Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird (New York City: Anchor Books, 1995) p. 224.

[4] C. Clifton Black “1, 2, 3 John” in New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), p. 853.

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