This sermon was preached on May 9, 2021 (Easter 6B). The text of the day was 1 John 5:1-6.
I don’t know about you, but it feels like 1 John has been harping on the same message for a while now. Like a beginning jazz musician who falls in love with the same note, or a washed-up pitcher who only has one pitch to throw, or someone like actor Kevin Costner who only really plays the same character in every TV show or movie, John seems to have one theme in this letter that he repeats over and over, albeit with a slight variance all circling back to the original: because we have been loved by God, we ought to love one another. We love because God first loved us. (1 John 4:19)
It’s like one of my favorite organizations, Mockingbird, for whom I read and write for. They are named “Mockingbird” because they always say the same thing, albeit in slightly different ways. They repeat the good news of the gospel in all they do, mimicking the grace given, sharing the good news of God’s love in Jesus’ death and resurrection, shouting the gospel of forgiveness of sinners for all to hear.
That’s what it all comes back to and that’s what John is always trying to get across. Left in the wreckage of division, John is at pains to counsel those leftover to take up the self-sacrificial, mercy-laden, grace-forward, and forgiveness-offering ministry of Christ with one another BECAUSE they have already experienced this sacrifice, mercy, grace, and forgiveness. God has loved them to the end and that love transforms them into people who share in Jesus’ ministry. This is living in the light. This is remaining in the truth and relationship with Jesus Christ. This is abiding in the God who is love. This is believing Jesus forgives and atones our sin. It is loving one another.
John optimistically phrases it this way, whoever loves someone who is a parent loves the child born to the parent (1 John 5:1b). John is once again referring to us as God’s children with God being our divine parent. Cinderella might have some qualms with John after her relationship with her step-mother (who should love Cinderella if she loved Cinderella’s dad…), the idea is if we love God, then we love God’s children.
But love is just one side of the coin. The other side is belief. If we love God, then we believe Jesus is the Son of God. That at a particular time and a particular place, God came to dwell with sinners. That an itinerate Jewish rabbi who wandered around in the backwaters of the empire, just outside of nowhere, was the seat of God’s presence in the world. That through his horrifically public torture and execution, humanity might find forgiveness. That through his resurrection, Sin, Death, and The Devil have been defeated and the world has been defeated, remaking all things to the way they should have always been.
Just as love is not a general term, so to faith. It has a “particular expression and content.” It not a generic one size fits all type of faith. It’s not How I Met Your Mother’s “the Universe loves me (or hates me)” type of faith. It’s not a choose your own adventure type of faith or everything happens for a reason type of faith. John’s “testimony assumes that Christians do not approach God as generally religious people, praying to whom it may concern.” Faith is faith in God’s story of Jesus. Loving God is believing Jesus truly is the Son of God. Jesus, who he is and the grace, mercy, and forgiveness he gives to us, is the center of our faith.
Reminds me of a church down in Texas that got started when I was in school. My preaching professor’s wife helped start it. Instead of the traditional names of a church like First Christian Church or even the fancy new names like New Journey Church, they went a different way. Betraying their love and faith in God (at least according to 1 John), they named their plant (which is now a full member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)) Galileo Church with the tagline “we are not the center of the universe.” The corollary is, God revealed in the redemptive life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the center of the universe.
This is what belief is. This is what love is – the death and resurrection of Jesus is the center of the universe, the hinge on which all of history hangs. It’s the confession of Jesus as Christ, who God is, and what God does is fully revealed in the story of Jesus.
When you spin the coin, you no longer see two distinct things, belief and love, but see they are indeed one and the same. They blend into one another. They bleed into one another. Judith Lieu reveals another way to think about how belief operates “belief is not a chance bond that unites [the Church], which perhaps could be replaced by some other shared practice or conviction, but established the framework within which love for God and love for fellow believers is made both possible and necessary.”
It’s like a stone dropped into a lake. Out of God’s love in Christ, radiates our love of God, radiates belief our belief and trust in God’s promises, radiates our love for one another, and then John adds one more: obedience to God’s commandments.
I don’t know about you, but I have an aversion to the word “obedience.” Maybe it’s because I associate it with trying to teach my dog to “obey” my commandments, or I don’t particularly enjoy the clothing company “obey” and their street ware, or because I haven’t always been the best rule follower in that I don’t usually “obey” rules that don’t make sense to me. Who knows, but if you’re anything like me, you bristle a little bit when John brings up obedience as a way we show love for each other and God.
This is how we know that we love the children of God: when we love God and keep God’s commandments. This is the love of God: we keep God’s commandments… (1 John 5:2-3a)
Keep God’s Law, that’s how we show we love God. Of course, when we hear commandment, we think of the Ten Commandments, you know…Charlton Heston in a long beard holding up two stone tablets. At least that’s where my mind goes. I think of God’s perfect and holy Law, given to the Israelites as a gift for life. Deuteronomy 6 spells it well.
Standing on the precipice of the Holy Land, Moses takes time to tell the Israelites why the Law is important: Now these are the commandments, the regulations, and the case laws that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you to follow in the land you are entering to possess, so that you will fear the Lord your God by keeping all his regulations and his commandments that I am commanding you—both you and your sons and daughters—all the days of your life and so that you will lengthen your life. (Deut. 6:1-2) They’re given for flourishing. They’re given for our benefit. They’re given so our lives might be lived rightly in God’s eyes.
The problem is the Law cannot create what it wills. Simply telling us what to do does not make us want to do it. Telling someone not to do something is a sure-fire way to make them want to do it. “Don’t eat those cookies!” Mom tells you and then all you can think about the afternoon is how much you want those cookies. Because of Sin’s effect on the world and in our hearts, we cannot follow the precepts of the Law because we will always turn them into an avenue of self-pursuit. Instead of being a way of honoring God, the Law becomes just another tool we can separate ourselves from others.
And so even though 1 John spells out a slightly different commandment or law previously in the letter: And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us (1 John 3:23), the effect is still the same – it’s not something we can muster up ourselves. It’s not something we always do perfectly every single time. The times we get it right are those times we don’t even know what we’re doing, when the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.
Loving each other in the Church is hard. Our personalities compete with one another. Our preferences on worship style, worship time, worship music are different. Our ideas on what is the most important mission priority vary. There are plenty of reasons why we might find it hard to love one another, and that’s even when we don’t bring in continual effects of Sin, Death, and the Devil into the picture.
But the good news is that Jesus gives us the love commanded here. If God is love, our love can never be as pure or like God’s love. Thankfully, our frenzied attempts at loving one another aren’t the greatest love. God in Christ on the Cross is. God’s love is forgiveness of your sins through Jesus’ atoning death and new life in the resurrection.
“The love Jesus commands, he gives to us in baptism and weekly in the bread and cup.” When we abide there, when we remain in Jesus’ love, when we stay in forgiveness and grace, it changes us. Martin Luther puts it this way, “The love of God does not first discover but creates what is pleasing to it.”
God does not wait for us to love him and one another to call us good. God does not wait for us to believe in the story before bestowing faith in us. God creates something out of nothing, life from death. In baptism, we die a death like Christ’s that we might be raised to new life like Christ’s through water and blood (1 John 5:6). We are transformed into Christians, literally “little Christs,” dying self on behalf of others, love in other words. And so we love because God in Christ first loved us.
 1,2,3 John NTL, p. 207
 NIBC Vol. X, p. 857.
 1,2,3 John, p. 201