(A sermon based on 1 John 4:7-21 for the Fifth Sunday of Easter and for Mother's Day)
We are accustomed to and familiar with the use of the word “Father” to refer to God; it is one of the primary biblical metaphors used to name God. It is surely not surprising, though, to discover that our Bibles also sometimes compare God to a mother when it describes the ways that God loves and nurtures and protects God’s children; after all, when we think of warm and nurturing love we most often think of our mothers, although it is certainly true that good fathers are capable of such love as well. So, for example, we read this: “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me” (Psalm 131:2); in the Psalm a soul that is at peace with God is compared with a child that is at peace in its mother’s arms.
To talk about the love of God on Mother’s Day or on Father’s Day is entirely appropriate, then, for at least two reasons: (1) The Bible uses “family” language to describe the relationship between God and us and (2) Under good and healthy circumstances, it is often in the love of our parents that we first encounter the love of God. As Carol Clarke put it, “The first faces that many of us can remember seeing are those of our mothers and fathers. The flawed humanity that we are and that they were is somehow used by God to teach us to love. Now that’s miraculous!”
Our text is about Christian love that should be inspired by our experience of God’s love. From the teachings of the text, though, we also learn some important truths about the kind of love that can and should exist in our homes; after all, “charity,” which is a word that the KJV sometimes uses to translate the word “love” (agape), begins at home—if we love God we will love our brothers and sisters and there are no people who are closer to us than those with whom we live! The first place that our experience of God’s love will make a difference, then, is at home.
What does our text show us about the love of God?
We are loved by God
That truth in and of itself is amazing enough—God loves us! To say that God loves us is to say that God is committed to us and that God is faithful to us and that God takes action on our behalf. God says that he loves us, that is true, but God does more than say it—God is active in his love; he does things in our world and in our lives to show his love for us.
Mothers—parents—will certainly tell their children that they love them, but the children of really good parents will know that their parents love them whether those parents ever say it or not because their actions toward their children will build them up and not tear them down, will be for their benefit and not their detriment, and will have as their goal the long-term health and well-being of their children.
That is how God loves us and often we get our first glimpse of that kind of love in our parents. We parents begin to teach our children about grace when we love them for no other reason but that they are and that we love them; we begin to teach them about grace when we show them by our actions that we are committed to them and that we will always be faithful to them. Thus it is so very important that we parents be aware of and in touch with the love of God for us so we can be channels through whom that love reaches our children.
We are loved by God before we love God
John tells us that God loves us but he tells us more than that; he tells us that “we love because he first loved us” (v. 19). In other words, the love that we show is in response to the love that God shows; our love is inspired by the love that God demonstrates.
The love of parents for their children again offers a good analogy. Parents do not wait to see if their children are going to love them and then base their love on what their children do or don’t do. Rather, parents, being in the prior position (we were here first) and being in the power position (we are big and grown and strong) show our love to our children first and then our children, as they come to know and experience that love, respond to it with love.
But there is more to it than that; our family relationships are not based on a simple “action and response/response and action” dynamic. Real family love is not based on the principle of quid pro quo, which is Latin for “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” No, it is based on something much deeper and greater than that. In the parent/child relationship, there is a mutuality, a closeness, an identification—an abiding in one another—that happens at the very heart of who we are and that is almost indescribably powerful. We parents are a part of our children and our children are a part of us.
In a similar way, John tells us that “God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them” (vv. 15-16). Notice the “abiding” language; when we trust in Jesus Christ the Son of God, God abides in us and we abide in God. We come to live God’s kind of life—eternal life—because God comes and makes his home with us. And since God is love—that is, all of God’s actions and undertakings are motivated and driven by God’s commitment and faithfulness to his people—if we abide in God then we abide in love. That means, in turn, that our actions and undertakings toward other people, starting with those in our own home, will be motivated and driven by God’s kind of commitment and faithfulness.
We are loved by God and so we love like God
If we really want to know about God’s love, we look at Jesus; if we really want to know how God loves, we look at Jesus; if we really want to grasp the extent of God’s love, we look at Jesus. John said, “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. Beloved, since God loves us so much, we also ought to love one another” (vv. 9-11).
In other words, God’s love is defined by God’s sacrifice and our love, if it is indeed God’s love in us and working through us, will be defined by sacrifice—and make no mistake about it, it is God’s love that we are talking about, because, when we are resurrection people, God pours his life into our lives and when he pours his life into our lives he pours his love into our lives. We will then love like God loves—and think of the difference that will make in our lives and in our family life and in our church life and in our life in the world.
And that means that we will be committed to give rather than to take and to share rather than to hoard—and I am talking about much more important things than our physical possessions; I am talking about giving and sharing ourselves—our time, our energy, our vulnerabilities, our forgiveness, our grace, our hopes, our dreams, our faith, and our God. God so loved that he gave—and when it comes to being a Christian spouse or parent, that is how we are to love, too.
It all comes down to this: we love—whether we are at home, at church, at work, at school, at play; whether we are in public or in private; whether we are with our family or with our friends or with total strangers—because God first loved us. While it is true that many and maybe most of us first learn of such love from our parents, it is also true that we have the privilege and responsibility of developing lifestyles of love for ourselves. Are you making progress on that front? Will you commit yourself today to asking God to help you make even more?