Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is 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. 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 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.
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world. 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. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.(1 John 4:7-21)
What does it mean to love?
This question is underlying in the reading from the first letter of John today, but is also at the center of our faith. In many passages of scripture, we learn that the most important commandment, or the only commandment, is to love God and each other. That sounds simple enough, but as most of us know, it is not always as simple in reality. And what does it really to mean to love?
We get a few clues about love from the reading today. Love comes from God, and we love because God loves us first. God’s love is shown through Jesus Christ. Love is the absence of fear. We love by abiding in God. Loving God is shown through acts of love towards our brothers and sisters.
First: we love because God has loved us. It is central – love is not an achievement or something we merit to ourselves. God loves us so much, it overflows and we can share that love to others. But it is also a well-known psychological fact, that people who grew up in trusting, loving families, having the experience of being loved also are better prepared for loving relationships of all kinds. Having been loved makes it, on a human level, much easier to love and to trust that we are, in fact, loved. As we also well know, not everyone has had the privilege to be surrounded by love as a child or young person. In church, we often talk about God’s love as the love of a parent towards children, sometime conveniently forgetting that this experience is far from shared by all Christians.
Let’s not get stuck in our images, but remind each other that God’s love is greater than we can imagine. As the prophet Isaiah puts it: “Can a woman forget her nursing-child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. “ The commandment to love each other reaches far wider than what is always practical and convenient. But we must also be forgiving towards ourselves when we have a hard time trusting God or trusting love, and helping each other to discover God’s love.
Another clue as to what it means to love in the text is that it is the opposite of fear. Only when fear melts away, we can truly love. The author states that we abide in God’s love, and therefore we can stand bold on the Day of Judgment. But I think the love of God can make us bold also in this world. There are many days of judgments when we, or our fellow humans, are judged for who we are or where we come from or who we love. The love of God should make us bold to stand up for them and ourselves, knowing that the Kingdom of God is not only about nice words but trying to build a community here and now based on justice, openness and love.
A key word in this text is abiding. We should abide in God, and in God’s love. In the reading of the Gospel, Jesus uses the image of the grapevine – we are the branches of Jesus’ grapevine. We must stay connected with him, and our capacity to love comes from God’s love. And God’s love is shown in the ultimate act of love when Jesus gives his life for us. By abiding in God’s love, we can love. But “abide” should not be seen as passive, as just staying, sitting still. And it should not be confused for “getting comfortable”. Abiding in God’s love is not about staying in a safe place, but also to go out in the world, to boldly stand up for our brothers and sisters, to let the spirit of God’s love take us to new places, new people, learning new things about ourselves, the world and God. Abiding in God’s love means being anchored in love and therefore being open to the world around us.
So, what does it mean to love? It probably takes a lifetime of trying to love God and neighbors to fully know. But by helping each other abiding in God’s love and showing that boldly in action every day, we can discover more and more about love. Amen