Sermon for Evensong on 3rd January 20161 John 4:7-16

 

Lots of love. It’s reported that our prime minister, when sending a text message to his next door neighbour, Rebekah [sic] Brooks, the newspaper editor, thanking her (for letting him ride her horse), ended the text in question with the letters LOL, which he thought meant ‘lots of love’. Actually, as any of our children would be able to tell us, it means, “laugh out loud”. He may have conveyed slightly the wrong impression to Mrs Brooks.
I remember, in an English lesson at school, the teacher taking me gently to task when we were learning how to write letters, for ending my letters “lots of love”, when I should have been writing, “yours sincerely”. Nowadays the other ending, which young people say as they are taking leave of each other, is, “Take care”.
Take care. When I first heard this, I was rather taken aback. ‘Take care’ had rather a threatening tone, to me. Cave canem! Beware, beware of the dog! Take care, lest the dog bites you.

‘Always keep a hold of Nurse

For fear of finding something worse.’

(Hilaire Belloc (1907), Cautionary Tales for Children: Jim, who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion. London, Gerald Duckworth and Co, 13th Impression, 1957, p.16)
I thought it was rather stern – take care, and make sure you are not naughty in some way or another! But I am now convinced that people say it not in a threatening way, but really in an affectionate way, meaning, “take care of yourself!” Take care. Make sure you come to no harm. Take care – it’s the same as saying ‘lots of love’.
There’s a lot of love in the Bible. Tonight’s lesson, from the first letter of John, is one of the great ‘love’ passages. ‘God is love….If we love one another, God dwelleth in us’. (1 John 4:8,12) ‘Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.’ (v.11)
Yesterday I witnessed the joyful scene as our Director of Music, Prof. Robert Woolley’s, daughter Jessica married her Jamie here at Saint Mary’s. And of course the lesson which Jessica’s Mum, Sue, read out was from 1 Corinthians 13: ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not -‘ have not what? ‘Love’, of course. It always is ‘love’ in wedding services.
But in the Authorised Version of the Bible, it is ‘charity’, not ‘love’. The end of the passage there is, ‘Now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three’. (You’ll remember that the three ancient Gladiator aircraft which protected Malta in the war were called Faith, Hope and Charity – Charity, not Love. The RAF used the King James Version.)

I think that you are all pretty familiar with the fact that the New Testament was originally written in Greek, and in Greek there are several words which mean ‘love’. The ‘love’ in 1 Corinthians 13 and also in the first letter of John is αγάπη, which is sometimes translated as ‘brotherly love’, ‘caring’, or ‘charity’. Interestingly, in the Authorised Version, in 1 Corinthians, the word used is ‘charity’, but the translation of the same Greek word in the first letter of John, in the same Bible, is ‘love’. King James’ translators didn’t feel obliged always to translate a word the same way every time. They matched the words to the context.
In St John’s letter, it wouldn’t trip off the tongue quite so well if you said, ‘Beloved, let us have charity for one another, for charity is of God, and everyone that has charity is born of God and knoweth God’, for example. But although the translators allowed themselves to be flexible, and used the word ‘love’ here, the meaning is ‘charity’, rather than sexual love or passionate enthusiasm – which are other senses of the various Greek words in the original text which could mean ‘love’.
It’s actually true also of 1 Corinthians 13. Even when the happy couple are standing there at the altar, no doubt deeply in love, it’s not that type of love that St Paul was writing about in his letter to the Corinthians. This again is αγάπη – it is not passion, it is ‘taking care of’ each other, looking after each other.
So ‘God is love’, said St John in his Letter. Does that tell us anything about the nature of God – what God is? No-one has actually seen God [v. 12], but even if you had, ‘God is love’ is quite a surprising thing to say. To be made of love is rather a lovely idea. Elvis Presley sang that he was a ‘hunk of burning love’ – but clearly, not literally. And actually, I think that Elvis’ love was the wrong type … Definitely not brotherly love!
We are not making statements about the nature of God, what God is made of, if that is not a contradiction in terms, (because God isn’t made of anything, but rather, we believe, He is the one who made everything.) Really, we can’t say anything about that.
When we come across this passage in the first letter of John, it makes us smile. God is love. It’s a perfect lesson to have during the happy time of Christmas, during the season of goodwill. Love is in the air.
But there are one or two interesting things which are perhaps not immediately apparent.The first is precisely the idea that God is nice. He is kind, not a figure of awe, not to be feared. The Old Testament idea of God was much more judgemental.
In book after book of the Old Testament, the stories, first of Adam and Eve, of the Fall, and then of the Israelites, the exile, of God’s covenant – ‘I will look after you if you worship me properly and exclusively – but if not …’, and God’s punishment when the Israelites worshipped other gods, when they went after Baal rather than the one true God, that was all much more complicated than just saying, ‘God is love’. God had a vengeful, terrifying side.
Now according to St John, there’s no longer any suggestion that this is a God to be feared. This is God who ‘so loved the world, that he sent his only ‘Son, to be the propitiation for our sins’. The New Revised Standard version of the the Bible (which we sometimes use), translates this bit as ‘He sent his only son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins’. In the New English Bible, instead, and much better, He sent His Son as the ‘remedy for the defilement of our sins’. Christians disagree about this bit.
Evangelicals talk in terms of a ‘sacrifice for sin’, sacrificial atonement, Jesus in some sense ‘paying a price’ to God for our sins. Other Christians, and I am one of them, don’t think this makes sense, in the context of a god described as being a god of love.
If God is some kind of threatening being, demanding a human sacrifice, even sacrificing His own Son in a violent, retributive sort of way, this is not consistent with the tone of this passage, or indeed with the other ‘love’ passages in the New Testament. The idea of an atoning sacrifice doesn’t square with the teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, for example. Where is the idea of forgiveness, or of turning the other cheek?
Again one turns to look at the original Greek: the word for what is translated as the ‘propitiation’ for our sins is ίλασμον, well translated in the NEB as ‘remedy’. The sense is of something that ‘makes us friends again’, reconciles us, to God. If ‘sin’ is something which alienates us, the propitiation is what brings us together again. But it isn’t a crude human sacrifice. Just as we no longer slaughter animals in order to obtain divine favours, so we surely shouldn’t have some ghastly human sacrifice at the heart of our understanding of God – and, properly understood, I think that St John, in his letter, supports this. Indeed he says that ‘we may have boldness in the day of judgement’ (v. 17): we have nothing to fear from God, the God of love.
The other crucial thing is precisely the fact that God did send His Son. The touchstone, the reason for our belief, is that ‘we have seen and do testify that the Father sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world’ (v. 14). God appeared, God revealed Himself, in the person of Jesus. We can say, with St John, things like ‘God is love’, because Jesus was love, personified.
So we should learn the lesson of this wonderful passage from St John. ‘Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another’ (v.11). It isn’t a message directed to our inner man. It isn’t a message to make one feel at peace, or happier. It’s a social message. This love is directed outside ourselves. And it’s that brotherly love, too. Do something for someone. Show your love.
The young ones have it all summed up very neatly.
They say, ‘Take care!’

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