12 August – How to love God

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Pentecost 12

1 John 4:10-12, 16b-21
Psalm 34
John 6:35, 41-51

In a sentence:
The love of God is always concrete and tangible – the love of our human neighbour

A few weeks back I preached on ‘God’s unnecessary love’, trying to indicate how there is nothing compelled about God’s love. Today, the shape of our love for God. Once again, John’s first letter informs this thought.

‘There is no fear in love’, John asserts, ‘perfect love casts out fear. The fear which might confound love is of two kinds. The most obvious is the fear of losing the thing we love. Trivially, this is fear for the new toy – fear of a scratch on the new car, shattering the screen on the new phone, or having our nice things burgled while on holiday. More significantly, of course, we fear losing the child, the parent, the spouse, the job, the house, the reputation.

For those of us who hold that there is a just God, it is the loss of the object of love which gives rise to the questions of theodicy – is God righteous, given that such loves, such valuable things can be lost? How can injustice and disorder like this – such contradictions of all we thought God promised – be ‘allowed’ to happen?

The fear to which John refers in his ‘no fear in love’ is not quite the fear of loss, but it is related. This is the second fear associated with love: the fear that we might be found to have loved the wrong thing. Here the emphasis is not as much on the loving as on the being found – being dis‑covered, exposed, judged for loving what is not the final object or goal of ‘true’ love. Those who love truly, John says, do not fear judgement.

(As an aside: This connection of fear and love is quite different from fear of losing what we love. We lose our beloved for ‘natural’ reasons, for reasons beyond our control: accidents, theft or simple mortality. John’s fear of judgement is a fear related to our choices – what we bring about, not what happens to us. This is the fear of having contravened some kind of implicit or explicit commandment, of having misunderstood or deliberately chosen against the order of things.)

Again, there are greater and lesser versions of this love-fear. At the softer end, this might be fear of judgement because I dress differently from the masses, or that I believe in God when most don’t (or the other way around), or that I refuse to eat meat (to the unhappy inconvenience of my omnivorous family and friends).

More substantially, it might be that I refuse to answer a conscription call up because of pacifist convictions, or the fear of retribution when I become the whistle blower. The particular concern of John is the question of judgement before God: love does not fear God’s righteous judgement for having done the wrong thing, for having loved the wrong thing.

With this second reference to righteousness, we can now see the relationship between the two love-fears. In the first love-fear we fear the absence of justice, the loss of what we love. In the second love-fear, we fear the presence of justice, the loss of ourselves if we have loved wrongly.

Love, then, is not the simple thing we often imagine or declare it to be. The pathos of human love is that it fears both the absence and the presence of the justice of God, as we seem usually to understand that justice. Love – the most natural thing to arise in us, and so the thing most naturally expected of us – turns out to be fraught. Our loves and our fears constantly pose the question, Is this right, Will it be right, Does love end?

If love as we usually know it is fraught in this way, what does John’s ‘perfection in love’ look like?

Surprisingly, perfected love doesn’t look like ‘loving’ God in any internal or spiritualised sense.  John never calls us to love God. In fact, he seems to back away from saying this:

4.10 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. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

That is, John does not say here, ‘we ought to love God,’ which would be the more natural complement to the declaration that God has loved us. He does recognise that it makes sense to speak of loving God (e.g. 4.20f, 5.2) but there is no imperative to love God as if this were in any way separable from the love of others, or even prior to such ‘neighbourly’ love.

Perhaps more to the point, John does not allow that our love of God is a kind of invisible ‘spiritual’ counterpart to visible ‘embodied’ love in human relationships. God’s love is entirely concrete: the sending of the Son and the rehabilitation of the cross (on this ‘rehabilitation’ see the July 29 sermon). Our love for God is also entirely concrete: loving the brother, the sister, the neighbour. Love always looks like something – even the love of God. Love is always embodied. The perfected love which does not fear looks like the love of those in need of love.

If there is fear in our love, then, John implies that it is because we do not yet love in this concrete way, and not because we have not yet sufficiently trusted God. That is, our love for God is incomplete, and so our sense of safety in God, because we do not yet love the ones close to us: ‘If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us’, John says.

Yet, even this can be too abstract. Perhaps strangest of all here is that love might look like coming to church. This is not because at church you ‘learn how to love’; such basics are learned elsewhere. It is because ‘church’ is a concrete and specific community which ties us down. For love, in being embodied, is also tied, bound. It is often noted, in critique, that in the letters and in the gospel of John, the focus of human love is not on the ‘neighbour’ (as in the synoptics) but on the sister, the brother, of the Christian communion. This looks embarrassingly ‘in house’ and self-interested. Yet John’s focus makes love very specific and concrete – not the love of anyone who might or might not cross our paths, who might or might not be the person I’m supposed to love, but the person to whom God binds me – the one who also claims to be claimed by God.

For, if nothing else, coming to church binds us strangely to each other. We are not natural family here, not tribal connection. And so this is a place where love’s fears might be challenged in learning to love those we would not normally love, simply because they refuse to go away. It is only in this way that love grows and thickens, and the fears in love begin to diminish because we see that love finds a way.

There is no fear in love. Or, put positively, love is fearless – God’s love, and so the love to which we are called. The fearlessness of love is not in its courage but in its indiscriminateness. Love is not a choice, it is a call which takes the form of the person sitting next you to, or who lives behind you, or who shares your office.

John’s declaration that ‘We love because God first loved us’ is not an explication of how we have come to love God. It is a statement of mission, of how to love God: we become God’s love for us in the love of sister, brother, neighbour.

To say it then, for the umpteenth time in our reflections on John’s letter, Let us be fearless in our love another, for this is what it means to love God. Amen.