Text: 1 John 4:7-21
I learned on a Sunday evening two weeks ago — just hours after I’d said, in this pulpit, that I find the words of 1 John to be simple and rather self-evident — that this stuff is harder than it seems. That’s because I sat down with the Youth Group to plan for their participation in this celebration, and when we read this passage together and I asked questions about it, I got a lot of puzzled silences from them. (I apologize for putting you on the spot!) It seems the connection between loving God and loving others is not as clear-cut as I might like to think — and it’s something that has to be taught (evidenced by John’s letter to this divided church he was addressing). Perhaps it has something to do with maturity and brain development, something that, if trained, comes more naturally to us over time.
My evening with the Youth Group got me to thinking of this letter in a new light. This passage might be translated as if a parent were to say: “Because I love you, you need to love your brother or sister.” Does that work in “real life”? Or are there kids who act nice to each other when Mom or Dad is around, and all bets are off when they aren’t? What was your experience?
I remember a children’s book I once read to my kids featuring the Berenstain Bears. (Do you remember that lovable family? Some people have criticized them for being too formulaic, simplistic and syrupy, the Papa too much of a bumbling oaf and the Mama too traditional and perfectionist, but the original author-illustrator team said they based the characters on themselves, and my kids loved them.) This was a story in which Mama Bear strictly enforced the practice of saying “please” and “thank you” in her presence. The kids rebelled by making a point of reverting to their former practices when she wasn’t around, but by the end of the book, Brother and Sister Bear were saying those “magic words” without thinking. I wonder: Is that how transformation happens? Maybe in the same way, this love business somehow takes root in us just through practice.
John says: We can’t see God, but we can see other people, and if we love them, then we see God.
John Wesley advocated a similar principle when he told his young preachers: “Preach faith until you have it, and then you will preach faith because you have it.”
I asked the Youth if they thought the concept of love focused on in this passage is a feeling or an action, and I shared that at weddings, I pass on to couples what a wise old pastor told me: that love is less about feelings and more about choices — choosing love (in the form of attitude, an intention, and action) — choosing love even when one isn’t necessarily feeling it. We behave our way into becoming loving people.
Our Wednesday and Thursday Bible study groups are reading together a new book by Pastor Adam Hamilton called Unafraid. A couple weeks back, in the companion DVD, we watched the segment in which Hamilton interviews UMC Bishop William Willimon, who a couple of years ago wrote another book called Fear of the Other. One thing that really stuck with me, from that conversation, was the Bishop’s assertion that “the power of Christ can help us overcome all sorts of perfectly natural inclinations,” like the fear of those who are different.
Our week’s topic was race, war, crime and politics, which might seem like “bigger picture” matters than the Berenstain Bears’ level of loving the brother or sister right in front of us. But the principle of love that is action, and behaving our way into becoming, applies whether the “other” is the person we see every day, the stranger who’s a friend we haven’t met yet, or the fellow human being on the other side of the world who we will never meet face to face. Faith in Christ, laying claim to the love of the God who first loved us, means continuing to widen our circle, letting our fear be cast out and transformed into love.
We had moved onto another topic this week, but I’m always picking up some of the sweetest bits of wisdom from the seniors at Brookdale. One of the things that really touched me this week was the dear little lady who went on about how all the other residents are her “brothers and sisters.” “We’re all living together under the same roof,” she reasoned, so in moving to this place, she had acquired a whole new family. That is a really lovely image, you know?
There are faith traditions in which it’s common to refer to other members of the church as “Brother So-and-so” or “Sister So-and-so.” We don’t use that terminology much around here — and I don’t think this woman at Brookdale addresses her fellow residents in that way, either. But it is something significant to regard people as such.
And what if we might imagine the sky as our “common roof”? What if we might imagine that the whole earth really is the home that we share? That each human being, and indeed, every creature, is our brother and sister, a window to the face of God?
May we let go of fear, embrace all our brothers and sisters, and embrace the love of God which empowers us to draw the circle of grace far and wide. Amen.