"Where Love Is, God Is" on 1 John 4:7-12 by Pastor Joe Ellis - April 3. 2022
It has not been three weeks since my mom passed away. My family and I just arrived back a few days ago from our time in Alaska where I had the honour of being with my mom and family during her last days. After she passed away, we journeyed through the funeral and time together afterwards with my dad, my siblings and extended family. As I sat preparing for today, all this has been very much in my heart and in looking at this passage today, I can’t help but think of my mom. I’d like to preach this message for my mom.
As I was working on this passage, my mom kept coming to mind. Probably because this passage is through and through about the deep love of God. This has been incredibly comforting to me as I’m grieving the loss of my mom. Though at points, this passage in 1 John may sound a bit theoretical, what I find so powerful about this passage is how concrete it is. To John, God’s love is not an idea or a thought. God’s love is incredibly practical, material, flesh and blood in action. To John, God’s love is not something to just think about. It is something to know intimately — sort of like the way you know who’s walked into the room by the sound of their footsteps, or by the way they smell. It’s as strong as the gut instinct you have to protect those you care for. For John, you can’t know God’s love without experiencing love from others and loving others in the same way.
Perhaps the greatest way that God showed me what his love is like and who he is, is by the way my mom loved me. I’d like to share a few stories with you today about how my mom loved and how her love showed me a piece of what God’s love is like. I know parents aren’t always the best models of God’s love. I recognize what a gift it is that my mom loved me well and that she modelled to me God’s love. As I share these stories with you, my hope is that they bring to mind your own memories of how God has shown you what his love is like through another person, whether it be a mother, a sister, a mentor, a dad, an aunt or a friend. I believe this passage invites and encourages us to reflect together in this way. As 1 John 4:12 says, “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
One of the nights after the funeral had taken place, I was sharing with Michelle the sadness of losing one of the few people in my life who has loved me so utterly unconditionally. Whenever I would talk to my mom, I always knew that her love for me was never contingent on anything — she didn’t love me more if I seemed successful, or funny, or smart, or whatever. Her love just was. In fact, it would sometimes annoy me. At the dinner table growing up, mom would always come to my defence whenever someone disagreed with me (this was true especially if my dad disagreed with me). It didn’t matter how silly and stupid what I was saying was. Mom always had my back. The unconditional love of a caring parent is exactly the sort of love God intends us to think about when we try and understand His love. One of my spiritual directors would often say: “You are infinitely loved by Christ, just the way you are.” We didn’t earn God’s love by being more perfect, godly or spiritual. God loves us simply because we are His children and God dearly loves his kids. That’s why John says we are “born of God.” God loves his children.
John then tells the story of God’s greatest display of love. John says in v.9, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” God’s love for us can be unconditional because it is sacrificial. God can look at us with infinite love no matter what silly, stupid or sinful things we do — all because of sacrifice. A parent sacrifices themselves for their child because they love them. I also think the act of sacrifice makes the love more dear. The more we sacrifice for someone, the more precious they are in our sight. And it is through sacrifice that shows God’s unconditional love, but it also creates the conditions for unconditional love. God shows his unconditional love in sending His one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. God sent His only Son, His Only Begotten Son, His most beloved and dearest Son, to die for us. God Himself died for us. As Jesus hung there on the cross, we see what unconditional love looks like. And this sacrifice also created the conditions for God’s unconditional love to be possible. Were it not for the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, He could not look past our sin. We would have to fear punishment. Fear judgment. But as John later says in v.18, “Perfect love casts out fear.” Out of love, he took on our punishment – he received our judgment. He embraced suffering and death so that we might receive the joy of forgiveness. Now, when God looks at us out of Fatherly love, there is nothing that stands in the way.... Nothing that obscures God’s sight as He beholds us. We have been washed and renewed in the eyes of God. He can look at us as a loving parent looks at their child from across the dinner table — with pure and total delight.
My mom was a great giver of gifts. Before she died, she had ordered Michelle a pair of beautiful slippers for her birthday. They had arrived in Telkwa as we were up in Anchorage for her funeral — we came home to find one of the last gifts mom had given us. I think she knew to buy the slippers for Michelle because when she was here in October she probably noticed that the sandals Michelle had been wearing around the house could easily have been mistaken for roadkill. But the real reason she gave the gift is to just say, “You are loved!”
When we receive gifts from those who dearly love us, it’s like a sign pointing us to the great Gift Giver. God shows his love not only through sacrifice. God shows His love through His gift. In verse 13 John says, “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us the gift of his Spirit.” God certainly noticed that left to our own devices, our spirit had turned shabby and uninhabitable, a bit like Michelle’s house sandals. So God made us the great gift — living in us through the presence of the Spirit. When my mom would visit, she’d always help organize and clean house. She would make our home much more of a home. Through the Spirit, God moved in and makes us more of a home. He makes us more human through the gift of his presence.
Listen to the way St. Basil, a fourth century theologian, describes it when God’s Spirit lives in us. He says, “Through Him hearts are lifted up, the infirm are held by the hand, and those who progress are brought to perfection. When a sunbeam falls on a transparent substance, the substance itself becomes brilliant, and radiates light from itself. So, too, Spirit-bearing souls illuminated by Him, finally become spiritual themselves, and their grace is sent forth to others.” What a beautiful picture — the Spirit in us is like a stained-glass window with the sun shining outward through. The Spirit living within us makes us more who God always intended us to be as we love others.
John says in v.19, “We love because he first loved us.” I really had no choice about loving my mom. As a baby I used to cry all the time whenever my mom would put me down. I think I was nervous about my older brother and sister as they were a bit like tornados. Mom would tell me that she wore me in a Snuggly wherever she went. When she’d play ball with my siblings, I was in that Snuggly. When she’d get groceries, I was in that Snuggly. When she’d sing in church, I’d be in the Snuggly. I really had no choice about loving my mom — she loved me into loving her. I think that’s something of what John is saying when he says that we love God because God first loved us. God began showing his love for us far before we were even conscious of the fact. God began showing His love for us by dying for us before we were even a twinkle in our parents’ eyes. Then, after we were born, God began moving in us, gifting us with His Holy Spirit far before we could ever grasp that God is our Father who loves us so deeply. God began loving us before we could even comprehend His love. I think we have very little choice in how we respond to God. His love for us is too sweet, too tender, too full, too complete to resist. We love because He first loved us.
I have used my mom as an analogy for God’s deep love — hopefully, each of us here have people we can point to who have shown us something of the love of God. Maybe some have felt uncomfortable with the idea of telling a story about someone we love and saying, “God’s love is like that”. Yet I think that John is saying that this is exactly what we need to be doing. Let me read you verses 11 and 12. After speaking of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice for our sins, John says, “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” If we love one another, God lives in us and His love is made complete in us. Throughout this passage, John says that our ability to love is because we have been born of God. Our ability to love others is an extension of God living in us and loving us. God is love, so when we love others this is the love of God shining through our actions. It's just like St. Basil said about the sun shining through a stained glass window. This was my experience growing up with my mom — she gave me the gift of letting God’s love shine through the way she loved me and others. That’s the point of what John is saying in this passage. When we love others, it is God’s love shining through us.
There is a challenge here. Maybe it’s easier to say “We love God” than to love the "real live" people around us. In verses 20 and 21, John was certainly getting at this when he said: “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, they 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.”
So we, who love God, show our love for God as we love others. As we do so, the love of God shines through.
During the last weeks and months of my mom’s life we got to shine back on Mom our love for her. My family was able to let God’s love shine through in the same way mom showed us God’s love. We sang to her, we washed her, we supported her weight, we prayed with her, we held her, we told her how much we loved her, and we rubbed her feet. The evening she passed away, she told me that the foot cream she used was tailor made for her Norwegian feet. Throughout our last day with Mom, it felt as though the deep love we shared was drawing near the Kingdom of God. As we loved each other so intimately, it felt as though heaven were actually emerging in our home. In the evening, my sister actually heard the music of heaven throughout our house. She heard this music for several hours before my mom died. As my sister and I were talking about heaven while others were with mom upstairs— I explored the thought with Erin that when we love each other here and now, we begin to experience heaven on earth. When we love each other in the present, we begin to taste something of eternal life here and now. That was when Erin first heard the joyful music of heaven coming into our house. She was the only one who heard the music, yet it felt as though heaven had drawn near to us and God was very close.
We don’t always hear music when we love each other. Sometimes loving each other is hard, difficult, painful, and messy. Sometimes bearing with each other through the actions of love feels like very difficult work. But I am convinced that as we love each other, perhaps especially in times when it is difficult, heaven is drawing near. God’s love is becoming more manifest. If we had ears to hear, we would hear the music of heaven ringing forth to announce that God has come with His own loving presence. This is what happens when we love each other. We may not feel it, we may not hear it, but the Kingdom of heaven draws near. Things on Earth become more as it is in heaven. This is one of the joyful ways that we get to exercise our faith. We get to trust that, as Tolstoy said in His great short story: “Where Love Is, God Is”. We can trust that as we love each other, God presence is shining through our soul.