1 John 4:7-12
When I was in high school, we often sang a song in Bible study that drew from the Song of Solomon. It went like this:
I am my beloved’s, and he is mine.
His banner over me is Love. (Song of Songs 6:3; 2:4)
Who is the beloved whose banner over me is love? If you read the Song of Solomon in a straightforward way, you’ll discover that this is a most explicit love song. But, down through the ages, Christians have read this song allegorically to describe Christ’s relationship with the church. Christ is the Beloved, and those over whom the banner of love flies belongs to him.
In one of the weddings at which I officiated, the Scripture text was taken from the Song of Solomon. Among the words shared that day were these:
Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it
(Song of Songs 8:6-7).
Two people in love, committing themselves to a life together as partners in marriage, can surely sing this to each other. But can this song also describe our relationship with God? Is the love of God so strong that nothing, not even flood waters can quench it? Is God’s love for us even stronger than death itself?
In 1 John 4, we are called to love one another, “because love is from God.” Not only is love from God, but God is love itself. Therefore, if you are one of God’s beloved, then love should define your life. In fact, if love isn’t present, then you don’t know God (1 John 4:7-12). So what is love?
If you’ve been to a wedding lately where I’ve officiated, you probably heard me use a definition I took from theologian Tom Oord. Tom has done a lot research on this subject and he has determined that love is multidimensional. But, he’s also developed a very concise and helpful definition of love.
To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote over-all well-being. [The Nature of Love: A Theology, p. 17]
These are the key points of this definition. First, love is intentional, which means that it is more than an emotional response. Second, as a response to God and others, it promotes over-all well-being.
The second definition is similar. Theologian Paul Tillich writes that “Love is the drive towards the unity of the separated” [Love, Power, and Justice, p. 25]. That definition fits God’s nature very well, for the witness of Scripture is clear – God is seeking to heal that which is broken (2 Cor. 5:19).
Our task during this season of Epiphany is to do something that seems impossible. We are exploring ways in which we can speak of the God who is incomprehensible. St. Augustine said that if we think we understand God, then what we have understood is not God. But, even if we can’t fully understand God’s nature, there are metaphors and analogies that allow us to speak of God, even if we do so imperfectly.
The witness of Scripture is that God is love, and if we claim to know God, then our lives will be marked by love. Even if our definitions of love are imperfect, and God exceeds those definitions, something of God’s nature has been revealed in our own experiences and expressions of human love. Whatever God’s love is, it cannot be less than human love. While the definitions of love that I drew from Tom Oord and Paul Tillich may seem a bit abstract, they point us in the right direction.
If you look at the sermon title, you will hopefully see a connection between it and the message of 1 John 4. I have in mind the confession that Jesus is the one who embodies God’s perfect love. John tells his readers that the nature of God’s love has been revealed in God’s decision to send “his only Son into the world so that we might live through him” (v. 9).
We’ll talk more next week about the ways in which God is revealed to us, but for John, this love is revealed to us when we live in Christ. For John this is expressed in Jesus becoming the “atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
Now there is too much to unpack in this statement about the atonement to explore here, but the message I hear in this passage is this – God loves us so much that God is willing to risk the life of the Son to bring healing to the rift that exists between God and humanity and within the created order itself.
Although Christian tradition has primarily described God in terms of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the over-use of Father and Son language can lead us, as we discovered last week, to think of God as being a male. But the symbolism here is important – not in terms of the maleness – but in terms of the relationship of parent and child. In this context, we should think in terms of adult relationships between parents and children. In this case, the relationship is between equal partners. A mother-daughter relationship could just as easily express this vision of a parent-child partnership of equals. However this takes place, God has intentionally taken steps in partnership with Jesus to promote the over-all well-being of God’s creation.
As we consider what it means for God not only to love, but to be love itself, then we will want to use relational terms to describe this love. One of the first things we need to recognize is that God in God’s self is not a solitary being. One of the reasons why I hold on to the confession that Trinity is the proper way to name God is that it expresses this sense of relationship. Therefore, even as love is the defining characteristic of God’s own nature, the witness of Scripture is that if we know God then we have been drawn into this fellowship of love.
The question is – how do we speak of this loving relationship? One way is to look for metaphors and analogies that speak of intimate relationship and care for the other. One of the most powerful images is where Jesus stands on the hill overlooking Jerusalem and laments its fate. He wanted to reach out to Jerusalem and save it, even as it careened toward destruction. So, he cries out: “How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Matthew 23:37-39). Yes, Jesus described himself as a mother hen seeking to protect her children by gathering them up under her wings.
Or consider the image found in the Song of Moses – where God is compared to a mother Eagle.
“Like an eagle that rouses her chicks
and hovers over her young,
so he spread his wings to take them up
and carried them safely on his pinions.” (Deuteronomy 32:11 NLT).
Even though the New Living Translation uses masculine pronouns for God, it recognizes that it is the mother eagle who bears her children up on her wings, both to protect them and to teach them to fly. God in this image is seeking to protect us and to teach us so we too can fly. God’s intention, like the Mother Eagle, is to promote our over-all well-being.
Who is God? God is love. Whatever we imagine love to be, God is both that and more. When we use analogies to speak of God, we not only make an affirmation, we also offer a negation, which allows us to make a further affirmation. While we might not be able to offer a precise definition of love, if we love one another, then we are expressing the love that is God who dwells within us by the Holy Spirit.
In closing I want to share this word from theologian Elizabeth Johnson, whose book She Who Is, is proving to be very helpful in my own reimagining the God who is for us. Drawing from St. Thomas Aquinas, she writes:
Divine love is similar to human love in the sense that it is a binding, unitive force, always tending toward the ones loved and willing the good for them. Unlike human love, however, which is a response to goodness already there, God’s love creates goodness, making the creature lovable. [She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, p. 142].
Therefore, while “no one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). Yes, in Christ God’s perfect love has been embodied.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
January 18, 2015