May 6, 2012 Easter 5 John’s Fourth Big Idea: Love

One of the special things we do in the season of Easter is instead of having a reading from the Old Testament for the first reading of the Mass, traditionally we have a reading from the book of the Acts of the Apostles. And so today we began the readings with the story of our own namesake, St. Philip, who met the Ethiopian Eunuch as he traveled along the road on his way home from Jerusalem. And one of the remarkable things about this story is the character of the Ethiopian man, who was a high official in the court of Candace, the queen of Ethiopia. It was a common practice in the ancient near East that a man would be castrated and then would become an important official, because it was thought that a eunuch would be most trustworthy, more focused on his duties, and so this man had become the chief finance officer for the queen. But somewhere in all his travels he had encountered the religion of the Jewish people, and for some reason it appealed to him strongly. In fact, he was returning from having attended a Jewish festival in Jerusalem and had managed to acquire a copy of the Jewish Scriptures, or at least a part of the Scriptures, and he was reading from the prophet Isaiah when Philip came along.

It was all the more remarkable that this man was drawn to the Jewish faith, because as a eunuch he could never really belong. Having been castrated, he could not become a proselyte, he couldn’t “join up”; he could not even be allowed to enter into the Temple. Clearly there was something beyond the religious ceremonies that called to him, and that something was the God of the Jews. Being widely traveled, the eunuch would have encountered many of the gods of the ancient Near East, and the God of Israel was completely unlike any of them. One of the striking things that made the Jewish God unique was what the eunuch was reading from Isaiah’s writing, chapter 53, about the Suffering Servant, the one who would lay down his life. This idea touched something in his heart and mind, and he wanted to know more. And God, in his love and mercy, sent Philip to satisfy that longing.

Philip explained to him that Isaiah was writing about the Messiah that God promised to send, and that the Messiah turned out to be Jesus, who was both man and God. What was calling to the eunuch was the absolute and total love that this God had for his creatures, love that is willing to sacrifice everything. John, in chapter three of his letter says, we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – that is the sign of his perfect love for us. And the eunuch recognized that love, even in the promise of it, even before he knew about Jesus. He recognized it, and he was drawn to it, because that kind of love was the one thing that would satisfy the deepest need of his heart.

Love is the big idea of John that I want to talk about today, the fourth big idea. Love is a major theme in John’s writing: he wrote that God is love, that God’s one overriding commandment is that we love one another, that if we do not love our brother we can’t claim to love God. It’s all over the place in John’s writing, truly one of his big ideas. Verses in this is love…..Love is at the center of our relationship with God, and it is at the center of who we are created to be; it is the longing for that love that called to the Ethiopian man that day.

The French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote about something in human beings that has been called a “God-shaped hole”. Pascal phrased it much more eloquently, but in essence what he was saying was that ever since the Fall, when our relationship to God was broken by our sin, man comes into the world with an infinite emptiness. Pascal wrote:

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?

This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”

Because of who we are, created to be bearers of God’s image, created to live in fellowship with him, every one of us has that infinite abyss within ourselves that can only be satisfied by an infinite love – in fact, by the God who is Love Itself. It is as Augustine wrote, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”

Every child is born knowing this need for love. In homes where children are not cared for, or perhaps where their physical needs are cared for but where they are never hugged, never spoken to, where there is an absence of love, they do not thrive. Love is an essential need, the essential need of human beings. We know that instinctively from the time we are born, and we seek it from our human parents.

And as parents, if we are reasonably good parents, we try to fill that need for our children.  We try to love them, unconditionally, sacrificially, abundantly. But there always seems to come a time when our children begin to grow up and they come to us and question our love. They ask us, “Do you remember that time you left me at the playground?” “Do you remember the time you thought I was the one who dropped the dish and broke it, and it wasn’t me, but you spanked me anyway?” “Do you remember the time I needed to talk to you, and you were too busy?”

These questions cut us to the heart as parents, and my natural response is first to try to make excuses for myself. “I didn’t have any way of knowing about that.” Or “That was a really busy day for us.” Or sometimes we don’t even remember these things that our children have carried through the years, and we wonder if they are just making them up or if they dreamed them. But the truth is, as parents we do fail our children. We fail them all the time, because we are human beings and we make mistakes and we sin. But we fail them, too, because we are trying to fill that emptiness that only God can fill, and there comes a time when we need to realize that our human love is only a preview for our children of what God’s love is – and that is the only thing that will really satisfy what they really need.

As we get older, we recognize this in part and so we try to fill that infinite empty place with other things, with other human loves, with our work, with beauty, with food, or alcohol or drugs. And though we are older, we haven’t gotten wiser, we have only gotten ourselves more muddled and further from knowing the truth of our need. It always, always fails, because only God can fill that place. We knew best when we were babies.

God has for us exactly what we need, that thing we knew we needed instinctively as tiny babies – the love of a perfect Father. John wrote, “See what kind of love the Father has for us, that we should be called children of God. And so we are.” God’s love names us as his children; it fills us completely and it establishes us as his beloved. And that is the very best of good news. Like the Ethiopian, we can go on our way rejoicing. But like that man, that isn’t the end of the story. The eunuch’s story went on – he is said to have become the first non-Jewish convert to Christianity, and the first evangelist to the continent of Africa. God filled him, and then God sent him out to bring his love out into the world. And he does the same with us.  God’s love is the beginning of our lives, and then we have to grow.

And just like we have the DNA of our parents, so that we grow up having our father’s nose or our mother’s red hair or our grandfather’s temper, we now have the spiritual DNA of the God of the universe within us, so that we will grow to be like our heavenly Father. John calls us to live into that reality. We have become God’s beloved children; now we must live as his children, to love with that same kind of love he has for us. But if we look honestly at our daily lives it’s pretty clear that we often don’t resemble our Father very much; our love is a far cry from the perfect love of Jesus, who laid down his life for us.

We don’t always love one another; we fail to love one another all the time. And yet, John was very clear about this one thing – God’s commandment is that you love one another. It is important that we understand what kind of a commandment this is. Remember that Jesus told his disciples (and I am paraphrasing this), “You know how it is with the Gentiles, how they love to lord it over one another. It shall not be so with you, but the greater of you should serve the lesser, just as I have come to serve you.” The commandment of Jesus is a commandment of grace and humility. It is not a commandment that tells us to love – or else. It is not a commandment that expects us to shape up or ship out. That is because it is a commandment motivated and impelled and carried out in love. John wrote, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”

In God, love and obedience are one and the same. We do not love one another because we are afraid that God will smite us, we love because he loves us, because he filled that emptiness within us and so we are free to share that love with others, just as a secure, well-loved child is more free to share with others because he doesn’t have to protect himself or make sure his own needs are met. But just like any child, we have to grow into that freedom; it doesn’t happen all at once. So our obedience is a growing thing, the work of our lifetime.

The primary work is done by God. John said over and over that God’s love comes first. “We love because he first loved us.” His love, poured into our hearts, releases us, gives us the freedom to love our brothers and sisters. And even more than that, his love transforms us, makes us more and more into the people we were created to be, more and more able to love, more and more like our heavenly Father who is Love.

So what does it mean when we fail to love one another, as we do pretty much every day? Is it true, as John wrote, that if we say we love God, but do not love our brother, we are liars? Is it true that if we don’t love our brother we are failing to love God? The answer is yes, absolutely. We fail to love God all the time. We confess it together each week “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves.” We are continually failing to love God with the love with which he has loved us. But the good news is that he never fails to love you. In his infinite love, he forgives our every failure and he continues the process of transforming us, renewing us day by day so that we can grow into the reality of his love.

And so John reminded us that we need to abide in his love, we need to keep on digging our roots in a little deeper each day. We need to spend time in quiet before God, to spend time reading in his Word, like our reading of John’s first letter this Easter season. We need to spend time in prayer. We need to receive the sacrament that is a sure sign and seal of Jesus’s love for us. And we need very much to spend time in the company of God’s children, who bear his image, who are filled with his love, in whom Jesus has made his home, with the Father, by means of his Spirit.

And as we abide, as we sink our roots deeper into the Vine, just as surely as a branch that abides in the vine will bear its crop of fruit in the proper season, and just as surely as the child of two particular parents will grow up with his father’s nose or his mother’s smile, so surely we will grow to love like Jesus, and in the proper season we will surely bear the fruit of his love in our lives.

One of the special things we do in the season of Easter is instead of having a reading from the Old Testament for the first reading of the Mass, traditionally we have a reading from the book of the Acts of the Apostles. And so today we began the readings with the story of our own namesake, St. Philip, who met the Ethiopian Eunuch as he traveled along the road on his way home from Jerusalem. And one of the remarkable things about this story is the character of the Ethiopian man, who was a high official in the court of Candace, the queen of Ethiopia. It was a common practice in the ancient near East that a man would be castrated and then would become an important official, because it was thought that a eunuch would be most trustworthy, more focused on his duties, and so this man had become the chief finance officer for the queen. But somewhere in all his travels he had encountered the religion of the Jewish people, and for some reason it appealed to him strongly. In fact, he was returning from having attended a Jewish festival in Jerusalem and had managed to acquire a copy of the Jewish Scriptures, or at least a part of the Scriptures, and he was reading from the prophet Isaiah when Philip came along.

It was all the more remarkable that this man was drawn to the Jewish faith, because as a eunuch he could never really belong. Having been castrated, he could not become a proselyte, he couldn’t “join up”; he could not even be allowed to enter into the Temple. Clearly there was something beyond the religious ceremonies that called to him, and that something was the God of the Jews. Being widely traveled, the eunuch would have encountered many of the gods of the ancient Near East, and the God of Israel was completely unlike any of them. One of the striking things that made the Jewish God unique was what the eunuch was reading from Isaiah’s writing, chapter 53, about the Suffering Servant, the one who would lay down his life. This idea touched something in his heart and mind, and he wanted to know more. And God, in his love and mercy, sent Philip to satisfy that longing.

Philip explained to him that Isaiah was writing about the Messiah that God promised to send, and that the Messiah turned out to be Jesus, who was both man and God. What was calling to the eunuch was the absolute and total love that this God had for his creatures, love that is willing to sacrifice everything. John, in chapter three of his letter says, we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – that is the sign of his perfect love for us. And the eunuch recognized that love, even in the promise of it, even before he knew about Jesus. He recognized it, and he was drawn to it, because that kind of love was the one thing that would satisfy the deepest need of his heart.

Love is the big idea of John that I want to talk about today, the fourth big idea. Love is a major theme in John’s writing: he wrote that God is love, that God’s one overriding commandment is that we love one another, that if we do not love our brother we can’t claim to love God. It’s all over the place in John’s writing, truly one of his big ideas. Verses in this is love…..Love is at the center of our relationship with God, and it is at the center of who we are created to be; it is the longing for that love that called to the Ethiopian man that day.

The French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote about something in human beings that has been called a “God-shaped hole”. Pascal phrased it much more eloquently, but in essence what he was saying was that ever since the Fall, when our relationship to God was broken by our sin, man comes into the world with an infinite emptiness. Pascal wrote:

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?

This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”

Because of who we are, created to be bearers of God’s image, created to live in fellowship with him, every one of us has that infinite abyss within ourselves that can only be satisfied by an infinite love – in fact, by the God who is Love Itself. It is as Augustine wrote, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”

Every child is born knowing this need for love. In homes where children are not cared for, or perhaps where their physical needs are cared for but where they are never hugged, never spoken to, where there is an absence of love, they do not thrive. Love is an essential need, the essential need of human beings. We know that instinctively from the time we are born, and we seek it from our human parents.

And as parents, if we are reasonably good parents, we try to fill that need for our children.  We try to love them, unconditionally, sacrificially, abundantly. But there always seems to come a time when our children begin to grow up and they come to us and question our love. They ask us, “Do you remember that time you left me at the playground?” “Do you remember the time you thought I was the one who dropped the dish and broke it, and it wasn’t me, but you spanked me anyway?” “Do you remember the time I needed to talk to you, and you were too busy?”

These questions cut us to the heart as parents, and my natural response is first to try to make excuses for myself. “I didn’t have any way of knowing about that.” Or “That was a really busy day for us.” Or sometimes we don’t even remember these things that our children have carried through the years, and we wonder if they are just making them up or if they dreamed them. But the truth is, as parents we do fail our children. We fail them all the time, because we are human beings and we make mistakes and we sin. But we fail them, too, because we are trying to fill that emptiness that only God can fill, and there comes a time when we need to realize that our human love is only a preview for our children of what God’s love is – and that is the only thing that will really satisfy what they really need.

As we get older, we recognize this in part and so we try to fill that infinite empty place with other things, with other human loves, with our work, with beauty, with food, or alcohol or drugs. And though we are older, we haven’t gotten wiser, we have only gotten ourselves more muddled and further from knowing the truth of our need. It always, always fails, because only God can fill that place. We knew best when we were babies.

God has for us exactly what we need, that thing we knew we needed instinctively as tiny babies – the love of a perfect Father. John wrote, “See what kind of love the Father has for us, that we should be called children of God. And so we are.” God’s love names us as his children; it fills us completely and it establishes us as his beloved. And that is the very best of good news. Like the Ethiopian, we can go on our way rejoicing. But like that man, that isn’t the end of the story. The eunuch’s story went on – he is said to have become the first non-Jewish convert to Christianity, and the first evangelist to the continent of Africa. God filled him, and then God sent him out to bring his love out into the world. And he does the same with us.  God’s love is the beginning of our lives, and then we have to grow.

And just like we have the DNA of our parents, so that we grow up having our father’s nose or our mother’s red hair or our grandfather’s temper, we now have the spiritual DNA of the God of the universe within us, so that we will grow to be like our heavenly Father. John calls us to live into that reality. We have become God’s beloved children; now we must live as his children, to love with that same kind of love he has for us. But if we look honestly at our daily lives it’s pretty clear that we often don’t resemble our Father very much; our love is a far cry from the perfect love of Jesus, who laid down his life for us.

We don’t always love one another; we fail to love one another all the time. And yet, John was very clear about this one thing – God’s commandment is that you love one another. It is important that we understand what kind of a commandment this is. Remember that Jesus told his disciples (and I am paraphrasing this), “You know how it is with the Gentiles, how they love to lord it over one another. It shall not be so with you, but the greater of you should serve the lesser, just as I have come to serve you.” The commandment of Jesus is a commandment of grace and humility. It is not a commandment that tells us to love – or else. It is not a commandment that expects us to shape up or ship out. That is because it is a commandment motivated and impelled and carried out in love. John wrote, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”

In God, love and obedience are one and the same. We do not love one another because we are afraid that God will smite us, we love because he loves us, because he filled that emptiness within us and so we are free to share that love with others, just as a secure, well-loved child is more free to share with others because he doesn’t have to protect himself or make sure his own needs are met. But just like any child, we have to grow into that freedom; it doesn’t happen all at once. So our obedience is a growing thing, the work of our lifetime.

The primary work is done by God. John said over and over that God’s love comes first. “We love because he first loved us.” His love, poured into our hearts, releases us, gives us the freedom to love our brothers and sisters. And even more than that, his love transforms us, makes us more and more into the people we were created to be, more and more able to love, more and more like our heavenly Father who is Love.

So what does it mean when we fail to love one another, as we do pretty much every day? Is it true, as John wrote, that if we say we love God, but do not love our brother, we are liars? Is it true that if we don’t love our brother we are failing to love God? The answer is yes, absolutely. We fail to love God all the time. We confess it together each week “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves.” We are continually failing to love God with the love with which he has loved us. But the good news is that he never fails to love you. In his infinite love, he forgives our every failure and he continues the process of transforming us, renewing us day by day so that we can grow into the reality of his love.

And so John reminded us that we need to abide in his love, we need to keep on digging our roots in a little deeper each day. We need to spend time in quiet before God, to spend time reading in his Word, like our reading of John’s first letter this Easter season. We need to spend time in prayer. We need to receive the sacrament that is a sure sign and seal of Jesus’s love for us. And we need very much to spend time in the company of God’s children, who bear his image, who are filled with his love, in whom Jesus has made his home, with the Father, by means of his Spirit.

And as we abide, as we sink our roots deeper into the Vine, just as surely as a branch that abides in the vine will bear its crop of fruit in the proper season, and just as surely as the child of two particular parents will grow up with his father’s nose or his mother’s smile, so surely we will grow to love like Jesus, and in the proper season we will surely bear the fruit of his love in our lives.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: