Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. The 4th-century theologian Jerome, in one of his commentaries, tells a story about the Apostle John. John was old and frail, unable to walk, so his disciples would carry him into the gathering of believers on the Lord’s Day. Every week these were his words to the congregation: “Little children, love one another.” This went on week after week, until at last, more than a little weary of these repeated words, his disciples asked him, “Master, why do you always say this?”
John replied, “Because it is the Lord’s command, and if this only is done, it is enough.” In our Epistle Reading for today, the Apostle John says those same words more than once, in fact: “Love one another.” The question that St. John addresses in 1 John 4:7-12 is this: Why must we love one another? Let’s take a look at the text to find out.
2. In verses 7 and 8, the Apostle says this: 7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. John’s point is basically this: God, in himself, is love—his very nature is love. John makes this point in two ways: First, in verse 7, he says, love is from God. What does that mean? Well, John is telling us that true love only comes from one place—God himself. He is the source of all love, and without him there is no love. Love is from God. But John makes a second point in verse 8, when he says, God is love. Not only is God the source and origin of all true love, he is love in his inmost being. This does not mean that loving is only one of God’s many activities. It means that all his activity is loving activity. So, whatever God does, he does in love. That means that if and when he judges, he judges in love. Just because God is love, it does not mean that he condones sin—far from that! God’s love has found a way to expose sin and to consume it without destroying the sinner, but rather saving him. But we’ll get to that point in a second. For now, we can see that the first part of the answer to the question is this: We must love one another because God is love.
3. But John goes on to tell us more about why we must love one another in verses 9 and 10: 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Our love is not primary. God’s love is primary. And he has showed us what true love is by giving himself for us in Jesus. The way that most of the world operates is with a love that’s transactional. I love you because you have earned my love in some way—either you give me something in return for my love or you have proven yourself as being worthy of my love. That’s how the world tends to operate. But that’s not how it works with God. God loves sinners who are unworthy of his love. We are sinners who fail to love God and others as we’ve been commanded. Yet God still loves you. The greatness of God’s love for us is seen in the costliness of Jesus’ self-sacrifice for the wholly undeserving. And Jesus great love for us not only assures us of his love for us, but it lays upon us the obligation to love one another—not so that we can somehow repay God for the love he’s given to us—but as a free, thankful response. No one who has been to the cross and seen God’s immeasurable and unmerited love displayed there can go back to a life of selfishness. So, we must love one another because God has loved us in Christ.
4. John concludes his discussion about why we must love one another in verses 11 and 12: 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. Did you catch that? No one has seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. In other words, the unseen God, who once revealed himself in his Son, now chooses to reveal himself in his people if and when they love one another. We must love one another because through our love, God’s love is made complete and revealed to the world. Don’t underestimate the power of God’s love working through you. I would like to close with a story about the Apostle John, as told by Clement of Alexandria:
Listen to a story that is not a story but a true account of John the apostle preserved in memory. After the tyrant’s [Emperor Trajan’s] death, he returned from the island of Patmos to Ephesus and used to go, when asked, to the neighboring Gentile districts to appoint bishops, reconcile churches, or ordain someone designated by the Spirit. Arriving at a city near by [Smyrna], he settled disputes among the brethren and then, noticing a spirited youth of superior physique and handsome appearance, commended him to the appointed bishop with words: “I leave this young man in your keeping, with Christ as my witness.”
When John returned to Ephesus, the churchman brought home the youth entrusted to his care, raised him, and finally baptized him. After this he relaxed his oversight, having put the seal of the Lord on him as the perfect safeguard. But some idle and dissolute youths corrupted him with lavish entertainment and then took him with them when they went out at night to commit robbery or worse crimes. Soon he joined them and, like a stallion taking the bit in mouth, he dashed off the straight road and down the precipice. Renouncing God’s salvation, he went from petty offenses to major crimes and formed the young renegades into a gang of bandits with himself as chief, surpassing them all in violence and bloody cruelty.
Time passed, and John paid another visit. When he had finished his mission, John said, “Come now, Bishop, return the deposit that Christ and I left in your keeping with the church as witness.” At first the bishop was dumbfounded, thinking that he was being dunned for funds he had never received.
But John said, “I am asking for the young man and his soul.”
“He is dead,” groaned the old man, in tears.
“How did he die?”
“He is dead to God. He turned out vile and debauched: an outlaw. Now he is in the mountains, not the church, with an armed gang of men like himself.”
The apostle tore his clothing, beat his head, and groaned, “A fine guardian I left for our brother’s soul! But get me a horse and someone to show me the way.” He rode off from the church, just as he was. When he arrived at the hideout and was seized by the outlaws’ sentries, he shouted, “This is what I have come for: take me to your leader!” When John approached and the young leader recognized him, he turned and fled in shame. But John ran after him as hard as he could, forgetting his age, and calling out, “Why are you running away from me, child—from your own father, unarmed and old? Pity me, child, don’t fear me! I will give account to Christ for you and, if necessary, gladly suffer death and give my life for yours as the Lord suffered death for us. Stop! Believe! Christ sent me.”
The young man stopped, stared at the ground, threw down his weapons, and wept bitterly. Flinging his arms around the old man, he begged forgiveness, baptized a second time with his own tears but keeping his right hand hidden [as unworthy of forgiveness for all the bloodshed it had caused]. John, however, assured him that he had found forgiveness for him from the Savior. He prayed, knelt down, and kissed that right hand as being cleansed through repentance. Then he led him back and did not leave him until—through prayer, fasting, and instruction—he had returned him to the church: a great example of true repentance and regeneration, the trophy of a visible resurrection.
And, might I add, a great example of Christ’s selfless love being made complete in an old man like John. In the words of the blessed apostle: “Little children, love one another.”
In the name of Jesus. Amen.