Because God First Loved Us

Reproductive rights.  LGBTQ concerns. The rise of Christian nationalism and troubling incidents of anti-Semitism and ugly racism in the US.  Wars being waged in the Middle East and Ukraine. Terrorism.  Colonialism.  Palestinian protests, academic freedom. The economy.  This year’s presidential election and the host of legal issues swirling around it.  So many potent sermon topics! All of them controversial and ones about which we may strenuously disagree.  Church is bound to be exciting this year.

Today’s text may elicit a sigh of relief because it doesn’t mention any of these things.   It’s about love.   Anybody against that?  Even more specifically it’s about God’s love for us and how that love removes fear from the equation in a flood of unconditional grace, forgiveness, and generative good will.  All in favor of love raise your hand and say Amen.

Whew!   This could be the shortest sermon ever!

. . . . . or not, depending on how you hear one little conjunction in the text’s summary verse: We love, because God first loved us.  A reading from the first letter of John, in the fourth chapter verses 7 through 21.  Listen for God’s expansive Word, a bridge connecting Divine and human action.  [ I John 4:7-21]  The word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God!

We learn to love by the kind of love we’ve received.  This insight from contemporary psychology simply adds to the wisdom of this powerful text.  Believed to be a circulating letter to early house churches, it’s less commandment, and more invitation to become our identity as God’s beloved children.  To practice what we preach.  To demonstrate the truth of our faith through concrete acts of compassion, kindness, and service to others.   But even more, it’s a simple affirmation that we are able to love because God first loved us.

The author of the text (John, or more likely his next-generation follower) surely pictured a multi-generation congregation when he wrote these words, using the simplest Greek such that a child could read it as well as a preacher (making it also the favorite of seminary students practicing translation skills!).   The repetitive syntax reads almost like poetry, and back when Scripture memorization was a core part of Sunday School instruction, I learned some of these verses by heart. . . and can still sing— in the King James Version of my youth!   Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God and everyone who loveth is born of God and knoweth God; he that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love.  Beloved, let us love one another, First John 4, seven and eight.  

Well. Just sayin’—memorization of words can be good, but I know they won’t stick in any meaningful way unless backed up by lived experience.  Since we all agree about love, let’s consider some ways God’s love brings our own to life.

Because God first loved us…we can learn to love inclusively.

The legendary pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco died this week at the age of 94.  Cecil Williams was a guest lecturer in a class on urban ministry I took as a doctoral student. He might have simply been a wonderful pastor were it not for his interpretation of the demand to love one another.   He became pastor when the unknown and frightening HIV/AIDS virus was beginning to show up.  People with AIDS were shunned and ostracized—some of them thrown out of their homes.  Some churches even judged it as “punishment” for homosexual behavior.  Rev. Williams’ eyes flashed with holy Spirit as he reflected on intentional ministry to those on the margins.  We opened our doors to everyone, Rev. Williams noted, adding with a chuckle, of course that meant we got changed too.  

In an interview Rev. Williams gave on National Public Radio several years ago, he revealed the underlying truth behind it all:  People want something that matters. And what really matters is a radical, risk-taking love.  [from an archived NPR broadcast from 2012]  Friends, God loves the world so completely, so perfectly, we are compelled to love  everyone without exception, without judgment, without weighing the relative return on investment.  For Williams and his congregation, it was embracing persons whom others rejected as sinners, sick, or morally flawed (which when you get right down to it, is a pretty good description of us all).

Former Central member Todd Matuszewicz has been working on an amendment to Central’s state historical status because of what he sees as a telling historical omission.  In the early part of the 20th century, Chinese immigrants arrived here to work on the railroad; most lived in “Hop Alley” (present day Five Points) in poor conditions and faced hostility and suspicion, sadly common to newcomers.  It was women at Central who first responded to the needs of these families and (with Session approval I’m sure!) started English language classes, a Sunday School, and women’s circle. Photographs and written records in our archives attest to these ministries to “outsiders,” and the membership rolls indicate that many of these Chinese joined Central.

When I asked Todd what had prompted him to do this (beyond academic credit), he drew a parallel between those immigrants and the ones coming to Denver today.  “I wanted to tell the story of a church who knew better and did better.”   Let  Central’s outreach and neighborhood ministries ever be rooted in God’s love that acknowledges no boundaries, no limits, no membership card, no extraordinary spiritual gifts, no statement of belief.  God’s love is inclusive, so ours will be too.

Because God first loved us. . . .  we can learn to love fearlessly.    It’s pretty unusual in a Presbyterian Church to baptize a person who is neither an infant nor a self-consenting adult.  For a variety of reasons, Hadley’s parents dedicated their infant children, reasoning that they would be involved in confirmation at some point and receive baptism then.  When Hadley’s mom initially reached out to say that Hadley had asked to be baptized now, I was concerned that it may have been based on something she’d heard or interpreted about baptism being necessary to “save” her.  When we all met to discuss it, Hadley was very precise about her reasoning.  No, I’m not afraid.  I want to be baptized because I know God loves me. 

Yep.  Her sense of God’s love was greater than any questions or anxieties presented in her young life so far.    The experience of love she’s known from her parents, family, and yes, this congregation (very directly through the loving care of our Director of Mission and Faith Formation Molly Brown)— has embodied for her the very love of God. It’s not theoretical—she knows it.   And I dare to believe that love will be a strong rock for her in times ahead, as she navigates childhood, adolescence and beyond.  God risked everything in choosing to inhabit human life even to the grave.   God’s love is fearless. . . . we are learning to love, at least with less fear.

Because God first loved us. . . . we can love redemptively.  Love changes you.   Love isn’t love if it remain static, transactional or superficial.  It adapts and flexes, and when modeled after God’s love contributes to the growth of both lover and beloved. Perhaps we see this most clearly in familial love:  the way a couple who have been married a long time make allowances for each other; the special affection grandparents and grandchildren often share that shapes their interactions differently than with parents.   Love that lasts learns to forgive, to admit wrongdoing, and make repairs –and changes– that allow the relationship to go forward.

A recent article in the NY Times caught my eye, about the noticeable growth of positive religious perspectives in gay fiction.  For decades religion and gay culture have been portrayed as oppositional; irreconcilable adversaries. We can all think of examples — from the cruel, public demonstrations of Westboro Baptist Church, to the heartbreaking stories shared by LGBTQ siblings chronicling their treatment by Christians and the Church.  But there’s been a shift—not just in the reclamation of spirituality, but in the lived experience of these siblings in faith communities in which they’ve found acceptance and appreciation. One author described a character’s salvation through a faith community’s affirmation of his identity:  Arthur feels that he’s closer to God when he’s truthful about himself. . .  [from a review in the NY Times, April 22, 2024, C2]

Love changes hearts and minds.  Love opens the door to new understanding. And with new understanding, new scenarios emerge that enlarge human possibility, human capacity, and hopes for a flourishing future.

I wonder how we as a community might practice God’s redemptive love. . . . . with individuals or groups who frighten us with their virulent lies and hateful messages?  Does our very imperfect love have even a chance to cast out fear, disarm our enemies, and bring us to the table of listening and speaking together?     Because God first loved us, we have the power to try.

Beloved, let us love one another.   Simple words.  Hard and purposive work.  And you know those issues mentioned at the beginning? Come to find out, they are contained in this text after all, because they are covered by God’s love.  Everything is.  Everyone is.   So with Divine power, the courage of a child, the hope of a grandmother, and the relief of the reconciled, let us love one another.

Thanks be to God!