A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on May 6, 2012.
1 John 4:7-21
4:7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.
12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. 13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.
18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us.
20 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, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
According to the Jesus follower who wrote the words of today’s text, saying “I love God” doesn’t prove that one does so. Instead, the test for determining whether someone truly loves God is whether that person loves other people. The elder repeats that test at various times in the lesson.
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God for God is love. [1 Jn. 4:7-8]
God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. [1 Jn. 4:15-16]
We love because he first loved us. 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, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him [the Son] is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. [1 Jn. 4:19-21]
Let me restate the proposition a different way. How we treat others is the telling evidence about our relationship with God! This is not “a” test. This is THE test!
Many people who claim to be religious profess belief in one God. Of that majority, most claim to be followers of Jesus—Christians. Jesus commanded that we love one another.
Yet the same people who claim to love God patronize businesses that refuse to pay living wages and provide decent benefits to their employees.
Many people who claim to love God elect public officials who oppose equal rights for women?
Many people who claim to love God support public policies that permit housing, education, employment, and other forms of discrimination against ex-offenders who have served their sentences?
Many people who claim to love God insist it is right to deny public benefits to needy people if they are undocumented immigrants?
Many people who claim to love God demand that society provide tax “relief” to wealthy people and oppose extending subsistence benefits to unemployed working people?
Many people who claim to love God argue for laws to allow gun owners to carry loaded firearms in public places where no sensible person expects to go wild game hunting?
Many people who claim to love God demand God to bless the United States while it engages in imperialistic military adventures that destroy lives?
Cornel West, the brilliant intellectual about democracy, and Tavis Smiley, Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio commentator have written a book titled The Rich and the Rest of Us. They remind us that according to the 2010 census 1 out of 2 people in the United States now live in or near poverty (150 million people). West and Smiley claim that poverty is the pressing moral and public policy issue facing the United States.
But politicians and preachers aren’t talking about poverty. Sunday school classes and seminary faculty aren’t discussing the moral and ethical questions that arise from entrenched poverty. Religious people aren’t talking about the glaring income and wealth disparities in our society and across the world.
Why aren’t the people who claim to love God demanding that our society shift spending from military equipment and adventures to peaceful initiatives that produce employment, support education, and nurture wellness? Why aren’t we challenging political officials for spending billions every day on wars while they insist on imposing “austerity measures” for social services to relieve suffering, address poverty, improve education, and help people, families, and communities live better together?
According to the elder Jesus follower who wrote our text, there is but one answer. 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, cannot love God whom they have not seen. [1 Jn. 4:20]
Love for others is THE test for our faith in God! If we claim to love God, trust God, and trust God’s love for us as revealed by the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we are caught up in a relationship that is wholly defined by love. We only know God because of God’s love. We only know love because of God’s love for us. We either know God in love or we don’t know God at all.
If we don’t love others we don’t know God.
If we don’t love others, we don’t love God.
If we claim to love God but don’t act in love toward others, we lie about who God is, what love is, and what God’s love produces in people and in the world.
And if we lie about loving God, there’s no telling what else we will lie about. If we lie about loving God based on the test about how we treat others, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that we’ll lie about what we’re doing to the people we mistreat.
We’ll lie about killing people in the name of national security and public safety and we’ll lie about torturing them.
We’ll lie about the safety of the products we manufacture and sell. Then we’ll lie to keep making and selling them to people we expose to injury and death from them. And we’ll oppose regulations aimed at protecting consumers from being harmed from such products.
People who will lie about loving God will lie about loving others because they don’t live in love. They live in lies.
The good news is that people who truly love God can be prophetic agents of God’s justice and demand repentance. We’re followers of Jesus, the prophet of love. We’re commanded to love one another. We’re commissioned to spread the gospel of love in the world.
We should start by changing our talk about the Great Commission. Jesus never commanded his followers to go recruit “believers”! Jesus commanded us to go make disciples—followers. But instead of nurturing people to follow the gospel of love in our relationships much of what passes for Christian evangelism emphasizes “believing” that Jesus died for our sin so “believers” can get membership in an extra-terrestrial country club.
Jesus did die for our sin. But he did so to fulfill God’s love for us. In doing so Jesus modeled how his followers should live. Jesus showed that living for God involves living to lift others.
- Living for God involves loving others so much that we sacrifice to deliver them from oppression. That is the message of Calvary.
- Living for God involves loving others so much that we share our resources to relieve their suffering. That’s the lesson of the Good Samaritan.
- Living for God means calling powerful people and systems to account for unloving practices and policies that abuse, discriminate, and otherwise oppress vulnerable people. That’s the message of the Exodus and prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Amos, and Ezekiel.
- Living for God means being invested in the common wellness of all people, not merely in private wealth and comfort. That’s the loving message of why God entered our world in Jesus, lived with us, shared our condition, and risked death to deliver us.
Evangelism must deliver this truth. Life as a follower of Jesus involves being an agent of God’s redeeming, generous, and prophetic love in the world. Being a disciple of Jesus means shifting from a religion based on private self-interest to following and living the gospel of God’s abundant grace for all. Life as a follower of Jesus calls us be prophets of God’s grace, not pundits of “austerity” measures intended to lock oppressive inequities in place.
But the evangelical movement within Christianity has ignored social justice for the most part in favor of recruiting “believers.” Evangelical leaders ignored racism, sexism, Jim Crow segregation, militarism, and crass materialism. They had crusades and celebrated thousands of “conversions.” Meanwhile they looked the other way while racial minorities, women, poor people, and others were routinely and systematically mistreated.
It’s fair to question whether the decline of YMCA and YWCA community-based centers occurred because churches chose to build “family life centers” where service isn’t offered to people of all races, religions, and social backgrounds but is restricted on grounds of church membership and social status. Family life centers mushroomed in churches full of “believers.” The “believers” erected exclusive spas for their race-based congregations after public laws outlawed discrimination based on race, nationality, religion, and sex.
God calls us to love one another as God loves us in Christ. That’s not living by an “austerity” mindset, but by faith in God’s abundant grace. According to the gospel of Jesus, God isn’t a tightwad. God isn’t a fiscal conservative. God isn’t trying to make a few people rich. God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to die to save the world from sin in all its forms. This is the gospel we’ve been given. This is the gospel we’re called to live and prophetically proclaim. This is the gospel that will save the world. Let’s live it! Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.