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Seeing the Face of God

A Homily from I John 4:7-21

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

May 18, 2003 (Fifth Sunday of Easter)

Our epistle lesson today is one of the most eloquent and beautiful statements of what it means to be part of the Christian community. Located at the end of the First Letter of John, today’s text is a carefully framed testament to the centrality of love as the defining characteristic of a faithful Christian witness.

The epistles which form the final books of our Bible are all letters written by leaders in the early Church and sent to small Christian communities that were struggling to understand how to live together in way that was faithful to the gospel. Often the epistles address doctrinal errors on the part of the young congregations, or reflect the particular concerns of the writer.

Often times, the identities of those writers remain a mystery. It was not unusual in the first century for the student of a famous teacher to write under the name of that teacher. Likewise, writings produced by a school founded by a renowned religious leader might sometimes be published under the founder’s name.

Consequently, most scholars think that it is unlikely that John the Apostle wrote I John. Nevertheless, the author shares many of the concerns of the author of John’s Gospel; and it is very likely that he is writing to the same community that grew up around the teachings of John the Apostle and his gospel.

He is an elder in that community, and he is worried. He is writing to one of the community’s congregations, hoping to fight against some of the heretical teachings which – less than sixty years after the ascension of Jesus – were already creating division in the early Church. In particular, the Elder wants to stress the humanity and reality of Jesus, and the defining characteristic of Christian life. That defining characteristic is love.

I’m sure that there are some theological riddles we could find even in so basic a concept. That would be nothing new to you. Often times from this pulpit Tim and I wrestle alongside you with some of the complex and puzzling aspects of our faith. We even brag about this congregation to our colleagues, talking about how fortunate we are to serve in a place where we do not settle for easy answers and fluff theology.

I would be doing this text a grave disservice, however, if I were to try to make it more complicated than it is. Nineteen hundred years ago, an elder in the early Church wrote to fight against the temptation to over-intellectualize the gospel. He did so by using a complex literary form – but the heart of his message is clearly and simply laid out. It’s found in the first verse of our reading today: “Beloved, let us love one another…”

That’s it. That’s all there is to it. What does it mean to be a Christian? Love people! Now that we’ve cleared that up, we can move on to the Eucharist.

Well, the Elder did take the time to expand on the theme a little bit. Just in case there’s more to this whole “loving” thing than meets the eye; we’ll read the rest of what he had to say.

The starting point of the passage is quite significant. Not only are we told to love one another, but that love is from God. Every person who loves someone is, in fact, born of God. Remember Jesus’ teachings to Nicodemus [John 3]? We who are born of the flesh – we weak and mortal human beings – must also be…? Born again. How do we claim that second birth? How do we live as children of God instead of children of the world? By acting in love.

Perhaps we should pause then for a working definition of what it means to love someone. The clear example of Jesus’ teachings is that love is found in what we do. In Luke, Jesus explains that to be faithful to God we must love everyone the same way we love ourselves [Luke 10:25-37]. That’s harder than it sounds.

Do you ever notice how much slack we cut ourselves? I notice it when I’m driving. If I forget to use my blinker, it’s because I’m absent-minded. If the person in front of me cuts in and forgets to use their blinker, it’s because they’re a bleepity-bleep idiot.

We are merciful to those whom we love, especially if they’re ourselves. We also give sacrificially to them. When Jesus offered an example of loving our neighbors as ourselves, he described someone who took the time to heal, help, and even financially support an injured stranger. Not just any stranger, mind you, but a stranger who was racially, politically, and theologically different.

If it was good enough for Jesus then it should be good enough for us. Although loving someone can take on many forms and expressions of mercy, compassion, and sacrifice; our working definition today will be simply that loving means acting towards any person in the way that we would act towards someone we cherished.

The author of our passage for today tells us that when we do that, we are children of God. Significantly, we are also told that someone who loves other people “knows” God. That’s an interesting choice of words, since it directly challenges one of the major heresies of that era.

Starting around the time the Elder was writing, and for a century to follow – many believers would question the humanity of Jesus. They wanted a “pure” God, one who would never be sullied by a weak and fleshly body. These heretics were called “Gnostics” – from the Greek word for “know.” They were “knowers” – people whose intellectual prejudices kept them from appreciating the fullness of the gospel.

Our text today says that the real “knowers” are doers. We do not know God by debating theology. We do not know God with our heads. We know God through the work of our hands, and only when those hands are extended to our brothers and sisters in love.

We are given a very simple formula in this passage. Those who love others, know God. Those who don’t love other, don’t know God.

This is exciting for a theological liberal like me. There are some Christians who seem obsessed with finding litmus tests for determining who is a real Christian. In baptist life – for instance – we’ve seen where some missionaries were fired from a major mission sending agency for failing the latest litmus test for orthodoxy in their particular group.

We on the left end of Christianity have responded with an emphasis on inclusiveness. Within the boundaries of preserving Christian orthodoxy and the gospel first proclaimed by Jesus; we recognize that there is room for diversity and debate inside the Christian tent. Consequently, we generally avoid questioning the Christianity of those with whom we disagree. We don’t do litmus tests.

Yet this one is in the Bible, so I think we can safely use it without feeling guilty. Do you want to evaluate someone’s theology? Don’t look at what seminary they went to or what books they read – look to see if they love their neighbors. Want to know if an idea is a Christian one or not? There’s a simple test – does it make someone more or less likely to love others, even those they would like to hate?

It’s amazing how many things fail this litmus test. This sermon, for instance. I had to go back and re-write the last few paragraphs because I realized that – if I am to love fundamentalist Christians the same way I love myself – I can’t spout vitriol at them. I can disagree with them. I can challenge what I believe is un-Christian behavior. But I can’t paint them as caricatures and attack them; because that wouldn’t be loving them as I love myself.

I’m still not sure I was completely fair to them, but this loving stuff is harder than it looks. It’s fun to feel like we are better than other people. It’s nice not to feel obligated to them. It’s easy to tell them to take the blame for their own troubles, even as we think up all sorts of excuses for our own.

Our text for today won’t let us get away with that. After offering us this simple formula, the Elder goes on to give us a clear example of what love is. God, expecting nothing in return, coming to us as a human being and dying that might live. If anyone has an excuse to be self-righteous, it’s God. If anyone deserves what they get, it’s all of us.

Yet God, knowing that we were incapable of reaching up – even a little bit – toward heaven, reached out to us. By comparison, all of our excuses seem pretty lame. We are tempted to say, “Here’s the deal God, I can love my neighbors and all, but that lady – she’s just mean. You can’t really expect me to be charitable toward her.”

Somehow, we think that being a little better than someone will get us off the hook, but I John reminds us that God was infinitely better than us; and was willing to suffer and die anyway. If God doesn’t get let off the hook, neither do we.

That’s for the best, because something miraculous happens when we genuinely act in love. The elder writes, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us…”

It’s the chief complaint of atheists. How can we as Christians believe in something for which there is no evidence? Atheists aren’t going to believe in God unless they can see God. Truth be told, some of us who are believers feel that way at times too.

Do you want to see God? Go to an inner-city clinic and look into the face of a physician who left her million-dollar practice to work there. Do you want to see God? Go to a school cafeteria, and watch the one little boy who goes and sits down next to the new kid so he won’t feel lonely.

Do you want to see God? Forgive someone who hurt you, and then look in the mirror.

When we love, we break free of all the things that limit us as frail human beings. In our text, the Elder uses the word “abide.” When we love, we abide in God and God in us. When we love, we stop living in the world of the here and now, the world of what we have and possess for such a short time. When we love, we place our true home with God – a home that we can never lose.

To abide in God is to know Jesus, and to confess that He is the very Son of God. That is the heart of our passage for today. Everything that the Elder has said leads up to it. It is our central proclamation as Christians.

Any religion can tell us to be nice to other people. Most of them emphasize love in some form or another. As Christians, though, we proclaim the radical, transforming love of God that united the awesome power of divinity with all of humanity’s potential in the person of Jesus Christ.

We can’t really love one another without the presence of Jesus. It’s not in us. We try and fail. Yet when we recognize that failure, and then turn instead to a real and loving God –the miraculous can happen. We can become the very presence of God.

How do we do that? Saying things like “I can’t but God can” is standard theological language – but how does it play out in our everyday lives? The answer is perhaps different for different people; but for most of us accepting our need for Jesus means not assuming that we are going to automatically do the right thing. It means recognizing that, quite honestly, we do not always choose to act lovingly or sacrificially.

Recognizing the centrality of Jesus in our lives means looking outside of ourselves for the answers. It means seeking the (sometimes difficult or even naïve) will of God through prayer, through study, and through community.

This is not just a good thing to do, it is Christ’s commandment to us. By sitting in these pews and accepting the body and blood of Christ, we make a promise to love and worship God. We promise to follow Jesus’ commandments.

The Elder reminds us that, if we walk out of these doors and act out of selfishness or hatred toward anyone, anyone; we have made liars out of ourselves and failed that promise.

That’s a tall order. Because we are human, we will probably get it wrong far more often than we will get it right. The good news is that God loves us far better than we love others or even than we love ourselves. In fact, if we look closely enough, we might even see the very face of God in the eyes of the people who forgive us when we fail.