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I John 4: sermon preparation

May 11th, 2006 by isaac · 5 Comments

Of the lectionary texts for this Sunday, First John 4 has sucked me in. Verse 7: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” And verse 16: “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in Him.” The ‘participation’ language is striking in this passage. God is love, and we live in God through our love for one another. Through our love we “live in God.” But the struggle, it seems, is to resist the pull of vague abstraction. Talk of love is so cheap, and the last thing we want is to make God cheap, to make God an abstraction, a distant God. As Karl Barth puts it, “Perhaps we love the letters GOD, but we do not love what the letters signify” (Church Dogmatics I/2, p. 373). But how do we learn what those letters signify? What kind of senses are suited for venturing into that reality, for gaining knowledge of the reality of God?

I think the passage from 1st John 4 shows how love is the mode of knowledge appropriate for exploring the wonder of God’s being. John makes this point, but through stating the negative: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (4:8). We know God through our love. Rowan Williams wrote an essay on Thomas Aquinas and the Trinity: “What does love know? St Thomas on the Trinity” (New Blackfriars, June 2001). What does love know...

For Aquinas, writes Williams, “the relation of love…produces an inclination…, a kind of living of the object in the subject, a presence of the beloved in the lover… Something loved continues its life in the lover as a stimulus to motion away from itself, a stimulus to a kind of self-abandonment” (264-265). Love is a way of knowing that lives through another, an ecstatic mode of knowledge. Ecstasy... Gk: Ekstasis. Ek (away) stasis (stable, static condition). For Thomas (and Williams), the triune God displays the way ecstatic love draws a self away from a possessive center of gravity and toward the beloved object. The subject loses control of its self as it finds its self lured into the object by an unspeakable beauty. This is the ecstatic self-abandonment that is loving bond of the triune life of God.

Yet, along with the loving desire of the other, the object, comes the danger of mastery, possession. So, to go back to the original question: What does love know? The temptation is to answer by saying that love can know everything, that it can fully grasp the other. Williams thinks this question of possessive and self-abandoned love is at the heart of Thomas’ discussion of the triune love of God. It’s the question of the other—what to do with the other; how do we react to the other; how do we encounter the other? Williams writes,

What do we do with the other? We let it shape our knowing (we bring it into ourselves or ourselves into it, let our acton and its action harmonise), and we pursue it in our purposive or loving activity because we have not swallowed it up by knowing; it remains other. This characterisation of otherness as both knowable and unmasterable, like an unlike, is what Thomas wants us to think about as we think of the life of God as such, God beyond the relations he sets up with what is not divine. (266)

By holding together love and understanding in speaking about God, we are reminded tha twhat we want to say about the subject and the other always requires a bomplex interplay between doing justice to the ‘participatory’ element, the life of the other in the subject, and doing justice to the abiding difference, the exploratory element, the invitation of the other to the subject. (271)

This love displayed in the triune life of God helps us think (by analogy) about what it means for us to love one another and love God. Thomas speaks of a love that lets go of the self and flows in the lure of the object. Love is dispossession of the self, of control, for the sake of the other. Yet this love is a far cry from our loves that so easily teeter on the edge of manipulation, of assimilation, of possession—“He’s mine,” “I’ve won her,” “If you loved me, you would…,” “Marriage as possession.” Rather, the triune love that Thomas describes is a call to dispossession of self and other. And, like I John 4:10 says, this ecstatic love of God comes to us in the Jesus Christ, the self-gift of God, God with us, God for us: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice for our sins.” And, as the author of First John continues, this gift is an invitation; it is the lure of love, the lure of the God who is Love who invites us into the Love passing between self and other, subject and object, person and neighbor, brother and sister in Christ.
Is the message of First John 4 simply re-articulation of the dual command?—you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul; and your neighbor has yourself. Augustine claimed that this “double command” is the hermeneutical through which we must read the whole Bible (see De doctrina christiana, book 1, chapters 22-26). I’m sure there are important connections between the dual command to love God and neighbbor and First John 4, but what’s striking about the I John 4 passage is that our love for God seems to pass through our neighbor. Most articulations of the dual command prioritize our love for God, and only when we put that love first can we properly love each other. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for John. God’s love made available through Jesus Christ’s self-giving makes it possible to love one another (4:11), and through this life of love we may come to experience the God who is this Love, who makes the love of the community possible. We cannot love God without first loving each other because God is invisible, inaccessible: “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (I John 4:12). We journey into the God who is Love by living ecstatically for our neighbor like Christ lived for us.

In God is a New Language, Sebastian Moore exegetes the movements of love in I John 4. He writes,

The absence of a positive concern for others is the surest indication tha tGod is not loved at all… No love of neighbor, no love of God… The only way of finding out whether I love my neighbor is to ask myself whether I ever do anything for him. (26)

For the Christian statement ‘I love God’ is the statement that I am touched by the God who is love and so am constituted ‘a loving person,’ a person reshaped by essential love and so made loving in the totality of my human, social situation. Thus ‘no to love someone’ is quite simply, to be without the love of God. (29)

We are never quite sure if we love God. How can we love what is beyond our sight, beyond our grasp, beyond our tools of knowledge—a God who is invisible, as John puts it. And our love for God is not what is central of John. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that God loved us” (4:10). The God who is Love has overflowed God’s self in the ecstatic embrace of Jesus Christ. As Karl Barth says in The Humanity of God, “God’s freedom in Jesus Christ is His freedom for love. The divine capacity…is manifestedly also God’s capacity to bend downwards, to attach Himself to another and this other to Himself, to be together with him” (48-49). The divine freedom of God’s love is displayed to us through the ecstatic movment of love, God’s bending downwards to embrace us in Jesus Christ. That embrace sets us free from our singular concerns to secure out position with God. God’s loving hold on us turns our eyes to our neighbor and invites us to pay attention to the ways we are drawn together by Love, to investigate the connections between brothers and sisters in Christ with a contemplative gaze. For Christ moves in the in-between, through the Spirit. None of us can grasp the invisible God of First John… but we can learn to feel God’s ecstatic movements through the transactions of bodies present in Christ’s body, and the lure of Love that binds with one another and, thus, drawn up into the divine life of the triune God.
O God, you withdraw from our sight that you may be known by our love. Help us to enter the cloud where you are hidden and surrender all our certainty to the darkness of faith in Jesus Christ. (Mennonite Hymnal, prayer #676)

Tags: theology

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 aenonie // May 11, 2006 at 11:35 am

    Isaac, thanks for posting your study in preparation for preaching this Sunday (I assume that’s what’s going on with your post). I especially enjoyed reading how Rowan Williams reads St. Thomas. I’m going to have to figure out how to get my hands on that essay.

    When you used Karl Barth it reminded me of something I read a while ago about what Barth says about the command to love God and neighbor. Here’s a quote from the Church Dogmatics: “it is obviously impossible to assign to the [dual] commandment of love to one’s neighbour a position which is in any way subordinate. If there can be no question of restricting the first commandment, obviously we have always to reckon with the fact that in its own way the second comes no less seriously or urgently or incisively than the first” (Vol. 1, part 2, page 407). So, I guess Barth thins the second part of the command—i.e., to love one’s neighbor—is just as urgent as the first. But I wonder whether or not Barth would be ok with thinking about our love for God passing through the neighbor, and this talk of the priority of the neighbor.

    Thanks for the stimulating post. It will definitely be on my mind as I go to church on Sunday and hear what my pastor has to say on the passage.

  • 2 Jason // May 11, 2006 at 12:04 pm

    Interesting rumination on the passage. I want to get some of your thoughts about this idea of dispossesion. What does dispossesing love look like in relationships? My first thought would be that it means love must be non-coercive, it can’t be a covert means of controlling someone else. What would you say?

    I’m also wondering if you think God’s love of us is dispossesing. I would be more inclined to say God’s love of us is a possesing love. We are God’s posession, we belong to God. To belong to God, to be adopted into the household of God is to be possessed by the love of God. Is that a bad thing in this case?

  • 3 isaac // Jun 3, 2006 at 1:40 pm

    Aenonie and Jason, thanks for the comments. That quote from Barth is great, Aenonie. I think you are right about Barth not going the direction I take the passage from 1st John—i.e., that God is loved through the neighbor. As my professor (Stanley Hauerwas) said to me once, “Barth is afraid of materiality.” There seems to be something to that. Barth’s insistence on the freedom of God won’t let him nail God down to any particular material. God can work through anything—that’s fine for Barth. It’s just that we can’t confidently claim that God must be somewhere.

    Jason, great questions on dispossession. If you ever get a chance, you should read that Rowan Williams’ essay on Thomas Aquinas. He gets to the heart of the matter of God’s (dis)possessing love and knowledge.

    As far as your first question goes—the one about dispossessive love in human relationships—I wonder if my sermon develops that a bit more. Tell me if this quote gets to what you are asking: “we come to feel the face of God as we shape our loves to the form revealed to us in the death of Jesus—a life who loved others without returns. Without expectations. Without stipulations. Without anticipations. Without manipulation. Without control. A life that continues to risk love in the face of a history of disappointment. A love that is uncertain about results. The God who is love invites us into a life of love, to abide in the Spirit, by loving one another for the sheer joy of love, with an eye to the present that resists calculations, predictions, predeterminations.”

    But your second question hits on something really important. I’ve been thinking about it for a few weeks now. You ask: is God’s love of us dispossessing? Wow, what a loaded question. First, it seems to me that if these worries are shaped by Calvin and the Reformed tradition, then you have to say that God’s love is possessing—you know, that theological quagmire called predestination speaks to the heart of this issue. God either possesses you or he refuses you, and that’s an activity of God began at the foundation of the world.

    Fortunately, I don’t have those worries. The way I see it, I think the heart of the matter is what to do with a God who is jealous of our love (I think that’s at the heart of the drama of Israel’s chosenness and the tempation of idolatry): “The Lord your God is a jealous God” (Deut. 4:24; 6:15). I think it might be important first of all to notice how most conversations about human freedom usually envision a God who operates on the same level of power as humans. But the trouble with that is that God is not a piece of furniture in our metaphysical universe. Rather, the being of God holds together all of creation. We exist only through our participation in God’s unceasing creative activity. Our freedom is not a wrestling match with God’s power. Rather, our freedom is already an expression of the creativity of God. So, I think you are right, Jason, when you say that we (and I would say that ‘all’ of creation is part of this we, not just ‘the household of God’) belong to God.

    But does the jealous God, the possessing God, the God of love who “holds the whole world in his hands”—does this God love us without conditions, without calculations, without manipulation, without anticipations? (see my quote above) Is God’s love so profoundly self-sacrificial, self-abnegating, self-emptying, so humble that God loves us simply for the sake of love, a love that doesn’t look beyond the moment of love? (Another way to put this is to ask if God can be ateleological?). That sounds right to me, but I’m not sure if there is any way to know for sure. How far does God’s humble love reach? Far enough to give us (remember: God’s activity is always prior; our freedom is already God’s gift) the ability to refuse God’s love?

  • 4 isaac // Jun 7, 2006 at 8:34 pm

    I’ve been re-reading The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective and stumbled across a passage that resonated with my last comment above. It’s a quotation from the commentary to article 24 on “The Reign of God.” It reads, “God’s loving patience is so great that God will not coerce anyone into convenant relationship, but will allow those who reject it to remain separated from God. Moreover, God’s justice means that unrepentant evildoers will not go unpunished. Those who are suffering for righteousness’ sake can look forward to the comig reign of God as a time of vindication and rescue from evil (Ps. 27; Rev. 6:9-11). In the age to come, there will be surprising reversals as the powerful are brought down and the lowly lifted up (Luke 1:52-53; see also Luke 3:5)” I think the article gets at some of what Jason was wondering, and maybe gives a bit more foundation and clarity to my comment above.

  • 5 kate // Oct 15, 2006 at 7:28 pm

    Your brief commentary on Augustine’s De doctrina is lovely and quite to the point. You know that I couldn’t agree more. And of course on Sebastian. I am writing a talk on just all this tonite. Yours, really, is a beautiful reflection.