Meditation on 1 John 4:7-21
Merritt Island Presbyterian Church
May 6, 2018
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.
We shared a bedroom, growing up. My sister and I were giggly girls, not wanting to go to sleep while it was still light out when our parents put us to bed. We threw pillows at each other and argued over whether the door and windows should be left open or closed. Open, I said, as we had no a/c and Maryland summers are hot and humid. She said closed, worried about burglars and fire. We compromised–the door left open a crack ; my window opened; hers closed.
Susan is 2 and a half years older than me and 14 months older than our brother. She was a premature baby weighing only 2.5 pounds at her birth in October 1962. She spent her first 2 months in an incubator, fighting for her life, losing 50 percent of her body weight before slowly regaining and growing. Finally, at Christmas, the doctors let Mom and Dad take their baby home. She continued to be fragile through our growing up years, weighing only 98 pounds when she graduated from high school. But she was smart and a conscientious, straight A student. She played violin, studied Latin, Spanish and French and made plans to go to college.
But one evening, when I was about 15, I came home and discovered the house strangely empty— partially cooked dinner still on the stove, turned off. I don’t know how I learned what happened—whether my parents left a note, called or just, eventually, came home from the hospital. My sister had tried to commit suicide and was fighting for her life-again. I was stunned. She never told me she was depressed. I felt angry, hurt, sad. Our lives changed drastically after that. Our family would never be the same.
Susan did recover physically, but never came home. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia and placed in a state institution that has since closed because it was so terrible. It would be the first of more than 20 hospitalizations.
But she found hope and help through an organization called St. Luke’s House, which began in 1971 as a ministry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Bethesda, MD. The church wanted to address the needs of patients being released from state psychiatric hospitals with no place to go. Susan lived in their group housing (they have more than 30 units with 111 beds). She received counseling and help finding a job, assistance with medical care, food, clothing, household items and transportation until she could afford to buy her own car. One of the greatest blessings about St. Luke’s is that it provides opportunities for recreation and socialization, knowing that friendship–love– is a basic human need and that people with mental illness often have a difficult time cultivating loving, lasting relationships with others.
Our passage in 1 John begins with, “Beloved.” This is an affectionate greeting, as some translations say “dear friends.” But there’s a deeper meaning, and John using this word twice in this passage and 6 times in this letter is making a point. This is the same John who uses the phrase “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” in his gospel, which many interpret as John writing himself and every believer into the story. We are all disciples whom Jesus loves. We are all God’s beloved.
John is telling us who God is in this letter and by omission who God is not. He isn’t like the psalmists who go on and on about God’s rescue and provision or God leading them to victory over their enemies. The psalmist would probably be disappointed with John’s definition–just as we want more from God in this world–healing for our loved ones, freedom from pain and suffering, and an easier life. John says, “God is LOVE.” And if you don’t love, then you don’t know God! And you know what love is? 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, so that we might have life through him. He took the punishment we deserved, revealing that love means self sacrifice, allowing oneself to be vulnerable, and being willing to suffer if it would save those you love.
And what happens when God’s love is poured into us? It is perfected–made complete–in us. God’s love empowers us to love others–if we choose to do what “we ought to do,” as John says.
I have always thought the reason we might choose not to love is because the person is hard to love or has hurt us and we cannot forgive them. But I never really thought about another reason that people might choose not to love–fear–until this week. John contrasts fear and love in this passage, saying they cannot co-exist. With this, John may be telling us to overcome our fear of being vulnerable and open our hearts to fully love and be loved.
“Love has no room for fear,” John says in some translations. “Perfect love drives out fear.” Fear can block the Spirit’s transforming work in our hearts. For the one who fears, John says, is not made perfect in love.
Susan called me a few weeks ago to tell me surprising news. My 55 year old sister was getting married for the first time. She had met John 10 years ago through St. Lukes. He was bi-polar and had just been diagnosed with kidney cancer. She was on her way to visit him. Would I pray for his healing? I said I would.
Then, a couple nights ago, she called again–crying. John had died suddenly, without her saying goodbye. We talked for a long time. At the end of our conversation, I encouraged her to write down her memories of John. She sent me her tribute the next morning, and asked if I might share it with you. She hopes that her story might help someone who might be afraid to love–or afraid to share their feelings.
“Don’t wait to tell your loved ones,” she says, “how you feel.”
John was interested in history, politics, economics, science. He read the Washington Post from cover to cover. He read biographies– JFK, MLK. “He could explain things to me I didn’t understand,“ she said. They talked on the phone often.
When they went out together, she would pick him up at a bus stop, and they would go to local historic sites and parks. A favorite place was Brookside Gardens in Wheaton. He had positive outlook, she said, and was tender with her when she had depressive episodes. He would say, “I feel great! It’s a wonderful day!” They ate at McDonalds, and he picked up her tray and emptied it for her. He was kind, gentle, considerate. Before she dropped him off at the metro station at the end of each date, he would say, Thank you, I had a good time with you today. And she would say, “I had a good time, too.”
She didn’t tell him how she felt about him because she was afraid it would push him away. But when he got sick a few months ago, she started spending Saturdays with him at the nursing home. Finally, she got up the courage to tell him that she cared about him and wanted to marry him. He paused for a second and said, “I accept. I will have to get you a ring. We need to go to Paris.” He told her he was 66. She said, “Age doesn’t matter.”
For those few months, she was happy to have a boyfriend and to be engaged. “I am so glad I didn’t hold back my feelings,” she said. Her only regret is that she hadn’t shared her feelings years ago. How different her life would have been!
After talking to her on the phone and reading her letter, I could only marvel at the change in her. She had peace, despite her sadness and loss– a peace brought about by her love for another–and the love of God being perfected in her heart.
Let us pray.
Holy One, we thank you for your love and for all the loved ones you have placed in our lives. Thank you that as we learn to love and open ourselves to love, your love is perfected in our hearts. Forgive us for our reluctance to be vulnerable and for not always feeling like loving. Help us to forgive those who have hurt us and bear witness to the loving Spirit that abides in us, transforming our hearts. We pray for my sister, Susan, and her healing and wholeness as she grieves the loss of her loved one. May we all feel your loving presence with us always and never be afraid to show our love for one another. In Jesus we pray. Amen.