THE EPISTLE. 1 S. John 4. 7
BELOVED, let us love one another: for love is of God, and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only-begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us. Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us; because he hath given us of his Spirit. And we have seen, and do testify, that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world. Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God. And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgement; because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear; because fear hath torment: he that feareth is not made perfect in love. We love him, because he first loved us. If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we from him, that he who loveth God love his brother also.
“We love him because he first loved us”
St. John’s Epistle is a treatise on love which complements and underscores with emphasis the love which his Gospel proclaims. It cannot be emphasised enough, it seems to me, that we enter into the mystery of the life of God by what we are given to see through the eyes of John. This epistle intends, as so many of the epistles-lessons often do, the application of the Gospel proclamation: “God is love”. Love is of God and so we ought also to love one another. But what is that love?
That love is the communion of God with God in God - the communion of the Trinity. This is the love by which we have communion with God and so with one another. Our loves find their place and meaning in God’s love. “He that abideth in love abideth in God and God in him.”
This is, as it were, the recurring refrain of the Trinity season: “God is love and he that abideth in love abideth in God and God in him.” This is the love which the Church is empowered and compelled to proclaim. But more than that, the Church is to be the place of the indwelling love of God, the place where God’s love is called to mind, and the place where that love takes shape in us. The Church is to be the place where we seek the perfection of our love in the grace of Jesus Christ.
The Church, of course, refers to more than merely a building, just as the building, of course, points to so much more beyond itself, so much more beyond wood and stone, glass and tapestry. These holy places signify a greater purpose and one which extends into the stuff of our daily lives with the intent that they should be holy lives. We are called to love out of the love which has been shown to us.
Four things are to be noted here as arising out of the perspective which we are given to see through the eyes of John. First, that the love which is of God has been revealed to us as the communion of the Trinity; secondly, that our lives find their place and meaning in the Trinitarian love of God; thirdly, that our loves are expressed in the concrete realities of our everyday lives; and fourthly, that in seeking the perfection of our loves in the grace of Christ, we acknowledge that our loves are imperfect and disordered. It is only in the communion of the Trinity that we begin to find the proper expression and the true meaning of our loves and our lives.
Ordo in me caritatem. You have often heard me refer to these marvelous words from The Song of Songs, “Set love in order in me.” Seen in the light of what we have been given to see through the eyes of John, they offer a maxim for our Christian lives. The phrase suggests that we are not as we should or want to be. It is a prayer for the perfecting grace of Christ to order our lives in holiness. God’s love must do the ordering - the setting right - but it must be done in us and by us willing what God wills for us and in us.
That love is not something vague and indiscriminate. It is not an indifferent love. And so too, our loves are not to be indeterminate and indefinite - an-anything-that-may-be and in-any-kind-of-way form of love.
There is a constant and pressing need to be able to distinguish the kinds of love which belong to our lives. The distinctions lie in the differing relations of our lives. There are the relations within the family; there are the relations of friends in the many kinds and degrees of friendship; there are the relations which belong to our public life as social and political and spiritual creatures - our lives as neighbours, citizens, and believers. In short, our loves are distinct and discriminate within definite contexts. Yet ultimately, these are all the loves which must be set in order in us by the perfecting grace of Christ. For in all our relations, our loves are imperfect and awry. Either our loves are excessive and obsessive or defective and cold or perverted and twisted; in any event, we are bent out of shape. We are in disarray and disorder.
Somehow it belongs to the spiritual purpose and mission of the Church to proclaim the love of God and to place our lives in the perfecting grace of Christ. That is a love which is known and definite, a love which sets in order and perfects.
“God commended his love towards us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” “While we were yet sinners”, God yet loves us. That doesn’t mean that God is indifferent to our sinfulness, that he ignores and doesn’t care about our sinfulness. No. God loves us in the truth of our God-created being, and if not by “signs and wonders” such as thunderbolts from heaven, then it is by working upon our consciences, that very aspect of our created being by which we are most in God’s image, that God’s love works best upon us. Our loves can only find their place and meaning in his love, a love which sometimes wounds us into love by convicting us of the forms of our unloveliness. It requires paying attention to his Word and not being indifferent to it.
The tragedy of our lives is that we are indifferent to God’s Word and as a consequence we are quite indifferent to the presence, let alone the needs of one another. That is the point of the parable of Dives (the rich man) and Lazarus. The rich man is indifferent to the one who is near to him. Lazarus lies at his gate destitute and in desperate need. The consequence of his ignoring Lazarus is that he finds himself infinitely removed from God. He finds himself far from God because his indifference to his neighbour Lazarus signals his indifference to God’s Word in Moses and the prophets. How much greater is our indifference to Christ in one another? How far do we separate ourselves from the love which is our perfection and blessedness! Yet the parable is told to set God’s love in order in us and to impel us to act out of the love of God revealed in his Word.
It is told to bring us nearer to the love which made us, to the love which alone can set our loves in order. There are no magical formulas of perfection, only the discipline of holy lives seeking the perfection of our love in Christ Jesus. His love goes before us so that his love may be made perfect in us. It is the task of our lives. His is the perfect love but it is yet to be made perfect in us; “while we were yet sinners.”
His perfect love opens out to us the love of God, the communion of the Trinity. In that communion our loves are made perfect. We love him because he first loved, and because he is love. God’s love is the love which creates and recreates, the love which reorders the disorders of our loves into the ways of perfect love. His love is the prior love, the primary love, in which all our love shall find their place and their truth. And all because
“He first loved us.”
Father Ed Bakker
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne