The Reverend John Allison
Easter 5B, May 2, 2021
1 John 4:7-21
Christ Church, Hudson
The image that John presents in our Gospel this week of Jesus as the true vine and the Father as the vine grower has been very present to me this week. Indeed, it’s been most appropriate as I’ve driven past multiple vineyards and observed the growers pruning their vines and readying the vineyards for the growing season. I’ve often relied on this passage as a reminder of our union in Christ, our connectedness as the Body of Christ, and taken comfort in the knowledge that I am part of something larger than myself. I’ve taken comfort in Jesus’s invitation to “abide in me as I in you.” Live in me as I live in you. But there is more. This invitation invites a certain comfort and security for sure, but it also invites questions. It also invites, perhaps even demands, action.
As was the case last week, our Gospel serves as a kind of pre-Easter flashback. It takes place just after the Last Supper and is part of what is generally known as the Farewell Discourse, essentially words that were meant to offer comfort and encouragement for the days after Jesus’s death. For us, in the season of Easter, they do much the same; as we celebrate the Risen Christ, the implications of Resurrection are not always clear, not always so easily discerned, and certainly, not always so easily lived into. It’s not always comfortable to do the work that will produce a bountiful harvest.
In our epistle today, in what is one of my most loved passages in the New Testament, John gives us some further instruction on what that work entails: “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.” God is love.
John is writing to an early group of Jesus’s followers sixty or so years after his death and resurrection. At that time there were many who came and claimed to be teaching in the name of Jesus, and in this letter John is essentially offering advice on how to discern true teachers of Jesus’s ways. This group to whom he was writing was mostly Gentile and he was writing in Greek. I mention this detail because in Greek the word he uses for “love,” agape, was not so common. You’ve perhaps heard that native people of the arctic regions have fifty words for snow—the ancient Greeks had four words for love. Agape was used quite rarely.
The first type of love (Storge) was what we experience most commonly among our family. It’s love born of familiarity and connection, such as that between a parent and child or between siblings. It feels instinctual and natural and it’s hard to imagine life without it.
The second type (Philia) was love between friends or those with whom we share much in common. It’s not biological or instinctive but still important and necessary to our lives.
The third type (Eros) is romantic love. It’s what we typically mean when we speak of being in love.
Finally, this fourth type—agape—is what John is writing about. Agape is unconditional love that knows no bounds. It’s a love that expects nothing in return. That’s the love that John attributes to God; it’s the love that God calls us to participate in through Christ. In later Christian thought it is named as one of the three Christian virtues along with faith and hope. What makes it unique among the four loves is that it is understood to originate not in us but in God. We love because God loved us first. God created the world in love; God sent Jesus in love. God redeemed the world in love. God loves each and every one of us here, not because of anything we’ve done to earn it but because God is love—unconditional love. So many of our problems and so much of our turmoil on earth is because we forget that. We forget that we are loved; we forget that we are valued.
The great preacher and social activist William Sloane Coffin said, “God’s love doesn’t seek value, it creates it. It is not because we have value that we are loved, but because we are loved that we have value.” This is true from the smallest child to the oldest adult. And yet, so many of us in this world forget that. So many feel unvalued and forgotten. Our world tells us that value comes from who your family is or what kind of job you have or where you live or the amount of wealth that you accumulate, or from the color of your skin, or even from your gender or sexuality. But in God’s economy, in God’s household, that isn’t how it works. God loves us no matter what because that’s what God does, that’s what God is.
John says, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is perfected in us.” Or, another way of translating it is, his love is completed in us. We know God through God’s actions and we are called to participate in God’s love through our actions. That’s what it means to be the Body of Christ. We are called to love as God loves; without conditions and expecting nothing in return. That’s agape. We cannot love that completely, that fully on our own; such love originates only in God and through Christ. As Christians, that is the true vine of which we are part. That love that is cultivated in us, the fruit that we bear, originates in Christ and it is incumbent on us to share this bounty, to be bearers of God’s love.
When Jesus offered his words of assurance to the disciples in those hours before his Crucifixion they had no way of knowing what it would ultimately mean for them. We know that in those days following their discovery of the empty tomb they were confused and frightened and that even as Jesus came to them they didn’t fully understand. It was gradually, in the unfolding of their ministry, and in the coming of the Holy Spirit, which we will celebrate on the Feast of the Pentecost in just a few short weeks, that they began to really understand the mission to which Jesus had called them. It’s much the same for me, and on this fifth Sunday of Easter what is most clear is that God calls us into a love that is greater than anything any one of us could do on our own. I don’t always understand what God is calling me to, or sometimes I do and am frightened, not sure I can do it. Oftentimes I outright fail—or run the other way if I’m to be honest. But John reminds me, “perfect love casts out fear.” I need to remind myself of that daily—most days multiple times. But it’s in that assurance that I find hope; it’s in trusting the assurance of God’s love that a future can open and make all things new.
Beloved, let us love another. Let us ask ourselves the question, how we are called to embody God’s love in a world that is desperately in need? How are we called, individually and as a church, to love unconditionally and without expectation of return? I know I don’t love perfectly; I know I miss opportunities all the time. But I also know God calls me, calls us all, in spite of our imperfection, and to see that love, to want to be a vessel for it, is to be raised with Christ. In this Easter season let us be especially mindful of how we might love more completely as God loves us. What does a loving response look like? Where might we initiate love, without expectation of return? To ask such questions is the beginning of seeing the world and our place in it in a new light. It is to see with Easter eyes. Amen.