Sermon preached at FBC Worcester
The Fourth Sunday of Celebrationtide
1 John 4:7-12
This summer we spent our time together looking at the Book of Acts.
We have followed the apostles in their story after the ascension of Jesus and the advent of the Holy Spirit upon them. We followed their experiences, the miracles and visions; we follow their examples, the inclusion and hospitality and their urgency to see that the good news is realized by as many as possible.
In Acts 13, we hear Paul and Barnabas share about the story of God, how God was near to and loved the people of God. The author of Luke and Acts is continuing this story of God through these two books. The author invites us to see that the people of God were chosen, first through Israel, and that through them, and Christ, now all people are chosen—created by the very love of God. And just as Gentiles are now brought into the ever-expanding work of the Spirit, so too, are we. We who live in the 21st century are also loved and a part of the story of God. As theologian, and author, Henri Nouwen, puts it: we are all God’s beloved ones.
Now, I don’t have children of my own, only a dog who thinks she’s my child. Oh, who am I kidding, I think that, too. This belovedness, it’s like the love we have for our children. They don’t earn our love. We love them because they were borne out of our love. They are a piece of us. Glimpses of our image live in them.
This is likely where some of the metaphorical parental language of God comes from in our Scriptures. The provision you offer your child, the safety, their being known wholly by you, your unconditional love–this is what we receive from God. We don’t earn the love of God or our place in God’s eyes. We aren’t esteemed based on what we can do for God or offer God. We are loved by God simply by the reality of our existence; we came into being by the love of God that preexists us. That love infuses your life with its core meaning: you are the beloved one. Each one of you. That is what defines you, if you’ll let it.
Our text today, from 1 John, gives us a glimpse of our belovedness. Many of you know this part of chapter 4 by heart. God is love, and therefore love comes from God. And everyone who loves is born of God, and knows God. So it is, the text continues, we must love one another.
In describing how we are loved by God, and how we are to love others, Nouwen puts it this way in his book Life of the Beloved:
When we claim and constantly reclaim the truth of being the chosen ones, we soon discover within ourselves a deep desire to reveal to others their own chosenness. Instead of making us feel that we are better, more precious or valuable than others, our awareness of being chosen opens our eyes to the chosenness of others.
That is the great joy of being chosen: the discovery that others are chosen as well. In the house of God there are many mansions. There is a place for everyone – a unique, special place. Once we deeply trust that we ourselves are precious in God’s eyes, we are able to recognize the preciousness of others and their unique places in God’s heart.
We are all chosen by God, beloved of God. Whether we know it or not.
Now, it’s not that God is only father and mother to us, because of course we know God to be many more things to us in many other ways. In fact, the famous poet, Rainer Rilke, inverted this parent/child imagery.
Because he knew he was loved by God, he wanted to have that same love towards God. So, in his writing “The Book of Hours” Rilke wants to call God his son. He makes special note that it’s not blasphemy to God because God relates to us in a thousand different ways. And yet Rilke can’t help thinking he wants to love God in the same way he has been loved. He sees this love that infuses his with life as that which gives life to God, so he can only think to call God his son as a poetic way of expressing it.
“I will know you
as one knows his only beloved child.
So God, you are the one
who comes after.
It is sons who inherit
while fathers die.
Sons stand and bloom.
You are the heir.”
What a way of thinking of own belovedness, by thinking of how beloved God is to us.
Because there is this passive piece to being the beloved, that it just is and preexists you; and you want to be able to give back—maybe not earn it, but reciprocate. So then, there is also this active component to being the beloved. This active piece to being God’s beloved doesn’t mean we earn it or owe anything as repayment, but instead it compels us, and obligates us to give back. And we do this not by simply loving God through our prayers or our worship or our singing—all of which are important ways to do so—but we love God most clearly when we love others in such ways as to empower them to live into the dignity and reality of their chosenness and belovedness in God.
This is what Nouwen is getting at in recognizing there is a place for everyone; that we are all beloved ones. And it’s what Rilke is saying too, even if indirectly. Because as 1 John challenges us, when we love one another, the invisible God is made visible, and God lives in us. It’s as if God is born anew in us with each act of love and empowerment, as if God is both the heir and the inheritance of belovedness.
Now it’s only fair to mention here, that not everyone can get on board with this. Because they see the injustices we are supposed to fight, and either Christians aren’t doing so, or the very fact that these injustices or suffering exist is proof to some people that God must not exist or must not be loving. I don’t blame them for this. I disagree, but I don’t blame them.
So let me first say to all of us, I don’t believe that God causes bad things to happen for some divine purpose. You can if you want to, but I won’t say that there’s a divine reason for someone’s cancer, or the death of someone’s child, or the collapse of someone’s marriage. I don’t think God causes that. Bad things simply happen sometimes in our messy, imperfect world. If it were the case that God were causing it, then I don’t think that makes God a very good God. That makes God more of an adversary.
When evil happens, even if it’s the natural kind of evil and suffering that comes in the form of fires and tornadoes and hurricanes, is is often, as St. Augustine believed, simply the absence of the good. Sometimes in our lives, good might be absent. Like darkness isn’t a force of its own, but simply the absence of light. In our lives, there are moments of light and darkness.
But this also doesn’t mean that God isn’t powerful or doesn’t care. In Christ, we see a God who redefines power. In Jesus, God chooses to love us by being in solidarity with us. God uses God’s power to join us in our pain and suffering.
Ours is a God who also suffers at the hands of injustice. Who hurts with us in our diagnosis. Who grieves with us when we lose our fathers. God is not causing these deaths for some twisted purpose, nor is God absent or powerless. God is near and present and suffering in the midst of it all.
In Jesus, God showed the power that lies in the cross. Not some bloody atonement, but a solidarity with us and a willingness to show God’s power by willingly suffering with us. All so that we might know the love of God for us, a love that knows us and our experiences—even the painful ones. This is what it means to be beloved. After all, what parent doesn’t whisper to their child in pain, that if they could, they’d take this pain for them, or at least lie in bed sick with them?
So no, we won’t be able to convince everyone that God exists, but we can all agree that God does not control everything like a puppeteer or zap bolts of lightning at every sin or lord it over and above us, or only hav power that is defined by obeying our demands as if God were a Cosmic Santa Claus. Rather ours is a God who is more interested in joining us in the messiness of our lives.
This God loves us with a preexisting love,
a love that infuses our being with meaning,
a belovedness that infuses our actions with purpose,
to love others in such a way that they can realize their own belovedness of God.
And it’s why in suffering, in pain, in tragedy, we can see such profligate kindness, and such contagious compassion. Because we are reminded of our shared humanity, that is–our shared belovedness—and we can’t help but love and join others in the midst of their suffering in Puerto Rico or Houston or Barbuda or Myanmar or Syria or Detroit or Spencer or Elm Park.
We can’t help but join our hearts and lives to others in their suffering because that’s what our God does in our lives.
Joins us with God’s heart and life in our suffering.
A love that joins in others’ suffering, enfleshes the words in 1 John, that no one has ever seen God, but when we love one another, God lives in us.
It might not convince someone into belief,
but let us love one another, anyway,
for our belovedness is in God,
and everyone who loves,
is born of God,
and gives birth to God anew each day.
Like father, like son.
Like mother, like daughter.
Beloved, let us love one another.
 Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved.
 Rainer Rilke, Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, “The Book of Pilgrimage” II,5; II,6; II, 9.