“In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them. We love because he first loved us.” John seems to be saying the same thing over and over throughout much of his first epistle, and it’s all about love. Love is an overused word in contemporary English: overused, and over-general. It can apply to everything from your mother to your spouse to frozen custard to your favorite old sweater to a cute cat video you first saw three minutes ago. If we form our idea of love from examples like those, it is almost guaranteed that we will miss John’s point when we read this epistle.
The Greek word being used for love here is a term that refers not to enjoyment, not to romance, not to friendship, not to hearts and flowers, not to warmth or affection, not really to any feeling at all. It refers to an attitude or posture that we find first and foremost in the very nature of God: utterly selfless goodwill and action for the benefit of another. Unconditional benevolence without regard to the deserving of the recipient. Putting the other first at your own cost.
A retired Episcopal priest I talked with two weeks ago in New York likes to use the term “one way love” for this – the endless, unconditional self-giving that comes naturally only to God. Unmerited goodwill which does not for one moment expect or need any return.
Now as we go deeper with God and develop a prayer life, we discover that in addition to this, in addition to his nature of unconditional benevolence, there is also tenderness and mercy and things that, as we connect with them, affect us in ways that do feel more like what we human beings usually think of when we use the word love. But if we don’t first grasp the one way aspect, the realization that love in the sense John is talking about it today is part of God’s being and something natural only to him, it would be all too easy to get confused.
It would be all too easy to slip into thinking that what texts like today’s Epistle really mean is not that God is love, but that love is God. To assume that love, as we already conceive of it, is what God reduces down to, that there’s nothing more to it than that, or that what Christianity really means is just trying to be whatever we personally already happen to think loving is. And once you enter into that confusion, then you begin to lose most of the good news that gives Christianity its distinctive character. It becomes all about your ideas and your feelings and your behavior, rather than about God and God’s saving acts. And the entire Christian enterprise begins to disappear into moralistic, therapeutic platitudes.
Whereas when John in today’s epistle reveals that God in some sense IS love, it is no platitude. It is a disclosure of truth that we could not possibly have guessed. It makes no sense to say that God IS a feeling or a romance or a warm glow – that would just be puerile – but it makes all the sense in the world to say, as Christian theologians do, that at the heart of who God is, inside the Trinity, unconditional, unprotected, non score-keeping giving of self is going on for all eternity. Utterly vulnerable, priceless giving, Father to Son to Spirit and back and around forever and ever. So rich in generosity that its very nature is to overflow like a fountain. So infinite that it pours out to everything. It just pours out, undeserved, to all creation, and personally towards me and you as well.
Nobody could guess that. We had to be told. And we also had to be told that this generous goodwill pours out of God not because we are adequately loveable, not because we will give him some recompense for what he’s done, but because this kind of unconditional seeking of the benefit of the other is God’s nature. It’s who he is. One way love is who God is. All human love, whether romance or friendship or familial, is in some sense two-way love. Accounts are kept. Hopes of return are harbored. Failures are noted.
Only God can always love completely unconditionally, needing nothing back -- and that is why human beings are usually so profoundly impacted when they actually encounter that love of God. It’s just so different. It’s so liberating and healing. One-way love answers our deepest thirsts without needing anything back from us. Gift upon gift upon gift. This type of love is not something we naturally do as humans. Because we’re fallen, because inevitably we put self first, we are incapable of producing such a one-way love. If we are to love as God loves -- and John surprisingly suggests we actually might – that kind of love can only come from its Source, from God himself. He has to put it into us as a pure gift. This is the love which as Paul writes, can only be “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
Poured into our hearts. It’s interesting how frequently Christians spontaneously find ourselves using liquid metaphors for God’s kind of love, because in the long run that love connects with Baptism. Though we usually pour water to baptize people in the Episcopal Church, as we will do for Addilyn in a minute, we can’t forget that Baptism means immersion. It’s not a little washing, a few nice droplets for the sake of a ceremony; it’s getting immersed into God.
Have you ever dropped a towel by accident into the bathtub or the swimming pool and pulled it up completely saturated with water? Water is just pouring out of it, right? All of a sudden it weighs about 15 pounds. It’s still a towel, but it’s waterlogged. It’s soaked in something else. If you’ve done that, you know what the word Baptism means. Baptism is getting soaked with God’s life, that overflowing one way love that saturates you inside and out. You’re still you, just like the towel’s still a towel, but there’s something else in you now, something that wasn’t there before. Something that, as you say yes to it, makes it possible at least sometimes to do what John is talking about in his Epistle today, to love as God loves -- or more correctly to love with the love of God itself as he provides it.
In our first reading we heard a story about that happening. The main character is a eunuch who is a high-ranking court official from Ethiopia. Philip, at the leading of the Holy Spirit, joins this guy on the road as he’s traveling back to Africa from Jerusalem.
Now, it’s hard to imagine anybody Philip would naturally feel less comfortable with. There’s a racial divide, there’s a sexuality divide, there’s probably an economic divide because we know Philip worked especially with the poor and this guy is able to travel internationally with an entourage. And yet Philip can approach him across all those divides, because he himself has had that one-way love of God poured into him at his own baptism and he’s not scared anymore. He is finding himself able, at least sometimes, to respond to people he hasn’t met yet out of that love from God, that unconditional benevolence to all that has come to dwell inside him as a gift.
And because Philip has said his yes to that one-way love, then the Ethiopian eunuch too, gets to hear about it. It turns out to be, of course, what he’s always wanted, because it’s what we’ve all always wanted. So he asks if he could receive it as well. “Here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Nothing. The one-way love of God, no payback, no tit for tat, is for him too. He doesn’t need to do anything first to make God will his good unconditionally and forever. Just let God drown him. So in he goes.
Now this Ethiopian was of an age at his baptism to say a full and conscious yes to God’s one-way love right then; Addie will say that later, we hope, when she is old enough to choose Christ for herself. But she is still like the Ethiopian in this way: God’s love acted first. God’s one way benevolent graciousness took the first step, without demanding anything of her. God is ready even now to soak her in his life and adopt her into his family, not because she is especially good or because she has agreed with a list of doctrines or taken some step to deserve being included. God is ready to Baptize Addie now, because one way love is who he is.
“In this is love,” writes John today, “not that we loved God, but that he loved us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them. We love because he first loved us.” May God be praised and adored today and forever for his endless one-way love. Amen.