Take a microphone to the streets of Champaign-Urbana and ask people to tell you what God is like. You can bet that "love" or “loving” will be mentioned more than any other word. And Love is all over the Bible, too, as we see in this week’s readings. Last week, 1 John even told us that God is love. Now that sounds like a simple statement, but it isn’t. Ask people to explain it, and you’ll discover that they don’t agree.
So I want to talk this week about what our own community, followers of Jesus, means by God’s love, and point out three misunderstandings about it. Now of course if you orient your life around something else than Jesus, they could be perfectly reasonable ideas. All of these are misunderstandings from the Christian point of view, which is of course what we’re all here to situate ourselves in.
One common misunderstanding, if I may put it this way, is in essence the assumption that the Bible’s statement “God is Love” can be reversed. That when we talk about God being love, we basically mean more or less the same thing as “Love is God.” Love is the highest reality. And you hear this implied when people say things like "I think in the end, all religions boil down to loving your neighbor."
But actually there is a great difference between claiming God is love, or claiming Love is God. Peter Kreeft explains it this way. "When we say A is B, we begin with a subject our hearer already knows," and add some new knowledge about it. "Mother is sick means: you know mother, well, let me tell you something new about her: she's sick. God is love means let me tell you something new about the God you know"...this infinite, majestic Lord of the universe, who is all powerful, all knowing, all holy.... let me tell you something more about that God – his deepest nature is Love.
"But Love is God means: let me tell you something about the human love you already know; [whatever that word love stands for in your mind,] that is the ultimate reality. That is as far as anything can ever go. Seek no further for God [than the idea of love you already have]." The Biblical teaching that "God is love" is radical and intellectually profound. The cultural teaching that "love is God" is a platitude and for Christians, a complete non-starter.
Another misunderstanding is that divine love is a sort of generic benevolence. Again, from the Christian point of view, God’s love is anything but. The love of God that Christians talk about is specific and personal and has a definite shape about which he has told us a great deal. Jesus says today for example, that abiding in his love includes keeping his commandments.
For us, what God’s love is like is revealed in Jesus. We see that character as Jesus eats with outcasts and as he denounces false teaching about God. We see it as he heals people as a sign of the complete restoration God will one day bring, and as he confronts sin and exploitation as a sign of the same thing. We see it as he humbly washes the disciples’ feet, and as he holds them to a higher standard of behavior than the Old Testament did. The love God reveals to us in Christ says no to some things and says yes to others. That love both challenges and pursues us.
Which leads me to an additional comment on the "generic" misunderstanding. God's love is also not generic in terms of how it is given. God does not love humanity in bulk, as an undifferentiated mass. He loves you as you. He loves the secret beauties about you that no one else knows. There is nothing generic about this. It is specificity to the end and if we want to know what the specifics are, we look at Jesus.
The third common misunderstanding is that when we say God is loving, that somehow cancels out his justice and his holiness. People in cultures like ours that have a residue of Christianity but where very few people actually know the teachings of Christianity often think this. They've picked up that God is loving and forgiving, and they assume that’s all he is.
There’s this naïve storybook image that you know, somebody will reach the gates of heaven, and God will sort of ineffectually beam at them and say, "Well, you made a lot of mistakes, and you don’t really deserve it, but aw, heck, come on in anyway." (If you push someone on this, they will often say it doesn't happen for so-called really bad people -- Hitler is the most common example -- but that surely God will turn a blind eye for all the nice folks like us.)
Behind this image is a confused view of love that says, "If you love me, you’ll accept anything I do." Sure, love accepts people, but it does not accept actions that hurt people. Love cares about right and wrong. How loving would a God be who didn't care whether or not a parent abused their child, or didn’t care whether or not a shooter took the lives of innocent people? The idea that God ought to ignore evil asks God to contradict his own nature. To deny his own holiness and justice. Even more, it makes light of God’s own self-sacrifice on the Cross; God chose to put himself through that agony because his love says such a strong No to evil, that that No ends up as a Yes to redemption. It’s because God’s love says No to evil that it says Yes to coming in person to heal the damage evil has done, to set the world to rights.
God’s love is holy love. His love is married to his holiness. His mercy is married to his justice. It’s this seamless reality. And through Jesus he offers you and me, and the entire created universe, a way to satisfy both, which has got to be the most loving thing anybody has ever done for anybody.
We could say so much more about God's love, but that's enough for one day. I just want you to hear this call from the Gospel again: Abide in my love, says Jesus. Abide in my love. This is a love that doesn't peter out at what we already know, but that builds on our understanding of the God who spent the entire Old Testament getting across his holiness and his justice so we could understand the radical claim that this God, this God is love. This is a love that is specific and personal and deliberate, not vague and generic. This is a love that is both holy and just, and merciful and kind. It’s a love that loves you.