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1 John 4:7-11
Some people are hard to love. Some people are mean and rude. Some people are bullies. Some people have hurt us so badly, either by their words or actions, either physically or mentally or both, that we not only don’t love them, but we are tempted to hate them and wish all kinds of evil on them.
Some of you have seen the movie “I Can Only Imagine.” Bart, the writer of the song “I Can Only Imagine,” had a father who was a person like the one I just described. His father physically beat Bart and his mother. He verbally abused him through high school. He broke a plate over his head when he found out he was going to sing in church. He was hard to love.
But Jesus doesn’t just tell us to love those who are easy to love. He said, you have heard it said, love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He calls us to show love to those who do nice things to us, who are loveable; but he also calls us to show love to those who are mean, and rude; who bully us and who hurt us mentally or physically, or both.
How can he ask us to do that? How can we do such a seemingly impossible thing? It all starts with recognizing that you are one of those people who are hard to love. I’m not talking about being hard to love according to your friends and neighbors. They might think you are a great and wonderful person. I’m talking about someone who should be hard for God to love because he knows what you are really like. He sees behind the mask that you put on in front of others. He knows the darkness of your sinful nature and every one of your deepest darkest sins, the ones you don’t want anyone to find out about. It all starts with you seeing yourself as the chief of sinners who deserves nothing from God except his eternal punishment.
When you see yourself as someone who is hard to love, someone who even God should not love, then what John says hits home. Then what John says changes your heart, and helps you see what true love is. It moves you to love even those who are hard for you to love, to love as God loves you. What does John say? Love comes from God. God is love. This is how God’s love for us was revealed: God has sent his only-begotten Son into the world so that we may live through him. This is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. And Paul reminds us that he did this, while we were still sinners. While we were still sinners Christ died for us. While we were hard to love, when there was no reason for God to love us because we weren’t showing any love to him, God loved us anyway. And he didn’t just say it. He showed it. You know the passage by heart, God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son. That’s how he revealed his love for us. Even though he hates the sinful things we do, he sacrificed his Son to pay for those sins. As we heard Jesus say, no one has greater love than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. But, Jesus did more than that. He laid down his life for his enemies; for you and for me and for every sinner.
The Holy Spirit, working through God’s holy word, has brought us to see that we are hard to love, sinners who deserve nothing but God’s wrath now, and then eternal punishment. Working through his holy word, the Holy Spirit has also shown us what love really is. It’s not a warm feeling. It’s a decision to show love even to those who don’t deserve it. As the Holy Spirit helps us see ourselves as those whom God loves even though we don’t deserve it, as he helps us see ourselves as those for whom Jesus lived and died, we are born again, born of God. The joy and reality of God’s love fills our hearts so that John can say, love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God. What joy, peace and comfort fills our hearts when we see how much God loves us!
On the basis of the fact that, by the Holy Spirit, we know of God’s great love for us, John says, Dear friends, literally “beloved ones”, let us love one another. Dear friends, you who know you are loved by God in Jesus, if God loved us so much, we also should love one another.
The love God wants us to show each other, the love he wants us to show to everyone, but especially to our fellow believers, is the same kind of love God shows us. It is not a selfish love that says, “if you love me first then I’ll love you in return.” It’s an unselfish love that loves those who are difficult to love, who have only given us reasons to be angry with them, from whom we expect nothing but more of the same. The love God wants us to show each other is not a love of words, but a love that shows itself in action.
Think of the example in our first lesson today. The first Christians were all of a Jewish background and culture. In spite of everything Jesus taught about taking the good news to every nation, they were sharing the Gospel only with others of Jewish background. Finally, some Christians from Cypress put love into action. They began to share the Gospel with non-Jewish people. A man named Barnabas, a man known for providing Christian encouragement, was called to help them. He put love into action by going to Tarsus to find Saul, the man who had persecuted Christians, but had been persecuted himself when he came to faith and began preaching about Jesus. He recognized the gifts God had given Paul and saw that the work in Antioch could use someone with his gifts. Together, Barnabas and Paul demonstrated the greatest love we can show anyone, to risk your life to tell even those who don’t want to hear it that God loved them enough to send Jesus to live and die to pay for their sins
In the last days, Jesus says that the love of most will grow cold. There will be more and more who are difficult to love. As we see this happening around us, we are tempted to gather in our own little groups with people who are just like us and only talk to those we deem to be safe and loveable. We are tempted to join the world and think that we should make rules to try to make people be more loving. But if we do that we become part of the problem. John reminds us that the reason love is growing cold is that love comes from God. If people are not showing godly love it’s because they do not know God’s love for them. The best thing we can do, the only thing that will have any chance of keeping love from growing cold in this world, is to tell them about God’s great love; to help them see how much God loves them.
One of the biggest complaints others have about Christians is that they don’t seem to be any different than anyone else. In fact, some would say that Christians are more unloving than many who are not Christians. Now part of that accusation is that many don’t understand that tough love, pointing out a sin and then pointing people to Jesus alone, is really the most loving thing you can do for anyone. But, we might have to admit that sometimes they do have a point. Sometimes Christians don’t treat each other with love, they use harsh words with each other, write unkind notes to each other, and accuse each other of wrongs on the basis of false assumptions without bothering to learn the facts. Sometimes Christians go into isolation mode and don’t want anything to do with anyone who isn’t a part of their group and so they don’t get involved in the community, or offer to help others in need. All too often we earn the right to be called unloving by those around us in the world, and even by our own fellow Christians.
Thankfully Jesus lived a life of perfect balance. He showed love by pointing out sin. He chased the money changers out of the temple. He told the woman at the well that the man she was living with was not her husband. He told the woman caught in adultery to go and leave her life of sin. But he didn’t give them an indication that he hated them. He didn’t withdraw from contact with sinners. He came to earth, which is full of sinners. He ate with tax collectors. He shared the good news of the kingdom with everyone, even those who didn’t want to hear it. He went to the cross and showed how much the Father loves us by paying for all the times we have failed to show godly love to others, for all the times we have shied away from sharing God’s word with those we deemed unworthy of it. From his position now at the right hand of God he asks us to trust that he is with us as we share God’s word especially with those who we fear might reject it. Think of how effective Stephen’s witness was. As he was being stoned he showed love for his enemies by proclaiming that he saw Jesus risen and ascended, and he prayed that God would not hold the sin of murdering him against them. He demonstrated that he loved others as Jesus loved him.
The movie, “I Can Only Imagine” is a true story. Bart’s Dad was hard to love, but Bart came to love him. He saw what God had done for his Dad. God took this man who was a monster, who was hard to love because he had hurt him over and over again, and changed his heart. He brought him to faith in Jesus. Bart learned that if God could love his dad; If God could forgive him and change the heart of a monster; if God could show his Dad such love, then he would love him too. And Bart showed God’s love, not just in words but in actions, because he cared for his dad through his last days on earth as he was dying of cancer.
Some people are hard to love. You and I are hard to love. But instead of treating us as our sins deserve God sent his son to take the punishment we deserve on himself. He showed us what love is. Beloved ones, loved by God in Jesus, If God so loves us, we should love one another.