1 John 4:7-21
When he was a young student pastor, Quaker minister and author Philip Gulley was hired in the summer of 1986 by a small rural congregation in Indiana.
The first couple of months with went well. It was the proverbial honeymoon, both pastor and church each proclaimed fondness for the other loudly and often. There was give and take on both their parts. They preferred their hymns aged like a fine wine, so he didn’t suggest they clap their hands, buy a drum set, or sing lyrics projected on a screen. They discovered he was soft-spoken, so they bought a new microphone rather than insist that he shout.
But in the third month, something Pastor Gulley mentioned in a sermon caught the attention of a woman in the church. She approached him after church and asked whether he believed in Satan and hell. Being young and new, he lacked the ministerial radar that warns the more experienced preacher of approaching danger. Eager to prove his theological sophistication, he answered directly and honestly. No, he didn’t believe in Satan, nor in a place where people were endlessly tormented. Gulley assured the woman that she was perfectly free to believe those ideas, patted her hand and turned to speak to someone else. He and his wife left church that day grateful that God had called them to such a warm fellowship, unaware that they’d soon feel its heat.
The next Sunday was Palm Sunday. The pastor prepared his sermon on how quickly the crowd in Jerusalem went from cheering Jesus to jeering him. It turned out to be a timely sermon. The chair of the church council approached him as he entered the church. “We’re not holding church this morning,” he said. “We’d like to meet with you instead.”
But a minister with a sermon in hand is an unstoppable force of nature, and Gulley persuaded the council chairman that worship should take place before the meeting. After the last hymn was sung and the benediction given, the pastor and the grim-faced members of the church council filed downstairs.
“This is an awkward matter,” the chairman said, “but I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go. There have been concerns raised that you don’t believe in Satan and hell.” ”That’s right,” Gulley said, “do you want to know why?” They declined his offer to enlighten them. “I do believe in the love of God,” he said, beginning to panic. “Isn’t that enough?” It wasn’t.
After the meeting, Gulley walked out to his car where his wife was waiting. “What happened?” she asked.
“It’s good news.”
“What is it?”
“We get to sleep in next Sunday.”
I was ordained as a minister just a couple of years before the naïve Pastor Gulley was so quickly hired and fired by his congregation. If you had told me then that I would, in the course of my career, find myself repeating the same basic theological message over and over again to a deaf but desperate world, I might given up before I started.
“God is love.” I say in my office to visitors who have been hurt by other churches. “God is love.” I say in jail cells to those who feel completely abandoned. “God is love.” I say in hospice rooms to the dying and those who will outlive them. “God is love.” I say to young children, who seem to be the only ones who believe me. “God is love, God is love, God is love.” I am not a tattoo-wearing kind of woman, but if I were, that would be my pick – injected into the skin around my ankle or maybe across my cheek, Mike Tyson style.
It is true that nearly everyone believes God is loving, the doubt has to do with how much. God loves us, most of us are willing to say, but there is considerable disagreement over the width, length, height and depth of this love.
The source of the doubt is our use of human love as a model for divine love. We take what we know about love from our own lives and experiences, and we blow it up bigger and bigger ‘til we figure we’ve arrived at a God-sized love. We project human love onto the theological screen in our minds, and we call that God’s love.
So what do we get? Just a larger, more powerful version of human love: limited, conditional, biased, self-interested love. Love that is offered to some and not to others. Love that is offered as a reward for good behavior and is withdrawn as a punishment for bad behavior. Love that is bestowed upon the chosen and obedient; but denied to the outsider and the disobedient.
Many people explain this divided nature of divine love by attributing one kind of love to God the Father and another kind to Jesus the Son. Jesus and God are partners in a mission to save the world, but Jesus is the good cop and God is the bad cop. Jesus is “gentle, sympathetic, willing to take a bullet for his people, appealing to conscience and promising a reward for doing the right thing. God is the bad cop, standing in the background with his arms folded across his chest, glaring. As long as one responded to Jesus, God remained in the shadows.” But, should there be resistance, God cracks his knuckles and scowls. It’s clear that you don’t want Jesus to leave you in the room alone with God. [Gulley and Mulholland, 21]
Eventually we grow up and out of such childish understandings; we know that God is not someone to fear. We grasp, as mature Christian adults, that we are saved by grace, not by our works. And yet our inability to picture God and God’s love as more than a larger version of human love means that we still think of God’s love as conditional, dependent on something we do or don’t do. God may save us, but proper behavior keeps us saved. Once God has stamped us as “approved,” our task is to learn the teachings, “keep the rites, affirm the doctrine, and obey the rules. In turn, God writes our name in the Book of Life, prepares our heavenly mansion, and fits us for wings.” [Gulley & Mulholland, 27] God no longer wields a billy club, now God holds out a carrot. We’re not afraid of the punishment so much as we’re anxious we might not get the reward.
But true religion, friends, is not about sticks or carrots, it’s not about punishment or reward, it’s not about earning heaven or escaping hell, it’s not based on fear or anxiety. True religion is about knowing that God is love.
“God is love,” the first letter of John continues at verse 16, “and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because God first loved us.”
At the end of the first century, when the letters of John were written, no one was thinking of God as love. How could God be love? This would seem absurd to any Greek or Roman. Aristotle said that God must be Pure Intelligence. Plato said that God was The Good. Where did this idea of God as love come from? Not from human history, which is consistently marked by war and violence. Nature teaches that God is beautiful and mysterious, but not obviously loving. What compelled this author to promote this strange idea?
He came to that conclusion as he reflected on the gospel story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. If, as the early Christians were beginning to understand, Jesus was God incarnate, “God in sandals” as John Dominic Crossan puts it, if Jesus was the fleshed-out version of the reality of God…then God must be love. Look at his message and ministry, his suffering, death and resurrection. Look at the way he embraced the poor, the lepers, the blind, the prostitutes, the children – all the people who weren’t really considered people. Look at his faithfulness to them, to his disciples even when they betrayed him; look at his forgiveness of his executioners. Look at his victory over death and the new pathway to God that his resurrection created. What other conclusion could there be? Jesus is love. Jesus is God. God is love.
What does this mean for us? Who, then, does it mean that we are? If God-who-is-love is the vine and we are the branches, what fruit do we produce?
If God is love, it means that no church can justify excluding someone or any group of someones. If God is love, no parent can justify abusing a child. If God is love, then we will make decisions based on what is best for everyone, not just our family or our tax-bracket. If God is love, we will reach out to the families of Michael Addo and Jordan Daniel Rogers, the two men killed in the Frandor and Coolidge Road shootings on Monday, and to Ricard Taylor, the man accused of killing them. If God is love, we will put our political energies behind changing the laws and culture of this land that cause us to protect our guns rather than our people.
If God is love – not a magnified version of human love, but transcendent and unconditional, then the question we should be asking ourselves is not “If I die tonight, where will I spend eternity?” it’s “If I live tomorrow, what kind of life will it be?”
It sounds like a tall order, living so that God’s love can be perfected in us. But, in fact, such a life is created not by superhuman effort but by the multiple small decisions we make in our daily interactions with others: our decisions to be patient or not, to share or not, to accept or not, to listen or not.
After he was fired, Philip Gulley and his wife drove home and ate dinner. The phone rang later that afternoon. It was from a council member of another small Quaker church near their home.
“We need a pastor,” the caller said. “Are you available for an interview?”
“As a matter of fact I am,” Gulley answered.
He preached at that church the next Sunday. He wasn’t optimistic about the prospects, figuring his tenure would be brief once they found out that he believed God loved everyone. So he preached about God’s love for homosexuals, thinking it would shock them.
After worship he went downstairs to meet with the council, a familiar process by now.
“Do you believe in Satan and hell?” an older woman asked.
You’d think Gulley would learned how to offer a theologically obscure response, but he says he is more stubborn than intelligent. Besides, he assumed that someone at the first church had called to warn them of his heretical views. So he answered honestly once again. “No, I don’t.”
One of the men smacked the table with his hand. “I like a man who speaks his mind,” he said. “Let’s hire him.” They did, and the pastor and the congregation served God together, happily, for several years.
In retrospect, Gulley says, he’s thankful that the first church fired him. It forced him to examine his assumptions, to reflect on his experiences with God and others, and to seek answers to the questions that all of us so easily ignore or too easily resolve:
If God is love, then how can that love be limited only to some and not to all?If God is love, then who are we? If I am to love others as God has loved me, will I have enough of what I need for myself?If I live tomorrow, what kind of life will it be?
David Tracy, “God Is Love : The Central Christian Metaphor?” Living Pulpit,1/3 July-Sept 1992, p 10-11.
Robert M. Brusic, “A River Ride with 1 John: Texts of the Easter Season” Word and World 17/2 (1997). http://www.luthersem.edu/word&world/Archives
Edward F. Markquart, “It’s About Love, Love, Love.”
Philip Gulley and James Mulholland, If God Is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World (HarperOne, 2004).