[The following is a reflection on 1 John 4:7-12 that was delivered at Trinity Anglican Church in Barrie, Ontario as part of their 2018 Lenten Series exploring the theme of Sacrificial Love]
“In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 Jn 4:10)
I want to thank Canon Donald for inviting me to deliver this reflection today as part of the Trinity Lenten Series this year, the theme of which as you know is Sacrificial Love. We have just heard that magnificent passage from the First Epistle of Saint John which proclaims so clearly the love of God that has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ, a love that we are invited into and called to live out of as Christian people.
This is, however, a challenging passage. There are two ditches, if you will, that we are prone to falling into if we are not careful but through which Saint John paves a way for us to tread upon. The ditch on the one side is moralism, the ditch on the other side is sentimentality, and the way through is the Cross of Christ.
“Beloved, let us love one another,” writes John. “Whoever does not love does not know God,” he continues. “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” And again, “if we love one another, God lives in us.” Now the temptation here is to place the accent on us. Let us love one another. We also ought to love one another. If we love one another. This is precisely where moralism is waiting at the door.
I would submit to you that many Christians suffer from an unruly case, often undiagnosed, of Pelagianism. Pelagianism is the belief that original sin did not taint human nature and that the human will is therefore still capable of choosing good without any special divine aid. In such a view, God sent his Son into the world and upon his arrival he looked around and said, “Hmmm, this is pretty good.” All that’s left is for us to be nicer to one another and make the world a better place.
That’s what I mean by moralism. We hear Saint John say, “let us love one another,” and we assume that whatever John means by “love” comes naturally to us and that, in fact, we have a pretty decent handle on it already. In other words, we assume that we are basically good people and that what the gospel amounts to is good advice to help us to be a better version of ourself.
Related to this, the ditch on the other side is sentimentality. By sentimentality I mean the sense in which we rely on our often shallow feelings as a guide to discerning goodness and truth, often at the expense of reason. In philosophy this names the view that morality and ethics are grounded in our emotions. In other words, if a thing elicits positive feelings within us then it must be good and/or true.
For example, I recently attended a local workshop for Anglicans and at one point in our conversation we were sharing our images of God. How do we understand who God is and what he is like? As people chimed in I was struck by one thing in particular: a lack of appeal to Scripture. People were happy to suggest that we can come to know God as we embrace our grandchildren or take a walk down by the lake. No one seemed to think, however, it was important that if we’re going to talk about God we had better begin with the Bible—God’s own self-revelation.
We hear Saint John say something like, “God is love,” and we assume that God’s love is like whatever our experience of love is. Or, worse yet, we might believe that whatever our experience of love is, is God. That is what I mean by sentimentality—when it comes to a truthful knowledge of God things like Scripture, reason, and tradition take a back seat to my own feelings and experience.
The theologian Stanley Hauerwas, not one for mincing words, once said that the greatest enemy of the Christian faith is not atheism but sentimentality: “You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend.” Part of his point here, overstated as it is, is that bad liturgy leads to bad ethics. Liturgy matters. The hymns we sing matter. The prayers we pray matter. The sermons we preach matter. The language we use matters. The reverence with which we come to Holy Communion matters. You wouldn’t want to end up murdering your best friend now would you?
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” So, as I said, we hear this passage from Saint John and we are prone to both sentimentality and moralism. Sentimentality because we think we know what love is from our own experience and moralism because we think loving one another comes naturally to us and that we’re already off to a good start.
Both of these ditches lead to our peril. But Saint John makes a way through for us and that way is the Cross of Jesus Christ. “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
If we want to understand what sacrificial love is, if we want to begin to talk at all about what Christian love looks like, we begin not by talking about ourselves but by talking about the God who loves and whose love looks like Jesus Christ and him crucified for the remission of our sins. If we want to contemplate sacrificial love as Christians we must begin with the Cross in view. For it was on the Cross that the Son of God emptied himself taking on the form of a despised and damned criminal. It was on the Cross that the Son of God gave himself over into the hands of those who would betray, mock, and kill him. It was on the Cross that the Son of God humbled himself and became obedient even unto to the point of death.
And why? Saint John tells us why. He gave himself up on the Cross so that our sin might be put away, blotted out, and removed from us. He gave himself up on the Cross so that we who were dead in our sin might live through him. He gave himself up on the Cross so that he might change our status from within. He gave himself up on the Cross so that everyone who calls on his name shall be saved. He gave himself up on the Cross so that the sacrificial love of God might be made known to men and women everywhere.
It is on the Cross that the hidden love of God which created and sustains all things is made manifest. Think of the image of a freshly felled tree. The rings that are revealed on the cut face are the visible cross-section of lines that run right up the trunk, from top to bottom, normally hidden from our view by the bark but now made manifest at this moment in time. So the Cross of Jesus Christ is the visible appearance in this world of the love of God that stretches back beyond our memory and forward beyond our vision, into eternity itself.
And as we enter more fully into the mystery of the Cross, as we do during the season of Lent, the twin threats of sentimentality and moralism are kept at bay. Sentimentality because we discover that divine love is not some general principle or abstract idea the knowledge of which we arrive at based on our own experience but is actually and concretely Jesus Christ and him crucified. And moralism because in the mystery of the Cross we discover that it was precisely our poverty of love, our refusal to love, that put Christ there.
In other words, the Cross is not a pep talk designed to make us feel good about ourselves before we go out and make the world a better place. Rather, the Cross is both the revelation that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, that we are helpless to save ourselves, and also the unfathomable love of God that is made known to us in Jesus Christ who has intervened for us, on our behalf, to accomplish our salvation. “Beloved, in this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
You will no doubt notice that I have not made much in this brief reflection of Saint John’s commendation to believers to love one another. In the end I suppose that is because I am thoroughly convinced that the only way we even become capable of the sort of sacrificial love we are called to as Christians is as the mystery of Christ’s love works itself out in us. As we, “live through him,” as John put it. No doubt that is why just a few verses later John tells us precisely how we become capable of loving one another sacrificially: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments,” (5:2).
Earlier I quoted Stanley Hauerwas who said that bad liturgy leads to bad ethics. Well I think that the inverse is true also, good liturgy leads to good ethics because good liturgy helps us to enter more fully into the mystery of God’s love made known in the passion of Jesus Christ. In the Eucharistic mystery we behold Christ’s sacrifice that atones for our sins and the sins of many not as distant observers but as ones who are taken up by Christ and with Christ as he offers himself in loving obedience to the Father. We then eat of his flesh and drink of his blood and ourselves become partakers in the mystery of his love.
If, therefore, we want to be a community that is capable of loving one another as Saint John exhorts us to we could do worse than committing ourselves to entering into the liturgy of the Church with greater reverence for and adoration of the One who meets us there. “Beloved, in this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
 I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, 214.