Sunday, June 23, 2013
Cheryle R.C. Hanna, Guest Lectionary Commentator
Minister of Discipleship, Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, Toronto, ON, Canada
Lection – 1 John 4:7-8 (New Revised Standard Version)
(v. 7) Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. (v. 8) Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
I. Description of the Liturgical Moment
The African American church has always had members of the LGBT community within its fold. They were present as the faithful deacon who moved ‘north’ away from his family and their ‘disapproving eyes.’ They were present as the widowed nurse who never remarried and kept the company of women through participation in sporting events. And they were present through the quiet man in the back of the church who never married and kept to himself.1 LGBT Sunday is an opportunity for the church of God to honor the sacrifices and pain inflicted on these quiet saints and to celebrate the gifts of all God’s children. As same-gender-loving persons struggle to secure the right to marry, the right to live and work within society without fear, certainly the Church can be such a place that helps them. It can be a place where the love of God demonstrated by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is exhibited, practiced, preached, and lived out in community.
II. Biblical Interpretation for Preaching and Worship: 1 John 4:7-8
Part One: The Contemporary Contexts of the Interpreter
I am writing from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The local newspaper is the Toronto Star. For several days in 2012, the paper published a deeply moving story of a little girl named Stella Joy. Her story, which follows the last fourteen months of her life, captivated my heart and mind. Just after her second birthday Stella Joy was diagnosed with diffuse infiltrative pontine glioma (DIPG). Stella’s parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends rallied around her to make her last days full and happy. The story was about love—love that holds on to what is important and releases those things we cannot control.
The story is pertinent here because Stella Joy had two moms, Aimee Bruner and Mishi Methven. These are their words: “Many of you have said that you are in awe of our parenting and courage in accepting Stella’s death sentence. We do not feel brave or special. We are normal, unassuming people who live in a modest bungalow in East York. We bicker about laundry, we watch bad reality television, we get frustrated in traffic.”2 And I would add that they are made in God’s image and loved by God completely. We must also love them and on LGBT Sunday we are especially called to celebrate and demonstrate God’s love and our common humanity by loving.
Part Two: Biblical Commentary
1 John is referred to as a letter or epistle, but it reads more like a lecture or a sermon. There is no formal or informal greeting and no benediction or prayer at the end. The author jumps in with both feet, addressing the issue at hand: opposition to long-held beliefs about Jesus. In the fourth chapter, the subject turns specifically to the problem of separating love and charity from worship of God. The job of the preacher is to make clear that true worship of God cannot be separated from the love we have for one another.
The subject in verse 7 is “Beloved,” agapetos in Greek and the verb is agapao, to love. The subject is well translated in the KJV, LB, and the NRSV, for the noun’s importance is in agreement with the verb. The tense of the verb to love is in the present subjunctive active. This form refers to a continuous or repeated action that is accomplished by the subject of the verb. While the NIV translation “Dear friends” has an inviting sound, it may lead us to falsely conclude that our reason for loving is because of interests we have in common, hence we are ‘friends.’ If the NIV is used then the preacher should be careful not to fall into that rabbit hole.
Why do we love “because love is from God”? The word for love here is agape, which can also be translated as ‘charity,’ meaning benevolent love. This benevolence is not shown by doing what the person loved requests but what the one who loves deems is needed by the one being loved. One of the many expressions of God’s agape for humankind is in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” God gave not what humankind requested but what we needed as God perceived our need. God brought Jesus, bringing forgiveness to humankind. Agape or love is God’s willful direction towards humankind. In other words, we are continually loved by God because we need to be; therefore, we must love one another continually.
“Everyone who loves (agape) is born (gennao) of God.” The word gennao means to beget, pointing to God’s divine nature being metaphorically imparted in the believer. The tense, perfect indicative passive, is an action, asserted as fact, having been completed in the past but having existing results in the subject that is the recipient of the action. Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the action in the past that has existing results in the present. Therefore, when apage (love) is the continuous and repeated action then gennao (birth) is one result. The other result is knowledge. The Greek ginosko refers to what we come to know experientially. In other words, what we have witnessed in the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ and the changes made in our own lives as a result are directly connected.3 If agape is not present then we have not experienced God fully. The verses that follow, 9-21, give the reasons believers should use agape love as their standard for living.
Aren’t you glad that the love of God is not legislated by people? Aren’t you glad that you don’t have to wait for court rulings to experience the love and favor of God? Aren’t you glad that when people define you as other than, weird, or even sinful, God calls you beloved? That’s why, as the old folk used to say, “I have to love everybody, because God loves me”; and then they’d sing, “I’m gonna treat everybody right, I’m gonna treat everybody right. I’m gonna treat everybody right, until I die. I’m gonna treat everybody right. I’m gonna treat everybody right. I’m gonna treat everybody right, until I die.”
Descriptive Details in This Passage
The descriptive details in this passage include:
Sounds: The sounds of people loving and laughing; the sounds of acceptance; the sounds of wedding bells as same-sex couples marry; the sounds of freedom and equality; applause;
Sights: Churches allowing same-sex couples to walk down their aisles and join the church; pastors praying with LGBT members; flags outside of churches that are open and affirming; and
Colors: All the colors of the rainbow.
III. Other Sermonic Comments or Suggestions
God is love,
- God is not a small ‘g’ god who has favorites or plays one child against the other. This image of a god would be similar to Loki in the movie “The Avengers” and would be easily defeated by flawed men and women uniting and fighting for what is right and just. (The scene where the Hulk smashes the “puny god’ into the floor like a child’s toy might bring a moment of humor!)
- A book that may help as you prepare your sermon for LGBT Sunday or a related Bible study is Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell, the founder of the Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids.4 Chapter 7 is entitled “The Good News Is Better Than That” and it is all about love. The premise of the book is that the love of God made available to us in Jesus Christ has more room for persons who do not think or act as we do than we who are religious give credit, and in chapter 7 Bell zeroes in on love. The following quote is just one reason to read the book, or at least this chapter:
and to refuse this love moves us away from it,
in the other direction,
and that will,
by very definition,
be an increasing unloving, hellish reality.5
- A resource for progressive, accepting and affirming congregations is www.progressivechurchmedia.com.
- Illustrations may be gleaned from the movie “Beginners,” starring Christopher Plummer as a man that following the death of his wife of 45 years came out of the closet at age 75 to live a full, energized, and wonderfully tumultuous gay life. Also, see the “Women of Brewster Place” for images of same-gender-loving black women.
1.“As the mid-1950s ushered in the McCarthy era and the image-conscious civil rights movement, the otherwise vibrant and visible aspects of the African American gay culture were forced underground.” Jonathan L. Walton. Watch This: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism (New York, NY: NYU Press, 2009), 73.
2. Read the series about Stella at thestar.com/weekendreads. The eRead Stella is available through stardispatches.com.
3. VSpiros Zodhiates, Th.D. “Lexicon to the Old and New Testament.” In Hebrew—Greek Key Study Bible: King James Version, 1574–1722 (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 1986).
4. Bell, Rob. Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011).
5. Ibid., 177.