You Keep Using That Word…
1 John 4:7-21
How many of you remember the cult classic movie The Princess Bride? Early on in the story, there are a trio of kidnappers, one of whom is a Sicilian named Vizzini. Many of us have words or phrases we favor in our everyday speech, and Vizzini’s is the word “Inconceivable!” Someone could be following us? “Inconceivable!” Someone is following us?! “Inconceivable!” He’s climbing the rope after us? “Inconceivable!” Vizzini the Sicilian cuts the rope, then comes over to the cliff-face again and observes, “He didn’t fall?! Inconceivable!” And finally, Inigo Montoya’s had enough of that, and he says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
It’s hard to avoid pop-culture references to love, especially in music. In today’s world, ‘love’ is an unstoppable force, a feeling which completely transforms who we are and what we do, something outside of us that isn’t in our control and often controls us instead. We chase after love, we long for it, we use it to excuse or justify our decisions, we feel we’d die without it. In a lot of ways, that’s why we keep arguing over who can marry whom, who can be with whom—both as a society and as a church. We make our feelings our god, we turn love into an idol. We turn the Bible-saying around: “God is love,” and make it into “Love is God.”
But the word ‘love’ in English isn’t limited to just the kind of sexual or romantic sentiment we have toward someone else. We love our pets, we love our parents, we love our friends, we love our cars or our houses or our lifestyles or our hobbies. We love God. But we don’t love our parents or our friends or our pets or our possessions in the same ways. Our English translations of the Bible use the same word ‘love’ to describe several different concepts in the original Greek: philia, or friendship; eros, or romantic love; storge, or affection. There is a fourth, and when the Bible says “God is love” that’s what it says: God is agape. Love in this sense of the word is self-giving, sacrificial, faithful. In the Old Testament, much is made of God’s chesed, his “steadfast love”—his covenant faithfulness to the Israelites.
If you want to know what Love is, then don’t look to Taylor Swift or Justin Timberlake—look to the God whose chosen people constantly complained, constantly grumbled, constantly chased after other gods and other priorities. Look to the God who is himself Love.
Look at Abraham, decades older and he has no children by Sarah. In our Old Testament reading this morning, he’s almost a hundred years old when the LORD appears to him again. Decades of waiting for the promise—and even of taking matters into his own hands, in the form of fathering Ishmael by Sarah’s servant Hagar.
See God appear to Abraham as three men, three figures—and see Abraham run out to greet them, see him “bow down to the earth” before them, see him as he “sees three and worships one,” as the Early Church Fathers said.
“Welcome, welcome! Please, be my guest and stay a while!” Abraham said. “Let me get you some water, and you can wash your feet and relax a while in the shade of this tree, this oak of Mamre. Let me fix some food for you; you must have been journeying for so long already, so stay a while and rest.”
“Very well, do as you say.”
See Abraham run to Sarah: “Quickly, prepare some bread!” And see him run to his flock, to have a calf butchered and prepared; see him set down a feast before the men.
“Where’s your wife Sarah?” How did they know her name?!
“Over there in the tent.” Why didn’t Abraham seem surprised?
“Around this time next year, I will return and Sarah will bear a son.” This was the LORD!
See Sarah laugh in disbelief—she was far too old now. But was anything impossible for God?
“Why did Sarah laugh?” the LORD said.
“I didn’t laugh!” Sarah said fearfully.
“No, but you did laugh.”
If you want to know what Love is, look to the God who is himself Love, and who is faithful to his promises even when we go astray, even when we turn back; even when we laugh.
What does it mean that God is Love? It means that God is Three and One.
God is Love—and love requires some sort of relationship. It requires a lover, a beloved, and a love that unites them. That’s why Christians say that God is Three Persons but one God, why we talk about the Holy Trinity. Because if there was ever a time when God was alone, then there was a time when he was not Love. But because God is Love, the basic fact of reality, the Reality behind everything else, is loving relationship.
Since God created everything else, there was a point when he was the sole Being in existence. But before there was a world, there was a loving family. “God is in himself a sweet society,” as the Puritans used to say. God is Triune, God is Trinity, because he is Love.
We can’t say that we understand how God is both Three and One—and for some people, that’s not good enough. Some people refuse to accept what they don’t understand, even about God. But if we understood God, he wouldn’t be God—because God is wholly Other, totally outside of our experience, separate from the universe he created.
We don’t have much of a place for mystery in our lives any more. As a society, we have to know how things work, whether that’s a car or a phone…or a magnet. We’re ashamed to wonder, afraid to say the word ‘mystery.’ But we already know that God is totally outside our experience. And that’s okay. We don’t need to understand. Faith and love can grasp this truth, even if our minds can’t. What matters is not that we understand, but that it is true: God is Three and One.
God is Love, and he reveals himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the begetter, the begotten, and the proceeding. The Church throughout the ages has recognized that God has revealed himself in relational terms, and so she has always avoided naming the Persons of the Trinity by actions like Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer—because God is not just one or three, but God is One and Three. God desires one thing, does one thing; there are no ‘parts’ to God; what the Father wants and does, the Son wants and does; what the Son wants and does, the Spirit wants and does.
So in different places, the Bible says that the Father created the world, the Son created the world, and the Spirit created the world; the Father resurrected the Son, the Son resurrected the Son, and the Spirit resurrected the Son; the Father is in the Son, and the Son is in the Father, and the Son sends the Spirit into us. What God does, he does with all of himself. How God acts toward his creation, he does with all of himself. When Scripture declares that God is Love, it means that all of God is love—the Father is Love, the Son is Love, the Holy Spirit is Love.
At Mamre, Abraham encountered the one God in the three strangers. “Around this time next year, Sarah will bear a son.” Was anything too hard for God? Could God keep his promise? Could God show his covenant faithfulness, his steadfast love? Sarah laughed at the thought of bearing a child in her old age. “Why did Sarah laugh?”
“I didn’t laugh!”
“No, but you did laugh.” And God fulfilled his promise, showed his steadfast love—she named her son Isaac, “laughter.”
But the Triune name of God, the revelation of God as Love, could only come after Jesus’ work was finished and the Holy Spirit had been poured out. The people of God could only vaguely glimpse his nature before, even in the promise to Abraham and the birth of Isaac.
Jesus’ finished work on the cross and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit finally, fully revealed that God is Love. Love comes from God, and defines those who know God, as the Apostle John says. Love isn’t found in what we do—“in this is love, not that we love God”—but that “God loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Love doesn’t define who we are; it isn’t who we are. It is who God is.
Kind of makes you think of sin in a different light, doesn’t it? When you sin against God, you sin against Love.
Holiness means that God is completely outside of our experience. True Love is completely outside of our experience, too, because God is Love—and God is holy. We can’t understand the one without the other. And nowhere do we learn more about this God who is Love than the cross of Christ, where God shows himself to be both holy and Love.
He shows himself to be holy in that he seeks to make whole his fallen creation, he destroys sin; he shows himself to be Love in that he redeems rather than destroys what has fallen—us. And because he has made us holy, has made us whole, he gives us the ability to love. “We love because he first loved us.” We become whole by becoming like him; we become holy by becoming loving: “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
In the list of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians, each word depends on the word “love” for its definition. Same thing in 1 Corinthians 13, the “love” chapter. Try comparing the two, and notice the similarities. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love does not envy—goodness. Love does not boast—gentleness. Love is not self-seeking, is not easily angered—self-control. Love rejoices in the truth—joy. Love always protects, always trusts—peace. Love always hopes, always perseveres; love never fails—faithfulness.
If you want to know what Love is, look to the Gardener Saint of Sinope, Phocas, who was known for his hospitality. He lived just outside the city, and would often invite complete strangers in to rest a while before they completed their journeys. Yet when the Diocletian persecution broke out around 300 AD, he was placed on the list, and two Roman soldiers were sent to execute him. They approached the city, and he invited them in as he often did. He asked them their business in the city, and they thought he was trustworthy—they were looking for a man named Phocas.
He was a dangerous Christian; did he know of the man? “I know him well,” Phocas said. “Let’s deal with it in the morning.” So it was that his guests went to sleep for the evening, and Phocas went outside to his garden to pray. He dug, partially because it helped him to think and to focus on his prayers to God. If he ran, he thought, he could be twenty miles away before dawn, and then he could hide with other Christians until the whole thing blew over. Yet that would put those fellow Christians in danger. And did Christ run from his Garden of Gethsemane? He continued digging. What about the Roman soldiers themselves? They seemed decent enough people, just trying to do their jobs. Would they or their families be punished if he escaped? Finally, he made up his mind. He had dug his own grave.
In the morning, he told them. “I am he.” The soldiers were horrified at the idea that their orders were to kill such a kind man. But he overcame their reluctance for them. He was not afraid to die, he said. And think of your families, and your duty. “I have only love in my heart for you.”
If you want to know what Love is, look to the God who is himself Love—and see what work he does in the people he makes holy.