Sunday, August 3, 2014

Simply Perfect: Sermon on 1 John 4:1-21

Scripture can be found here [1 John 4:1-21]...

Simone Weil was a French philosopher and Christian mystic. She died during the Second World War young, very young, only 34 years old, from TB. She probably died because she was malnourished. She was probably malnourished because she refused to eat any more than the amount of food rationed to French soldiers.

During her short life, Weil kept notebooks full of her musings on God, on the mystery of what it is to be human, on classic conundrums like the problem of suffering. After her death these writings were collected in a book called Gravity and Grace. Here’s one brief reflection from the book:

Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them, but is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link.[i]

The problem with God is this: we can’t see God. Not directly. We can look around us and see things that bring God to mind, or at least the possibility of God. For me, as a child, it was the depth and power and delight of the ocean. It all whispered “God” to me. For others it is the beauty of art—we reason that humans are inspired, literally, filled with a Spirit that helps them to create such beauty.

For Weil, these are the things that are, to us, like the taps on the wall of the prison cell. We can hear the tapping, even though we can’t see or talk to the other prisoner.

Of course, there is one great exception, one great instance of tapping on the wall that was more akin to breaking it down entirely: Jesus Christ.

“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God…” [1 John 4:2]

Any time we read from an epistle in the New Testament, we know we have a snippet from the earliest years of life as Jesus’ followers. There were currents in the early church, rumblings of thoughts and ideas that were carrying the message: Well, Jesus Christ wasn’t really human.

For people today, the hard sell seems to be that Jesus was God. But don’t kid yourself. Then and now, the hard sell is that Jesus was human. That in Jesus, God put such tremendous limitations on God’s own… GOD-NESS, that God truly entered into the human experience. We don’t like to think of the physicality of Jesus. That he was born of a woman, and cried as a baby, and had to learn to walk and talk. That he got tired. That he got hungry. That he got thirsty. That he had a digestive system. That he bled, and that he died. I have a wonderful colleague who, years ago, in telling the story of the crucifixion during a children’s message, was confronted by the upsetting sight of a child bursting into tears, that anyone could be so cruel as to kill an innocent person. So she quickly said, “Don’t worry, he didn’t really die!” Which is a completely understandable response to the stress of the moment, even for a preacher who knew very well that our entire faith depends on Jesus’ actual physical death. But it is also something a lot of us hang on to deep down, so that our categories don’t really get disturbed—there is God, and there are humans, and we can tap on the wall between us, but it can’t ever really get broken down.

But it did. And what broke down the wall was love.

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” [1 John 4:7]

God IS love. [1 John 4:8b]

And if God is love, then the nature of God is to break down the prison wall that keeps God and God’s beloved children apart. The nature of God is to tap. The nature of God is to break through.

“No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” [1 John 4:12]

That word “perfect.” It is such a problematic word. What do you think of when you hear it? I think of the word “flawless,” like a gorgeous, expensive jewel, a diamond. But some of us also think of demands that we can’t possibly live up to—what in my family we used to call a “harsh magpie taskmaster.” If we hear the commandment to be perfect, we give up almost immediately because we know we can’t do it. We know we will fail.

It’s a good thing that’s not what “perfect” means here. Jesus was an ancient Palestinian Jew, which means he spoke Aramaic, and probably some Hebrew. In those languages, the word we translate “perfect” means complete, whole. In Greek, the word of this epistle, the word we translate “perfect” means something that reaches its goal. For God’s love to be “perfected in us,” means for God’s love to reach its goal, to be made complete. God’s love is what makes us whole, and sharing that love extends that wholeness to a world that is otherwise just scratching on prison walls.

“Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” [1 John 4:20]

What the world needs now is love, sweet love. There is a story told of an ancient monk who decided to leave the monastery to seek a closer connection with God in the caves of the desert. As he left, he abbot said to him, “But my son, whose feel will you wash?”

I chose to preach on this epistle months ago. None of us knew then that we would be faced with daily reports from the Holy Land that would fill us with sorrow, this place where Jesus and his disciples, and his ancestors—Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel and Leah and their sons—where they walked, where they encountered God, where they lived their complicated lives and offered meals to strangers and fought and loved and died and were buried. And through all that, the ancient writings we all hold dear tell us the same thing today they told our ancestors thousands of years ago. Hear, O people of God, the Lord is God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

We will soon gather around this table, which reminds us that God binds together many from the remnants scattered around the earth, and that there is nothing that is broken that cannot be made whole again. We will soon eat bits of bread and drink tiny sips of juice that will remind us of the gift given to us in love: the very life of Jesus, Son of God. We will soon be commissioned to go out and love, whatever the cost, whatever the situation, because God is love. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952. Weil quote thanks to Rev. Stephanie Boardman Anthony in her Narrative Lectionary blogpost at

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