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Well-Practiced Love

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 11th of Ninth Month, 2022

Speaker: Brian Young

Scripture: I John 4:15–21

Good morning, Friends!

I John 4:15–21, NRSVUE: 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 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. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate a brother or sister are liars, for those who do not love a brother or sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

About twenty-five years ago, Friends from various Yearly Meetings and organizations called a special conference on voluntary service that was held in Burlington, New Jersey. I was able to attend along with others from the Chicago Fellowship of Friends, the meeting that I was then part of, and I know at least one of you here with us today was also there. This was in 1997, in a period when there was no organized program for Quakers to do service as volunteers in North America. (There had been; organizations like the American Friends Service Committee and Friends United Meeting had provided both short- and longer-term programs, mostly for young Quakers, at various times in the middle of the century, but almost all of those had ended or changed focus by about 1990.) So at the time, there was some ferment among some Friends in the US—they were saying, “why don’t we have some way for young Quakers to explore service; this is something we used to know how to do; what is possible now?”

Now, please forgive me for a minute—I want to relate a bit more history here, for there are West Richmond Friends connections in all of it that some of us might not know: some time after that Burlington conference, the Newlin Center at Earlham became the standard bearer for the volunteer service effort for some time—so West Richmond folks were part of that stage of the process. Then, of course, it took another ten or fifteen years before what we have today, Quaker Voluntary Service (QVS), came into being—and again, a number of West Richmond-connected folks have either worked for QVS or have been participants. Finally, those of you who know this story know that there wasn’t a straight line between the 1997 conference and QVS; a lot of the energy that actually got QVS started came from other, younger Friends than those who had convened the Burlington gathering.

At any rate, I guess I can say I was proud to have been there in 1997 at that stage of development; but the story that I want to tell is one that I’m not proud of. I remember being in a workshop or some other kind of session that weekend, where various of us were engaged with questions of what, and how, and when. A couple of us from Chicago had shared some things about the opportunities that our meeting had had to work with volunteers, and the transformations that had come out of those opportunities (and those of you who know my story know that I count myself as one of those transformations). The discussion continued, and at one point a Friend who I believe was from California spoke to describe her desire—or perhaps even her conviction—about doing some kind of work in prisons and jails. I remember that she was clear about the need for this work, and she seemed drawn to it personally; but, she said, she was afraid. I responded to her by quoting part of v18 from today’s passage: “perfect love casts out fear.”

I don’t think I said anything more than that. At the time, I was intending to be encouraging to this Friend from California. I doubt that she was encouraged, but I didn’t follow up with her afterward to see how she felt. At the time, I wanted to relate some of my own experience having come through fear in some ways, as I became part of a majority African-American Friends church in a public housing project. But I didn’t take the time to explain that. So I think this is just one example of how lobbing Scripture at someone—especially in a group setting, especially when it’s someone you don’t even know—is just not helpful. And I very well could have done some harm on this occasion. At twenty-five years’ remove, I have to ask myself, what love was there in my quoting this verse? What did I know of perfect love? I could speak of it, yes, but what did I do to actually demonstrate it in that moment?

This is actually our second Sunday in a row with the same passage from the first letter of John, which Eric Dimick Eastman led us to last week. Today I’ve had us read a little bit less of it than Eric did, but even with that, the emphasis on love is overwhelmingly clear. As Eric pointed out last week, the writer of this letter might have benefited from a thesaurus! The Greek noun agape, or its verb form, appears in almost every sentence of what we’ve read, and often multiple times. As many of you probably know, this is the word used in the New Testament for the kind of love that God has for humanity; the kind of life-laying-down love that Jesus demonstrated; and the kind of love that Jesus’ followers are to have for God and for one another. I didn’t understand this until I was preparing for this message, but this use of agapeis exceedingly rare outside of Christian writings of the time. Apparently agapewas first used for God’s love in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that was the Bible for many in the early Christian movement—they read it there, and the writers of the New Testament picked it up. In pagan literature of the first and second centuries, the noun agape shows up very rarely, and the verb means something very different from how it’s used in the New Testament. One commentator points out that when pagan writers mentioned the love of a god, they usually used the word eros, the same word used for human sexual love.

So in repeatedly using this word agape, the writer of I John, along with all the other New Testament authors, is making a particular claim about God: that the love of God surpasses other loves that we can experience. And what’s more, this love is not simply an attribute of God, something that God does or doesn’t do as God wills, or depending on how God feels. No, this is God’s very nature. This love is basic to the Divine identity. And, this love makes a claim upon the followers of Christ: because God loves, the call on us is to love.

John writes to a community of believers where conflict was fresh; one group within the church had recently broken with the rest. When we read in v15 of “those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God,” that seems to indicate that those who had recently departed held a different opinion about Jesus’ nature. So another reason for the overwhelming emphasis on love is that John’s people needed to hear it in order to heal from the recent divorce, and to rebuild their community.

To come back to that proof-text that I threw at the Friend from California many years ago: “perfect love casts out fear.” I think one of the difficulties with this verse is that word, “perfect”. It is tempting to resign oneself to a life of fear and punishment if one fails to love perfectly in all ways and at all times—at least, this is my temptation, as a recovering perfectionist. (Let’s put the goal so far up there, so high and away, that nobody can ever reach it... and I’ll just live here in fear. It’s the best I can do, because I can’t be perfect.) So it’s important to remember that “perfect,” here, does not really mean flawless, or stainless, or completely beyond reproach. As it does in other places in the New Testament, the meaning is more about maturity, completion, ripeness, being ready. It might be more helpful to think of “well-practiced” rather than “perfect” love. For us, love needs first and foremost to be a verb, something that we learn to do, and then learn to do better and more completely the more that we do it.

God is love, in God’s very nature, yes; but it only comes to be part of our nature as we partake of it, and then practice it. And as we practice love more and more, there is less and less room for fear; as we love, fear is reduced, dispelled, cast out.

Now, fear is something we have plenty of today; it has come to characterize much of our national and international climate in recent years. Eric reminded us last week how much the fear of the other has led to the current state of polarization in our nation. Fear is a great motivator, politically speaking: many successful campaigns for office, from president on down, have been based upon fear, whether real or imagined. And when we listen to the rising generation that has found its voice in the last five years or so, their fear of a world irretrievably damaged by climate change is clear—and clearly justified.

For me, and probably for many of my generation, there was nothing that brought fear out in stark relief like the events that happened on this day 21 years ago. On September 11th, 2