Tonight is the second sermon in our five-week Lenten preaching series, “Love Life.” In this series we have been focusing on the Gospel of John and its theme of love. Tonight we consider the “invitation to be loved” which the gospel offers us. We are invited by THE GOD WHO IS LOVE to enter into a loving and intimate relationship with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit…. and to extend that love to others, particularly those in the community of Christ’s followers and those who are in need.
In the First Letter of John we learn that “God is love” (I Jn 4:16) and that “God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God” (I Jn 4:15). This is the testimony of the believing community, who have come to “know and believe the love that God has for us” (I Jn 4:16) through the testimony of Jesus and the testimony of the Beloved Disciple found in the Fourth Gospel. They have discovered their true identity as beloved children of God and are learning to live – or to abide – in that identity. “See what love the Father has given us,” the author exclaims, “that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are!” (I Jn 3:1)I wonder if you are able to join your testimony to theirs. Have you come to “know and believe the love that God has for [you]”? Have you come to identify yourself, first and foremost, as a beloved daughter or son of God? Have you experienced the freedom and joy that come when we know ourselves to be deeply, unconditionally and forever loved by God?
This is, according to John, the very reason Jesus came into the world. “God so loved the world,” John tells us, “that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). The community of believers testifies that they have found new life, eternal life, in Jesus Christ. Through him they have come to know themselves to be beloved children of God, and through him they have begun to experience the eternal life he promised, here and now.
Being loved is the most natural thing in the world: all of us want to be loved and need to be loved. Psychologist Abraham Maslow, writing in the 1940’s, proposed a “hierarchy of needs” that human beings experience. Our most basic needs are physiological – the need for food, for air to breathe, for sleep, and so on. Next comes our need for safety – from violence, trauma and stress. The third level of need – when our physical needs taken care of and our safety assured – is the need to be loved. We need friendship, intimacy and love from our family and from others. We need to be nurtured, touched and cared for. This is essential to human life; without it we perish.
Maslow’s theory gave way in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s to “attachment theory,” which demonstrated how much a child’s relationship with its parents influenced the child’s development. Attachment theory showed that an infant needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for social and emotional development to occur normally. Without this intimate and loving relationship, children do not develop normally and will experience difficulty in later life establishing loving relationships with others. In order to love we need to be loved. Being loved, and belonging, are deep human needs.
If we all need love and want to be loved, why is it so difficult for us to accept love and to believe that we are loved? Even Christians, who believe that God is love and that God loves each of us, often find it difficult to embrace that truth with their whole hearts. There is a hidden fear and uncertainty in many of us that we will be found wanting in God’s eyes, and that somehow we are not “good enough” to merit God’s love. We sometimes have a sense that God wants more from us, or that we have fallen short of the mark in our service of God and others.
Where does this uncertainty come from? Perhaps it extends back to our earliest years, when we learned that there were certain behaviors that earned us approval and love, and other behaviors that brought disapproval or perhaps even punishment. We learned that when we sat up straight, or dressed neatly, or spoke cleverly we were praised and showered with affection, and that when we were disobedient or disrespectful or dishonest we would experience the opposite: disapproval and the withdrawal of affection and love.
Having learned this from our parents and teachers, and from the society in which we were raised, we assumed that God had similar expectations of us. We assumed that certain behaviors would win God’s favor, and we assumed that if we fail to exhibit those behaviors, God’s favor will be withdrawn from us. As a result, we are caught in a web of fear and anxiety, wondering if our lives really have pleased God, and whether our efforts will be met with God’s approval, or found wanting in God’s eyes.
The good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that we don’t have to do anything in order to be loved. We are loved, just as we are. We are God’s beloved sons and daughters, just as we are. We do not need to earn God’s love, or prove our worthiness. We do not need to merit God’s favor. We have simply to know and believe that we are loved. “To those who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (Jn 1:12). And the surprising result of this is that we are changed! Love changes us. Love heals us. Love sets us free. We do not need to change in order to be loved. We are changed when we receive and believe in the One who is Love.
Harvard-trained psychiatrist Karl Menninger once wrote that “the principle cause of mental illness is the inability of people to forgive themselves for being imperfect.” After decades of work in psychotherapy, Menninger laid aside all learned talk both of psychic maladies and of therapeutic techniques, and stood by one simple overarching truth: It is unlove that makes people unwell, and it is love and love alone that can make them well again.
God has offered us this assurance: WE ARE LOVED – forever, and unconditionally. There is NOTHING in heaven or on earth that can separate us from the love of God (cf. Romans 8:28). God has said and now says to each of us, “Don’t be afraid. I have created you and redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are precious in my sight and I love you (cf. Isaiah 43). I will never leave you or forsake you. I will be with you always. Abide in my love.”
When we believe that we are loved; when we are convinced that God loves us and will never stop loving us; when we know ourselves to be beloved sons and daughters of God (not just in our heads, but in the depths of our hearts); THEN we will find a new freedom, a new joy, beyond any we have ever known. We can give up striving for the approval of others. We can give up trying to impress them or earn their favor. We can give up our old identity – that identity that depended on what we achieved, or what we possessed, or who noticed us, or how “successful” we were – and embrace our TRUE identity as God’s beloved ones. We can let go of FEAR and ANXIETY because we don’t have to earn God’s favor! And we can discover the glorious freedom of the children of God. GOD’s LOVE is a GIFT! And it’s freely given to each one of us, and to everyone who will open their heart to receive it. When that love takes hold of us, old things pass away and everything becomes new!
You are invited – here, tonight – to believe and know that you are so loved. To let go of fear and anxiety and to rejoice in the freedom and joy of those who know themselves to be beloved children of God. “There is no fear in love,” the author of First John tells us, “but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (I Jn 4:18). Let go of fear, and let yourself be loved!
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