1 John 4: 12-19
Our father among the saints, the holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian is often referred to as the “beloved disciple” due to his close relationship to our Lord Jesus Christ. At the crucifixion, our Lord charged the apostle John with the care of the Virgin. He took her into his home and honored her as his own mother (she was in fact his “step-grandmother” as John’s mother in the flesh, Salome, was the daughter of Joseph). After the death of the Virgin Mary, John departed to go into Asia Minor and to preach the Gospel near the city of Ephesus. There he evicted a demon which had “haunted” the public baths, each year killing a youth or maiden. Upon revealing the evil deeds of the demon, John cast him out of that place and many of the citizens of Ephesus believed and became Christians. The Roman emperor, Domitian, had raised a persecution against Christians and John was arrested and sent to Rome. There he was beaten and compelled to drink a cup of strong poison. By the grace of God, and according to the word of Christ, the poison had no effect on John. The emperor believing him then to be an immortal, exiled John to the island of Patmos. There he resumed preaching the Gospel and converted many of the residents of that place.
When finally John was freed from his exile by the successor to Domitian, the emperor Nerva, he decided to return to Ephesus. The people of Patmos, however, were saddened by the impending departure of their spiritual benefactor and begged him that before he would leave them, he would write down all that he had taught them about the life and teaching of Christ. In order to fulfill this request, John took his disciple Prochorus and went to the top of a mountain to pray. After three days of fasting and prayer, he called Prochorus to himself and instructed him to take pen and paper and to write all that he heard from the Apostle. Being filled with the Holy Spirit, John then began to speak saying, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God …” and the rest, dictating the entire Gospel. Shortly after this, having again fasted and prayed for a period of several days, John was granted a prophetic vision of those things which would soon come to pass and of the second coming of Christ which he wrote in his own hand and which is preserved for us as the book of the Apocalypse (Revelation) of St John.
In addition to these two great books of the New Testament which have been preserved for us by the Church, St John also wrote instructional letters to the believers in many places to help them in their spiritual lives. Considering that St John wrote nothing without prayer and fasting and that as one of the closest disciples of the Lord he witnessed even the greatest of the mysteries of Christ’s ministry, it is good for us to attend carefully to all that he wrote, for each word contains unmeasured depths.
As well as being called the “beloved disciple”, St John has also been called the “apostle of love” because he speaks so often of the love of God for us and of our love for Him. He also closely links loving God with our love for one another. This we heard today in the epistle reading: “If we love one another, God dwelleth in us.” Last night at the Vigil we also read this same thing along with other parts of the same epistle saying: “If any man says ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment have we from Him, that he who loves God love his brother also.” (1 Jn 4:20ff) Over and over again, St John emphasizes this same thing – to love God and to love one another.
Our love for one another is tied unbreakably with our love for God. It is impossible to have one without the other. It is easy to say, “I love God”, but it is not as easy to demonstrate that love by your love for your neighbor. St John picks up on the words of our Lord concerning the great commandment to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and the second commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. If you love God, then you will see the whole world as God sees it and love all men as God loves them. It is easy to think that you “love” someone or something in the abstract, however, the nearer that person gets to you, the more difficult it is to actually realize that abstract love and act on it. The most difficult person to love is the one closest to you.
Therefore, work to love your family – your spouse, your children, your parents; work to love your friends; to love the members of your spiritual family (i.e. the members of this parish). Work to love the person next to you; work to love your co-workers; work to love those who you meet in your daily life. Now it may seem strange to hear that we have to “work” to “love” but this is indeed what is needed. To love someone requires effort on your own part. Our Lord loved us so greatly that He condescended to put on our flesh and become man. Then as a man, He worked to endure the trials and difficulties of this life that we live. He worked to bear the injustices and persecutions of those who were jealous of Him and who set themselves against Him. He worked hard to endure the betrayal, arrest, tortures and the cross. Even in death, He did not stop working for He descended into Hades and there defeated death and the devil to free us from their grip. He then also worked to rise from the dead and to remain in this life teaching His disciples for another 40 days when He worked again to ascend into heaven with the flesh He had taken, thereby glorifying it and opening the door for us to share in that glory. He continues even now to work on our behalf that we might realize in our own lives that same glory. Our Lord works so hard for us because He loves us with His supreme and ultimate love – and He expects the same from us if we say that we love Him.
How do we do this work of love then? First and foremost we must have the love of God within ourselves for it is only in this way that we can truly love others. Therefore the first step in loving others is to love God – to spend time with your beloved in prayer, pouring out your heart to Him and giving yourself over completely into His hands. Then remembering that love is not just a warm and fuzzy feeling, but that it is self-sacrificing labor – look at those in your life and strive to see them as God sees them. Cultivate a desire for them to have every good thing and then begin to act in such a way as to help them obtain those things of value (do not forget however that this does not refer to worldly possessions, but rather to the spiritual treasures of the virtues and the grace of God which are far above worldly value). Like God you must not force others to be what you want them to be, but you must entice them to choose on their own to follow God. When they fail, when they err, even when they offend you, be quick to forgive and to allow them to repent and forgive as well. Be kind and compassionate towards those around you that they might desire to be near to you. There is no need to defend yourself or your own honor – leave that to God. Do not insist on your own rights or privilege, instead pour yourself out and sacrifice yourself completely for the spiritual welfare of those around you. This is the labor of love – to give your life for another. It is easy to say that one would die for the sake of another whom we love, however, it is much more difficult to go on living and at the same time to give your life for that person. But this is exactly what God’s love requires of us. First we love God and sacrifice ourselves for Him, then God can fill us with His love so that we can love others as He loves them and give ourselves for them as He gives Himself for them.
Love is not simply a “warm and fuzzy” feeling. Love is a way of life – a way of life that is defined by labor on behalf of others and self-sacrifice. This is the love that God offers to you and the love that He desires from you. This is the love by which we know that “we dwell in God and He in us”. This is the love that results in our salvation, in our union and communion with God. This is the perfect love by which God unites us to Himself that we might live with Him in eternity.