God is Love


In the epistle for the first Sunday of this month we encounter one of the most famous lines is all of Scripture: “God is love” (1 Jn. 4.8 and 16). The apostle makes this statement in the context of an argument about who we are, and how we are to live, because of who God is and how He has come to us and empowers us to abide in Him. The context matters as much, here, as the revelation of the fundamental character of God being self-giving love. The context matters because love requires another. In other words, while all things are possible for God, His love is not expressed in the world as a kind of impersonal force or energy field, but in a very specific sphere and using a very specific mechanism—us. When John says that God is love, he says this in the same phrase in which he says, “He who does not love does not know God ...”

Love is not a feeling (although in receiving love we certainly feel it). Love is not an emotion, mere warmth or sentimentality. Love involves an act of will, the choice to think first of the other, and to act first for the other. This is made clear in the famous “love chapter” (1 Cor. 13), so popular at weddings. Paul personifies love, and describes love using fifteen verbs. Each verb involves what loves does and who (another) it acts upon or toward. This all sounds very nice (there’s that sentimentality again!), except that we find that this “more excellent way” is not only hard—it is impossible on our own.

But all things are possible with God! And on the fourth Sunday of this month we will relive the reality by which this endless possibility is offered to us. We will celebrate Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit upon all believers. We will celebrate what John speaks of, when he states “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us his own Spirit” (1 Jn. 4.13).

When we speak of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit (e.g., at Pentecost, at confirmations, and ordinations) it is common that we also sing the ancient hymn Veni creator Spiritus (“Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,” nos. 503 and 504 in the hymnal). The hymn invokes the presence and aid of the Holy Spirit, and we can do no better in prayer than invoke this presence and aid over all the Church. The entire hymn bears review, but a focus on vv. 2 & 7 can remind us of, and allow us to focus on, the gifts we receive from God, and how He allows Himself to be known to us.

The gifts of the Spirit are first enumerated at Isaiah 11.2-3, in which the prophet describes the gifts as manifested in the Messiah. The gifts include: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude (courage), knowledge, piety, and fear of the LORD. The gifts described here benefit the person who receives them. At 1 Cor. 12.6-11 St. Paul describes gifts of a different sort, called more properly charismata. Charisms are granted for the benefit of another and for the whole Church, and include the gift of speaking with wisdom, the gift of speaking with knowledge, faith, the grace of healing, the gift of miracles, the gift of prophecy, the gift of discerning spirits, the gift of tongues, and the gift of interpreting tongues.

In invoking the presence and aid of the Spirit in our own lives, we need to consider how to recognize the Spirit’s presence. The Catechism teaches (at pp. 852-53 of the prayer book) that we “... recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit when we confess Jesus Christ as Lord and are brought into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation.” We recognize the truths taught by the Holy Spirit “... when they are in accord with the Scriptures.” In other words, if we pay attention in life, we can notice when we are drifting away from harmony to focus on ourselves only, and we can test any assumption that may increase this drift against the truth revealed to us in the Bible.

In our postmodern world a focus on self is considered to be about the only focus we can have, and the Bible is viewed with suspicion when it doesn’t agree with what we wanted to do anyway. And yet our Lord teaches that if we are to be His disciples, if we are to be saved, we must deny ourselves to follow Him (e.g., Mark 8.34). The gifts of the Spirit enable us to do just this, both for ourselves and to lead others to follow Jesus.

The Spirit also guides us into truth. We pray that we may know the one God in three Persons, recalling that when we are in harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation, we can see all of God’s “fingerprints”. We can look at life and learn a little about what God is like, experiencing the gift of love, the unshaken truth of God, His complete goodness, and how He reveals Himself in beauty. We can observe and learn, but God also chooses to reveal Himself to us in a detailed fashion. In Scripture we learn about God: that He is one God in three Persons; that He is love; that he made us for Himself. And so, whenever we invoke the presence and aid of the Spirit, let’s look and listen for God; let’s pay attention to all of Creation, but let’s especially pay attention to how He has chosen to reveal Himself to us, recalling Jesus’ words at John 14.11, “... I am in the Father and the Father in me ...” God reveals Himself to us as the One who loves us enough to give His Son for us. God reveals Himself to us as the God who calls us to righteousness, but who pays the price of our sin when we fail. God reveals Himself to us as the One who has come to us that we may have life “abundantly” (John 10.10), by Him, and through Him, and in Him, singing in the final verses of the hymn:

Teach us to know the Father, Son, and thee, of both, to be but One,
that through the ages all along, this may be our endless song:
praise to thy eternal merit, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen!

God is love, indeed!

Yours in Christ Jesus,
The Rev. Dr. Karl C. Schaffenburg

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