For a long time after World War II was over, places where Jews were hiding throughout Germany were found. One of them was an underground passageway which served as a refuge from the Gestapo. At one point, Jewish fugitives hid there for four months without being caught. It was fully equipped with a kitchen, bedroom, living room, radio, a small library, and oil lamps — evidence of the kind of existence those people must have endured. Meals could only be prepared at night so as not to attract the Gestapo’s attention, who would have noticed the smoke during the day. Food had to be supplied by friends who willingly gave up a portion of their rations to help the people living for weeks underground in utter darkness. An inscription was written on the wall of one of these underground rooms: “I believe in the sun, though it be dark; I believe in God, though He be silent; I believe in neighborly love, though it be unable to reveal itself.”
Neighbors were giving shelter, supplying food, saving lives… but they could only do so in utter secret. They could not tell anyone for fear of reprisal; they couldn’t recruit anyone to help them. Even a well-trusted neighbor, if they caught the eye of the Gestapo, might have given up their neighbor to save their own skin.
I believe in neighborly love, though it be unable to reveal itself.
Over the last couple of months, as we’ve been dealing with Anna’s health problems, we’ve been so grateful for the outpouring of love from so many people. I will admit that I’ve had one or two conversations with God that were not … exactly amicable. God and I had some words. But even in spite of that, we have seen and felt God’s presence in the outpouring of love we have felt.
From our church family to my brothers and sisters, our friends from the Piscataway congregation, to our literal neighbors on Third Street, it has been blatantly obvious how we have seen love revealed to us. I cannot imagine us going through what we’ve been through without the presence of love surrounding us. And to us, to our understanding, that is a manifestation of God’s love.
I want to tell you right here and now that it is normal and natural to have periods of questioning or doubt about who God is or even if God exists. When we see unimaginable suffering – whether on a scale of the Holocaust or in the unrelenting illness of a loved one, we wonder where God is, why God is not intervening. Or at least, why is God not intervening in the way we want… in the way that makes us feel better.
If there was one clear answer, we would probably all believe the same thing! And we would no longer need the kind of faith that belief requires. Today’s passage offers one helpful way to think about God’s existence to think about God’s character or nature. People often wonder who God is or if God even exists. Each time we give, receive, or witness love, we get closer and closer to our answer.
The passage states the obvious in verse 12: “No one has ever seen God.” Yet it makes a connection between knowing and experiencing love and knowing and experiencing God. It goes so far as to say, “God is love,” and therefore the fact that we love means we are “born of God and know God”.
But how do we know love is of God and not just a human emotion? How does our experience of love connect us to a transcendent, divine source of love? In verses 9-10, the passage points to the existence and life of Jesus as the way that God’s love is revealed – as the way that God’s love is made known. Of course, love exists without believing in Jesus or even ever hearing the message that Jesus is God’s son. But with Jesus, something completely new and transformative happened – the creation of a new way of being human and a new community characterized by love – something much deeper than an emotion.
The writer of 1 John links their experience of love to their experience of Jesus as God’s Son and “Savior of the world”. Biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson discusses that after Jesus’ death on the cross, something happened. A new community of people started who lived differently – we see it described in Acts 4 – and claimed to experience release from repressive powers, systems of law, lack of fear of death, freedom, peace, etc. In short, they were a community born of love and characterized by love. And the community itself (the early church) described the something that happened as the resurrection of Jesus, God’s Son, from the dead. This new community and new way of being human points to the reality and character of a loving God as revealed in Jesus.
That community (the church) and way of being human continues to this day. The church’s continued existence and our participation in it, most especially our loving and being loved, are evidence of God’s existence. God, who was revealed in Jesus, is now present with us by the Spirit (v. 13) to continue this transformation in and by love. This does not mean the church always gets it right. God knows the church is a human institution and it makes mistakes! There are lots of people who like Jesus but do not like the church because they have been hurt by people in it or have experienced the hypocrisy of people who claim to be Christian, and yet spew hatred in the name of Christ. They have a sense that if there is a God, God probably looks more like the love Jesus stood for than what they see happening in churches at times.
I have long been an admirer of the martyred Salvadoran bishop Oscar Romero. In 1978, two years before his assassination, he wrote this:
“Christ became a man of his people and of his time: He lived as a Jew, he worked as a laborer of Nazareth, and since then he continues to become incarnate in everyone. If many have distanced themselves from the church, it is precisely because the church has somewhat estranged itself from humanity.
But a church that can feel as its own all that is human and wants to incarnate the pain, the hope, the affliction of all who suffer and feel joy, such a church will be Christ loved and awaited, Christ present. And that depends on us.”
What we must remember is that every time we give, receive, or witness love, we get closer and closer to knowing God, and living in a Christ-like manner. We become more in-tuned with re-presenting Christ in the world.
As people who claim to be followers of Jesus, we have a responsibility to be the evidence of God’s existence for others by loving them. We are to be “as Jesus is … in this world,” as we are shaped and perfected by the love that we receive from God in Jesus (v. 17). The passage describes what this looks like in verse 18: “perfect love casts out fear…”.
As we progress through the season of Lent and approach the resurrection, I want to invite you into a time of reflection. Reflect on the times that you’ve experienced love and how that has made you feel connected with God. Or perhaps, you’ve experienced love and not made the connection to God – and that’s alright… but how about reflecting now on where God was in those moments.
How might we share and show that love to others? I ask because there is so much in the world that can make us feel jaded, depressed, cynical… angry. What does it look like to instead “abide in love,” to choose love as our dwelling place and home?
It is okay to have questions about who God is and if God exists. God is big enough to handle our doubts and questions. What would it look like if we let our wondering drive us into deeper experiences and expressions of love and looked for God there? I met with a couple the other day were talking to me about how sad they are that church participation is so low. They both told me about how much their parents were involved in their respective churches when they were growing up. One of them said that their father would have been the first to volunteer to work on some project for the church. I asked them about the involvement they have with their local church – they live a few states away. They had no response. I had the chance to show them the 24/7 pantry that we are so proud of, and I was a little surprised at how underwhelmed they seemed by it. One of them shook their head and said, “so people can just come in here without supervision and just… take food?” And then the other one said, “who pays for that?”
If it isn’t based in love, then our response is lacking. We can approach any questions that we have of God with this simple answer: God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 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. 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. We love because he first loved us.
Who is God? God is love. No matter what, I believe in God because I believe in love. I believe in love because I believe in God. You can’t have one without the other. And that’s good news for us all.
To God be the glory