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  • Mariah Martin

Abide in Agape

1 John 4:12-21

When I spoke at a middle school snow camp, I went there with one goal in mind:

I wanted to help every single kid there believe and trust that God loves them.

Now as a pastor, this is still my goal. I will feel like I have lived into my calling if at the end of the day, if nothing else, I have helped someone truly believe that God loves them, all of them, as they are.

With the pre-teens, I thought it would be helpful to make comparisons

with other ways they might experience love. I described how excited a dog gets when you return from stepping out for just a minute--how the dog acts as if you had died and come back to life again. I told them, "God loves you even more than a dog loves its owner. So a lot."

I also told them that God loves them more than Kanye West loves himself.

Which, perhaps 1% of you will understand. But again, a lot.

I assured them that God loves them even more than the deepest love they have experienced on earth. As close as you might think you are to someone, God wants to be closer.

I don’t know if these analogies made a difference, but I sure did try. I’m not sure why I didn’t use 1 John to help my case.

I guess it is only recently that I have thoroughly read and studied 1 John. Which is hilarious because it’s all about love, you would have thought that I would have memorized the entire book by now.

The more I learn about this book, the more I think that this is perhaps the most scandalous and most seriously convicting of all the books in the Bible. This is a big statement, I know. But maybe as we dive in you will see what I mean.

1 John has language that resembles the book of John, which has led many to believe that they were authored by the same person, someone presumably by the name of John.

Perhaps this was also the disciple John, the disciple that Jesus loved. But we can’t be sure.

It is also suggested that the purpose of 1 John was to give advice and counsel to a community that was stricken with conflict, perhaps so severe, that the community had split over their foundational beliefs.

This community may have been confused, fearful, and distressed over the separation and feelings of loss and betrayal. They might have been scared that they wouldn’t survive as a community. To help them clarify their core beliefs, the letter arrives at three statements about who God is: God is light, God is righteous, God is love. Today we focus on the third statement, God is love.

God is love. What does that mean? God is love. Love is a strange concept. It can be both lofty and abstract, while also being obvious and concrete, right in our faces. It is hard to pin down exactly what love means.

Say I asked every one of you to give a definition of what love is, I think we might all have different definitions.

It is confusing that we use the same word to say, “Oh my gosh I loveee your dress”

as well as the heart wrenching, deep confession that we are in love with someone.

People have solved this dilemma in other languages by assigning different words to different types of love. In ancient Greek, for example, there are six words:

1. Eros, passion and desire

2. Philia, deep friendship

3. Ludus, playful love

4. Agape, selfless love

5. Pragma, longstanding love

6. Philautia, love of the self[1]

The word for love that is used in 1 John is, Agape. Agape was/is thought of as the highest form of Christian love. If you would have asked the community of 1 John what love was,

they would point to Agape love, with Jesus as the full embodiment of God’s Agape love.

Therefore we can finally answer the question posed in the annoyingly catchy song,

What Is Love? What is Love?


If God is love, and Jesus is God-in-flesh, then Jesus is love with skin on.

After all, Jesus was the ultimate example of selfless, agape love as he hung from the cross

on behalf of the sins of all of humanity. Jesus was the ultimate example of self-sacrificial love.

And as disciples of Jesus, as Christians, our calling is to live as Jesus lived. To pick up our cross and follow him. Naturally, as a result, there is a longstanding history of Christian selflessness.

Of course, like almost every good thing, there is a shadow side to this type of love.

Agape, a love that is grounded in a deep desire to put the needs of someone

you care about before you own, has been twisted into a “love” that has looked like individuals sacrificing themselves for others to an unhealthy, unloving point, all in the name of Christian love.

This “love” looks like parents running themselves to the ground for their children.

It looks like church volunteers getting burnt out for the sake of the church community.

This is not love.

True Agape love means that everyone is getting their needs met. It is undeserved compassion, unconditional acceptance. Agape love is abundant and freeing. True Agape love is a cup that runneth over. Love that is poured out from God, runs down into us,

and then in its abundance flows out to others.

Here is the crux of it all. Jesus didn’t want suffering. Contrary to what you might have learned, his suffering isn’t a model for how Jesus wants us to live.

His love was a true commitment to humanity and God. And because of our sin, it involved suffering for the sake of others.

Suffering, self-sacrificing isn’t the Christian ideal. The Christian ideal is believing that God loves you, and trusting that God will be with you, even within suffering.

Suffering for the sake of the gospel is faith fueled by fear.

True Agape love casts out fear.

However, true love casting out fear does not mean that we live our lives completely without fear. Abiding in Agape does not mean suppressing our fears or pretending that we are unafraid when we are actually terrified.

There are two types of fears. One type of fear keeps us alive. It is the instinct alerting you that you or your loved ones are in danger.

This is not a bad fear, in fact this fear is a gift from God.[2] God desires our flourishing, which means we are safe and alive. I think that the writer of 1 John was referring to a second type of fear.

This kind of fear hinders us. This fear manifests in insecurity, self-doubt, even self-hatred and punishment. This is the fear that keeps us from being who we are because we are worried about what people will think.

If this fear is bad enough, it can build up and boil over as hate.

Therefore it does not encourage us to abide in God, it actively moves us away from God, from ourselves, from others. These moments of fear happen, they are a part of life. They are a defense mechanism that occurs when we are trying to protect ourselves from pain.

Fighting this type of fear only makes it worse. When this type of fear engulfs us, this can serve as a reminder that our home is not in fear. We don’t have to punish ourselves for being afraid, in fact that’s the opposite from what God wants. We need to simply notice what is happening within us and choose to react with love rather than letting fear turn into hate and dictate our words and actions.

I wonder if part of discipleship is constantly pausing and asking ourselves,

“Am I reacting in fear or in God’s overflowing, freeing love?”

Our home is in the love of God. Do we abide in a fear that strangles or do we abide in a Love that brings freedom?

I believe that Abiding in God’s unconditional, Agape love takes practice.

Thankfully, we have Love incarnate to turn to when we wonder

what it looks like to Abide in God.

If we look to Jesus as an example for what it means to live in the freedom of God’s love,

then we see how God’s love poured into him, filled him, and flowed out to those him.

This is when we start to get to the scandalous, perhaps offensive part of 1 John.

We love others because God first loved us.

If we say we love God but hate others, then we are lying.

Hating meaning passionately disliking someone. Not viewing someone as an equal, devaluing, dehumanizing, or demonizing them. I think that hate can also manifest in cold indifference. In apathy. Remember, I don’t think that we try to hate others, but our fear unchecked can rear its ugly head and generate bias and judgment. Fear feeds hate.

If we don’t love those around us that we can see and touch, then how can we love a God that we haven’t seen? A God that sometimes feels far away?

If we don’t love our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, then we can’t love God. We can’t love God and hate others at the same time. We love others as a response to what God did for us. We show others that we love God by following God’s commandments.

And what are God’s commandments?

That you love God with all of your being and love your neighbor as yourself.

God extends understanding and grace when we deserve punishment.

Because of what Jesus did for us, we don’t need to be afraid. We can let go of hate.

As a result, we can live in the freedom and joy that comes with abiding in Agape love.

This should bring us to our knees in repentance and gratitude. The least we can do in response to this overwhelming mercy is to

extend this Agape love to others.

Living out God’s love for us doesn’t earn more love, it doesn’t earn our salvation,

we don’t earn more “Good Place” points because we are kind to someone.

This is where the selfless part comes in. We don’t love others to lift ourselves up, but we love others because there is no other appropriate response to the freedom we have received in God’s love. This life isn’t about earning our ticket to heaven. It’s about saying yes to God’s vulnerable invitation to dwell in God’s love.

God reaches out a hand, Jesus stretches out his arms, and we have the choice whether we accept or reject this invitation. If we reject the idea that God could love us, flaws and all,

then we are turning down God’s outreached hand.

If we take God’s hand, accept the invitation, and then turn around and reject the human hands reaching out to us, if we reject our neighbor, if we extend hate to those around us, then it is as if we didn’t take God’s hand at all.

Like I said, hard. 1 John is a hard pill to swallow.

So, what can we do? How do we love one another when it doesn’t seem like they deserve love?

First, turn inward and let go of the voices that say that you are not worthy of the Creator’s love. Those voices are lies feeding on your fear, which can then turn to hate. Once you pay attention to the fear in your life and slowly let that fear dissolve in the Abundance that is God’s love, once you surrender and Abide with God, then those voices no longer have a place in your life. They might pop up occasionally, but they will no longer have any place to hold on to you.

They have no grip, they can just slide off. It’s like a packed elevator, when you are brimming with God’s love, there isn’t room for fear to squeeze in. Its only choice is to give up and take the stairs.

Don’t you see? You are free! You are so loved, so precious in God’s eyes, you are released from any fear of punishment or judgment, you hate has no hold on you. Abiding in this freedom and unconditional love gives us the courage, the bold audacity to extend this kind of love to others.

It’s kind of like admiring a sunset, you are so overwhelmed with its beauty that you just must run and find someone so they can experience it. You don’t go and find the person because you think that this will give you an A+ or a gold star sticker in life, you do this as a knee-jerk reaction to what is a stunning example of God’s creative love.

Now, I am under no illusion that loving others is all sunsets and butterflies. That’s why we are called to be bold. Love, contrary to popular belief, is not a fluffy, easy emotion. Love is the hardest thing we do. Love is a way of life that we wake up and commit to every day.

Love is a practice, a habit.

If we truly believe that we are made in the image of God and that God hand-crafted everyone, placing a spark of the Divine in each one of us, if we truly believe that God sent Jesus—God-in-flesh— out of pure love for humanity as an example of how to love others,

then being Christian while not loving others isn’t even an option.

Are you bold enough to see God even within (in your opinion) the worst human being?

Or at least extend the respect due to someone that is loved by God?

Because we live within a society made of structures and companies with lots of influence and money, it can begin to feel like we have no say in how the world works. We might begin to believe that we can’t make a difference, that humanity is doomed. What difference can one human being make?

A lot. I am here to tell you that you can make a difference.

This is not just my eternal optimism talking. There is actual scientific proof. There are practical ways that you can have a positive affect on others. When we pour God’s love out on others, it changes them on a cellular, elemental, biological level. When we reach out to others for connection, and when that connection is met, our bodies react.

There are things in our brain called mirror neurons. They are like little mirrors in our brain that mimic what we see.

This is why we sometimes cry when others cry, or why our leg might twitch when we see someone kick a ball, it is why we move our mouths in that weird way when we feed babies food. This is, not joking here, why couples start to look like one another and why owners start to look like their dog. Over time, they begin to sync up and mimic one another’s expressions.

This is the seat of compassion and empathy in our body.

When we look others in the eye, we pick up on their emotions and nonverbal cues and we synchronize our emotions. We align ourselves on a physiological level.

This means that what you do or say is picked up and mirrored in the other person. If you complain, the other person’s body reacts as if they are the one complaining.

If you criticize them, their body reacts as if they are the one criticizing.

This goes with smiling, laughing, complimenting, etc.

So if you think you cannot make a difference in this world, you are simply mistaken.

Every interaction you have with someone makes a difference in their bodies.

These interactions build up and they become a life. We can literally build ourselves a life of love or of hate. We choose whether we abide in love. Whether we say yes to Gods invitation.

This also means that if you have generally lived a life rooted in fear or hate, it doesn’t always have to be that way. Science shows that you can literally re-wire pathways in your brain with repeated behavior. This is how addicts get clean, how we can stop bad habits.

We begin by replacing the detrimental habit with a better, healthier one. We replace fear and hate with love. With unconditional, unending acceptance, for yourself and your neighbor. It is hard but it is possible. It is a matter of choice.

This doesn’t mean that we then live our lives in guilt for the times we have extended hate. We all need to learn how to interact with one another. How to love. Abiding in God’s Agape love takes time and patience. It is not a destination we arrive at, rather a constant day-to-day practice. It is discipleship, the journey of our lives.

This might sound heavy, but this is not a burden, it is gift. It is an opportunity to look at life with a lens of love. An opportunity to break the shackles of fear that bind us and instead let God’s love melt us so that all we can do is let that love flow out to others. We can do this.

The light in me sees and recognizes the light in you. God in me looks for the Divine in you.

It’s like the quote from Les Misérable,

“To love another person is to see the face of God.”

May it be so.

Works Consulted:

David M Scholer, “1 John 4:7-21,” Review & Expositor 87, no. 2 (1990): 309–14; Warren E Messmann, “6Th Sunday after Easter, the Sunday after the Ascension: 1 Jn 4:13-21,”

Concordia Theological Quarterly 46, no. 1 (January 1982): 51–52; D Edmond Hiebert, “An Expositional Study of 1 John Pt 8 An Exposition of 1 John 4:7-21,” Bibliotheca Sacra 147, no. 585 (January 1990): 69–88.

Image from:

Richard B Hays, “From a Wedding Sermon Based on 1 John 4:7-21,” In Trust 9, no. 2 (1998): 10–10;

Denise McLain Massey, “No Fear in Love: Pastoral Reflections on I John 4:18,” Review & Expositor 114, no. 4 (2017): 574–79,; Alicia D Myers, “Remember the Greatest: Remaining in Love and Casting out Fear in I John,” Review & Expositor 115, no. 1 (2018): 50–61.; Jacques Dupuis, “The Practice of Agape Is the Reality of Salvation,” International Review of Mission 74, no. 296 (October 1985): 472–77.

William R Clough, “To Be Loved and to Love,” Journal of Psychology & Theology 34, no. 1 (2006): 23–31; Pieter W van der Horst, “Wordplay in 1 John 4:12,” Zeitschrift Für Die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft Und Die Kunde Der Älteren Kirche 63, no. 3–4 (1972): 280–82.

[1] [2] Ibid, Massey.

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