The Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B, Otey Memorial Parish, Sewanee

“Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love… So we have known and believe the love that God has for us” (1 Jo. 4:8, 16).

“Just the facts, ma’am”: that’s Jack Webb’s fictional detective Joe Friday, questioning a witness in a TV drama of yesteryear. Webb’s character is trying to untangle the facts of the case from the extraneous opinions of his witness; the main narrative from what his interlocutor had for breakfast or what she thinks about the younger generation. He’s looking for knowledge, for the truth of things, for a forensic foothold for his developing case. TV detectives since then have been looking for the same things. “Just the facts, ma’am; just the facts”.

Here’s where Jack Webb meets John Keats, whose poetic insight offers us something different. Here’s Keats in a letter, “Axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses: we read fine things but never feel them to the full until we have gone the same steps as the author”. Keats is looking for truth just like the detective but it’s truth of a different sort. He’s looking for the truth of things; and for Keats there is no truth without emotional commitment, without the “proving of our pulses”. How can we know something without living it, without loving it, without investing ourselves in it? Bare facts just won’t do when it comes to the higher truths, the ones that really matter. Keats’ insight is sometimes distilled down to this: a fact is not a truth until you love it.

This sermon is a tale of three verbs: to know, to love, to believe. The three are woven together by the apostolic author of the First Letter of John, our second reading today. The Letter suggests that “just the facts” won’t do when it comes to the life of faith. No one can really know God without the commitment of the self, without loving God. “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love”, as the Letter puts it. Another way of saying this is that it’s one thing to know about God and another thing entirely to know God. To know God requires loving a Person, living a life, and investing the self. Facts about God are validated by our experience of God. There are no short cuts in the life of faith.

Love is a matter of the will, the setting of our hearts upon a path, upon a journey. We tend to think of love as a heightened emotional state, but in the New Testament it’s something more. Love certainly has emotional content, here in the Letter of John, but it also requires the commitment of the self. It’s not just a feeling we experience and before which we are powerless, but it also requires us to be actors, to take action and to bear responsibility. It demands something more than forensic detachment; it requires intentionality and the commitment of the self.

Love in terms of our reading this morning is principally “agape”: love that is self-giving and sacrificial. It’s in this sense that “God is love” (1 Jo. 4:8). It’s the conviction of the Letter that God’s being is revealed in Jesus Christ, “the Savior of the world” (1 Jo. 4:14). Our love of God is predicated on God’s love of us, illustrated on the cross and testified to by the Spirit. He has sent the Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and has given us the Spirit so that we can bear witness. Our love of God is proved by our love of neighbor. “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 Jo. 4:21).

One final verb: belief. “So we have known and believe the love that God has for us” (1 Jo. 4:16). The Letter of John places belief alongside knowledge, adding something more to the picture. Again, not a matter of fact but an active trust in God, based on God’s mighty acts in Christ. The Letter has not been shy over these last few weeks of Eastertide, reminding us of the beliefs of Christians: that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; that he has offered himself as the atoning sacrifice for sin; that God has given us the Spirit so that we may live in him. But belief is a matter of trust in God, trust in these saving actions. Faith too is not a matter of fact but a disposition of self, an orientation of ourselves toward God.

Our celebration of confirmation today carries forward these three verbs: to know, to love, to believe. It does so by calling upon our active commitment to the life of faith and our engagement in the work. Listen, as our liturgy unfolds, to these other verbs: “continue” and “persevere”; “repent” and “return”; “proclaim”, “seek” and “serve”; “strive” and “respect”. All of this that we commit ourselves to today depends upon God’s prior action; his mighty works; his love of us.

  • The Rt. Rev'd John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee