A.J. Thomas is the Founder of Joyful Giving Group, whose mission is to cultivate a culture of generosity.
A.J. is a practiced believer in the power of generosity to transform individual lives, congregations, and entire communities.
A.J. is an ordained United Methodist pastor with over a decade of leadership experience in the local church. He is appointed to Joyful Giving Group as an extension ministry of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.
If God Had a Name, What Would It Be? (1 John 4:7-8)
friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who
loves is born from God and knows God. 8 The person who doesn’t
love does not know God, because God is love.
This afternoon at 3 pm, a worship service will be held in First United
Methodist Church in Newton, just this side of Hickory.It will be the service to celebrate the life
of my father, who joined the Church Triumphant on April 15.In planning the service with Dad’s pastors,
as I have done with many of you, there is a challenge in that – to adequately
sum up and capture somebody’s life in scripture and song and the few words that
will be spoken.I had the same challenge
in writing his obituary, as well as selecting the picture that would accompany
his obituary, and the one to be displayed next to his ashes at today’s service.
It’s a challenge, but it’s not impossible.It’s said “a picture is worth a thousand words;” get the picture right,
and the whole story will unfold from it.
That’s true in the life of faith, as well.With the right picture constantly in front of us, the rest falls into
place. Today, we are beginning a series of messages designed to help us get the
picture of God right.Throughout the
month of May, we’ll be focusing on the right picture, and what that picture
means as we live out our faith.The
right picture serves as the starting point for our understanding of who God is
and how we relate to God, which is why it’s important to take the time to get
the picture right.
Last week, we set this series up by talking about how the root of a plant
determines its fruit.Remember, we said,
Root determines fruit, and using
today’s analogy of finding the right picture, the root and the picture both
refer to the same thing.They are both
the foundation from which the rest of it stems and grows.
So, what’s the root?What’s the
picture?What’s the foundation? If you
remember nothing else from today’s sermon, if you remember nothing else about
the Christian faith, remember this: God
is Love. 1 John 4:8.That’s the
picture, the foundation, the root, the starting point: God is Love.Everything else
is rooted in that, stems from that, grows from that.Friends, start with the understanding that
God is Love – that’s the picture from which the whole rest of the story
Why does this matter?Because there
are other images of God that would paint themselves, other roots that would try
to take hold.Some start with an
understanding of God as angry, or wrathful.Some see God as a power-hungry tyrant, an arbitrary despot, a strict
judge.Some view God as an absentee landlord,
distant, mysterious, and unapproachable.
These pictures of God are like propaganda pieces or political
advertisements.Have you ever noticed,
in political attack ads, that they find the worst, most awful picture of the
candidate they are attacking?Weird
facial expression, maybe looking tired, grumpy, or aloof. It’s a picture all
right, but one intended to cast a person in a less-than-favorable light.
We all know what that feels like.Ever
have someone say things about you that weren’t true?Or misconstrue or misrepresent something you
did or said?Know what that feels like –
how frustrating it is?Imagine how that
must be to God, when pictures of God are put forth that make God out to be
arbitrary, sadistic, and angry.
Indeed, these pictures of God are fairly well-rooted in some places in our
culture, and even among some in the Church.But, they are less-than truthful statements about who God is, and they
do more harm in God’s name than they do good.They are like a smear campaign against God, and they serve to drive
people away from God.
They’ll say things like, “I just can’t believe in a God who gives people
cancer or kills people by causing accidents and natural disasters.They see a picture of God being painted by
self-aggrandizing “Christians” whose message emblazoned on their signs is that
God hates this or God hates that.They
say, “I just can’t believe in that.”
And neither can I.Neither should
you.I refuse to believe that God is a
jerk: a sadistic, power-hungry, tyrannical, self-aggrandizing monster.The Bible tells me, Christian tradition tells
me, my experience in faith tells me, my intellect tells me that God is
Love.And so, all of the arbitrary,
hurtful, awful things just described, I have to ask myself, ‘Does that sound
like Love?’ and I answer with a resounding ‘No.’No, no, a thousand times, NO!
God is Love.John Wesley, in his
commentary on this 4th Chapter of 1 John, said, “Love is God’s
reigning attribute.”That means Love is
primary.Love dominates the
picture.With all these false images of
God out there vying for primary place, even being rooted and nurtured and
cultivated by people of faith, sometimes; friends, we are called to witness to
the reality and primacy of God’s love, and to double down our efforts in doing
Remember, if you get the picture right, then the rest of the story will
flow from that.Our picture is that God
is Love.This is the root from which the
rest of it stems and grows.Remember,
root determines fruit.And if the root is love, the fruit is love.
But, perhaps you ask, “What about God’s holiness?Isn’t God also holy?”, and that’s a great
question.Of course, God is holy, but do
we understand what the word, “holy” means?
“Holy” is a word that simply means “other.”“Set apart.”“Distinct.”And so, when people of faith have used the
term “holy” to describe God, that’s simply a way of saying that God is “other”
than human, “distinct” from humanity.It’s a way to say that God is not exactly the same kind of being as we
are, and can you guess what sets God apart from humanity?It’s Love.God is “other” because God has the inherent capacity for love in a way
we don’t – on our own, we just don’t have that kind of Love within us.
Another way to think of the word “holy” is “perfect.”And you can think of the word “perfect” in
one of two ways, either: 1.) “without flaw” or 2.) “complete.”The first definition suggest an emptiness,
while the second suggests a fullness.When
the Bible talks about perfection, particularly in the New Testament, it’s not
talking about flawless purity.It’s
talking about fullness and completeness and wholeness.Yet, some still want it to mean
flawless.A flawless, picky God is
attractive to picky people.Picky people
want a picky God who makes them feel holy to be picky about other people’s
shortcomings.You know, like the
Pharisees of Jesus’ day, from whom Jesus came to save us from becoming.Friends, a picky and flawless God is an empty
God, and any faith built around notions of flawlessness is just as hollow.
God is holy, not because God is flawless, but because God is complete.Completely full.Perfectly full. Filled to overflowing with
perfect Love, and the Bible says perfect Love casts out fear, and we’ll come
back to that before this series is over.
But it all starts in Love.Love is
the root from which the rest grows.Love
is the foundation upon which the rest is built.Love is the primary picture.There
are other pictures available about who God is and how God relates to the world,
but they’re distorted images, and they take us to radically distorted
places.That’s why it’s so important to
get the picture right.Get the picture
right, and the whole story will unfold from it.
Starting with God’s Love doesn’t lessen the reality of human sin and the
presence of evil in the world, but it does give us the confidence that God’s
primary interest in us is not to fix us, but to relate to us in a loving way.
God’s holiness is his perfect
love, a love that welcomes sinners
rather than shuns them, a love that is sacrificial rather than self-serving, a
love that pursues us in order to transform us in, by, and through that same
love.Perfect love isour
assurance that God wants the best for us and calls us to treat others with the
same benevolence regardless of how flawed they are, which is what the Scripture
is getting at when it says, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from
The way to heaven isn’t
about doing right or being right.Not
about doing good and being good.No, the
path to salvation begins in the realization that God is Love, and loves us with
an unquenchable love, and that the way to eternal life is to bask in that love,
be filled with that love, and radiate that love so it’s shining out of us in
It’s a matter of getting the picture right.With the right picture constantly in front of us, the rest falls into
place.So, picture this: God is
Love.Full, complete, perfect Love.
Friends, if God had a name, that name would be,