Scripture: 1 John 4:7-12
By Pastor Tracey D. Leslie
Frank Sinatra sang, “Love is a many splendored thing.” At the very least, love is a multivalent concept; a term recklessly used and often abused; often as misunderstood in the Church as in the broader culture.
In his book, In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen writes:
We know how limited, broken and very fragile love [can be].
Often… beneath the pleasantries of daily life there are gaping wounds
that carry such names as abandonment, betrayal, rejection,
rupture and loss.[i]
Since Easter, I have been preaching a brief, 3-part sermon series from 1st John. On Easter I preached the resurrection account from the gospel of John. In that narrative, Jesus speaks to Mary on Easter morning saying, “go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”[ii] All throughout the gospel and letters of John, we are reminded that the coming of Jesus is intended to restore our relationship with God and to open to us the possibility of loving one another in the same radical and sacrificial way God loves us.
In the second creation account in the book of Genesis, we’re told that God comes into the garden to walk with the man and woman at the time of the evening breeze.[iii] We’re given an image of the intimate fellowship God shares with the man and woman. It is a fellowship that is broken when the man and woman rebel against the Word of God – eating from the tree of life – because they distrust God’s Word and God’s intentions for them. And so the gospel of John opens with these words, “In the beginning…” John’s story of Jesus, God’s Word made flesh, is the account of a second genesis, a new beginning, a fresh start initiated by God to restore that fullness of fellowship, intimate fellowship, with his people; a fellowship steeped in love.
As Christians, we have interpreted – over the centuries – the reason for the coming of Christ in a very narrow, restrictive way. We often think of the purpose for Christ’s coming as only being a sacrifice for our sins that removes our guilt and condemnation so we are able to go to heaven when we die. Yet, we have neglected the fuller, broader – more immediate – meaning of Christ’s coming: to renew the image of God in us and to restore us to a right relationship – here and now in this life – with God and one another; to love perfectly so that fear is destroyed, put to death by love. Because of Jesus, we’re welcomed into the eternal family of God; with God as our heavenly parent, experiencing one another as siblings. So, the introduction to John’s gospel offers this promise: “to all who [have] received [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”[iv]
With the coming of Jesus, we are offered a new way of life; being guided through each day of that life by Jesus, the Light, who illumines our path along this journey; a journey that is distinguished most of all by the experience of love, familial love.
I want to say that again because it’s so important: With the coming of Jesus, we are offered a new, eternal way of life; being guided through each day of that life by Jesus, the Light of the world, who illumines our path along this journey that is distinguished first and foremost by the experience of familial love. And so, I entitled this brief sermon series Jesus and John: Life, Light and Love. John communicates the message that Jesus is the source of life, light and love; a love that redefines who we are in relationship to God and one another. We are children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ joined to God and one another through love.
And so this morning, we examine the nature of this love that Jesus makes available to us. It is a love that is dramatically different from the love experienced in our broader society.
Love, as I’ve already mentioned, is a term that is recklessly tossed about in our culture; a term frequently misused and abused. Years ago, when my dad was still alive, he was visiting our home in Gary. My dad really enjoyed being with our dogs and he asked me this question: “Do you think your dogs know what love is?” I replied, “Well, I tell them I love them and, whenever I do, it’s while I’m doing something kind to them – petting them, praising them, feeding them, showing them affection. So, they probably have a better understanding of love than some people… whose understanding is distorted when they are told they’re loved by a person who abuses them, belittles them, neglects them, shames them or exploits them.” Friends, the love God offers us is of a dramatically different quality than what we often see expressed in grotesquely distorted ways in the world around us.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve given a little bit of background into the setting of the congregation addressed by 1st John. But this morning I want to say a little more. This congregation has experienced a schism so dramatic that it resulted in a church split. Those who are no longer a part of this faith community are judged by the writer to be in error; well, beyond error; they’re judged to be sinful. And let me pause for just a moment here to review what I said last week regarding how sin is defined by the author of 1st John. Sin is defined by the way we relate to God and to one another. So, sin is a negative response to, or a rejection of, the presence of God in Christ AND sin is a failure to act lovingly toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. So, sin in John is not a list of “do’s and don’ts.” Sin in John isn’t about violating a moral or ethical code per se. Sin is a relational term. Let me say that again: in John, sin can never be defined in a vacuum. Sin is a relational thing; it is all about how we choose to respond to Jesus and to one another.
1st John paints the portrait of a family dispute; a dispute in which one side is clearly shown to have despised and disrespected those familial bonds. Most of us, I imagine, have a family member – perhaps not an immediate family member, but a second cousin, great niece, whatever the case may be – who has distanced his- or herself from the family. She or he chose, at some point, to live in such a way that they show no regard for family. They have no sense of commitment, or obligation, to family.
And that is what has taken place in the Church family to whom John writes. Family, by the way, was the primary metaphor for Church in the first century. Sociologists call it fictive kinship; the experience of a familial bond without shared genetic material. And it was not a human invention. In all of our gospels, Jesus clearly inaugurates this family that comes to be known as “Church.” As I’ve already mentioned, he does in John, when he proclaims his followers to be children of the heavenly Father and his brothers. We also see this idea expressed in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Jesus’ mother and brothers arrive on the scene while Jesus is teaching a crowd. He’s told that they are there to see him and he gives this response to the crowd gathered around him: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”[v] In other words, “All y’all around me are kin. Welcome to the family.”
But some members of this early Christian community have embraced a heresy related to Gnosticism. Gnosticism devalued the material world. It was a philosophical school of thought that sought to escape the world of flesh, of physical matter. Because flesh was devalued by Gnostics, they refused to believe that God would ever take on human flesh. They claimed that Jesus only appeared to be human: that that was our perception, not reality. Now, beyond this being bad theology; it played itself out in a way that destroyed Christian community. It led its adherents to claim that, since the human body, flesh and blood, had no value to God, it should not hold value for us. Adhering to such bad theology resulted in bad practice; in a sinful lifestyle; a lifestyle unresponsive to the needs of their brothers and sisters in Christ. And so, remarkably, they neglect members of their family in the name of Jesus. What a horrible heresy! Love for these Gnostics was a philosophical ideal or concept; it had no implications, no application to the material world. But the writer of 1st John makes it crystal clear: love is not some abstract principle; love is about what do and say and how we live. Love means being responsive in real and tangible ways to the needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Love is more than the inspiration for good poetry or dime-store romance novels. Love is my commitment to take care of you and your commitment to take care of me. In chapter three of 1st John, we read the author’s pressing question: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children [that is, children of God], let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”[vi] From the very beginning, the message of Jesus was a message of love; love not in theory, but in practice.
All of us, I imagine, have heard the cliché “pretty is as pretty does.” In other words, real beauty is more than skin deep; it is revealed by our actions. Prettiness is seen in the things we do. Well love, my friends, is as love does. Love is revealed in our behavior toward one another.
You know: here in America, the Church continues to decline. Not just the United Methodist Church; in recent years, even independent, non-denominational churches are in decline. And research has shown us that most of those who are un-churched don’t have very good impressions of church folks. Many consider us judgmental or hypocritical. Many consider us more interested in the establishment than in people. Many equate us with particular political positions. And many consider us irrelevant. And that is terribly, terribly sad. Now, truth be told, the media doesn’t always paint us in the best light. And, truth be told, some of those un-churched critics have never given us a try. But, truth be told, sometimes the way we treat one another doesn’t do much to dislodge their negative stereotypes. Sometimes the way we treat one another is no help in changing their opinion because sometimes we behave as if church is nothing more than a place we go on Sunday to get our fix of “the holy” for the week. Sometimes we treat one another as casual acquaintances and not as the family Jesus calls us, in fact commands us, to be. Sometimes our interactions with one another are merely polite or even indifferent. But Jesus doesn’t invite us to make his acquaintance. Jesus invites us into his family with the reminder that God is love and that his love reaches perfection/ completion, reaches its ultimate goal, whenever we show love toward one another.
Friends: when we name ourselves “church,” we define ourselves as God’s children and as one another’s brothers and sisters. When we name ourselves “church,” we’re not supposed to mind our own business and be polite, casual acquaintances. When we name ourselves “church,” even those outside the family ought to be able to look at us and say, “Why just look at how those Christians love one another.”
Legendary preacher Fred Craddock shares this story from his own life:
My mother took us to church and Sunday School;
my father didn’t go. He complained about Sunday dinner being late
when she came home. Sometimes the preacher would call,
and my Father would say, “I know what the church wants.
Church doesn’t care about me. Church wants another name,
another pledge, another name, another pledge. Right?
Isn’t that the name of it? Another name, another pledge.”
That’s what he always said. Sometimes we’d have a revival.
Pastor would bring the evangelist… and my father would say the same thing. Every time, my mother in the kitchen,
always nervous, in fear of flaring tempers… And always
my father said, “The church doesn’t care about me.
The church wants another name and another pledge.”
I guess I heard it a thousand times, [writes Craddock].
[But] one time he didn’t say it. He was in the veteran’s hospital,
and he was down to seventy-three pounds.
They’d taken out his throat, and said, “It’s too late.”
They put in a metal tube, and X-rays burned him to pieces.
I flew in to see him. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat.
I looked around the room, potted plants and cut flowers on all
the windowsills, a stack of cards twenty inches deep beside his bed.
And even that tray where they put food, if you can eat,
on that was a flower. And all the flowers beside the bed,
every card, every blossom, were from persons or groups
from the church. He saw me read a card. He could not speak,
so he took a Kleenex box and wrote on the side of it a line
from Shakespeare. If he had not written this line, I would not tell you
this story. He wrote: “In this harsh world,
draw your breath in pain to tell my story.”
I said, “What is your story, Daddy?”
And he wrote, “I was wrong.”[vii]
[i] In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership by Henri Nouwen. Crossroad Publishing Co.; 1989. P. 40.
[ii] John 20:17b
[iii] See Genesis, chapters 2-3
[iv] John 1:12
[v] Mark 3:34-35
[vi] 1 John 3:17-18
[vii] Craddock Stories by Fred Craddock; ed. Graves and Ward. Chalice Press. 2001; p. 14
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