By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: 1 John 4:7-12, 16b-21
I think I’ve shared before that many years ago before my dad’s passing, when he was visiting with Britt and me and our dogs, he heard me say to one of the dogs, “I love you.” I say that to my dogs quite a lot. “Do you think they know what love means?” my dad asked, “What the word means?” I paused to think about his question. “I do,” I replied, “because when I tell them I love them I am generally doing something kind toward them, something they enjoy – petting them, feeding them, cuddling with them. In fact, they probably have a better understanding of the word than some humans who have been humiliated and abused by those who say they love them.”
Like that old cliché, “pretty is as pretty does,” love is as love does. Or, as the writer of first John puts it to his readers, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”[i] Friends, our understanding of love doesn’t come from a dictionary. It comes from our experience with those who claim to love us. Love is as love does.
[i] 1 John 3:18. NRSV
Now, the gospel of John’s most famous verse tells us what God’s love looks like and how it is experienced: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”[i] In John, ch. 10, just to make clear that the “giving of his only Son” is not something God the Parent imposed upon Jesus, the divine child, Jesus tells us, “The Father and I are one.”[ii] Earlier in the chapter, Jesus further elaborates that he will lay down his life for us (like a shepherd does for his sheep) so that we may share in the abundant and eternal life of God and that this is a choice Jesus makes. He says, “…I lay down my life… No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”[iii]
This week I’m continuing this sermon series, “Call Me Christian,” in which we are fusing the sacred stories of scripture with the short stories of Hans Christian Andersen. This week we conclude our discussion of Andersen’s The Snow Queen. It is, as I mentioned last week, a rather lengthy short story about two childhood playmates and best friends, Kay and Gerda, and an evil character the Snow Queen. Through circumstances I don’t need to relate, the little boy Kay’s heart is hardened or chilled and he is whisked away to live, enslaved, in the Snow Queen’s castle. There’s a lot more subtlety in the story and it’s fascinating. But you’ll need to read the story and join the Monday discussion group for that! Although Kay has mysteriously disappeared and Gerda fears the worst for him, she – though just a little girl – sets out into the world determined to find him. She has many misadventures along the way, encountering various diabolical characters. Yet Gerda persists. Somehow she is able to endure, at times softening even the most hardened hearts. One character in the story notes that, despite her being a young girl, Gerda carries within her a great power and strength derived, says the character, from her pure heart and innocence. But, as a reader of the story, it seems to me that it is not so much Gerda’s innocence that prevails as it is her ability to love. Love is the source of her power. Repeatedly, Andersen tells us and shows us the enormity of Gerda’s love for Kay.
Within the story, Gerda is a Christ figure, driven by the singular force of love and fully committed to finding and saving Kay, delivering him from evil, regardless of her personal cost and suffering. In fact, Kay’s salvation comes through the restoration of their relationship when Gerda’s warm tears flow and wash away an evil shard of glass within Kay’s heart. Again, salvation comes to Kay when Gerda willingly assumes great personal risk, going, literally, to the ends of the earth, to restore relationship with her lost friend.
So too, in the tradition of the gospel and letters of John, our lives are saved because of the steps Jesus takes to restore relationship with us. In fact, Jesus assures his disciples “I have called you friends.”[iv] Jesus elaborates in John, chapter 15, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”[v]
For followers of Jesus, there are not Ten Commandments. There is really only one: love. As I read this morning from 1st John: “We love because he first loved us… The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”[vi]
Now, my friends: obedience to one command should be easier than keeping track of ten, one would think. But here’s where it gets tricky… because we are a culture that worships – and I don’t use that word lightly – we worship personal liberty. In the midst of this COVID pandemic, I cannot tell you how it breaks my heart to hear those who identify themselves as followers of Christ say that they will not wear a mask in public because requiring them to wear a mask is a violation of their personal liberties. We don’t wear a mask for ourselves. We do it for others and, even if you doubt it makes a difference, isn’t it worth doing if it provides safety and assurance for another person? Folks: if you do a search of our biblical gospels, you will not find a single occurrence ever of Jesus encouraging his followers to pursue personal freedoms or liberties. It is the absolute opposite of what Jesus taught his followers. Now, if we are staging a strictly civil argument, it is fine to argue for personal liberty. That is, in fact, woven into the fabric of our nation. But, I’m sorry to inform you that it is NOT woven into the fabric of our faith. And every day of our lives, we need to make a choice: in situations where being Christian and being American come into conflict, which will we choose as our primary identity. You know, I think we’ve succumbed to a life-destroying dualism that can only see two polar opposites: freedom versus slavery; or, liberty versus oppression. But Jesus offers us a way out of those dueling extremes that, like a literal 18th century duel, always end with death. Christ offers the way of love. You see, when we love, it’s impossible for someone to take something from us for we have already chosen to freely offer all that we are and all that we have for the good of others. It is what Jesus commands us to do. Now, this way of living doesn’t mean we don’t pursue justice. There’s a difference between asserting our personal liberty and pursuing justice. Jesus had a lot to say about justice. But, living in obedience to love means we don’t pursue getting our own way just because we can. Friends, the writer of 1st John assures us that God’s love was shown to us through the sacrifice of Jesus, the ultimate sacrifice of his life. And that is to be the model for our love for one another. That is a choice we are called to make. And that is a choice for love.
[i] John 3:16
[ii] John 10:30
[iii] John 10:17-18
[iv] John 15:15.
[v] John 15:12-14.
[vi] 1 John 4:19,21
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