The recording for this week’s service was not ideal, however, the text of Sarah’s sermon from this week is printed below.
1 John 3:16-24 Common English Bible (CEB)
16 This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 But if a person has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and that person doesn’t care—how can the love of God remain in him?
18 Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth.19 This is how we will know that we belong to the truth and reassure our hearts in God’s presence. 20 Even if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and knows all things. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts don’t condemn us, we have confidence in relationship to God. 22 We receive whatever we ask from him because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love each other as he commanded us. 24 The person who keeps his commandments remains in God and God remains in him; and this is how we know that he remains in us, because of the Spirit that he has given to us.
Sermon: Love in Action and Truth
This is our third week with the letter of first John. The first two weeks were kind of abstract. We talked about transcendent experiences we’re compelled to share. Then we talked about the wild ideas of theosis or divinization: God became human so that humans might become God. Our true nature and ultimate destination is divine. Heady stuff. This week we get down to practical stuff.
The rubber meets the road. “This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our sisters and brothers.” But what does that mean? Well, they give us an example: “if a person has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and that person doesn’t care—how can the love of God remain in them?” Well, that’s concrete.
And, a better translation instead of “doesn’t care” would be “doesn’t help.” If a person has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and that person doesn’t help, how can the love of God remain in them?”
It’s really interesting that when they want to describe laying down your life, they use the example of giving away some of our money.
When I think about what it means to lay down my life, I tend to think about being a martyr, or a soldier laying down his life for a fellow soldier, or a teacher blocking the door in a school shooting. Then, when I try to bring it home and think about it in my own life, I think about things like letting other people have their way, letting someone else go first, letting someone else get the last word, putting someone’s needs ahead of my own. Those are all good, but it’s interesting that when these early followers of Jesus wanted to talk about love and laying down their lives, they talked about money and material possessions.
Money, poverty, wealth—these were spiritual issues for early Christians. Material concerns and the distribution of resources were a matter of love. There’s something really challenging in that, at least for me.
One of the things I love about our congregation is that we have a wide range of economic situations. Some of us are quite comfortable. Some of us have children insured on Medicaid. Some of us have plenty of money to eat out whenever we want. Some of us watch every penny, and sometimes put off buying groceries. Many of us, probably most of us, worry about money.
All of us have more than billions of people worldwide. I forget that. All of us have more than the immigrants and refugees who come to our country. All of us have more than at least some of our neighbors.
These inequalities aren’t disconnected from our faith. Our response to the people who cross our borders looking for work, and the people who stand and beg in the Fred Meijer parking lot, and those family members or friends who are always in need—our response to these brothers and sisters is a question of love. Or, at least, that’s what early Christians thought.
But it’s hard. I mean, we can’t give away everything, can we? Even if we could, would we? I haven’t, and can’t quite imagine it. We have a responsibility to be wise stewards. If we give away so much that we’re in need, then we haven’t really helped anyone, right?
All of that’s true. And, early Christians were convinced that this was the most important and powerful example they could think of for what it means to love in action and truth. So, it’s worth digging into that resistance a little deeper. For me, at base, it’s really about a feeling of, “It’s mine!” and “I need it!” and “I earned it.” Loosening our hold on our material possessions really is a matter of laying down our lives.
But what’s the best way to help when you see a sister or brother in need? Christians have had different ideas about that. Some emphasize individual, one-to-one giving and charity. Others emphasize systematic redistribution of wealth. Honestly, I think our faith asks for both. There are examples from the early church of both.
Either way, it matters if our sisters and brothers have a safe place to sleep, enough food to eat, good healthcare. The early church thought this kind of stuff was so essential that it was a prime example of how to follow Jesus. There’s a word of real challenge here, at least for me. How concerned are we with our neighbors who are in need? How much of our lives are we willing to lay down for them? How big is our love?
Let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth. I prefer words and speech. It’s easier.
It’s easy for this to devolve into a situation where we feel like we can’t ever do enough. So, I want us to notice something really interesting in the text.
Right after these challenging verses, calling us to lay down our lives, and love with action and truth, it immediately moves into what to do when our hearts condemn us.
Apparently, we aren’t the only ones who struggle with this stuff. It’s hard. So what do we do when we feel like failures, when our hearts condemn us?
The version Rick read says, “Even if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts.” That’s what’s in your pew bibles if you’re following along. “Even if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts.” God is greater.
When our hearts condemn us, that’s when it’s time to go look at the water, gaze at the mountain, go stand among the old trees in Point Defiance. Yes, sometimes we screw it up. Often we don’t manage to love in action and truth. But the world is vast. And God is big. So when our hearts condemn us, we rest in God who is so much bigger. That’s one aid when our hearts condemn us.
There’s also another way to read the passage. I think it’s captured really well in the paraphrase of the Bible called The Message. Listen to how it renders this section: “My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality. It’s also the way to shut down debilitating self-criticism, even when there is something to it. For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves.”
Resting in God’s love is one way to deal with feelings of failure. And another way to shut down debilitating self-criticism is to practice love. The action can be the antidote to anxiety.
A friend of mine captures this beautifully with the phrase, “Do the next right thing.” She uses it as a parenting mantra. When she’s lost her cool, when she’s at the end of her rope, when she regrets everything about how the day’s gone, do the next right thing. Make mac and cheese for dinner. Sit down. Eat. Read a book. Do the next right thing.
Let us love not with words or speech, but with truth and action, laying down our lives—bit by bit.
Maybe this week that love takes the shape of a meal shared, or a gift given, or attending a meeting for fair housing in our city. Maybe loving in truth and action this week takes the form of giving your time, or attention, listening until someone’s done talking. Maybe it looks like forgiveness, or maybe it’s just resisting the temptation to get the last word. Maybe it’s joining one of the book groups about racism or coming to the Immigration 101 event, even though that’s a little out of your comfort zone. Maybe it’s seeing a brother or sister in need and meeting that need.
The Muslim mystic Rumi reminds us that there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. Christ is in the face of each person we meet, if we have eyes to see. The opportunities for love in truth and action are all around us.
And if our hearts condemn us, well, God is bigger than our hearts and we are children of God. So let’s be brave and bold and love not with words or speech, but with action and truth.