Love Known, Love Shown
Grace & Fairview United Methodist Churches
April 29, 2012
1 John 3: 16-24 (CEB)
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. 17But 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?
18Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth. 19This is how we will know that we belong to the truth and reassure our hearts in God’s presence. 20Even if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and knows all things. 21Dear friends, if our hearts don’t condemn us, we have confidence in relationship to God. 22We receive whatever we ask from him because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love each other as he commanded us. 24The 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.
“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.” Last week, we heard as John reminded us how very, very much God loves us, so much so that he calls us his children. This morning, John is reminding us that as children of God, we are to share that same love with our brothers and sisters; all of God’s children! “We ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”
But what in the world does that mean? Lay down our lives? Well, for Jesus it ultimately meant death on a cross. And sometimes, for faithful Christians, self-sacrifice can mean physical death, but more often, the stakes are lower. Still, no matter the sacrifice, the principal is the same. We lay down our hold on our lives when we put others first. We lay down our lives when we live for the good of others. We lay down our lives when we take time for others. To love others is to lay down our lives for them. When we lay down our completely normal human desires to live for ourselves, and instead allow the love of God to flow freely through us and reorient us toward his will and the needs of others, only then are we truly laying down our lives. And there is nothing more beautiful in all the world!
In our Scripture lesson for this morning, we can see that John was pretty hard on Christians who say they have the love of Christ in their hearts but don’t share their material goods with those in need. That’s pretty convicting, isn’t it? What would John have to say to you or to me? John goes on to write, “let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth.” In other words, love is not only a word, it’s an action.
This week, the quadrennial meeting of United Methodists from around the world began. General Conference 2012, as it is called, brings together United Methodist representatives from every region of the world and they meet for two weeks to deal with matters important to the future of United Methodism. As with most conferences, there is a display area where various organizations falling under the United Methodist umbrella can share information with the conference delegates. I want to share with you the United Methodist Women’s display. (Now keep in mind that our UMW, the Ladies of Grace, has just recently delivered Easter baskets to each of our shut-ins. And United Methodist Women around the world are serving in the same way in their communities.) So here’s what the global UMW did. Despite the rather expansive space available to display boards and handouts, the UMW had a single sign. It read: “In 600 square feet, it is impossible to show 143 years of women in mission, the work our members are doing in their churches and communities every day, the lives transformed through the global ministries of the Church, and all the ways United Methodist Women will move into the next 143 years. So, instead, we used the money to fully fund the seminary education of two female local pastors in Cameroon. Turning faith, hope and love into action.”
Love in action is laying down one’s life, and in this passage, that means giving to those in need; providing for those who cannot provide for themselves. Whether it’s sending two African women to seminary or buying school uniforms for the neighbor children, there are people all around us who have needs, and there is something we can all do to meet those needs.
In Matthew 21, Jesus tells a parable of two sons. In it, a man asks each of his sons to go into the vineyard to work. The first son answers that he will not go, but later he repents and goes into the vineyard to work. The second son answers that he will go to work, but he does not go into the vineyard at all. The second son responds to his father’s request in word only. The first son, however, loved his father by his actions. When it comes to love, Jesus is never just talk. He is first and always a doer, someone who actually serves! “How can you claim to receive the love of God in your life,” John asks, “if you do not show love in your actions?”
It has been said that “many Christians today claim they believe in Jesus Christ. By that, they mean they assent to the truth of the gospel. But what is the truth of the gospel, if [you don’t believe] that living a life of sacrificial love is the starting point of your new life in Christ? Believing in Christ means believing that Christ saves us by making us like himself.” When we believe in Christ, we are transformed by his love. Faith and love are bound together then, aren’t they? You can’t have one without the other!
In Mother Teresa’s biblical mindset, when we love others, we love Jesus. She said, “At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. We will be judged by: ‘I was hungry and you gave me [something] to eat. I was naked and you clothed me.’ I was homeless and you took me in.” Friends, we won’t get it right every time. There is no doubt that we will falter. But loving and serving is a natural reflex to the love of God living in us, working through us.
In his book, Run with the Horses, Eugene Peterson tells how he saw a family of birds teaching their young to fly. Three birds were perched on a dead branch that stretched out over a lake. “One adult [bird] got alongside the chicks and started shoving them out toward the end of the branch—pushing, pushing, pushing. Till the end one fell off. Somewhere between the branch and the water four feet below, the wings started working, and the fledgling was off on his own.” Peterson writes, “Birds have feet and can walk. Birds have talons and can grasp a branch securely. They can walk and cling. But flying is their characteristic action, and not until they fly are they living at their best, gracefully and beautifully.”
It’s similar with people. Giving and loving is what we do best. It’s the way God created us to be. It’s the air into which we are born. It is the action that was designed for us from the very beginning. Yet some of us try desperately to hold on to ourselves, to live for ourselves. We look so bedraggled and pathetic doing it, hanging on to the dead branch of a bank account for dear life, afraid to risk ourselves on the untried wings of giving. We don’t think we can live generously because we have never tried. But the sooner we start, the better, for we are going to have to give up our lives finally, and the longer we wait, the less time we have for the soaring and swooping life of grace!
You know the bumper sticker: “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” The truth about life is: “Whoever dies with the most toys loses.” Because that means we never laid down our lives; we never allowed ourselves to be transformed by God’s love. At its core, loving service is not something we do for ourselves. When we serve only out of self-motivation, it tends to be sporadic, done only when it is convenient for us. That is what John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, called “the doctrine of the devil” – doing good only when you feel like it. And the thing is, that’s not really living a transformed life. Anybody can do a good deed every now and again, but Christians transformed by God’s love live new lives full of grace and generosity! Many of us have little bursts of good work at Thanksgiving or Christmas. But people are hungry in April, homeless in September, and malnourished in July.
Real love in action is regular; a constant and normal part of our lives. That is what John is talking about when he says, “This is how we will know that we belong to the truth…” Isn’t it awesome to know that the measure of whether or not we are God’s children is whether or not our lives are oriented outward, toward others, in love? Whether or not we are becoming like Christ is measured by how much we empathize with our fellow humans. It’s measured by our generosity. It’s measured by whether or not we lay our lives down for others. Because that is what God does and is! That’s the kind of God we have, is it not?!? John tells us that the command for our lives is to “believe in the name of [Jesus] Christ, and to love each other…” That’s right, it’s all about God. And God is all about grace.
In Ephesians we are told that we are saved by grace through faith, not by works or something we have accomplished. And that even this faith is a “gift” from God. So that none of us can boast about ourselves. And then it says, “we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way we live our lives.”
Some of you may be familiar with the Upper Room Daily Devotional. In the devotion for Saturday, April 14, the devotional writer wrote: “Everyday children are born into this world. Each begins as a little baby with promise and an open future.” Knowing this and reading Ephesians, I think about those who are in need – hungry, ill, incarcerated, homeless. I wonder, aren’t those who have been neglected or mistreated, those who end up in hospitals, prisons, or homeless shelters also made in God’s image and created for life in Jesus Christ? All of us come into the world with promise, imprinted with God’s desire that we live fully. Mother Teresa used to say, “In the poor, the outcast, the marginalized, we meet Jesus in the most distressing disguises.”
Shane Claiborne, a Maryville native and one of the founding members of the Simple Way, a Christian community in Philadelphia, describes how God has revealed God’s self to him through the homeless. He says, “I saw a street kid get 20 bucks panhandling outside of a store and then immediately run inside to share it with all of his friends. We saw a homeless man lay a pack of cigarettes in the offering plate because that was all he had. We met a little 7-year-old girl who was homeless, and we asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She paused pensively and then replied, ‘I want to own a grocery store.’” Claiborne asked her why and she said, “So I can give out food to all the hungry people.”
Hunger is everywhere. Hunger for food, hunger for love, hunger for belonging, hunger for employment, hunger for healing, hunger for hope. What hunger can we satisfy? How can we feed the hungry of the world? When God creates saving faith in our hearts, God creates active love in our lives. And thus, we begin the transformation of becoming the people God created us to be.
We cannot believe in Jesus without believing in love, and we cannot have love without action. And the good news is that when we act lovingly, we can be assured that nothing less than the love of God in Jesus Christ is pulsing through our hearts and hands! When we love, we are one with Christ, John tells us, and Christ abides in us! May we love with the same love God has so graciously laid down for us! Amen.