Sermon for April 25th

First Reading Acts 4:5-12

Epistle Reading: 1 John 3:16-24

Gospel Reading: John 10:11-18

Sermon: “Love is an Action”

Our theme for today is love. God’s love for us, and our love for God and neighbor. It is fundamental to who we are as Christians. Our texts today offer us a number of insights into this complicated topic, but I’ll tell you right off – the most important thing that I want you to remember – Love must be lived out – acted upon to have any real meaning. Certainly so in the readings today. We use the word “love” in many very different ways – it might describe an emotion, it might describe excitement or passion or yesterday’s dinner. But in today’s text from first John, it describes a way of life and a pattern of behavior.

John, the elder, (that’s how the author of these 3 epistles describes himself, tradition holds that it was in fact the disciple John, but does not tell us so) writes to urge his readers to live faithfully and lovingly. Last week’s reading assured us that we are gifted with the wonderful, loving title of Children of God – not because we deserve it, but because God’s grace has decreed it. He went on to encourage us to then live worthy of that name. Now, John proceeds to describe the love of God and our response to that love. He doesn’t give us a dictionary definition of love – instead he defines it by what it does – how it acts. Its not a passive emotion – it is active and visible. Listen again how he begins this section: (1 John 3:16-18 NIV) [16] This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. [17] If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? [18] Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

We are so used to referring to chapters and verses in the books of the Bible that we sometimes assume they must have always been there, but that is not true. Our current system of chapter divisions was constructed by Archbishop Stephan Langton in 1205AD and our New Testament verse divisions are even more recent being added by a Parisian printer named Robert Estienne in 1555 to his edition of Vulgate Bible. (the Latin version of the Bible) My reason for this brief historical rabbit hole is merely to preface a remarkable useful accident: the striking coincidence between two famous Bible verses – John 3:16 and 1 John 3:16.

Love, the way John uses it, is known in action. How do we know that God loves us? Because of what God has done – God sent Jesus Christ into this world. John 3:16 (NIV) says “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” 1st John 3:16 (NIV) says “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” But of course the active meaning continues as he writes – “And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” The next verse goes on to explain that this “laying down of our lives” means far more than just the rare martyr. It extends into ordinary everyday life – Into our priorities, and our resources: Verses 17-18 exhort us this way: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” To say it an other way: love must never be simply a word, it must always be an action to be meaningful. I’ll have more to say about this in a moment.

Jesus describes himself that same way in today’s gospel reading: (John 10:11-15 NIV)

[11] “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. [12] The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. [13] The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. [14] “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— [15] just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.

What’s the difference between the hired hand and the shepherd? Love for the Sheep. The hireling says – hey – minimum wage doesn’t pay for me fighting any wolves! I’m out-a-here. The Good shepherd – might we say “the ideal shepherd” or the “faithful shepherd” – this “good” shepherd is different – for him, the sheep are loved and worthwhile, he is willing to put his life on the line for them – willing to invest his own self – blood, sweat and tears for them. He protects them, nurtures them and gathers them in. He leads them and prepares the way for them. That’s how we know he loves the sheep and that’s how the sheep know they are loved. Nobody went and stuck a microphone in the shepherd’s face and said “So tell us mister – How do you feel about sheep?” It can be seen and discerned by watching and seeing what happens.

John is insistent “And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” Now normally, when we talk about of someone laying down their life, we think of a hero – and the words are said in awe of a soldier or a rescuer who dies attempting to save others. Self sacrifice is certainly a true test of faithfulness and love. But not only martyrs and heroes love. For us everyday Christians, self sacrifice should be ordinary – not just extraordinary. John didn’t have in mind just singularly grand acts for heroic Christians, but an everyday commandment for everyday Christians. John says that self sacrifice should show up in everyday matters – 1 John 3:17-18 NIV [17] If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? [18] Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

True, some self sacrifice might mean physical death – if we stand against violence, hatred and injustice, there is a real danger that our love might lead us into harms way. In every age, faithful Christians have acted from Christ-like love and gone where they did not have to go, suffering what they could have avoided. But usually the stakes are lower.

The principle is the same, but laying down our lives will be more ordinary – putting aside our own priorities and interests to look out for the interests of another.

We lay down our lives when we make time for others – to listen and pray together – or to cook and take food or take them to a doctors appointment. I’ve had the privilege of watching many of you do these things regularly. You deliver Meals on Wheels, You love these brothers and sisters of our congregation well, but you also open your hearts to families that aren’t active in this congregation offering financial help and meals. You have invested time in children and elderly alike. Love is active, love shows. When we lay down the completely normal human desire to live for ourselves and live for others – we love as Christ loved. When we allow the love of God to redirect us and point us toward the needs of theirs we are laying down our lives for the life that God intends us to live.

Perhaps you noticed that John is pretty hard on Christians who say they love Jesus but don’t live out that love. Faith and love come bundled together in a single gracious package. The reformers that laid the foundation for our theology said that Faith alone is all that is required for salvation, and that much is true. However, it is also true that saving Faith is never alone. It comes wrapped in and around a core of love. When God creates saving faith in our hearts, God also creates active love. Faith in Jesus transforms our hearts so that they become self-giving hearts.

These are not passing emotional moments – these are decisions of the will based in gratitude for what God has done for us. That’s where we are headed next week as we continue in our journey through 1st John: “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19). God has actively, visibly loved us in the person of Jesus Christ, therefore – we know what love is and respond to that love by loving others. The love of Jesus calls us to act personally and also corporately. In how we make our choices in our private life and in our public life too. From the donation box to the ballot box, our Christian values are to be marked by love and concern for the well being of others even when it involves our pocket book. To do otherwise is to ignore to plain instruction of scripture.

James asks us to consider this situation (James 2:15-18 NIV) [15] Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. [16] If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? [17] In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. [18] But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. Too often in this country we say “our thoughts and prayers are with you” in response to some horrific event, maybe even toss in a few bucks, but then refuse any fundamental change to prevent or reduce such things in the future. What would John the Elder have to say if he wrote a letter to us I wonder?

The truly good news for us is that when we act lovingly, we can be assured that nothing-less than the love of God in Jesus Christ is flowing through our hands. Jesus is the embodiment of the love of God and is both present in our giving to others and receives our love in the doing. How do we know this? Jesus said: (John 13:34-35 NIV) “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Jesus also says (Matthew 25:40 NIV) ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

John closes this section this way: (1 John 3:23-24 NIV) “… this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. [24] The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.” The very Spirit of God dwells with us, in us and works through us. The Spirit goes by many names – The Advocate, Comforter, Teacher, Encourager, The one who prays for us, and empowers us. But we know it best by the love of God that is poured out in our hearts and reaches out in our hands.