April 22, 2018
Most all of us have memorized at least partially the most famous verse in the bible, John 3: 16. And while various translations change the words a bit, the the basic verse goes like this: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” A wonderful verse of a God who gives, a verse of welcome and promise and invitation. But if we stop and consider what it meant for God to “give” his son, it becomes a much more challenging word. And so I want us to look at another John 3: 16; from today's reading 1 John 3: 16 tells us what that gift cost. “We know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us.” That gift of love was not free, it cost the life of Jesus Christ.
I continue in our post-Easter series in 1 John by looking at what John wrote concerning how Jesus demonstrated his great love for the world and what is expected from us as we share the love we receive with the world around us.
As Jesus was preparing to leave this world, on Maundy Thursday he gave his disciples his final words, his final advice and his final commands. In the course of his long discourse, he said the words we see on our banner, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” I begin with a couple stories:
Gary and Mary Jean Chauncey were in an Amtrak train that crashed into a river after a barge hit and weakened the railroad bridge. Water rushed into their car. They were trapped... with their eleven year old daughter who had cerebral palsy and was in a wheelchair. After much struggle, they were able to push their daughter Andrea out the window where the rescuers could reach her. However, they were not able to escape. They gave up their life so their daughter would live. Heart-wrenching, terrible, but understandable.
Robert Bonadies was a sky diving instructor. One of his students, Cynthia Hyland, made her first jump flanked by Bonadies and Jim Olko, another instructor. The three tipped and went into a dive. But then Hyland couldn't find her ripcord. Bonadies reached her and pulled her ripcord just in time...but too late for him to open his chute. He gave his life for someone he barely knew.
We are saddened by such stories, but impressed at the level of love that took. Let's go back to our 1 John 3: 16, “We know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us”... but that isn't the full verse, it continues, “and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” That's not a command we hear about too often. And it speaks to a level of love that Jesus demonstrated.
From the days before vaccines comes this story: Johnny’s sister was dying of a disease that he had had, and recovered from. The Doctor knew about antibodies, and said to Johnny, “your sister needs your kind of blood to make her well. Would you be willing to give your blood so that she can live?” He was frightened at the prospect, but agreed, The doctor took his blood. Johnny laid there patiently and finally asked the Dr., “when do I die?”
Only then did the doctor realize the extent of the child’s sacrifice. Johnny had offered his life to save his sister; Jesus declared that there is no greater love.
But these are extreme examples. Our love should be such that we'd give our lives, but how are we doing just loving others on a day to day basis? John asks a similar question in his next verse, “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?” It doesn't happen every day that we are faced with life or death situations. But we are faced every day with people in need. Maybe not face to face, but our world is so small, there is no shortage of evidence of people in need. In fact, if you are paying attention it is just possible that you become overwhelmed with the needs we see. But how could we ever claim to love as Jesus calls us to love if we fail to take action to help?
Verse 18, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” It is awfully easy to speak and sing and pray about loving our neighbors, but God's word calls for action. In our prayer of confession today, we note some ways we fail to act; labels on our clothes being more important than those without; worrying about the quality of our steaks when so many go hungry. As a church, we try to offer opportunities to take positive action. You are invited to be with the clients at WINGS when we decorate cards with them. We aren't saving their lives as such, but we do provide a visible sign that someone cares. If that's not your cup of tea, we can give them material gifts that are needed as they work to reenter society clean and sober. It is a sad thing to think of teenagers lost in a world of drugs or alcohol. Often it is a boost to them just to know someone cares.
The PW is working hard to make an impact in the world with their mission projects. This past week they made surgical caps for patients undergoing surgery, they've sent dresses and sani-pads to Africa, they knitted “prayer squares” to comfort people in times of need, and pillowcases and fleece blankets for MAM. MAM is an organization giving a hand up to the homeless. It can be awfully easy to judge those who are slipping through the cracks. But many are there due to circumstances beyond their control. As we give MAM our gifts of money, we give those who are struggling a chance to get back on their feet and re-enter society with confidence and hope. Our church will again be sponsoring a dunk tank at the MAM fundraiser on June 7th in central park. If you can work, great! If you can be a dunkee, good. If you can't do those things but see its value, you can donate to the cost of the dunk tank. It is a visible, concrete action that can be taken to “love in truth and action.”
We are not asking you to give your life for these brothers and sisters, but John makes clear that loving our neighbor is not just warm, fuzzy feelings, it is action.
Our passage then looks inward a bit more. John writes about truth and reassurance and condemning and our hearts. As we examine our lives in light of the commandment to love God and love our neighbor, our actions help us see how we are doing. When love is evident in our action, it reassures us before God that our hearts are in the right place. I'm reminded with this statement of Abraham and Isaac. You all know the story of God calling on Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. They traveled three days to make a sacrifice to God and Isaac wondered where the sacrifice was, they didn't bring a lamb or a bull. Finally, Abraham told Isaac what was happening. And as Abraham was about to kill his son, God stopped him. And we often look at this as a test of Abraham, to prove to God how much Abraham loved him. But in reality, it was a test for Abraham, so Abraham would know truly how much he loved God. It is easy to love in words; not so easy in action. So we can get a feeling for how much we truly love God by how much we actually do for God by doing for our neighbors. Not to earn God's love, we can't earn God's love, but as a tangible witness that our love is more than mere words.
Again, we don't earn God's love. But we are called to obey God. Next verse, “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” First and foremost, we are called to believe in Jesus. Paul made it clear in his letter to the Ephesians that it is grace, not works that make us right with God. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the results of works, so that no one may boast.” We show love from a heart that is overflowing with gratitude for what the Lord has done for us. We don't work for rewards as some would teach; we work as grateful servants of our Lord and Savior.
Next, “All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them.”
Yeah, that sounds a bit like we have to work to obey the commandments to earn our reward. But look back a verse and see what God commands, believe in Jesus. We do that by the grace of God. And by grace, we live out the love we've been shown. It is not a chore, it is an act of love; an act of obedience.
I want to change the course of this sermon now. I want to talk about sheep. Both our Psalm and gospel make mention of the shepherd. And the shepherd is Jesus and that makes us sheep the shepherd is caring for. Now I can tell you one thing, if sheep had to work to earn their keep, they'd be lost. What can a sheep do? Eat. Sleep. Drink. Wander off the path. They don't pull a plow. They can't guard the other sheep. They don't even think for themselves. Here's a story about how “useful” sheep are. It took place in Mongolia, the shepherds had a pair of goats to help keep the sheep in line...literally. The sheep followed the goats. Now for some reason the two goats decided to jump in a lake. Well, over 500 sheep and goats followed them in. They were able to save over one-half the flock, but it took 20 shepherds and three hours to do it. Sheep just aren't very useful.
Do you all agree? Well, you are the sheep. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Jesus laid down his life for you and me; dumb, useless sheep.
OK, that's an exaggeration. But we should be clear about this as we worship in this season of Easter. Jesus dying on the cross was not an equal exchange. The Son of God died on the cross for people who lie and cheat and kill and gossip and hoard and insult and fail to love. It is like you or me laying down our life for a sheep. But Jesus did it. Evidently, God sees something in us that makes us worth loving. And if God sees you as lovable, then you are not a worthless sheep. You are wonderfully made in the image of God. You have great potential for good. You are called as sons and daughters of the most high God. This is reason to celebrate, this is reason to get serious about living out a life of faith with our Lord.
I ran across these number this week, 98% of Americans believe in God. 80% believe Jesus is the Son of God. Yet only 40% thought religion was very important. As followers of Jesus, I would hope that our belief in Jesus would make living our faith very important.
1 John chapter one was about God as light. Chapter 2 dealt with avoiding darkness; sin. Today and next Sunday deal with love. If you've done much bible study, you have heard that the Greek language has three different terms for love and English only one. There is brotherly love, romantic love and what is in Greek, Agape' love. Max Lucado differentiates this Agape' love from what the world often sells us as love. “Agape' love (is) less an affection and more a decision; less a feeling and more an action.”1 We often see this lived out in a family, where the decision to love is a daily decision; and sometimes not an easy one.
I conclude with a story about the power of this kind of love. It is told by Dan Mazzeo about his father. “Pop” was a first generation Italian American diagnosed with metastatic liver and lung cancer. The doctors gave him less than a year to live, but he wasn't afraid to die. His wife was already gone and his children grown and on their own. But then he learned that Dan, his only son, was going to be a father. When Pop heard that, he resolved to live to see this grandchild.
Lucado tells the story, “the chemo tortured his system. Some days it was all he could do to mumble, 'Bad day,' to those who phoned. But when his granddaughter was born, he insisted on going to the hospital. The ninety minute ride tormented him. Dan wheeled him into the maternity ward. Pop's arms were too weak, so Dan had to hold the baby for him. But Pop did what he came to do. He leaned over, kissed her, and said, 'Sheila Mary, Grandpa loves you very much.'
Within seconds, Pop dozed off. Within an hour, he was back in the car. Within days, he was dead.”2
This is a mere imitation of God's love. Jesus bore much more than chemo or an uncomfortable car ride. His love is beyond compare. “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Saying we love our neighbor just doesn't cut it in God's economy. Action; love is a noun. We show love because God first loved us. At the risk of repeating myself, we don't show love to earn God's love. God's love is ours whether we realize it or not. God so loved the whole world...not just a chosen few. He showed his love in that he laid down his life for us...we just read that. In chapter one, John wrote, that “he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” That is agape' love, an unearthly love. You can't win it by being good. You can't lose it by being a loser. But you can resist it.
Let's go forth filled with the knowledge of God's great love for us, opening our hearts and minds to receive him. And then, in obedience and gratitude, love in truth and action. Jesus is our good shepherd, leading us, caring for us, defending us, seeking us. “Thou hast loved us, love us still” And as we are loved, let us share the goodness of God. Amen.
Hymn: Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us 321 HLC
1Lucado, Max 3:16 The Numbers of Hope pg 37
2Ibid pg 38