As we continue in our series, A Word on Reality, this past Sunday morning we looked at John’s call to make loving one another something that goes beyond being merely a slogan we claim, to an essential part of our identity in Christ. Read on for more…
A Call to Action
Have you ever seen or worn a t-shirt with a slogan on it? I suspect you have. I had one in high school that my folks recently dug up in one of their closets and mailed to me that read: “The football team will be performing before and after tonight’s featured performance of the marching band halftime show.” It featured a picture of a trombone slide piercing a football. Now, if you’re a football fan or player you may be rolling your eyes, but I’m comfortable admitting that I was a huge band nerd in high school. Also, our football team was awful. And with over 200 kids in the marching band, for most home games our parents easily made up the biggest percentage of the crowd. So yes, the crowd really was mostly coming to the game just to see the band.
Most slogan shirts aren’t quite so nerdy, though. There are many that are sports related. I’ve seen lots of these. They have slogans like, “Leave it all on the field,” or “Winning’s my game,” or “Practice like you play,” or something along those lines. The impression given is that the person wearing that shirt is committed to whatever his or her sport happens to be. But, more often than not, the person just happened to think it was a cool shirt and is wearing it for that reason alone. You see, for most of us, more than wanting to actually live by one slogan or another, we want to be known as people who live by one slogan or another. See the difference?
Yet what does this really do for us? Having a reputation as being a person with an active lifestyle is great, but if you don’t actually have an active lifestyle, eventually the truth is going to come out. You’ll only be able to turn down invitations to be active so long before you run out of excuses and folks begin to suspect that maybe you’re not as active as you let on. Claiming a slogan and actually living a slogan are two very different things. The former without the latter reveals that we are living in a fantasy world of one kind of another.
Well, this morning we are at the halfway point in our series, A Word on Reality. For the past few weeks we have been working our way through the magnificent little letter of 1 John. Over and over again as we have worked through these words together we have seen John call us in one way or another to live fully and contentedly within the spacious boundaries of reality with the understanding that reality is defined by God’s character. Thus, living according to reality means living close to God.
In the first part, we talked about how we can do this. We are able to get close to God, to live according to reality, when we are willing to be honest about the fact that apart from Him, we’re not. As we saw then, getting close to God takes being honest about sin. Being honest about sin is one thing, though. It’s a good thing. But if we’re honest about it without a determined intention to do something about it (with God’s help), we’re not really any better off than when we started. Thus, in the second part of our journey we saw that when we stay close to God we do what He says. This is putting the slogan into action. So you think you’re close to God. Great. Do something about it. Two weeks ago we paused with John for a minute to reflect on the fact that in spite of our most sincere desire to get and stay close to God, there are forces in this world that do their best to throw us off that track. If we are going to resist these various lies of the world, we need to cling with tenacity to the truth revealed in the pages of Scripture. If you want to resist lies, cling to the truth.
Finally, last week we tackled the big idea that if you are a follower of Jesus, there really is a certain set of expectations to which you are called to adhere. If we are going to be a part of the family of God, then we need to live like it. We need to live according to His rule and not those of our former way of life. God’s children are called, not to sin, but to righteousness. We are called to pattern our lives after the lifestyle of Jesus.
Now, along the way of our journey, we have seen John define living within the bounds of reality as living according to the command of God. We’ve seen him further clarify just what that command is: Love one another. Anything that supports and advances that command puts us on board with reality. Anything that subverts or otherwise undermines it leaves us living in fantasy world. That’s all well and good, but you may have noticed that John hasn’t actually defined love for us yet. We know we’re supposed to do it…but we don’t really know what it is. There are lots of slogans about love out there to which we could cling, but a slogan by itself isn’t going to do us any good. We need more clarity. We need a definition.
Well, this morning…we aren’t going to do that just yet. We’ll get to it in a couple more weeks. You will not want to miss that particular message. If you have ever wondered what exactly love is when you’ve heard calls to love one another, I am going to tell you. In a sense, this is what John has been building toward the whole time. He’s building a structure over the course of this letter that will, when all the pieces have been assembled, make perfect sense if you’ve been paying attention. When we get there, it’s going to feel like we’re finally letting out a big breath we’ve been holding. In a couple of weeks all the pieces we’ve been putting in place are going to come together and we’ll all go, “Oh yeah! Now I see it!”
As for this morning, John is adding yet another piece to the picture. We know that loving one another is essential for living within the bounds of reality. We know that we have to cling to that reality tenaciously if we are going to avoid getting sucked into a fantasy world. We know that if we are going to accept the invitation into God’s family, we are going to need to live up to a certain standard. Today we’re going to see why this loving one another is such a big deal and some of what it can accomplish in our lives if we do it consistently and well. You are going to want to see this with me. Turn in your Bibles to 1 John 3 and follow along with me as I read.
We’ll start at v. 11. “For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”
Once again, John comes back to this idea that not loving one another really is antithetical to the Christian confession. This isn’t just John making up a hard teaching to challenge his audience either. He’s drawing directly from Jesus Himself here. In Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, He spent the first third of it or so intentionally elevating several well-known Jewish teachings. When Jesus came to the command to not murder, He had this to say: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
And you know when they first heard that the sound of His audiences’ jaws hitting the ground must have been audible. I mean, that really made it so all of us are liable for judgment! But think about it: When we commit ourselves to working for someone’s ill rather than their good (which is how we should understand the word “hate” when it appears in the Bible), the logical end of this path—the ultimate ill we can do someone—is murder. Cain was jealous of his brother Abel. He began wishing the worst for him in his heart out of this jealousy and eventually took things to their logical conclusion. This is the ethic of the world: To elevate ourselves above and before the people around us. That’s all the world knows. Every path other than love eventually connects to this one. If we’re not working for someone’s good, that is, loving them, then we’re necessarily working for their ill. We may not be working for it very hard, but there isn’t another option available to us. We either love them or we don’t. If we are going to walk the path of Christ, not loving someone isn’t part of the deal. Love is the primary ethic of the kingdom of God. If we are going to live there, the ethic of this world isn’t going to get the job done.
This is why love is so important for followers of Jesus. The path of love leads to life and every other path doesn’t. Every other path is set in a framework of unrighteousness. And, understanding that the word “righteousness” simply means “right relationships,” the reason for this is simple: When we walk the path of love, following after the God who is love, we are in a right relationship with Him and by that with the people around us. If we are not walking this path, we will not be rightly related to Him because we’ll be heading in a direction other than He is going. It’s hard to be rightly related to someone when you aren’t going in the same direction. And, if we’re not rightly related to God, maintaining good relationships with other people becomes a lot more difficult.
Understanding all of that, though, does love do anything else for us? I mean, yes, it’s great that love leads us to righteousness. That should be enough in and of itself. But if we’re honest…it’s not. We live in a day of options and perks and bonus rewards. When we had DirecTV for our cable service, they would call occasionally to let us know they were giving us a better deal than we had before just for being good, loyal customers. We expect that kind of thing. Fortunately, God seems to have known this when John was writing because if you jump down a couple of verses John outlines a few more perks that come from walking the path of love in our lives.
Check this out with me starting in v. 19: “By this [that is, by practicing love for one another] we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.”
Now, that’s a mouthful. But, if you look carefully, John unpacks two things here that can happen in and for us when we get love right. The first is that we can have confidence in our standing before God. Have you ever wavered in your confidence there? Have you ever wondered about your salvation? Have you ever felt guilty about something even after confessing it? Walking consistently in love can wipe away all those fears. Freedom from that last fear is particularly important. Getting to the point in our walk with Christ that we are confident in our standing before Him over and against the challenges of the people around us is a fairly easy plateau to ascend. Moving beyond our opinion of ourselves, however, is another matter. Sometimes Satan uses an old sin to guilt and nag us into a new one. “You don’t really think God’s going to really bring you back after that melt down, do you?” “You really are broken, you know. Probably beyond repair.” “God can forgive a lot of things, but that one is probably beyond the reach of His grace.” These and other lies can be adroitly used to keep us off-balance in our faith, questioning our standing before God, and ineffective in our ministry. Our hearts condemn us by all of this. But, when we walk in love, this need not be the case. When we walk in love we are righteous as He is righteous and there is no separation between us and God. God knows our hearts even better than we do. He knows exactly where we are with respect to Him and will not hold us to account for a sin that has been forgiven. We need not do it either. Love helps make sure we don’t.
There’s more than this. Walking in love can give us a greater confidence in prayer. If we are standing before God uncondemned, walking in love as we go, we can have confidence that we will receive whatever we ask for from Him. Now, as you might expect, this idea is pretty rife with the potential for abuse and tragic misinterpretation. This can easily lend itself to a kind of “name it and claim it” theology wherein we are assured that if we ask in the right way, we can have whatever we desire. This is magical thinking at its finest. Magical thinking has always been our natural inclination and works out like this: If you say the right words or perform the right actions you can gain some measure of control over the forces of this world in whatever form they happen to take. This is particularly prevalent in sports. We went on a tour of Camden Yards, the Orioles’ stadium, last year. There’s a white board in the broadcast suite on which the batting order is written before each game. For years they wouldn’t erase the previous home game’s lineup until just before the current game’s went up. If the team is out of town then they leave it alone throughout the entirety of the road trip. Then, a few years ago, a well-intentioned cleaning crew member cleaned the board at the wrong time. The Orioles went on to have something like 10 years of losing seasons. Needless to say: They don’t erase it at the wrong time anymore. Now, all of this is a load of hogwash, but the odds play to the magic thinker’s favor on occasion.
It’s like the lottery. The lottery is a game for people who can’t do math. But, the fact that eventually somebody always wins, keeps everybody else playing. The fact that for someone, somewhere, magic thinking is going to pay off is enough to keep most of us at the very least holding it in retainer. Somewhere in the back of our mind (and usually not too far back there) most of us really do believe that we can gain access to God’s treasure store if we say the right (magic) words in the right way. But then we run into the buzz saw of the second half of v. 22. We can receive whatever we ask from Him because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. There’s a direct connection here. We don’t worship a vending machine. We worship the God who knows everything and is perfect in wisdom. He always does the right thing at exactly the right time. He won’t ever give us something He knows we shouldn’t have. But when we commit ourselves to wanting the things He already wants at the time He already wants them? Suddenly our options are open wide.
This is why walking in love is so important. When we walk in love, we are keeping His command. We are doing what pleases Him. Our desires are in line with His. And when all of this is the case, of course we can ask God for anything and count on getting it. By definition in such a case we are going to be asking God for the things He wants which are requests He is always happy to grant. Indeed, any time the Scriptures seem to give us a carte blanche for making requests of God this caveat is in play. Again, God is never going to give us something other than He wants us to have and no amount of bargaining or pleading on our part is going to change that or coerce Him to do otherwise.
Far from being offended by the blatant paternalism of this, we should be supremely grateful because in His infinite wisdom, God knows what we need far better than we do. When we are willing to commit ourselves to Him and let our desires be shaped by the contours of His kingdom, we can and should shoot the moon with our requests because He will grant them, whatever they are. He is a good, good Father, as the great song goes. He’s a good Father who delights in giving good gifts to His children. But, as we saw last week, many of these good gifts are only for those who really are His children. Those who aren’t His children won’t want much of what He has to give. We can know we are His children when we walk in love; when we practice loving one another.
In other words—and this is the key here—loving one another has to go beyond being merely a slogan for us to being something we are actively doing all the time. We can’t merely say it. We have to live it. Loving one another is an activity, not a slogan. This is something that simply sticking on a t-shirt won’t help us at all. If as followers of Jesus we are not actively practicing loving one another then our confession is worth no more than the weight of the words we used to make it. Neither is this something God calls us to without going there Himself. In fact, His going there…His going all the way there…is how we know what love looks like in the first place.
Come back to the text with me at v. 16: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” Do you see it? Jesus loved us. Through Jesus, the Father has lavished His love on us. Jesus Himself declared that there is no love greater than to lay down your life for someone else. Then He proved His love by walking His talk all the way to the cross. If you have ever had any question as to what love is, that’s what love is. If we’re going to say we love one another, but aren’t willing to walk that path, then we aren’t really loving one another. We’re taking the culturally appropriate out of being nice to one another. Niceness isn’t love. It’s a watered-down, insufficient substitute. It’s what happens when we make loving one another a slogan. Loving one another is an activity, not a slogan.
That’s what John is getting at in this next part here. Look at v. 17 now: “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” John’s point here is not that we need to throw money at every person sitting on the side of the road with a sign begging for handouts. The reality is that sometimes that kind of giving can actually be the least loving thing to do for them. Throwing money at a problem is not the same as solving it. What John is saying is that if we are not committed to making our claims to love the people around us—and in particular fellow members of the body of Christ—real in a way that includes every resource at our disposal, we might as well not even make them because we’re not backing them up by anything that would justify them. Loving one another is an activity, not a slogan.
And if it’s an activity we want to make a part of our lives so we can enjoy well all the benefits that come along with it, following the path of Christ is the way we are going to get there. We need to follow His path not just in life, but in death. I don’t mean we need to look for an opportunity to die, but rather, that we are willing to go to the nth degree for the sake of those around us in order to see them moved in the direction of Jesus. Opening the path to that end is what Jesus gave His life in order to do. And so as we’re talking about love and the activity of love and Jesus laying down His life for the sake of love, I think it only appropriate that we pause together for a few moments to be reminded of and celebrate what makes all of this possible.
Again, the way we know what love looks like is because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. Our way to God was blocked because of sin. The penalty for sin is death because by sinning we took our lives from God. In order to be made right with Him we would have had to give our lives back. But, if we don’t have our lives…we’re dead. It’s hard to have a relationship with someone who’s dead. As a result, God sent His Son, Jesus, to live a perfect life and then die in our place. By His death, God made a new covenant of life with us. By His body the covenant was made and by His blood the deal was sealed. We remember all of this and celebrate it by coming together to the table of the Lord’s Supper. In the bread, we remember Jesus’ broken body; broken to pay the price for our sins. In the juice, we remember Jesus’ spilled blood; spilled to the last drop to make permanent God’s covenant of eternal life with us. Far from leaving it to be a slogan, He made love the ultimate activity.
As we come to the table together this morning, we are going to eat and drink as a body. The deacons will serve you the bread, we’ll eat it together, and then we’ll do the same with the juice. If you would count yourself a follower of Jesus, you are invited and welcome to take part in this with the rest of us. His gift was for you and if you accept it, this is for you as well. That’s reality. Now, if you haven’t yet made that confession, or if you aren’t sure whether or not you’ve made it, or even if you have something currently sitting between you and God, then I’m going to ask you to hold off for this morning. We’ve all been there at one point or another in our lives and so there isn’t any judgmentalism behind that request, I simply want for you to be able to celebrate what Jesus has done for you as freely and as honestly as possible and if you’re in one of those places you can’t do that just yet. Whether you are or not is between you and God. Also, if you have little ones who aren’t quite there yet, have them hold back as well. Use this as an opportunity to have a conversation this afternoon about what exactly we’re doing and why we’re doing it. In a minute, the deacons are going to come and serve. As they do, I’m going to pray. As I do, join me in prayer yourselves. Lay your heart open before God. Let Him reveal anything that needs to be set before Him and left there. Let Him raise up within you a well of thanksgiving for this incredible display of love. Commit in this time to live out of that love as you move forward from here. Commit to making loving one another an activity, not a slogan. Commit to living within the bounds of reality. Let’s pray.