LET US LOVE
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A story was told of the Apostle John in the early church. Living out his days in the large port city of Ephesus in what is Turkey today, John had to be carried to church each Sunday. Each Sunday the apostle would be carried to church and they would want him to speak – the apostle John after all! Each week they would carry him to the front of the church. A hush would fall over the gathering and John would speak. He’d say “Little children, love one another.” After a little while, people would begin to wonder – same sermon every time. John would say – “It’s because we haven’t learned it yet.”
There is value in repetition. We don’t fully get it yet. It reminds me of a basketball player taking three point shot after three point shot in the gym, in order to be ready. There was an ad outside Sporting Life a while ago that depicted this sort of situation, with the player in a dark gym taking shots from behind the three point line. It said, “It’s what you do in the dark that puts you in the light.”
There is value in repetition. For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning. This echoes the words we heard back in 1:5 – This is the message we have heard from him. John has written about an old commandment we have had from the beginning. We’ve been talking about light and dark, old and new commandments, the love of God and the love of the world, and what it means to be children of God. Now we come to what’s been called John’s love imperative. I’ve always thought this would be a great name for a band. From here to the end of this writing John will focus on what love looks like within the community of God.
This is the message we have heard from the beginning. Let us keep on hearing it. Let us not think of the fundamentals as something we need to get back to – implying that we’ve gotten away from them somehow. Let the fundamentals be something that we are remaining in. Abiding in even.
Speaking of abiding, John starts his talk of love with the one with whom we always need to start. Christ. This is the message. Christ is the one who brought and lived the message. We’ve said that this writing makes the most sense when in viewed in light of John’s Gospel. John 13:34-35. John 15:12-13. This has always been the message.
In these verses, John is contrasting love and hate. Life and death. It’s one or the other for John. He didn’t mess around. There was a teacher named Cerinthus who lived in the latter half of the 1st century. He taught that Jesus was just a man and the Spirit of God came upon him at his baptism and left before he was crucified. Another story is told of John bathing in a bathhouse in Ephesus. When he found out Cerinthus was also in the bathhouse he rushed out of the place exclaiming “Let us fly, lest even the bathhouse fall down because Cerinthus, the enemy of truth, is inside!”
Love and hate are not just concepts of course. We’ve been saying from the beginning of this series that nothing John is writing about is to be restricted to theory. Love and hate show themselves in stories. John holds up the story of Cain first of all. I wonder if the writer of “Night of the Hunter” was inspired by this. In this film, Robert Mitchum plays a charlatan travelling preacher who’s also a murderer. He has love and hate tattooed across his fingers. One of the things he does very creepily is teach children about the battle between love and hate by using his hands (like they’re fighting) and telling the story of Cain and Abel.
Cain was from the evil one, not from God. What does this mean? We’re not told in Genesis 4 what it was that made Cain’s offering unacceptable. We’re told that the LORD had regard for Abel’s offering but for Cain’s the Lord had no regard. We’re told that this made Cain angry and that his countenance fell. “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” the Lord told Cain. Cain went another route of course. He killed his brother. This is where his anger led. The answer, of course, to “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is a resounding “Yes you are!” This is the message we have heard from the beginning.
And repetition is a good thing.
John calls his friends brothers and sisters here. Reminding them of what brotherly and sisterly love is meant to be like. “Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you.” The world being defined earlier as the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches. Do not be surprised to face opposition from this world. Remain steadfast in love. We have passed from death to life. From hate to love. From dark to light. To fail to love is to abide in death.
Then we come to this line, speaking of how hardcore John is. “All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.”
What are we to do with this? Isn’t this a little much? To have hate is the same as murdering? Of course, there was someone else who was hardcore too and said something quite similar. “You have heard it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement.” (Matt 5:21-22a) What are we to do with this? Jesus’ new ethic in the Sermon on the Mount. This verse has been interpreted in different ways in the past. As only applicable to priests or religious professionals, for example. This kingdom ethic that Christ lays out in the Sermon on the Mount has been seen as high ideals but perhaps not realistic.
I propose we look at it in terms of a downward spiral. We’re not saying that anger is equivalent to murder. We’re not being intellectually or morally dishonest. Think of it as a downward spiral. We’re not to nurse the spark of anger into a flame. To hold onto anger, to bear grudges, to nurse anger is to embark on a downward spiral and at the bottom of this downward spiral, we find death. We could be angry at someone who cut us off. At someone who didn’t let us merge. If we let this spiral we end with someone on the hood of a car that’s going 100kmh on the 404 (true story). Do not let anger fester.
We have this message for the world. By the world, I mean the one that’s lost in greed and envy and malice. The one in which things like wealth and power and physical beauty are made into gods. Where politicians refer to primary races as knife fights. Where actors are body shamed online because of the dress they wore to the Emmy’s. Where scorn and mockery hold sway. It’s ugly.
At the same time, we see glimpses of something else. We hear things like this: “The only way to get love is to be lovable. It’s very irritating if you have a lot of money. You’d like to think you could write a check: ‘I’ll buy a million dollars’ worth of love.’ But it doesn’t work that way. The more you give love away, the more you get.” “I tell college students when you get to be my age you will be successful if the people who you hope to have loved you, do love you.” Both quotes from Warren Buffet.
Buffet’s quotes end by talking about the love we receive, which leads us to talk of the source of love. Love has been made known to us. Not just simply as a concept or a feeling. Someone has said that “love is not just a special way of feeling, it is an orientation of life and action.” In Christ God has taken action. In Christ God has been placed right into the centre of the story of humanity. We get this, don’t we? Learning love in our own stories. Who have been the people in our lives through whom we have known love? John is reminding us that the ultimate example of self-sacrificing love has been given to us in the person of Christ Jesus. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us…” The word for laid down here means to set aside like you would take off clothing and set it aside. It’s the same word used in the Gospel of John for when Jesus takes off his coat to wash the feet of his disciples, speaking of acts of love. This was a precursor to what was about to happen. He loved us even to death.
And we ought to lay down our lives for one another. This is how we ought to love. This is the way that God loves us. We’ve heard about hate and how it takes life away. Love gives life. Love seeks the greatest good of the other. Someone has described it like this – “Love is a personal commitment to give oneself to foster the highest good and well-being of others. Sometimes giving oneself for others means more than giving one’s time or money or energy; it may mean giving one’s very life.” Love is not the measure of our faith – it is our faith. To know Christ is to have Christ’s love within us. The love of Christ is not just the example of our love but its very source.
It’s why we keep talking about the need to stay connected to our source.
You’ll note that John’s emphasis here is on love within the community of faith. The community of faith he’s writing to has been rocked by dissent and schism. It’s been subject to actions that have not been very loving. You can imagine what those might be as we’re all too familiar with being the perpetrator and victim of such actions. He’s talking about love within the community of faith and we need to have a focus on this too. It doesn’t mean such love is restricted to our faith community, not at all. It means that we need to make sure we’re getting love right here in order to get it right out there.
We might also think “Well that sounds very good in theory but I don’t know that I’ll ever have to actually give up my life for someone. Let’s just keep it in the realm of theory.” John doesn’t do this of course. He brings it right down to the every day in the next verse. Just as every act of hate doesn’t equal murder, every act of love does not equal the giving of one’s life. Another definition of love that I read goes like this – “the willingness to surrender that which has value for our life, to enrich the life of another.” It’s not simply about dying for someone, though it might be. It’s also about this – “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 to help?
This is the question we need to keep in front of us. This is our challenge. Remembering that the ability to meet this challenge is given to us by the source of self-giving self-sacrificing love – Christ our Lord. What does it mean to call Jesus our Lord?
This was John’s sermon week after week. Little children, let us love. Note that he puts himself in here. This is not just preaching to you it’s preaching to me too. Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. Let us be getting it right here. The church was what Christ said he would build and the gates of hell would not stand against it. The gates of hate and death. The church as the location of God’s loving work. Continuing Christ’s work in the world is what it says on our sign out front. Let us love in action and in truth. Let Christ’s love be born out in our stories as we go through our lives day by day. Let us love in truth. Meaning “sincerely” of course. But also grounded and connected to the one who called himself the truth and the one we believe to be the truth. Truth that was shown when he laid down his life for us. That is how much we are loved. May God enable us to love the same way.