(A sermon based on 1 John 3:16-24 for the Fourth Sunday of Easter 2009)
As the people of the Resurrection—as the ones who believe in and follow the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ—we love one another. But do we really? The truth is that we probably do but that we probably do not as much as we should or could or in the ways that the Lord expects and requires us to do. The truth furthermore is that love—Christian love, Christ-like love—is something in which we are to be constantly growing; it is a way of life at which we will never fully arrive but toward which we are to be constantly moving.
There may be no matter that is more central to the identity of a church and that is more crucial to the future of a church than the matter of how we love one another. So what can we observe from our passage about our privilege of loving one another and our responsibility to love another?
Love is obedient
John said, “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” (v. 23). Elsewhere in this letter John said, “The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4:21). And over in the Gospel of John we read, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (13:34).
Every once in a while during my childhood I would play that game with my mother in which she would tell me to do something and I would ask, “Why?” Usually she would make some effort to explain but it usually did not take her long to resort to the old standby, “Because I said so!” On one level, then, it is as simple as this: we should love one another because Jesus, who after all has even more authority than our mothers, said so; he commanded us to love one another.
Many of us are thinking, though, that love is not something that can be commanded; you can’t compel anyone to love someone or something. In the 1988 film Punchline, Tom Hanks played a medical student who moonlighted as a standup comedian and it was clear that his true love was the comedy and not the medicine, try as he might for it not to be so; someone could have commanded him over and over to love medicine and it would not have made a difference.
Still, would Jesus have commanded us to do something that he was not going to enable us and empower us to do? Surely Jesus would not command us to love one another if he could not cause us to do so. Surely this universal command is universally possible—otherwise Jesus would not have given it. Jesus will change our hearts and our lives so that we will be able to follow his command and love one another.
Besides, our doubts about this are probably based on our conception of love as an emotion or a feeling. While real Christian love will undoubtedly show itself in our feelings and our motives, it also has a very practical bent and that is where the discipline of following Jesus’ command is applicable.
Which leads to my next point….
Love is practical
Christian love is much more than a feeling and it is certainly much more than words; Christian love shows itself in action. And so John said, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (v. 18). In other words, love is something that we do; it is something that shows itself in our actions. Sometimes we are guilty of claiming that something is so as if the claim itself was the end of our responsibility; so we say to ourselves, “I love my brothers and sisters”—but John would ask us, “Yes, but are you doing anything about it?” John’s words remind us that affirmations are not enough—Christian love has feet and hands and it uses them.
Such active Christian love is to be shown toward individuals, and that is frankly what makes it so hard. Our Bibles teach us that God loved the whole world—every person who ever lived—so much that he gave his Son for us. Well, God can love everybody at once and God can do something for everybody at once because, after all, God is God, but you and I are not able to love everybody at once and we are certainly not capable of doing something for everybody at once. So John said, “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?” (v. 17). We show our love by helping and we help one person at a time; we show our love by helping the one brother or sister who is in front of us in that one moment—and that doesn’t allow us to let ourselves off the hook by saying “I love everybody” about which, even if it were true, we can’t do anything. But we can do something about that one need in that one person in that one moment—and if the love of God is in us, we will.
Here is a place where we can exercise some basic but serious Christian discipline. There will be moments and days and maybe even weeks and months and years when we will not feel like loving someone (and maybe even anyone) and it will seem like nothing can stir up the feeling that we wish we had. In those times, what should we do? We should carry out loving actions anyway; we should help that person who is in need anyway; we should give ourselves up for someone anyway.
We all know about the wonderful works of mercy that Mother Theresa of Calcutta performed among the lepers and other outcasts of that city in India. A while back, a collection of correspondence between Mother Theresa and her superiors and confessors (Mother Theresa: Come Be My Light, Doubleday) revealed a person who, even while she was performing extraordinary acts of mercy and grace and help and healing, was often experiencing dark nights of the soul as she wondered where God was and as she wondered if her life meant anything. But notice—she kept doing her acts of love and mercy even when she did not feel like it. That is a discipline which we can all emulate.
Love is sacrificial
But what is our love for one another to look like? The basic characteristic of Christian love, of love that is Christ-like, is selfless sacrifice. So John said, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (v. 16); John then illustrated that kind of love by saying that someone who has God’s love abiding in her will share her worldly goods with a brother or sister in need and he then goes on to say that we should love in “truth and action.” I am very glad for that illustration for two reasons: (1) It does not allow us to think that our love for one another is seen only in our literal laying down of our lives for one another, since the chances that we will have to do that are slim and (2) It shows us that sacrificial love expresses itself in very practical, down-to-earth ways.
Using the example given by John as a model, here are some ways that we show our love to each other; each of them involves meeting another’s legitimate needs by laying down some important aspect of our lives. How can we give up some of what we have and some of who we are to help make up for those vital things of which people are in such short supply because the world is in such short supply of them?
People are in short supply of time, so we can help a brother or sister who is lacking in time by sharing some of our time with them—it could involve watching over a child while errands are run, it could involve helping with yard or house work, or it could involve taking a meal to them.
People are in short supply of community, so we can help a brother or sister who is lacking in community by finding ways to be friends with them, such as taking them to lunch, talking with them in the yard, reading the Bible and praying together, or just being there for them.
People are in short supply of mercy and forgiveness, so we can help a brother or sister who is lacking in mercy and forgiveness by laying down our pride and offering mercy and forgiveness to them out of the great store of mercy and forgiveness that God in God’s grace has given us.
People are in short supply of encouragement, so we can help a brother or sister who is lacking in encouragement by building them up, by speaking uplifting words to them, or by standing with them in the hard times through which they are going.
People are in short supply of grace, so we can help a brother or sister who is lacking in grace by accepting them as they are, by treating them with respect, or by looking up to them in love rather than down at them in judgment.
It’s all about real-life, everyday sacrifice for one person at a time, you see, just as much and even more than it’s about dying in someone’s place if we get the chance.
If we really believe in Jesus—if we really trust in him as the Son of God, as God incarnate, as the crucified and resurrected Lord—then we will grow more and more to love like he loved, since such following of him is the natural result of such belief in him. “This is his commandment,” John said, “that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us” (v. 23.
If we are to be Christian, if we are to the Church, it is vital that we grow in our obedience to Jesus and that we progress in our following of Jesus so that we will come to love in sacrificial and practical ways. Will we?