1 John 3:18-22
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
I speak a lot about the church as family and the clear New Testament affirmation that we are made brothers and sisters of Christ and therefore brothers and sisters with each other. Similarly, our questions are not whether we are a family of God in Jesus Christ; that’s simply a given. The questions are, “What kind of family are we?” and “What kind of family are we becoming?”
All of us know that terrible fights can occur within families. I know a man who was named as the executor of his cousin’s will many years ago. The cousin had never married and had lived around the world. Her estate was not extravagant, but it contained valuable jewelry and attractive works of art. Another cousin soon decided she had been stiffed in the will. Protests and discussion turned into acrimony and accusation. Finally the other cousin brought a lawsuit against the estate and the executor, her own relative. And for what? Another trinket, that’s all. True story.
Many of you may remember a hit show of the 1970s called, “All in the Family,” in which a newlywed man and his wife lived with the bride’s parents. The father called his son-in-law “Meathead” instead of Michael, which tells you about their relationship right there. One show concerned a dispute Michael and his wife, Gloria, had over a serious issue between them. It was whether they would postpone having their first child so she could go to work to support them while he earned an advanced degree. It turned into a huge row between them. They stopped speaking, pretended the other was not there – well, you know the drill. They were deadlocked.
Such kinds of disputes are all in the family, to be sure.
But we are not to concentrate on the disputes or arguments we have had within our church family, or even the hatred we may have suffered from our brothers and sisters, but on the enduring responsibility of love that we have for one another. A family of God is not to be stifled by bitterness or self‑interest, but galvanized for compassion toward others.
John also reminds us that such love does not come from within ourselves. It is, rather, God's love, which persists among those who remember that Christ “laid down his life for us.” Hence, Christlike love is not simply “word or speech,” says John, but “truth and action.”
The two-millennia dream of Christian peoples has been to build a community of faith, a family of God, that is impelled by an ethic of love more than an ethic of justice. For the enduring duty and the perpetual dream of Christian people is to embody the love of Christ as fully as humanly possible. And generally, usually, most of the time, we do pretty well – at least on Sundays. But I wonder whether how well we are doing the rest of the time. We say on Sundays we go to church, as if the church was a place. What really happens on Sundays is not that we go to church, it is that we assemble the church.
We are the church, wherever we are and whatever we are doing. Christianity is what Christians do, at least in the eyes of the rest of the world. When Christian people pursue virtue, then the church is virtuous. When Christian people give in to vice, then the church is vicious.
The philosopher William James told a story about a woman who came to one of his lectures and explained to him that the earth is flat and rests on the back of a giant turtle. He asked, “What is the turtle standing on?” “On the back of a still bigger turtle,” came the reply. He started to ask the obvious question when the woman held up her hand and said, “Never mind, it’s turtles, all the way down.”
Sometimes I feel Christians too easily disconnect how we are saved with the result of being saved and the collective life we live because of it. It is all one story. There is not one way we became children of God and another by which we became each other’s brothers and sisters and still another means by which we are transformed into disciples of the Lord.
No: it’s Jesus, all the way down.
So let us return to the story of Gloria and Michael for a moment. Near the end of the episode it appeared as if their marriage was in serious trouble. Edith, scatterbrained Gloria’s mother, was addled, naive, overly trusting and forgetful, but she had a heart of gold. Edith sat alone with her son in law and told him the story of her aunt and uncle.
"When I was a little girl," she said, my aunt and uncle had a huge argument because there was no ketchup at supper one evening. My aunt had not bought a new bottle and the old one was empty. My uncle was very angry because he always wanted ketchup on his meat loaf. It turned into a huge argument. They finally finished dinner but the issue was never resolved. For thirty-five years afterward, until my uncle died, things were never the same between them."
Michael interrupted, “Ma, our dispute is not over a bottle of ketchup!”
“I know,” replied Edith, “but would you rather kill your marriage over something else? Can’t you remember how you love each other?”
“Beloved,” wrote John,
if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. 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.”
WI remember what George H. W. Bush reportedly said about broccoli: "I don't like it. And I'm glad I don't like it because if I liked it, I'd eat it. But I don't want to eat it because I don't like it."
Isn't that often how we think of loving one another as Jesus commanded? A counselor once wrote of a client, "He likes everyone in general but no one in particular." And it's easy for any of us to regard another church member the same way G. H. W. Bush regarded broccoli: "I don't like him. And I'm glad I don't like him because if I liked him, I'd have to love him. And I don't want to love him because I don't like him."
On the contrary, in his book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis wrote,
Do not waste your time bothering whether you 'love' your neighbor. Act as if you did. As soon as we do this, we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you presently will come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will only find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less.
Evangelist Dwight Moody wrote,
In Chicago a few years ago a little boy attended a Sunday school I know of. When his parents moved to another part of the city the little fellow still attended the same Sunday school, although it meant a long, tiresome walk each way. A friend asked him why he went so far and told him that there were plenty of others just as good nearer his home.
"They may be as good for others, but not for me," was his reply.
"Why not?" she asked.
"Because they love a fellow over there," he replied.
It is Jesus all the way down, and it is love all the way up.
In the book of Revelation, there is a section in which Christ dictates a letter to the churches. The Lord told the Ephesian church that he knew their deeds, their “hard work and your perseverance” and how they did not tolerate evil. “You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary,” Said the Lord. “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love” (Rev 2:1‑4).
Doesn’t that sound like something a wife or husband might say to husband driven by career ambitions and the duty to “provide” for his wife and children? That’s all fine and commendable, but she asks, wasn’t she his first love? Nowadays a husband might make the same kind of complaint to his wife, or for that matter children to their parents. What happened to your first love, and where does that leave me?
Of how many churches today might it be said that they have forgotten their first love?
People of God, friends of God: our
first love is Jesus called the Christ! Here, at home, at work or leisure, on
the road, and everywhere:
Christ be with us, Christ within us,
Christ behind us, Christ before us,
Christ beside us, Christ to win us,
Christ to comfort and restore us.
Christ beneath us, Christ above us,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love us,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
Christ in every eye that sees us,
Christ in every ear that hears us.
By his grace we are brothers and sisters with him and one another. And by his grace do we love one another.