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We Know Love by This

1 John 3:16-24

1 John 3:16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 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?18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.23 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. 24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them.

And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

*****

I’ve been reading a lot about hospitals lately, and I keep coming across references to what many writers call the “forerunner of the modern hospital,” which was started by a group of Christians, and in particular one family, in the 4th Century. There was a famine in the land, so anyone who didn’t have grain stored up (the poor) were starving. And whenever there is famine, people tend to get sick, too; their bodies don’t have the energy to fight off infection. One of the church leaders in that area was named Basil. Basil came from a wealthy family and so he knew all of the other wealthy estate owners quite well but as a church leader he also spent a great deal of time among the poor. As the famine went on and on Basil felt the disparity between the two: the rich, with their grain stores and access to doctors, were basically fine (they weren’t making money but they had enough food and their health) while the poor went hungry and wasted away with disease.

So Basil got up to preach one Sunday in the middle of all this, and he gave a sermon about how the famine and the disease in the land were the result of sin. The sin was theft, that the rich had committed against the poor by taking more than enough for themselves, while their neighbors (who had done the actual growing and harvesting) were left to starve. The upshot of this was that if the rich repented and loved their poor neighbors, the famine and the pestilence could end. And Basil, who himself came from a very rich family, gave away the majority of the family estate and his wealth to begin building what he called “a place to nourish the poor.” This was a place where people could worship and pray but also where anyone who was homeless could find shelter, where everyone who was hungry could get food, where all who were sick could be cared for by a doctor, all free of charge to them because it was a place where the rich could have their wealth redistributed. Basil even worked with local authorities so that the landowners’ taxes went to this place of care. When Basil died, his friend Gregory preached his funeral and said that this place was a “new city.” It was a new society built around love. And that’s what people call the first hospital, a place of “hospitality” for anyone who needed it, that comes entirely out of Basil’s recognition that a great deal of people’s suffering comes out of human arrangements that can be rearranged if we confess and repent our sins.

That’s the kind of life the resurrection makes possible. Basil’s hospital is the kind of thing Christians have done throughout our history when we’ve followed God’s call. We have become a new city, a new society, an alternative to the politics of greed. There have been moments when Christians have said, Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. There have been places, like Basil’s new city, where we have tried to love that way by whatever means we have at hand.

This is the greatest commandment after all, to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves; and that command takes a particular form after the Resurrection. John describes love’s form in our Scripture this morning. In the New Testament, love is not a vague feeling or a romantic sentiment. We know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. Now, when we hear verses like these many of us think of people who have sacrificed their lives for others: people like Dr. King, who were martyred putting their lives on the line for the least of these. And of course that is a way of imitating Jesus, but that’s a situation that not many of us will face. There have been eras when it was more likely, but most Christians have not and will not face martyrdom.

So does that mean the rest of us are off the hook? No! John continues: We ought to lay down our lives for one another: 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? When we are relatively comfortable, one way of laying down our lives, of imitating Jesus, is to redistribute your possessions. If you have an extra cloak and your neighbor has none, give them your extra; give to anyone who begs from you. As you treat the least of these so also have you treated me. This is the kind of life the early Christians cultivated.

And there’s no reason to believe they didn’t actually live this way. This is the kind of life that Acts 2 describes where “they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and they held all possessions in common so that each had according to their need.” Throughout the New Testament there’s this term koinonia that gets translated as “fellowship” but if you read closely in Paul and the other epistles, you’ll find that “fellowship” doesn’t just mean “hanging out together” (like it does for us). There is no fellowship without holding things in common; there is no communion if the rich eat up all the bread and drink up all the wine before the poor get to have theirs, too. There is no koinonia without a commons where everyone gives according to their ability and receives according to their need. Acts 2 is not some unachievable fantasy. That is the kind of life Christians are called to live. That’s what love looks like: 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.

Now, I recognize that this is really demanding. It’s almost like the New Testament is asking us to lose our lives. And we’d prefer to keep them. In the words of GK Chesterton, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” And so rather than try, many Christians have become quite skilled at avoiding koinonia. We do all kinds of gymnastics to hurdle over Scriptures like today’s, so that we get all the benefits without any of the sacrifice; all the grace, none of the repentance; lot’s of “fellowship,” no redistribution.

We say it’s not really about our possessions. It’s not about our money or our property. The important thing is our hearts. I’m doing OK, as long as I’m humble and don’t think mean thoughts about my neighbor. We decide that these calls to love and give, to lay down our lives, are spiritual inclinations rather than material demands.

And this spiritualizing of love cuts two ways: it gets the rich off the hook for having to actually do anything other than cultivate a “state of mind” (whatever that is), but it also means that poverty is not a problem of possession. It’s not really about lacking money. Poverty is a spiritual problem, too. And so the poor don’t need money or food or housing. They need to stop being lazy or they need education, which will train the real poverty out of their hearts. Don’t give a man to fish, teach him to fish (and then walk away before he asks why you’ve got a commercial fishing boat and he’s got a little tykes rod and reel).

Aren’t we clever? We reverse the consistent teaching of the Bible and the first four centuries of the church, so that the rich are trusted to give charitably out of their generosity (which we must not demand of them!) while the poor are obliged to work their way out of poverty. There’s a passage that’s often used to support this idea, where Paul is talking to the Thessalonians and says “Those who don’t work, don’t eat,” and you’ll often hear that phrase dropped without context as biblical proof that the poor are lazy and need to get to work. But there’s nothing in that passage that says Paul is talking to the poor. Not a thing. He’s warning the church against idleness, which was generally a vice of the rich, who got other people to do the heavy lifting for them and so didn’t know what to do with all their time. Poor people know that if they don’t work, they don’t eat. They’ve been hungry even when they have worked. It’s the landowners who get to eat without working. And so a central part of the New Testament witness is that if you’re comfortable and you’re going to be a part of the church, you don’t get to sit up there on your cushioned chair, “managing” people, anymore; you don’t get the place of honor when we worship together; you come down here and you work with everyone else. Those who don’t work, don’t eat!

The New Testament does not let us disconnect our hearts from our stuff. John puts it this way: 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.23 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. 24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. Our hearts do not condemn us when we obey the commandment. What commandment? The commandment to love. What is love? 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? Our hearts do not condemn us when we see a neighbor in need and lay down our lives to meet that need. Your heart is right when your stuff is shared (with the poor!), and there’s no separating the two.

That’s what it means to love. That’s what it means to live in light of the resurrection. Despite all our wriggling to get out of those demands, it is that simple; it is that difficult. Could you imagine starting something that in 1,500 years people say “Oh yeah, that was the first hospital?” That’s the kind of thing Christians have done when we’ve taken the call to love seriously, when we haven’t left that call untried, when we have reshuffled the world’s unfairly stacked deck. And the opposite isn’t neutral. When we have failed to love, when we have just gone along with the patterns of this world, we have participated in horrible atrocities and the day to day misery of so many of our poor neighbors. Death and resurrection, heaven and hell, and the future of the church really are at stake here.

Friends, I know it’s hard to take these passages as though the mean what they say. It’s much nicer to spiritualize them and pat ourselves on the back. But I think there is great hope here, too. Fellowship, real fellowship, where we hold all things in common and everyone has what they need is possible. And we can build that new city together here. That city doesn’t have to be built in a day, but we’ll never build it if we don’t desire it, if we don’t think love has anything to do with redistribution. We’ll never build it if we don’t say, yes, this is what resurrected life looks like.

So in the meantime, look and listen. Look at what we have and listen for what our members or our neighbors need. Maybe tomorrow you have an extra car, and all of the sudden someone needs transportation to a job. Maybe you’ve got an extra hour, and someone needs a ride to the store. Maybe you’ve got an extra $25 and someone needs some groceries. But we can’t stop there, at small acts of kindness. Beyond that, then maybe we look around our city and say “It’s unjust that in Durham, people who have been found innocent in court go to jail anyway because they can’t pay the $200 court fee. Maybe we can organize an offering to stop that.” Maybe we say that as we grow, we want to work toward 10% of our church budget going directly to people in need, a tithe back to our neighbors. Who knows what imperfect places we might land even if we fall short of holding everythingin common? But if we write off that ultimate goal without ever trying, then we won’t get anywhere.

Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action, holding all things in common so that everyone has what they need. That’s our challenge, that’s our hope. That is the commandment, that is love, those are the kinds of things Christians like Basil have done when they’ve worked with the Holy Spirit. Let’s aspire to that kind of love, and see what we stumble upon as we make our way there. Amen.

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