My old friend Ken Burningham and I were having a conversation once, toward the end of his life, and he surprised me by saying, “I’ve come to the conclusion that I no longer need to learn anything new”. This was so out of character for Ken that I didn’t know what to say, I was so surprised. But then he went on to explain what he meant; he said, “I’ve come to the conclusion that my problem isn’t that I don’t know enough to live well. My problem is that I’m not putting into practice the things I already know”. And then he looked around at all the books on his bookshelves and said, “How many ways can there possibly be to say, ‘Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself’?”
When he explained it like that, I immediately realized that I agreed with him. I love reading, especially novels and good poetry, and I like good biblical scholarship too. But do I expect my new reading to make a huge difference to the basic principles by which I live my life? Not really. I suspect that the old commandments, the old principles that I learned from the beginning, will continue to be my guiding light as I move toward old age.
The author of the First Letter of John obviously feels the same way. When he sat down to write this letter, he was probably an old man, and he had been a leader in the Christian movement for many years. Very likely, he was writing for churches which were facing some persecution because of their commitment to Jesus as God’s Son; the Roman emperor already claimed that title, and Romans didn’t take kindly to people claiming the emperor’s titles. But his way of encouraging his young Christian friends was not by giving them some new instruction, but by reminding them of the gospel message they had heard right from the beginning. All through the letter he focuses on what we might call ‘Christian essentials’, and especially four things. First: Jesus the Son of God really came to us in the flesh. Second, we are called to believe in him and obey his commandments. Third, the most important commandment is the command to love one another, and if we don’t obey that, we don’t really know God. Fourth, we shouldn’t be surprised if the world hates us, because Jesus is the light of the world, and the darkness will always resist the light.
John comes back to these themes in our reading for today, but he starts off with a strange story: the story of Cain and Abel from the Old Testament. Do you remember Cain and Abel? In the book of Genesis they are the children of Adam and Eve. Their parents are the first to disobey God by taking the forbidden fruit, with the result that they are banished from the Garden of Eden and sent out to live in a dark and dangerous world. The consequences of their choice begin to be seen in the next generation. We’re told that Cain was a tiller of the ground, but Abel was a shepherd. They both brought offerings to God: Cain brought some of the fruit of the ground, and Abel offered some of the firstlings of his flock, presumably in an animal sacrifice. Genesis says, ‘And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard’ (Genesis 4:4-5).
We’re not told why this is so, but we are told that Cain is angry with God and with his brother. God calls him on this: he says,
“Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:6-7).
Cain says nothing, but the resentment grows and festers in his heart. Eventually he invites his brother to go for a walk into the field with him, ‘and when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him’ (v.8). So we see that anger leads inexorably to murder, and the human rebellion against God leads inexorably to conflict and violence against one another, brother to brother.
In our passage for today, this is the story John starts with. He says,
‘For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We must not be like Cain, who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous’ (vv.11-12).
And he then goes on to say, ‘Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you’ (v.13).
Where’s he going with this? The point he’s trying to make is that it isn’t surprising that the world isn’t always jumping for joy because you and I have decided to become followers of Jesus. After all, Jesus is leading a Kingdom of God movement; he’s calling the world to account because of its love for power, and its greed and injustice and oppression and violence. He’s announcing a kingdom of justice and compassion, a kingdom where the first will be last and the last first. Of course, the people who benefit from the present arrangements aren’t going to be cheering for this new kingdom! Herod wasn’t very happy about it; neither was Pontius Pilate, and neither were the leaders of the religious establishment.
We’ve seen this recently in our own city, when the Salvation Army tried to rebuild their old church on Alberta Avenue so that they could minister to the poor and homeless in that area. Prosperous local citizens complained about this; all these prostitutes and junkies and street people hanging around the church were going to negatively impact their property values! Of course, when we read the gospels, it’s unquestionable that Jesus is far more interested in helping drug addicts and prostitutes and street people than in my property values, but of course, if you’re a landowner you might not see it that way! But as Jesus said,
“Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master’. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me” (John 15:20-21).
In other words, don’t be surprised if you run into opposition when you try to be faithful to Jesus. After all, people weren’t always wildly enthusiastic about him either!
But here’s the point: it shouldn’t be a surprise to us to run into opposition, and even hatred, from the world around us, but it should be a surprise – it should strike us as completely incongruous – if we run into the same thing from our brothers and sisters in Christ. The horror of Cain’s murder of Abel is that they were brothers: Cain murdered someone who had emerged from the same womb as he had. And John underlines this point in the language he uses.
‘All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them’ (v.15).
This is what happened with Cain and Abel, he says: Cain was angry with Abel, and his anger hardened into resentment, and then eventually the result was fratricide.
Jesus makes the same connection in the Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard that 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; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool’, you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22).
And we may also remember that Jesus’ brother James writes these words:
‘You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness’ (James 1:19-20).
So at this point we should probably stop and ask ourselves, how am I doing with this teaching of John and Jesus and James? John is quite clear that hate is morally equivalent to murder, and Jesus says the same thing about anger. John is especially concerned with anger in the Christian community. It’s as if he’s saying, ‘Brothers and sisters, you’re going to get enough of that from the world outside. When you come into this church family, make sure it doesn’t happen there too. Make sure that what you give each other is compassion and gentleness and love’.
And yet we know that it does happen in the Christian community. People in churches rub each other up the wrong way; we attack our sisters and brothers because we disagree with their opinions; we resent it when others get more attention than we do; and, of course, when that happens, instead of going to the other person and talking it over, we tell our friends about it, and we get the gossip machine going. Churches are communities of sinners and so we shouldn’t be surprised if sometimes those sinners sin against each other. But that doesn’t mean we should be content with the situation.
So in verses 16-18 John reminds us of the central Christian commandment:
‘We know love by this, that (Jesus) laid down his life for us – and 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? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’.
These verses are packed full of essential teaching about love. Yes, it seems like a truism that we ought to love one another, but these days we so often misunderstand what Christian love is meant to be all about. So let’s say it again: this love that we’re commanded to give to each other has nothing to do with fine-sounding words, nothing to do with whether or not we like each other, and nothing to do with feelings. ‘Love’ is almost always a feeling word these days, but in the New Testament it’s not; it’s almost always about actions.
Which actions? Well, let’s take the cross for starters:
‘We know love by this, that (Jesus) laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ (v.16).
The cross was Jesus’ ultimate act of love for the whole world: stretching out his arms and giving his life as a sacrifice for sin, so that we could be forgiven and reconciled to God. In John 15:13 Jesus says “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”. But of course Jesus goes even further than this. He says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you”, but when he gave his life for the human race, we weren’t exactly exerting ourselves to obey God’s commands! Far from it! But his act of love on the cross reaches beyond his friends to the whole human race, whether or not they love him.
In the Roman world there was a saying: “See how these Christians love one another!” The Romans didn’t say that because they noticed that the Christians gushed all over each other and gave each other warm hugs; they said it because, over and over, they had seen Christians willingly give their lives for each other. And Jesus said, “By this” – this kind of sacrificial love, that is – “everyone will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:35).
I’m reminded of the story of Father Maximilian Kolbe, a priest who was imprisoned in Auschwitz. There had been an escape, and so now the word came down that ten prisoners were to be starved to death to pay for the crime of the one who had gotten away. Ten men were randomly chosen from a line, but the tenth cried out, “Oh, my wife and children!” Father Maximilian stepped forward and said, “I will take his place”. “Who are you?” asked the commandant. “I am no one – just a Catholic priest”, he replied. The commandant shrugged and said, “If you want it, so be it”. So Father Maximilian was taken with the other nine, and over the next few weeks they were all starved to death. He prayed with the others and comforted them, and he himself was the last to die.
Father Maximilian was following the way of Jesus. ‘We know love by this’, John says, ‘that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ (v.16).
But you and I probably won’t be called on to do something like that. It might happen, of course, but the probability isn’t very high. It is, however, very likely that we will be called on to practice the next verse; in fact, this is probably where the rubber hits the road for most of us:
‘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)
This is where I get very encouraged about being the pastor of St. Margaret’s. Our recent visit from Tim Schultz from World Vision, in which we not only sponsored two new children as a congregation but had another seven or eight taken by individuals or families in the parish, was just the most recent example of the generosity of people in this community, for which I’m very thankful. And we need to stay the course with this and not get deflected from it.
Let’s remind ourselves of what John is saying here: love is the evidence that we have come to know God. ‘We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another’ (v.14). And this love we’re talking about isn’t words or feelings but practical actions. So if I claim to be a follower of Jesus but I grudge every cent I give to the poor, how can the love of God really live in me? If I’m spending all my time trying to find excuses not to be generous – “They’ll just waste it, you know” – “It all goes to overhead, doesn’t it?” – then how has my heart really been touched by the love of Christ? If my use of my money and possessions is no different from the person next door who doesn’t claim to be a Christian, then how am I really following Jesus?
No, one of the central differences the gospel makes in a person’s life is the transformation from selfishness and greed to love and generosity. Jesus told us that our heavenly Father showers his blessings on good and bad alike, and loves to give good gifts to those who ask him. Well then, Jesus would say to us, ‘Go and do likewise’.
And of course, this isn’t just about money; for many of us, our time is a far more precious commodity. Really, the greatest gift of love we can ever give to another person is to spend time with them. Did you notice that phrase? ‘Spend time’. Truly, time is something we spend; every hour of our life that passes is an hour we’ll never get back. God calls us to be generous with our time as well as our money, and yet we all know that churches and other community organizations are finding it harder and harder to get enough volunteers to offer the kind of services they’d like to provide to those who need them. This is love, too, a very practical and demanding form of love, and if we close our hearts to those who need it, how does the love of God live in us?
Well, it’s time to bring this sermon to a close, and as I do so, I’d just like to say that I’m well aware that I’ve had the easy part this morning. I get to talk about love. Talk is fine, but as my brother Mike likes to say, “Christianity isn’t meant to be a talking religion, it’s meant to be a doing religion”.
I started out this morning by telling you about my old friend Ken Burningham. After he died, there was a conversation amongst some of us about what scripture verse ought to be used for his memorial. For myself, I had no doubt about the answer to that question, because I knew which verse meant the most to him: it was verse 18 from today’s reading:
‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’.
Or, as the New Living Translation puts it,
‘Dear children let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions’.
Right: time to stop talking, and start practicing what I preach. But I should warn you - when we come together again next week, old St. John will have more to say to us about love!