Sunday, April 26, 2009

Deeds of Love

1 John 3:16-24

What is love? We’ve been asking this question for centuries. And of course, love is a favorite sermon topic, so we preachers have had more than enough opportunities to offer our definitions. And yet, it seems as if this continues to be an appropriate topic to consider, because we still struggle with our definitions and with our practice of love.

I know that for the broader world love is eternally connected to romance, but normally, when the Bible speaks of love, it has something else in mind. Indeed, love is the foundation of the Christian faith. Jesus summed up the law of God in two commandments – love God and love neighbors. Every thing else is simply commentary on these two commandments. And if you read through our text this morning, I’d venture to say that you wound find that we keep the first by keeping the second.

When it comes to the biblical idea of love, I can’t think of a better pop culture example than the closing scenes of the old Star Trek movie: The Wrath of Kahn. In this film, Captain Kirk’s old nemesis, Kahn, tries to destroy the Enterprise, and the crew has only one hope of survival– Spock must fix the warp drive to keep the ship from exploding. But to do this he’ll have to enter a radiation-filled reactor room and cap the reactor. Spock goes into the room and fixes the problem, knowing that he won’t come out alive. His crew mates are saved and appreciative, but they regret their loss. But, as Spock lies dying, trapped by his own choice in the reactor room, he tells Jim Kirk that "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one"

Although Spock is a person of logic and never shows emotion, I would suggest that his action was truly an act of love for his crew mates. As the movie closes, Spock’s body is beamed to the newly formed Genesis planet. In the sequel, Spock is reborn and then reunited with his spirit, which had been placed within Dr. McCoy through a mind-meld. Now, it might be a stretch of the imagination to suggest that this is a metaphor for resurrection, but I think you get the point. The gospel message is simply this, the needs of the many – us– outweighs the needs of the one – Jesus.

Good Friday reminds us that Jesus stood against the “powers that be,” and that he died a horrific death as a result. The Easter event, however, reminds us that despite the horrors of Good Friday, God has vindicated Jesus through the resurrection. Easter teaches us that life and not death is our destiny. With life as our destiny, we hear the call to live out God’s passion. For, as Bible scholar Marcus Borg puts it:
"At the heart of Christianity is the heart of God -- a passion for our transformation and the transformation of the world. At the heart of Christianity is participating in the passion of God." (Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, HarperSanFrancisco, 2003, p. 225)

If I understand him correctly, Borg believes that love and faith are action oriented. What we do, more than what we say, gives evidence of our faith in Jesus Christ and our love for God.

1. Jesus is Love in Action

It seems odd to many modern people that Christians use an instrument of execution as our primary religious symbol. Of course, the cross has become such a popular piece of jewelry, we may forget that it was the ancient equivalent of the electric chair.

But from a biblical and a Christian perspective, this horrific device has become a sign of God’s love for the world. This is the message of John’s letter. In Jesus’ death, we discover how much God loves us. By laying down his life for his friends, Jesus shows us the fullness of God’s love, and encourages us to do the same.

The question is: how do we follow this pathway? John isn’t asking us to die. He’s asking us to live sacrificially for others. This means living a life of service to humanity with the hope that the world might be transformed. In his willingness to give his life as an expression of God’s love for the world, Jesus gives us a hint as to the true nature of the Christian faith. It’s really not about me. It’s about the world and its needs. Jesus’ message is one of servanthood, something he demonstrated by getting on his knees and washing the feet of the disciples (John 13). Now, Jesus’ disciples didn’t always get what Jesus was trying to do or teach, any more than we do. To give you an example, some of the disciples were trying to advance their position in Jesus’ kingdom, but Jesus pointed to the woman who washed and anointed his feet and said – remember her because she got it. She understands that the way of the kingdom is the way of service (Mk 14:3-9).

Jesus lived a life that welcomed others and transformed lives. He empowered fishermen, tax collectors, and women, both wayward and virtuous. He touched the untouchables and gave them life. Yes, Jesus is love in action.

2. Christian Faith is Love in Action

If Jesus is love in action, then the Christian life should be a manifestation of this love in action. Though none of us seems able to fully live out this life of divine love, it remains our goal. It’s why we sing: “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” We sing the song with gusto, hoping that it will be true in our own lives.

Jesus offers us an example of how to live a life of love and service, but sometimes we put Jesus on such a high pedestal that we can’t conceive of living life the way he did. So, we often turn to the saints of God, the ones who have lived lives of gracious love and with whom we can better identify. Of course, they too wish to live as Jesus lived.

And to whom do we look? Each of us has our own list of saints, but Mother Teresa is usually near the top. But, she’s not alone. There’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Martin Luther King, both men were saints of God whose lives helped changed the world, and both of them, like Jesus, died young. When I think of people who lived sacrificial lives of love, I often think of Father Damian, the Belgian Catholic priest, who gave his life caring for the lepers on Molokai. So closely did he work with these “untouchables” of society that he too contracted the disease. Still, despite his own disability, he never gave up his calling to care for others. Whoever lives their lives for others with such devotion, they become for us mentors and guides. They show us the way of Jesus, and remind us that the Christian life is truly one of service to others.

3. Love comes from the Spirit who Abides in us

True love, the Scriptures teach us, is seen in the way we live our lives in the world. John asks: How does God’s love abide in one who “has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” When the love of Jesus truly penetrates our lives, when we truly abide with the Spirit of God, our hearts will reach out to those who are in need. By walking in the Spirit we’re empowered to be servants of everyone whom God loves. And according to the gospel of John, God loves the whole world enough to send a son to share our lives and to be a beacon of love even in death.

With Easter’s glories fading from our memories, it’s easy to forget the Easter message of transformation. But, a day is coming when we will once again be reminded that the Spirit of divine love is present among us, changing lives. Yes, very soon we will arrive at Pentecost, a celebration that brings to us a message of encouragement and empowerment, so that we who follow Jesus, might love those whom Jesus loves. Whether it’s caring for a leper or making sandwiches for the homeless, whether providing shoes for needy children or comforting the grieving, where the Spirit is present, Jesus the crucified and risen one, touches and transforms lives. And, so, filled with the Spirit of the God revealed to us in the cross of Jesus, we sing:
“They will know we are Christians, by our love, by our Love.”

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