Sunday, February 14, 2010

When Christians Get It Right (1 John 4:11-21)

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Today, we are wrapping up our series of messages on the theme “unChristian: What a new generation really thinks of Christianity and why it matters.” Over the last several weeks, we have been looking at some research done among 16-29-year-olds about their perceptions of Christianity and the Church. We recognize that people in this generation have opted out of Church at a rate five times higher than that of people age 65 and over. What the research shows is that we Christians have an image problem in the minds of young people in our culture. They might be interested in Jesus or various aspects of Christian theology, but they’ve essentially said, “No thanks” to the church based on what they’ve seen in the lives of the Christians they’ve known.

Each week, we’ve looked at a particular negative perception that young people have about Christians and how that perception might actually be out-of-step with what Jesus has called us to be. Each week, we’ve tried to learn from those in this younger generation, and we’ve sought to grow with what we’ve learned. And it seems that’s what happened. I got an email from one of you this week that read, “Your series on un-Christian has been very insightful and thought-provoking (even if I do resemble some of it). If the shoe fits, I don’t want to wear it. Need to kick it off! Maybe with God’s help I can.” That’s my hope for all of us. May we pray.

Today, I don’t want you to think that Christians get it wrong all the time. In fact, when Christians get it right, we have the potential to drastically transform the world. And you know what? Getting it right really isn’t all that complicated. It’s about remembering the basics. So today’s message is very basic.

In Mark 12, one of the teachers of his day asked Jesus to summarize the greatest commandment in the law. Jesus said it was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and a second is like it – to love your neighbor as you love yourself (Mark 12:28-34). If you’ve listened to me for any length of time, you know I agree with Jesus that these things are important. Everything we do hangs here. Over the next 20 years that I’m your pastor, you’re going to hear me remind you of this over and over again – love God, love neighbor – these two are the greatest commandment. Over the next 20 years, you’re going to get sick of hearing me say it, because it is the most basic and fundamental of Jesus’ teachings, and we’re going to highlight it a lot.

Jews of Jesus’ day would have been familiar with the first part of the teaching. During their prayers every morning and every night, Jews would recite a prayer known as the Shema. Shema is the Hebrew word for “hear,” and it comes from Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” This was foundational. It was like a summary statement, a creed of Jewish faith. So Jesus is asked what is most important, and he recites this creed. Well, sorta.

What I want you to notice is that Jesus monkeys with the creed. In addition to heart, soul, and might, Jesus adds “mind.” We are also to love God with our mind. Remember, this is a foundational creed of Jewish belief, and Jesus adds something to it! It would be like me standing up here and saying, “Today we’re going to add a few things to the Apostles’ Creed.” A few weeks ago, we looked at one of John Wesley’s key teachings about the attitude we need to have about differences within the Christian faith: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Someone asked, “But what’s essential?” Good question. The Apostles’ Creed is what’s essential – the things that it claims about God and who we are in relation to God are essential.

And so if I wanted to change it, you’d probably be sitting there going, “Whoa, A.J. – that thing goes back to the early church, that’s a nearly universal statement of faith that is foundational to all Christians! You can’t just mess with it and add stuff to it!” And you’d be right. That’s not such a good idea. That’s not the kind of thing we do. But Jesus did it, because Jesus was the only one with the authority to do it.

But then, Jesus adds even more. He draws from Leviticus 19:18 and says we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Love of God and love of neighbor go hand-in-hand. You can’t have one without the other. They are like two sides of a coin. Loving God necessarily involves love of neighbor. If you love God, it will be shown in loving your neighbor. And if you can’t love your neighbor, you haven’t figured out the love of God.

The first part of this greatest commandment, to love God, tells us, first and foremost, that God is a relational God. It tells us that God desires to have a relationship with us. The reason God tells us to love God is because God already loves us. God loves us sacrificially. God created us, God knows our names, God knows all about us, God knows about our fears and desires – God knows each of us better than we know ourselves.

And so we’re all trying to figure out our purpose in life, and it starts with the basics. The first thing – your primary purpose in life, is simply to let God love you. If you want to be the person God has created you to be, let God love you. And then second, you need to reciprocate that love. To the best of your ability, with all the faculties and abilities and sensibilities you have, you need to love God back. If you’re struggling trying to figure out your purpose in life, try these two things: first, let God love you. Second, love God in return.

That’s the first part of this greatest commandment, but then Jesus starts talking about this loving our neighbor business. And when it comes to figuring out your purpose in life, this is the last piece. Let God love you, love God in return, and then show and live and share God’s love with your neighbor. This is what God made us for.

In our reading from 1 John that we looked at a few minutes ago, this is what the writer of that letter was getting at. “Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters are liars, for they cannot love God. Those who love God must love each other also.”

Love is one of those things that grows. You all know this. You all know that you love in different ways as you grow up through life, and the ways that you show love continue to change. This probably won’t surprise many of you, but I’ve always been a bit of a ladies’ man. When I was three, I memorized the lyrics to Stevie Wonder’s I Just Called to Say I Love You and I would croon that song to the old ladies at church. In my preschool I was known as “The Kissing Bandit” because I would chase the girls around in the hopes of stealing a smooch. This was tempered when Lisa Jacobs turned the tables on me and pinned me down. In early elementary school, the way you showed a girl you like her was by torturing her, of course. I mean really, how’s a girl supposed to know you like her unless you make her life a living hell? And then a little older, it was picking flowers out of my mother’s garden and taking them by Mary Ingham’s house and sitting on the front sidewalk while she practiced the piano. Or in high school, when you showed someone you loved them by getting the car washed before you went parking at the hydro-electric intake towers or along the Parkway.

But somewhere, the way we express love shifts, because love grows and matures throughout our life. Somewhere love becomes less about me and more about the other person. Talk to people who have fallen in love, and almost universally somewhere in their story they will say something like, “I knew this was love because there was nothing I wouldn’t do for the other person.” Talk to people like Jim and Tam Thompson who are celebrating their 44th anniversary today and who, from what I can tell, have grown more in love with each other with each passing day. People like Jim and Tam will tell you that this sort of love is more than just a feeling – it’s a conscious effort with the passing of each day to place the needs of the other above your own. This is how we love – selflessly and sacrificially, always thinking of others before we think of ourselves.

John Wesley summarized this teaching as the goal of the Christian life. He taught that we should seek to be perfected in love, to grow ever more and more in our love of God and our love of neighbor. He used a theological term for this: sanctification, which means becoming holy. This is the goal of the Christian life – to grow in love – to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor. The Holy Spirit enables us to grow in grace so that tomorrow, we are a little more loving than we were today.

If you can keep that in mind, you have summarized the entire ethical teaching of Jesus – love God, love neighbor. Consider this to be your creed – the thing that is foundational and upon which all other decisions are based. Here’s a challenge: every morning try saying, “Lord, help me accept your love today. Help me to love you. Help me to show your love to every person I meet today, in every phone call, in every e-mail, to every person who shares the road with me in traffic – everyone.” And then every night, “Lord, thank you for loving me. Forgive me for the ways I didn’t love you back, and forgive me for the ways I wasn’t loving toward other people today. And even while I sleep, mold me and make me more loving tomorrow than I was today.” If we would each do that, I wonder how our lives and the lives of people we encounter would be changed.

One of the teachers asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-37.) After all, if we’re supposed to love our neighbor, it would be a good idea to know who our neighbor is. This question was basically saying, “OK Jesus, tell me who my neighbor is so I know who I don’t have to love.

Jesus answered with a story – the story of the Good Samaritan. A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, a trip of six hours on foot, maybe a little less if you rode a donkey. The man was attacked, robbed, beaten, and left for dead. The man is lying there, and the first two people who come down the road are deeply-religious people. Each of them sees the man on the side of the road, and makes sure to go out of their way to avoid the man. After all, they were very busy – they had important appointments to meet, they had schedules to keep, and they just couldn’t afford to stop the man and help. Maybe this was a trick! Maybe the thieves were still hiding and would rob them if they stopped to help! And it would be so much trouble. They’d have to get the man to town, and pay for food and lodging and medical care for him, and it was just too complicated! Surely God would understand. Someone else would have to help them. So here, the religious people got it wrong.

But then along comes a Samaritan. Remember, the Samaritans were not well-regarded by Jews of Jesus’ day. Their religious beliefs and practices were wrong and they were perceived to be impure. But when the Samaritan saw the man lying on the side of the road, Jesus says his heart was moved to pity. And so he loads the guy onto his donkey, carries him 16 miles into town, puts him up, calls a doctor, and leaves two days’ wages – that would be around $500-$700 for most of us – with the innkeeper to take care of him. Anything beyond it,” he says, “put it on my tab.” Jesus says, “That’s what love looks like.” It’s not a feeling. It’s intentionally caring for someone and sacrificing yourself. It’s about seeking the best for someone else, it’s about interrupting your day and caring for someone else in their time of need. This is the kind of love that God calls us to.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on this parable the night before he was assassinated. He said there are two basic forces in the world – one is the force of love, and the other is the force of fear. Both forces are expressed in this parable. The religious people who passed by the beaten man on the side of the road responded out of fear and asked, “What will happen to me if I stop to help?” The Samaritan responded out of love and asked, “What will happen to him if I don’t stop?”

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Love, in its truest and purest form, says “I am willing to sacrifice of myself so that you may have what you need.”

I spoke with a young father recently who did not want to be a father. Throughout his wife’s pregnancy, he was fearful. He didn’t feel qualified to raise it and care for a child, he was worried, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be bothered with having his life interrupted with this other life. But, just minutes after his newborn daughter drew her first breath and made her first cry, he held her in his arms and looked at her and thought, “I will do anything for you. I will protect you at any cost. My life has just changed forever, and I couldn’t be any happier.”

And perhaps that’s the most fundamental difference between love and fear. Fear is concerned with me and mine, love is concerned with you and yours. But Scripture teaches there is no fear in love and that perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18).

Fear is the opposite of love, and fear expresses itself in a variety of ways – anger, aggression, hostility, selfishness, resistance. We all have encounters with people who exhibit these traits, and at the root of all these is fear. Don’t return anger with anger, though, because perfect love casts out fear. I am making an effort, and it’s still something I am growing into, to confront anger with love. When people are angry or aggressive or hostile, I try to understand the fear behind their anger. And I try to love them. Now, granted, some people are just easier to love than others, but I am not going to let other people’s negativity and hostility weigh me down. I am not going to waste time on things that rob me of life and joy. I am not going to be sucked into negative patterns. To the best of my ability and the Holy Spirit’s guidance, I am going to combat fear with love.

But let me tell you what that doesn’t mean. Loving people doesn’t mean letting them have whatever they want. After all, angry and fearful people may have desires that aren’t rooted in the love of God. If someone has an appetite for things that are harmful to them and to other people, we are not called to simply acquiesce and let them have their way. Think of how a parent loves a child. A child may have desires for all sorts of things, but many of those things are harmful to the child and potentially harmful to those around the child.

Likewise, we all may develop appetites for things that are harmful to us and to others, and the most loving response here is to say “No.” Sometimes the most loving thing to do is not to allow others to poison themselves and others with toxicity. Sometimes the most loving thing to do is not to allow fear and anger and selfishness and arrogance and pride to rule the day, but to lovingly and in all sincerity say “No.”

If we want to move from being fearful to being loving, one of the best things we can each do is to take ourselves out of the equation. The bigger our ego – whether it’s healthy or unhealthy – the more we are likely to see ourselves as the center of the universe. I don’t know about you, but I want to live in a larger universe because, in reality, most things have nothing to do with us. This is a place where we could all learn from the wisdom of Alcoholics Anonymous, who teaches Rule #62 – “Don’t take yourself so [darn] seriously!”

We are told that God is love, and God abides in us when we love God. That means that we, our very lives, the very fiber of our being is the home of God’s love. You are God’s abode. You are God’s dwelling. You are God’s house. You are God’s condo. You are God’s apartment. You are God’s dorm room. You are God’s love shack. When God dwells in us, God moves in with the fullness of God’s love, which means we might need to clean up the place and move out our fear, and our anger, and our resentment, and our bigger-than-life egos because perfect love is moving in, and perfect love casts out fear.

Have you noticed that people who are loving are primarily thinking outside themselves? They are thinking about what they can do for others, they are willing to sacrifice their own luxury and comfort simply to meet the needs of others. This is the love of God – this is love of God and neighbor put into action.

Once a month, many of you volunteer at the Emergency Winter Shelter when you could be at home with a glass of wine in front of the fire. That’s the love of God and neighbor put into action. Every year, when some of you give up a weeks’ vacation and go with our youth to help people in rural Appalachia through Carolina Cross Connection, that’s love in action. When there is a need somewhere in the world, you open your wallets and respond generously, such as when you gave $4000 to humanitarian relief in Haiti – that’s love in action. And you do this because this is simply what Christians do.

People who are loving are primarily thinking outside themselves, and churches who are loving are constantly thinking outside themselves. So I have to ask you – what sort of church do you want to be? Do you want to be a fearful church? One that is self-centered, that is angry and toxic, that is focused inward and primarily concerned with its own needs? Or do you want to be a loving church? One that is generous, that is kind and big-hearted and welcoming, one that is constantly looking outside of itself to meet the needs of those outside our walls, who does these things not to get any credit or glory but simply because it’s the right thing to do? One of those churches is very compelling, and it is the most faithful witness for who God calls us to be. So what kind of church do we want to be?

We get it wrong when we’re fearful. We get it wrong when we’re angry, hostile, judgmental, arrogant, close-minded, and confrontational. We get it right when we’re lovingly-engaged with the world around us. When we don’t take ourselves too seriously, when we sacrifice ourselves to meet the needs of others, when our hearts are turned outward instead of inward.

My hope and prayer is that we will be the kind of people and the kind of church who fascinate the world with God’s love. Over the last several weeks we have looked at the ways we are perceived by young people outside the church, the clothing they see, if you will, when they look at our lives as Christians. My hope and prayer is that we will continue to grow in the love of God and neighbor, and that when people look at us, the only thing they will see is the love of God lived out in human flesh.

Now, for those of you who are Christians, in a few moments I’m going to give you an invitation to renew your commitment to God. To re-dedicate your life to Christ and to ask for a fresh wind of the Holy Spirit in your life, that you may become more loving. But, for those of you who aren’t Christians – maybe you’ve joined us during this worship series, my hope for you is that we’ve explored a vision and a version of Christianity that is actually compelling. A Christian faith that isn’t marked by judgmentalism and hypocrisy and close-mindedness and all the things that we’ve identified as unChristian. I hope you’ve seen that’s it possible to be a Christian and not be like this. My hope is that today you’re willing to say, “I want to be part of Jesus’ mission to change the world. I want Jesus to have my heart and my whole life. I am willing to accept God’s love for me and I really want to love God and love my neighbor. I want to be a follower of Jesus.” That’s my hope for all of us today.

Thank you God for loving me. Forgive my sins. Wash me clean and make me new. Jesus, I choose to follow you. I accept you as my savior. I wish to follow you as my Lord. Help me to love God with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength. Help me love my neighbor as I love myself. I offer my life to you.

Lord, bless all who have prayed this prayer today. Hold us in your love. Help us to be more authentically Christian. We ask that you would make us part of your mission – to heal the world with your love, and to show your love to everyone everywhere. Thank you for loving us. Continue to teach us how to love you, and love our neighbors. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


  1. I wrote down the little prayers and posted them where I would see them every day. I don't have a problem receiving God's love or loving God in return,but I find my heart is hesitant to pray to love everyone I meet during the day. I am really not sure I want to love everyone I meet.
    some of them are pretty despicable. So I will just have to pray for God to work on my heart and give me more room to love others.

  2. Anonymous,

    It definitely is a process. You're right - there are a whole lot of people who are difficult to love, people who seem to be awful and rotten and completely despicable. I also struggle to love them, and truth be told, I don't really want to, either.

    Yet, one thing I find is that the way I treat people is often shown back to me. If I am angry, hostile, and confrontational toward people, that is usually given right back to me in heaping doses. When people are angry and hostile and I respond in the same way, it only escalates the problem. I find that an attempt at loving that angry person (difficult though it may be!) often diffuses the situation. If nothing else, it at least disarms or confuses them and helps ease and dissipate the conflict.

    Thanks for checking in on these messages.