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.
Every generation or so human cultures seem to have a period of time in which they redefine themselves. By redefining themselves I do not necessarily mean that they change everything about themselves, but they reexamine what they find to be important to retain and what they defining feature should be pursued. This happens in pretty much any type of culture within societies. Business redefined their core beliefs and mission statements whenever there are significant leadership changes. School districts examine what has worked and what they need to do better when new leadership is hired. Even churches reexamine themselves as newer leadership emerges among them. It is healthy to take time to slow down, look at what has been going on and what goals for the future might be and consider how to proceed to accomplish our future goals. This process is not always a comfortable task to accomplish. When we examine what has been done in the past and consider what changes we might make as we walk into the future people can begin to push back. They were comfortable doing things the way they were, maybe they do not understand the significance of why the changes need to come about, or there may possibly be a change in structure that would change how influential a segment of the population might be.
Changes can be stressful. Changes are difficult to implement and even more difficult to continue to work toward. Last week I mentioned that systems like homeostasis or a state where there is no conflict, where everyone has a place and things can proceed with little dissention. Change disrupts homeostasis and forces us all to find a new normal.
Imagine for a moment the first century church. For decades the faithful followers of the Christ followed the teachings of the original apostles. Men and women that walked with Jesus, spoke directly with him, ate meals with him and witnessed the many miraculous events. But one by one the apostles were martyred for their faith as first the Jewish people drove them out of the Holy City, then the Gentiles began to place blame on them for disasters that fell upon various cities or political figures. One by one they were taken from the earth leaving only stories. As the church expanded across the empires and the faithful grew beyond the ability of the apostles to personally lead each gathering they began to write letters to encourage their disciples to continue to walk in faith. Those letters were collected together to form what we now know to be the New Testament. There are many theories about how the books of scripture were chosen. Most of those theories are not based on any fact what so ever, because the books of scripture were being used for centuries before anyone actually made a list of which were sacred and which were not and oddly enough the list that all the various ancient churches used are the very books we read today, with very few exceptions. There was really only one criteria that was used to determine the worthiness of a letter to be included as sacred writing within the church, was it written by an apostle or a direct disciple of an apostle. Of the books of scripture we read in the New Testament there is really only one book from which the authorship is questioned, that is the Letter to the Hebrews. But the question with that letter is not if an apostle wrote it but which, there are some that believe James wrote it and others believe it was Paul, because the writing style could be either.
So the end of the apostolic age was quickly approaching, change was staring the church in their face. The majority of faithful truly believed that Jesus would have returned by this time yet he had not. The faithful began to have questions and doubts. That is the purpose of the epistle especially the Epistles of John. John was the last of the apostles, he was the final eye witness that could verify the stories that were shared that encouraged the disciples to believe in the hope of Christ. At this time he was old, to be honest in ancient cultures he would have been considered ancient somewhat of an oddity. He no longer went by the title apostle because he felt he was no longer able to be sent out to minister because his joint hurt, his hands shook, and his eyes were failing. Now the church knew him as John the elder, he was the most respected of all men among the community of Ephesus, and he was the voice that encouraged the energetic youth to slow down and consider what was emerging before they rushed into the future.
There were many things that were emerging during this transformational period of time. Some of the more erroneous ideas were spoken about in other letters, but some were still gaining strength. The church was at a place where they were going to have to decide what is right and what is wrong. Where to walk and where to stand. Friends we are at one of those transformational periods today. We have been walking through one of these transformational periods for most of your lives, it has been building and building until suddenly all among the church at this point in time question where the future actually resides. We are in a cloud of unknowing, only able to see a dim silhouette of what stands before us. But well respected leaders are interpreting that silhouette in different ways and the faithful seem to rally around the various ideas and seem to exclude any and all differing interpretations of what the future holds.
These transformational periods are extremely difficult. It nearly ripped the early church apart and it is nearly ripping our contemporary church as well. But John the Elder, the apostle that saw the church from the very beginning into the changing age speaks great comfort to those of us in the midst of change.
He begins today with two incredibly powerful words, “We know…” We do not really get a full understanding of what the word know means in this context because in English know can mean so much. In the ancient Greek language the concept of know is not connected to any opinion but only the observable facts, and of all the senses sight is the one sense that stands above all other things. “We know…” John says. We have observed this, and we know it to be true in every imaginable way, we experience it, perceive it afresh every moment of our lives, and just when we begin to doubt we observe it again. We Know Love.
That is the number one thing that will get anyone through the most difficult time in their lives, that is the number one thing that will get a community through the major changes that every community faces as the culture seems to reexamine what it will be defined as. Love. We know love. They do not know love, but we know it by this, that he laid his life down for us. That is the most basic of the Christian faith. The simplest and purest form of Christianity is Love and we know love by the example, the very vicarious humanity of Christ taking on human form, living and dying for us. Sacrificing the glory of heaven for a moment to live among mankind to show us how to truly be human as God created us to be. We know this, because we have seen it.
John tells these “little children”, these disciples that were not even alive at the time that these events happened that he saw this happen, he faced the persecutions and the exiles because he knows it to be true, and he knows it because of love. So right there in the very face of change, a change that threatens to rip the very fabric of their known existence in two, John tells them in essence, “Go back to the beginning, go back to what we know for certainty and let us start from there. We Know Love because he gave his life for us.”
This is why it is so extremely important to slow down and start from the very beginning, get to the core of what and who we are as individuals and as a community before we even begin to approach anything else. If we lose track of what we know, we lose everything. Every form of Christianity begins right here, Love. The love that God has for us that we can have a relationship with him because of the sacrifice that Jesus made to lift us back into communion with God once again. Then John goes on to say, “We know love by this, that he laid his life down for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
Love God, Love Mankind. The purest form of Christianity. Before one can even begin to contemplate any other issue we must start at this place. This is why Trinitarian incarnational theology begins with Jesus before they try to explain anything else because it is in Jesus that we know anything. It is in Jesus that we begin to understand God and humanity and what love really is all about. Jesus came and gave everything to and for us, and we ought to do the same for others.
John continues to drive the basics of Christianity home as he says, “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?” If any verse in the bible could knock us off our feet it is this one. What is meant by the “world’s goods” are things like money, jobs, abilities to create, economics, time, and pretty much anything we consider property. Let that just sink in for a bit. John says We know Love because Jesus sacrificed his life for ours and we should do that as well, and to for others to know that same type of love if we see a need and we have any sort of resource available to us to help that person and we do not act we are not followers of Christ.
The church as John was writing this letter, stood on the threshold of a new era. Everything that they once knew was drawing to a close and the future seemed dim before them. They had to move forward into this unknown somehow, and john says stay with what you know. Love people with everything you have and show them through actions the love of God that was shown to us through Jesus. Today we face changes that really pale in magnitude to what they faced in that day. They faced persecution to such a degree that they would literally embrace one another at every meeting because that may be the last time you ever see a friend. They faced so much yet they gave all they had so that as a community they would survive. Our troubles are quite frankly inconveniences, yet the future is still unclear.
Every day you can read reports and essays about how the younger generations are leaving the church, everyone claims to know the answers in how to maintain the faithful. Very few actually tell us where the youth are going. They are seeking out groups that know who they are and live it every day. People want to gather around those that love people for who they are and are not ashamed to be who they are. So many people are reading these articles and coming up with plans to reach out to the target audience yet in the process they have forgotten the most important thing, which is simply love. Love the Muslim person not because they are Muslim but because they are human, treat them as you would anyone else and as the relationships grow between the two of you God will eventually open the door for you to share your faith. Love the drug addict, the alcoholic, the exotic dancers, the car salesmen, the lawyers, the janitors, the teachers, the preachers, the managers, and the stay at home moms. Love everyone as if they are just as important and just as worthy of the love that God has shown you, and let God direct your way. We do not have to convert anyone to faith, but if we are followers of Christ we must love one another or we are liars.
I know it isn’t easy, that is why we need constant encouragement from each other. That is why we need this time of worship to feed our spirits so that we can continue to love those in the world that do not know the God that loves them. We need each other so that we can keep one another honest and help one another discern the directions that God is opening before us. We need this time of communion as Friends to help us center down, putting all the distractions off to the side for a while, and just focus on the most basic of faith, love for God and love for mankind. As we enter this time of open worship I pray that we will examine what is most important and how we know what that is. And as we examine this let us each allow God to put away the justifications that we have made and just get right back to the center of Loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit and Living the love of Christ with others.