Sermon February 9

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

February 9, 2014

“The Greatest of These Is Love”

I John 3:11-18

There’s a “Peanuts” comic strip that pictures Schroder bending over his little piano, playing away. Lucy, who is hopelessly infatuated with Schroder, is leaning on the piano and gazing at him. Lucy asks, “Do you know what love is?” Schroder gives his response in dictionary fashion. He says: “Love; pronounced (luv); fondness, a strong affection for or attachment or devotion to a person or persons.” Then he resumes playing the piano. Lucy leans closer, but can’t get his attention. Finally, she turns away, and with a dejected look, says: “On paper, he’s great.”

Love is one of the major themes of I John. But John wants us to get beyond dictionary definitions and romanticized ideals. John wants us to understand the essential meaning of love and then he wants us to live it out, to put it into action. John’s message in these eight verses is simply that we should love one another.

This reminds us of the words of Jesus recorded in John’s Gospel. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Love is to be the characteristic of the church. If the church can not demonstrate the love of Christ to the world, it will never be able to convince the world that it has any good news to offer. Granted, the church has trouble living up to this commandment to love one another. We don’t always love as well or as wisely as we ought. We become pre-occupied with our own self interests; we get irritated at the shortcomings of others; and we tend to hold on to our resentments instead of letting them go.

Also John’s message to love one another suffers from a sort of ho-hum familiarity. Who hasn’t heard Christ’s command to love? In these verses, John wants to shake us out of our complacency. He wants to remind us of what we already know and he hopes that it will lead us to action.

I mentioned last week that in the letter of I John the author is addressing some of the false teachings that were circulating in the church. However, just as important as believing what Christ taught is to follow the example of Christ’s love. In the book of Revelation, also authored by John, there are the letters to the seven churches, messages from God to seven actual New Testament churches. The first one mentioned is the church at Ephesus. The church is praised for its faithfulness. In the cosmopolitan environment of Ephesus there were new cult religions popping up all the time along with the presence of Greek and Roman deities. It took a vigilant effort to hold fast to the truth of Christ in the face of false and misleading teachers. The Ephesian church was commended for standing firm in the faith and rejecting compromise and accommodation with pagan religions.

And yet, in Revelation the Ephesian church is also condemned, because, it says: “You have neglected your first love.” The Ephesian church was once noted not only for their faithfulness to their Lord, but also for their love and warmth. But even though their zeal for Christ remained strong, their love had grown cold. Somehow they had begun to treat the love of Christ as a doctrine they had to defend rather than a commandment they had to live.

This is the same kind of thing we see in the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Paul says: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” In other words, even if I am a great orator and can speak with inspiration and power, but do not have love, I am nothing. Paul says: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” In other words, even if I am a great preacher or teacher, a person full of wisdom and faith, but do not have love, it means nothing. Paul says: “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” In other words, even if I am a person of great charity and sacrifice, but do not have love, it counts for nothing.

Paul is saying there is no substitute for love. There is no other quality of faith or belief that makes up for the absence of love. This is exactly John’s point. In the writings of Jerome, a fourth century church leader, there is a statement that in John’s later years, when he was too old and feeble to preach, that his exhortation to the church was simply – “Little children, love one another.” “It is the Lord’s command,” he would say, “and if this is done, it is enough.”

John writes: “This is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.” This is one of the first lessons learned. There’s nothing new in this exhortation. We’re supposed to already know this. It’s from the beginning. In Leviticus 19:18 it says: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” As John thinks of loving one another, it makes him think of the opposite – of hating one another and the story of the brothers Cain and Abel. John says that the murderer Cain showed by his hatred that he was a child of evil, not of God.

In the New Testament, Jesus was asked what was the most important commandment of all. He answered: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

As John pens this exhortation to love one another, he is reminding us of what we know. I think the most important points John is making are found in the two verses which begin with the words – “We know…” Verse 14 says: “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.”

In the original Greek text the first “we” is emphatic – as if it were underlined or in bold print. “We” know this – that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. What John is saying is that our assurance that we belong to Jesus Christ is that we have begun to imitate his love in our lives. The evidence that we have received salvation in Christ, that we have life instead of death, is the love God has given us for one another. Love is the fruit of the Spirit. It is the work of the Holy Spirit and we know that the Spirit is at work in our lives when we care for one another.

We might wonder why John uses such a violent example as Cain the murderer, and why he says that to not love is to abide in death. But John is painting this picture in a stark black and white. With John, it’s either-or; there’s no inbetween. When we act in the love of Christ we show that we are connected to the life of Christ. And to hate is to be engulfed by death. To love is to walk in the light. To hate is to remain in the darkness. If we are not animated by the love of God, then we are spiritually dead.

Next, John says in verse 16 – “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us.” Christ’s death is not only proof of his love for us, it is the standard by which love is measured. John says: “We ought to lay down our lives for one another.” John has in mind a sacrificial, giving love. A love that is not looking for a payback. A love that is not concerned with selfish interests.

There are great examples of such love in Christ’s name. Father Damien volunteered to live among the lepers of Molokai aware of the possibility of becoming a leper himself. Albert Schweitzer – musician, theologian, medical doctor – turned his back on the comforts of Europe to serve in the remotest part of Africa. Sister Immanuel, at the age of 64, asked her superiors for the privilege of working with the garbage pickers of Cairo, to educate their children and tell them about Jesus. And Mother Teresa established a home in Calcutta so the most wretched there could die within sight of loving eyes.

Those are dramatic examples of love, but what about you and me? How do we lay down our lives in love for others? Thankfully, John gives us a very practical example. What about the person right in front of you who has needs? If we are in a position to help, to care, to listen, to be present, then we should not close our hearts. To demonstrate the love of Christ may mean that we surrender our time or sacrifice our privacy or put aside our judgmentalism. It means to love not with high sounding words, but with simple actions.

Eugene Peterson has written a paraphrase of the New Testament. This is how he translated these last three verses: “This is how we’ve come to understand and experience love: Christ sacrificed his life for us. This is why we ought to live sacrificially for our fellow believers, and not just for ourselves. If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear.”

The play, “Les Miserables”, a favorite of mine, has a line in the finale that sums up the theme of the whole story – “To love another person is to see the face of God.” That sounds like the kind of thing John would have written. John says – You already know this. You’ve heard it from the beginning. Now let us love in deed and truth.

David Steele has a little book of humorous and insightful poetry. Let me close with this one entitled, “At the Altar”.

This world should
Be a brotherhood,
On that we may agree;
And my heart melts
For everyone else,
But their hearts don’t melt for me.

I never cease
To work for peace
In the human family.
So I get along
With the weak and the strong;
But they don’t get along with me.

I love every man
As much as I can
To fulfill Christ’s clear command.
But the folk that I see
Who refuse to love me
Are the people I can’t stand.

Before the altar
I often falter.
I can’t go through the motion.
I have the desire
But my sister’s ire
Is spoiling my devotion.

Hasn’t she heard
Jesus’ clear word
That she’s on the road to hell?
Her arrogant role
Is destroying her soul
And my peace of mind as well.

The world’s a mess
I must confess;
And it won’t be any good
Till God gets my brother,
In some way or other,
To treat me the way he should.

If you wish to increase
The amount of peace,
Here’s a place for you to start.
Put lots of love,
Dear God above,
In the other person’s heart.

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