Lectionary blog: 1 John 3:16-24

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18, NIV)

There are passages of Scripture that I read, and they leave me completely unable to understand Christians who never lift a finger in service to their brothers and sisters. People tell me that they love Jesus, but they never do anything for the good of others. I can’t find any place in the Bible that reflects that kind of passivity.

We have probably all heard those sermons where the preacher has talked to us about the meaning of love. We know the various Greek words. We can call to mind various metaphors and word images that festoon the pulpit talk that we preachers use when trying to get a point across.

Here, in the lectionary this week, we get it straight and simple.

Do you want to know the meaning of the word “love” for Christians? Jesus Christ died for you. Go and do the same for others. That is love.

Do you want to know the meaning of the word “love”? Let me show you the cross. That is love. It is self-surrendering action.

It is more than most of us can hear or bear, so the the epistle writer gives us an easier problem. You are not ready to die for your brother or sister? Okay. Put your money where your mouth is. You say you love your neighbor. Show me the money.

If love is laying down our life for another, then how can we possibly say we have love — that we even know what love is — when we have the means to help a brother or sister in need and close up our heart against our fellow Christian?

The point here cuts right to our hearts if we have any ability at self-examination, but it also points to something of crucial importance about Christianity.

Our faith is not about merely believing the right things. It is about action. We cannot claim to love Jesus and sit on our hands. It simply is not possible.

Jesus said he was giving us a new commandment: Love each other. Let all of us who call him Lord strive to obey and pray for faith to do so.

Show me, don’t beat me

In the preface to his first series of sermons, John Wesley entreated readers who thought he was in the wrong how they could most effectively persuade him of the truth.

Are you persuaded you see more clearly than me? It is not unlikely that you may. Then treat me as you would desire to be treated yourself upon a change of circumstances. Point me out a better way than I have yet known. Show me it is so, by plain proof of Scripture. And if I linger in the path I have been accustomed to tread, and am therefore unwilling to leave it, labour with me a little; take me by the hand, and lead me as I am able to bear. But be not displeased if I entreat you not to beat me down in order to quicken my pace: I can go but feebly and slowly at best; then, I should not be able to go at all. May I not request of you, further, not to give me hard names in order to bring me into the right way. Suppose I were ever so much in the wrong, I doubt this would not set me right. Rather, it would make me run so much the farther from you, and get more and more out of the way.

Wesley’s words here may have been better than his practice. I’m sure many of his debating partners found him not terribly open to persuasion on most points. But that acknowledged, I admire the spirit of this passage. It would be wonderful if we could adopt such an attitude in the midst of our disagreements.

And having written that, I feel compelled to point out that Wesley, who wrote the above, was also an absolute stickler on discipline in his societies. He would warn a wayward member and weather their backsliding for a time, but if they would not amend their ways, they were out. So, clearly, there is a distinction in his thinking between discussing points of faith and enforcing church discipline. In the United Methodist Church, we would probably do well to follow that example as well.

Nouwen on incarnation

Henri Nouwen reflects on the nature of love and humanity in his wonderful little book Adam, which is about the man he cared for at L’Arche.

Adam’s humanity was not diminished by his disabilities. Adam’s humanity was a full humanity, in which the fullness of love became visible for me, and for others who grew to know him. Yes, I began to love Adam with a love that transcended most of the feelings, emotions, and passions that I had associated with love among people. Adam couldn’t say, “I love you,” he couldn’t embrace spontaneously or express gratitude in words. Still I dare to say we loved each other with a love that was as enfleshed as any love, and was at the same time truly spiritual. We were friends, brothers, bonded in our hearts. …

This experience cannot be understood by logical explanation, but rather in and through the spiritual bonding of two very different people who discovered each other as completely equal in the heart of God. From my heart I could offer him some care that he really needed, and from his heart he blessed me with a pure and lasting gift of himself.

Every time I read Nouwen carefully, I am reminded of a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human?

Like Nouwen, I am prone to think of humanity in terms of intellect and feeling. Our humanity, my gut tells me, is based somehow in the more evolved parts of our cerebral cortex. But such ideas suffer from the great fault of making the hallmark of humanity the things that I most value about myself.

Isn’t this a form of spiritual pride?

Adam with all his profound disabilities was fully human. For all the wonderful things I can do with my brain and my brain can do for me, he may be closer to God than I am.

The biggest difference between Adam and me is that Adam wore his disabilities on the outside where everyone could see them. Some of mine are obvious right away, but most of my more pronounced disabilities take time to discover. I am more skilled at hiding and denying my brokenness than Adam was.

When a friend came to visit Nouwen at L’Arche one day, he asked why the great writer and teacher was wasting his time by caring for Adam. Nouwen noted that his friend could not see Adam as the incarnated face of God. He could only see the disabilities, not the man.

For Nouwen, Adam was a teacher.

And while I, the so-called “normal” person, kept wondering how much Adam was like me, he had no ability or need to make any comparisons. He simply lived and by his life invited me to receive his unique gift, wrapped in weakness but given for my transformation. While I tended to worry about what I did and how much I could produce, Adam was announcing to me that “being is more important than doing.” While I was preoccupied with the way I was talked about or written about, Adam was quietly telling me that “God’s love is more important than the praise of people.” While I was concerned about my individual accomplishments, Adam was reminding me that “doing things together is more important than doing things alone.” Adam couldn’t produce anything, had no fame to be proud of, couldn’t brag of any award or trophy. But by his very life, he was the most radical witness to the truth of our lives that I have ever encountered.

Elsa or Anna?

A year ago, the movie Frozen hit theaters and this song became the spiritual anthem of millions of people.

It is an unbelievably catchy song, and I think it speaks in an powerful way to a longing that girls and women feel. I don’t say men and boys don’t have the same longing, but the way I see females sing this song is different. It’s coming from a deep place that I’m sure I don’t fully understand.

I always hear the song with a bit of irony, though. In the movie, Queen Elsa sings this song as she locks herself away in an ice castle alone — just as alone as she was in the stone castle of her parents — and she sends the land all around her into a frozen and cold wasteland. The song is triumphant, but the world it creates in the movie is barren and cold and isolated. It is even nearly fatal to her sister, Anna, whose heart is frozen by Elsa’s power.

In the end, it is not Elsa’s self-assertion but Anna’s self-sacrifice that breaks the power of winter over the kingdom. It is love and connection, not icy independence, that give Elsa the power to control what she most fears about herself.

That, it seems to me, is the point of the movie.

Who has damaged marriage

My bishop recently wrote these words about the way straight people have messed up marriage:

[T]he institution of marriage has been damaged in recent decades by the misconduct, misuse, and immorality of heterosexuals. We have allowed marriage to be violated, ignored, abused, and reduced to mere convenience. It is the heterosexual community which needs to confess and repent for our destruction of the institution of marriage.

I find his claim here compelling. Our society has reduced the concept of marriage to a legal contract entered into for the acquisition of certain rights and privileges. As a contract, it is an arrangement that either party can break if willing to suffer the penalties that come with that. It is also an excuse to spend obscene amounts of money.

I don’t know how the church can reclaim the meaning of marriage as a lifelong and holy covenant entered into before God and only secondarily endorsed by the state. Even pondering the question makes me realize how far we have drifted from a Christian concept of marriage.

I expect some readers are wondering about the topic of divorce.

The fact that we can’t even begin to talk about a Christian concept of marriage without thinking of exceptions and difficult cases underscores the tenuous grasp Christian marriage has on our imaginations. The very idea of Christian marriage is at odds with everything of society takes for granted when it comes to the topic.

Stanley Hauerwas captures some of my confusion in his book After Christendom:

[T]he Christian tradition’s presumption that we can only begin to think about [sexual ethics] in terms of practices such as singleness and marriage cannot help being subversive to the politics of liberalism and the correlative state powers. Indeed, in a world in which we are taught that all human relations are contractual, what could be more offensive than a people who believe in life-long commitments?

Of course, it is not clear that such a people exist.

Love through faith by grace

In his “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” John Wesley began with a definition of the “better religion” that he sought to introduce to the men and women of England. He summed it up as nothing more or less than love, love of God and love of all humanity.

This love we believe to be the medicine of life, the never-failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world, for all the miseries and vices of men.

Here is a statement that I imagine most United Methodists would embrace. Whatever the forces are that pull and tug at us, we would all give a good “Amen” to the conference speaker that said these words.

The great challenge, Wesley discovered after many years of seeking this religion for himself, was that we cannot will ourselves to love in this way. No amount of effort on our part can sustain us for more than the briefest moments of true and pure love. We cannot grind our teeth hard enough to find our hearts filled with love, peace, and joy in God.

This was the lesson that Wesley learned after so much agony and frustration. The only way to the religion of love is faith.

But here again, we must be careful. Faith is not a decision to believe in spite of the evidence. It is not a leap in the dark, not for Wesley. For Wesley, faith has two essential attributes. First, it is a kind of spiritual perception — the conviction of things not seen (Heb. 11:1). Faith is the perception of God and the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. It is the opening of the eyes of heart to a truth we had not seen before (Eph. 1:18). Second, it is a gift of God, not something we do by our own power. We receive faith; we do not decide to have it. It is grace.

This notion of faith differs quite a bit from the idea of faith as trust. Or at least so it seems to me. I’m not sure how well we receive Wesley’s notion of faith, and therefore his description of the means to attaining the religion of love. I suspect many would argue with him on this definition of the word “faith.”

Does Wesley’s chain of thinking here — love, faith, grace — still ring true as an encapsulation of the heart of Christianity? Is he still relevant or an 18th century museum piece?