This is not a sermon; it’s simply the beginning of the sermon preparation process. Hopefully these thoughts might trigger some of your own, if you are preaching on this passage this coming Sunday – or help you to get ready, if you will be listening to someone else.
11For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you. 14We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. 16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How 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?
18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
23And 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. 24All 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.
So it seems as if these first century Christians have begun to encounter some real hatred from the world around them (well, may be they haven’t just ‘begun to’ – maybe it’s been going on for a long time). Possibly they are asking questions about why this should be the case, and John addresses this issue in verse 13: ‘Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you’. This seems to follow on from verse 12, where he points out that Cain murdered his brother ‘because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous’. His point seems to be that a similar thing is going on for his readers: they are living righteous lives, the people around them are irritated by this (does the light show up their own darkness, perhaps?) and so the result is hatred, not admiration.
This is perhaps a useful correction to the romantic idea that if we just live good lives this will be enough to spread our faith, because people won’t be able to help admiring us for our good deeds. Sometimes this is true, but at other times it’s not. “Why are you being so honest with your expense account: you’re making the rest of us look bad!” Christians who insist on caring for the poor when so many other people think they’re freeloaders, and Christians who insist on loving their enemies rather than reviling them, often attract irritation and anger, not admiration. Of course, in this letter John is following on from the words of Jesus as he recorded them:
“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master’. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also” (John 15:18-20).
The rest of the passage continues in much the same vein. So for Jesus it is not a surprise that he and his followers face persecution; he knows that the announcement that the Kingdom of God is at hand is not good news to those who profit from the kingdom of evil. We are participating in a counter-cultural movement, and we must expect that not everyone in the prevailing culture will be jumping for joy.
These first century Christians were encountering some hatred from the non-Christian world around them; John, however, is interested in what they are encountering from each other. Loving one another is part of the message they heard from the beginning (11); it is how they know they have passed from death to life (14); it is exemplified in Jesus laying down his life for us, and we are to follow his example (16) and by using the world’s goods to help sisters or brothers in need (17). It’s not just speech, but action (18). It’s one of the two main things God asks of us: believing in Jesus and loving one another (23). So John is saying to his readers, “You get enough hatred from the world around you; make sure you don’t get hatred from one another. Make sure you love one another”. So the heart of John’s message is the call for Christians to love each other sacrificially and practically, because this is the commandment that God has given us through Jesus.
The Cain and Abel story is interesting, because it is a story of hatred from one brother to another. Abel should reasonably have expected that his brother would love him (that’s what brothers are supposed to do), but instead he got hatred and murder. John seems to be saying ‘Don’t be surprised if the world hates you, but do be surprised – be very surprised – if hatred shows up in the Christian community. This is not the way Jesus has taught us to live’. Of course, we know that we are all works in progress, and we won’t be instantly transformed into examples of perfect love. This is why John has to remind people of the centrality of love, and that hatred is equivalent to murder (see Matthew 5:21-22).
So what are my ‘Cain-like’ attitudes? Do I feel shown-up or threatened when others succeed where I am failing? If my church’s growth has stalled and others seem to be doing well, do I see this as a threat rather than rejoicing in it? I think I can honestly say that I don’t feel angry at others’ good deeds, but I know there are times when I speak and think hatefully toward fellow-Christians. So verses 14-15 are sobering words for me:
14We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.
So John identifies love as the centre of the life of the Christian community, but he’s also careful about how he defines it. I don’t think he would agree with John Lennon that ‘All you need is love’ (he makes this clear in verse 23: ‘And this is his (i.e. God’s) commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he (i.e. Jesus) has commanded us’. Our love for each other flows from our belief in Jesus). And ‘love’ for John doesn’t mean a feeling, or an attitude that ‘anything goes’.
Christian love is rooted in the example of Jesus. We remember in John 13 how Jesus told his disciples to love one another ‘as I have loved you’. This command was sandwiched between two actions: his washing of his disciples feet in practical service, and his offering his life for the sins of the world – a sacrificial act, not in the sense of ‘making sacrifices’ but of being a sacrifice. Interestingly, John makes these same two points here. How do we identify true love?
‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ (v.16).
What would laying down our lives for one another mean in a situation where Christians were being persecuted (genuinely persecuted) for their faith? Undoubtedly John is not using figurative language here; if I can save the life of my brother or sister by offering my own life. He expects that Christian discipleship requires me to do it. In the context of this week’s news about more beheadings of Christians by ISIS, this gospel imperative seems all the more relevant.
However, it isn’t likely to be something I’m called on to do every day. In my daily experience, the second part of John’s definition of love is likely to be more telling:
17How 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? 18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
‘Word or speech’ is what preachers deal in, and in an age of mass communication through social media the world is full of word and speech. I use Facebook and blogging, and day by day interact with people all over the world by means of word and speech. John is reminding me here that there’s more to Christianity than that. Love means that if we see a brother or sister in need and we have enough to live on, we should give to the one who doesn’t. That’s it. It’s as simple as that. And if we refuse to do that, John asks ‘How does God’s love abide in you?’ Of course, we should have got the message from Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, or his commands to give to those who ask from us. As Billy Bragg paraphrases Jesus:
‘So just lift up your eyes, don’t pass by on the other side
Don’t be bound by what you think others may do.
Just a little bit of faith – that’s all it really takes,
Do unto others as you would have them do to you’.
(‘Do Unto Others’ on the album ‘Tooth and Nail’).
So Christian love is sacrificial (willing to pay the ultimate price) and also practical (giving to help those in need if we are able to do so). What it is not is emotional. At no point in this passage is John remotely interested in the feeling of love; it’s actions that are significant to him.
So love is the centre of the Christian life, follows on from believing in Jesus, was vital in a world where Christians faced so much non-love from those on the outside (a situation that is very real to some of our brothers and sisters around the world today), and is essentially sacrificial and practical – not just words, but actions. But John also points out that love gives us assurance of our new life in Christ. ‘We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another’ (v.14). ‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything’ (vv.18-20). In John 13 Jesus had said that the world would be able to tell that we are followers of Jesus because we love one another; now in this letter John tells us that we will be able to make the same judgement ourselves.
This seems a little weird; why are we judging ourselves, one way or the other? But we do, of course. We second-guess ourselves, we evaluate our progress, we look for important things to work on. What John is saying is ‘If you’re looking for an important thing to work on, this is the most important one of all. As C.S. Lewis says somewhere, ‘Nothing gives us a more spuriously good conscience than keeping rules, even if there has been a total lack of love and charity’. Rule keeping (whether we’re talking about conventions, liturgical directions, or whatever) doesn’t cut it; transformation from people who hate and murder to people who love and help one another is what counts.
Finally, John also connects love and answered prayer. He says,
‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him’ (vv.18-22).
I take this to mean, not that love gives us a magic token that automatically guarantees that we get anything we want from God (this is definitely not true to Christian experience – many very loving people have not received everything they ask for, including Jesus – “Let this cup pass from me”), but rather, that if love is the centre of my life then I am more likely to ask for things that are in line with God’s will. If I am living my life in rebellion against God, hating my sister or brother as Cain did, why would I think that my prayers would be pleasing to God? Prayers that God would break the teeth of the wicked may be honest, but we’ve got to hope that god doesn’t give us literal answers to them (as Gandhi pointed out, ‘Eye for an eye’ makes the whole world blind). But prayers that come from a life shaped by love – that’s a different story altogether.
Where does this passage hit home for me? The money quote, as far as I’m concerned, is verses 16-18:
‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 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? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’.
I am very good at ‘passing by on the other side’. I’ve got plans for how I’m going to use my money, and they are too often shaped by my own selfish agenda. I don’t especially live by Paul’s wise words in 1 Timothy 6:6-10:
‘Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains’.
I have plans for my money; I want to be rich, so that I can afford to own expensive musical instruments and computer equipment, lots of CDs and books and good clothes, and go on nice holidays and so on. I do not live a contented life, and the culture around me does not encourage me to live a contented life (in fact, it would definitely have a negative effect on our country’s economic growth if its citizens lived a contented life! But then again, we wouldn’t need such high incomes if we wanted less!). And because of all this discontent, when I see brothers and sisters in need, I think I can’t afford to help them.
Of course, this doesn’t just apply to money; it applies to time too. Just as with money so with time, I have my own plans and I know what I want to do. And then along comes someone who’s asking for some of my precious time (and it is precious – every moment of my life brings me closer to my death, and the time I give away to others is time I will never get back – we must never ignore this reality). The call of the gospel to me is to see that every moment of my life belongs to the God who made me, not to me, and that it is his will for me to use it in loving others, not in selfishness and self-centredness. This is possibly an even bigger growing edge for me than my use of money. Lots to think about and pray about here; at the moment ‘my heart is condemning me’ (v.20), but I don’t think I’m quite ready to move on to ‘but God is greater than our hearts’ yet; first, there are changes that need to be made.