Random Lent Thought for Thursday March 16th: ‘Jesus is Coming: Look Busy!’

One of my favourite coffee mugs (not that I own it myself, but I’ve seen it) is this one that 885025_10152158410965400_1541528251_osays ‘Jesus is coming – look busy!’

Here’s my thought for the day. Jesus is not impressed with busyness; Jesus is impressed with love.

This is a hard lesson for us to learn, because we’re formed by a culture that idolizes workaholics. And this culture is creeping insidiously into the church, so that we’re all being brainwashed into thinking that the more activities a church puts on, the higher its level of spirituality must be. If you don’t have that stressed and exhausted look on your face, you can’t possibly be doing everything God wants you to do, right?

Years ago, in a letter to a child, C.S. Lewis gave some wise advice that I’ve tried to remember. I’m quoting from memory, so this won’t be exact. Lewis told his young correspondent to remember that there were really only three kinds of things she had to do: (1) Things that must be done, (2) things that should be done, and (3) things she enjoyed doing. ‘Things that must be done’ include brushing your teeth, doing a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, cleaning the house and so on. ‘Things that should be done’ mean the ordinary rules of Christian morality. ‘Things that you enjoy doing’ – well, over to you!

Busyness is not godliness. Busyness might just be nothing more than busyness. I’m convinced that my Christian life works best when I do a few things and do them well, rather than scattering my energy like buckshot in a hundred different directions. Remember: Jesus is not impressed by busyness; Jesus is impressed by love.

Love is Action

Random Discipleship thought for today:

Jesus tells us the the two greatest commandments are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. We modern Christians often get confused about what this means, because to us, ‘love’ primarily describes a feeling. But in the Bible, love is not a feeling.

Yes, of course, there is a feeling that we call ‘love’, but the most important kind of love is not a feeling but a decision, an action. To pick up your tool belt and help build a Habitat for Humanity house is love. To give money to World Vision is love. To spend time with an emotionally needy friend when you’d rather be doing anything else is love. To tell someone the truth when you suspect they’re going to throw it back in your face is love. To take your spouse a cup of coffee in bed is love. To choose to stay with the person you promised you would stay with rather than the new young thing you feel attracted to is love. To give up some of your dreams so that you can be there for your kids is love. To forgive your enemies whether you feel like it or not, because Jesus told you to do so, is love.

And so the list goes on. These are not things that we do because we love someone. These actions are loving someone. Love is action.


In Love and Marriage, Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect

I was struck by this article in Psychology Today. It seems maybe traditional-type folks weren’t so very wrong after all.

In most areas of life, having more experience is good. Want to be great in your chosen field? Sustained experience is essential. Want to be great at a sport? There’s no substitute for practice. And anyone who runs a business can tell you that their best employees are those who have been on the job long enough to have learned how to handle the normal well and the unexpected with wisdom.

While more experience is often beneficial in life, the story looks different when it comes to some types of experience before marriage. In our Before “I Do” report, we surveyed a national longitudinal sample of young adults about their love lives prior to marriage to examine factors associated with future marital quality. We found that having more sexual and cohabiting partners before marriage is associated with lower relationship quality once married. In particular, having only ever lived with or had sex with one’s spouse was associated with higher marital quality. Our findings are consistent with other studies showing that cohabiting with more partners before marriage is associated with greater likelihood of divorce[i] and that a higher number of sexual partners before marriage is associated with lower marital quality and greater likelihood of divorce.[ii]

Read the whole thing here. It’s well worth it.

The Greatest is Love (a sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13)

I read a great quote about love a few months ago in a book written by a friend. The quote came from a sermon preached by Dr. Haddon Robinson at a pastors’ conference, and the text was our epistle for today, 1 Corinthians 13.1-13. Toward the end of his sermon, Dr. Robinson said this: “Love is that thing which, if a church has it, it doesn’t really need much else, and if it doesn’t have it, whatever else it has doesn’t really matter very much”.

I think this is exactly what Paul is trying to get at in our epistle for today. Before we dive right into it, let’s remind ourselves of two things. First, the meaning of the word ‘love’. It has many different meanings in the English language, but nowadays we mostly use it to describe an emotion. Paul, however, was writing in Greek, not English, and Greek is richer when it comes to words for love. There’s ‘eros’, which refers to what today we would call romantic or sexual love – love that is a response to beauty or goodness in the beloved. There’s ‘phileo’, from which we get our word ‘philanthropy’; in Greek its meaning is close to what we would today call ‘friendship’. There’s ‘storge’, which carries the sense of ‘love of the familiar’ – the love we have for family members or people we’ve known all our lives.

But Paul doesn’t use any of those words, and neither do most of the writers of the New Testament. Instead they use a word that they may have invented themselves; it certainly doesn’t appear in any earlier Greek literature. The word is ‘agapé’, and it doesn’t describe an emotion at all. Agapé isn’t based on affection or approval; it’s totally unconditional, coming as a free gift, not because the beloved deserves it but because the lover chooses to give it. It’s a decision of the will to act in the other person’s best interests, whether we feel like it or not. It’s getting down at the supper table and washing your disciples’ feet. It’s being willing to lay down your life to save people who don’t even care about you. It’s the way God loves us, and the way God calls us to act toward others as well.

So let’s remember this: when Paul says that love is the more excellent way, he’s not talking about storge or eros or phileo ; he’s talking about agapé. Secondly, let’s remember who this letter was written to. Corinth was a city in ancient Greece, famous throughout the world for its sexual immorality. It was also a place where the Greek mystery religions were very popular. Those religions went in for spiritual experience in a big way; the people who participated in them were used to being moved by powerful supernatural forces. They might go into a trance, or experience a powerful emotion like ecstasy, or be transported out of the body, or carry out some other strange course of action. This sort of thing was regarded as normal in the mystery religions; not only that, it was the way you knew that you were encountering something real. If you didn’t experience any of this, there wasn’t much point in being involved in that particular cult or religion.

So the Corinthian Christians liked dramatic spiritual experiences. They loved supernatural gifts like speaking in tongues and miracles and healings. But they were rather self-indulgent about them, and Paul had a suspicion that sometimes there wasn’t a lot of love in the way they used those gifts. So in last week’s passage Paul reminded them that the church is like a body, the Body of Christ. Each organ and limb has an essential part to play in the life of the body. So it is with the church; each of us has been given spiritual gifts, but we’re to use them in love, to build up the whole Body of Christ, not to show off or chase after spiritual thrills.

And so we come to this great chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13. Let’s look at it in three parts. First, in verses 1-3, Paul teaches us that love is essential to the life of the church.

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. And 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. 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.

Knowing what we do about the Corinthian Christians, we can understand why Paul is using these examples. These are the things they valued the most in their spiritual lives – speaking in tongues, prophecy, understanding mysteries, having enough faith to do spectacular things. And they loved the ‘grand gesture’. There’s a story about young Francesco Bernadone, who later became St. Francis of Assisi. As a young man he had a powerful conversion experience, and in obedience to the gospel call he proceeded to start giving away his possessions. Except that they weren’t his possessions, they were his father’s! His father was a wealthy cloth merchant, and when he saw what his son was doing, he dragged him before the Bishop of Assisi in the town square and demanded that the Bishop tell his son to stop giving away things that didn’t belong to him. In response, Francis stripped himself naked in front of everyone, handed his clothes to his father, and said, “There – now you have everything that belongs to you”. He then went off to live as a hermit in literal obedience to the gospel call of Jesus.

The Corinthians would have loved this story; they loved the grand gesture – ‘If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast’ (v.3). But Paul is reminding them that all of this – using miraculous gifts, performing dramatic acts of faith and so on – is worth absolutely zero if it’s not all about agapé love for others.

Well, it’s easy for us to sit in judgement on the Corinthians; after all, most Anglicans aren’t tempted by speaking in tongues or displays of religious emotion. But what would Paul say to us today? How about this:

‘If we have the most beautiful liturgy ever designed by human beings, performed by people in the most splendid robes, with music from the best possible choir, but do not have love, we are a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal. And if we have the most beautiful church building, with a gorgeous sanctuary and lots of program space, and fancy offices and plush carpets, but don’t have love, we are nothing. If we produce excellent ministry plans and offer a multitude of different programs – if we have multiple services aimed at different kinds of people – if we have a high profile in the city and people are talking about our church – but don’t have love, we gain nothing’.

Yes, I think that is what Paul would say to us. Remember again the wise words of Haddon Robinson: “Love is that thing which, if a church has it, it doesn’t really need much else, and if it doesn’t have it, whatever else it has doesn’t really matter very much”. That’s exactly what Paul is trying to say in this passage. We aren’t going to be questioned about our splendid liturgy and impressive list of programs. We’re going to be questioned about love.

So Paul starts by telling us that love is essential to the life of the church. Secondly, in verses 4-6 he describes to us what love is and what it does.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

As I was reading this passage over in preparation for this sermon, it became very clear to me that all the positive statements in this passage could be applied to God, and all the negative ones could be applied to me. God is patient, God is kind. God rejoices in the truth. God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. But me? I’m envious, and boastful, and arrogant, and rude! I insist on my own way, I’m irritable and resentful, and far too often, I rejoice in wrongdoing! So I have a long way to go – as do we all.

Paul tells us that those who love are patient with one another. In modern English, ‘patient’ can mean we’re not in a hurry, but it can also mean we bear with one another’s weaknesses and make allowances for one another. It’s the second meaning that Paul is using here. Those who love, know themselves well; they know we all grow slowly, fail many times, and need healthy dollops of forgiveness. This is how God acts toward us – he is infinitely patient with us – and those who are growing in love are learning to treat others in the same way.

Those who love are kind to one another. They treat each other gently and considerately, do good things for one another, give freely to one another, and treat each other as valued human beings. They always remember Jesus’ golden rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12), and they do their best to practice it.

Those who love are not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Envy, boasting, arrogance and rudeness are all about competition – I’m in competition with your wealth, your popularity, your success, your good looks, your spiritual gifts, your experience of God. Deep down inside, these folks are insecure; they believe there’s only so much love and success and good fortune to go around, and if I’m not careful, someone’s going to cheat me out of my fair share. But those who love are not in competition with each other; they rejoice in each other’s blessings without wishing to have them for themselves.

Those who love do not insist on their own way. They understand that, as someone one said, ‘Everyone is an “I”’ – in other words, everyone I meet has a life of their own. They don’t see themselves as supporting actors in my play; they’re the lead actors in their own play. And gradually, as we grow together, we all learn to see ourselves as supporting actors in God’s play. It’s not about me, so I don’t always have to get what I want.

Those who love are not irritable or resentful. They don’t get easily upset or offended by others; in fact, they choose not to take offence. They don’t hold grudges and hang on to past hurts. They’re learning that if you do that, you bind yourself to the past with chains of iron. They want to be free, so they’re learning to let go of pride and anger and embrace the way of forgiveness and grace.

Those who love don’t rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoice in the truth. In other words, their love isn’t an easygoing love. When they see people doing wrong and hurting others, they don’t just stand by and let it happen. When a word of truth needs to be spoken, they’re ready to speak it – but out of love, not out of a need to judge or control others.

Those who love bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things. In other words, they don’t give up on people. Their love for one another is stubborn; it’s what the Old Testament calls in Hebrew ‘chesed’, which is translated in our NRSV as ‘steadfast love’. Eugene Peterson’s ‘Message’ translation of the Bible says, ‘Love…puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end’.

So this is what Paul means by love. Of course, it’s a tall order. I can see why some churches would rather work on splendid liturgies or efficient organization! It’s so much easier to have a brilliant website or a service for every taste than it is to put yourself out to truly love people as Paul describes it here, not holding anything back, never giving up hope, remaining faithful to the end. I have to confess, all I can think of is how far I fall short. But at the same time, the passage inspires me and challenges me: this truly ought to be our goal as a Christian community!

So Paul has told us that love is essential to the life of the church, and he’s described for us what love is and what is does. Finally, in verses 8-13 he tells us that love is the only thing that will last forever.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Many of us have probably heard this passage from 1 Corinthians read at weddings, but I have to tell you that in recent years I’ve also used it at funeral services, and people seem to appreciate it. Paul is asking his friends in Corinth is, “What’s going to last? On that day when we see God face to face, what will really be important?” Will it be our reputation for wisdom or knowledge or supernatural experiences? No – in fact, on that day, we’ll be brought face to face with the truth of how little we really knew! We might think we have a good understanding of God and the way God works in the world, but one day we’ll look back and think, “How could I have been so blind?” All our inspired speech and glorious miracles and splendid liturgies and sophisticated programming – on the day we see God face to face, it’ll all just be like child’s play to us then.

So many people, when they come to the end of their lives, regret all the time and energy they’ve spent on things that mean absolutely nothing to them on their deathbeds. Some people set great store by accumulating possessions and money; some people spend their lives trying to be a success in all they do. Some people live for the good opinion of others; their greatest desire is to impress others and to be popular and well-liked. But in the end, Paul would say to us, none of that’s going to last; it’s all going to pass away.

What will last? Only three things, says Paul – faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of these is love. Or, as Eugene Peterson puts it in ‘The Message’:

But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of these is love.

So, my brothers and sisters, let’s never let ourselves settle for less than this. Let’s never forget that this is the most important thing we can work on, because without it, everything else is just noise and busywork. So let’s end as we began, with these wise words of Dr. Haddon Robinson: “Love is that thing which, if a church has it, it doesn’t really need much else, and if it doesn’t have it, whatever else it has doesn’t really matter very much”.


‘You can’t control who you fall in love with’

In the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage in all fifty U.S. states, this old phrase has been making the rounds again: “You can’t control who you fall in love with”.

Well, actually, you can.

In fact, when you get married you promise to do just this. You promise to forsake all others and stay loyal to your marriage partner.

Do you seriously think that you’re never going to be attracted to anyone else? Think again! We’re all living a lot longer these days; the chances are excellent that, at some point in the course of a fifty-year marriage, you’ll be tempted elsewhere. And the experience of a married person falling in love with someone else is very common.

But it didn’t start with love. It started with attraction, and it progressed when we made the choice to allow that attraction, to indulge it, to cultivate it in fact. And that’s when we made the choice to fall in love.

Having a healthy marriage depends on the ability to control who you’re going to fall in love with. If you can’t control that, your chances of making your marriage last are severely diminished. So there may be good arguments in favour of what its proponents call ‘equal marriage’ (I think there are), but this isn’t one of them, and I wish people wouldn’t use it. When it’s believed, it damages all marriages, gay or straight.

So let’s set the record straight. Let’s stop saying helplessly “I can’t control who I fall in love with”. Instead, let’s say “I meant the promise I made on the day of my marriage, and so I am going to learn to control who I fall in love with, because I want my marriage to last”.

More About Love (a sermon on 1 John 3:11-24)

My old friend Ken Burningham and I were having a conversation once, toward the end of his life, and he surprised me by saying, “I’ve come to the conclusion that I no longer need to learn anything new”. This was so out of character for Ken that I didn’t know what to say, I was so surprised. But then he went on to explain what he meant; he said, “I’ve come to the conclusion that my problem isn’t that I don’t know enough to live well. My problem is that I’m not putting into practice the things I already know”. And then he looked around at all the books on his bookshelves and said, “How many ways can there possibly be to say, ‘Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself’?”

When he explained it like that, I immediately realized that I agreed with him. I love reading, especially novels and good poetry, and I like good biblical scholarship too. But do I expect my new reading to make a huge difference to the basic principles by which I live my life? Not really. I suspect that the old commandments, the old principles that I learned from the beginning, will continue to be my guiding light as I move toward old age.

The author of the First Letter of John obviously feels the same way. When he sat down to write this letter, he was probably an old man, and he had been a leader in the Christian movement for many years. Very likely, he was writing for churches which were facing some persecution because of their commitment to Jesus as God’s Son; the Roman emperor already claimed that title, and Romans didn’t take kindly to people claiming the emperor’s titles. But his way of encouraging his young Christian friends was not by giving them some new instruction, but by reminding them of the gospel message they had heard right from the beginning. All through the letter he focuses on what we might call ‘Christian essentials’, and especially four things. First: Jesus the Son of God really came to us in the flesh. Second, we are called to believe in him and obey his commandments. Third, the most important commandment is the command to love one another, and if we don’t obey that, we don’t really know God. Fourth, we shouldn’t be surprised if the world hates us, because Jesus is the light of the world, and the darkness will always resist the light.

John comes back to these themes in our reading for today, but he starts off with a strange story: the story of Cain and Abel from the Old Testament. Do you remember Cain and Abel? In the book of Genesis they are the children of Adam and Eve. Their parents are the first to disobey God by taking the forbidden fruit, with the result that they are banished from the Garden of Eden and sent out to live in a dark and dangerous world. The consequences of their choice begin to be seen in the next generation. We’re told that Cain was a tiller of the ground, but Abel was a shepherd. They both brought offerings to God: Cain brought some of the fruit of the ground, and Abel offered some of the firstlings of his flock, presumably in an animal sacrifice. Genesis says, ‘And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard’ (Genesis 4:4-5).

We’re not told why this is so, but we are told that Cain is angry with God and with his brother. God calls him on this: he says,

“Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:6-7).

Cain says nothing, but the resentment grows and festers in his heart. Eventually he invites his brother to go for a walk into the field with him, ‘and when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him’ (v.8). So we see that anger leads inexorably to murder, and the human rebellion against God leads inexorably to conflict and violence against one another, brother to brother.

In our passage for today, this is the story John starts with. He says,

‘For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We 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’ (vv.11-12).

And he then goes on to say, ‘Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you’ (v.13).

Where’s he going with this? The point he’s trying to make is that it isn’t surprising that the world isn’t always jumping for joy because you and I have decided to become followers of Jesus. After all, Jesus is leading a Kingdom of God movement; he’s calling the world to account because of its love for power, and its greed and injustice and oppression and violence. He’s announcing a kingdom of justice and compassion, a kingdom where the first will be last and the last first. Of course, the people who benefit from the present arrangements aren’t going to be cheering for this new kingdom! Herod wasn’t very happy about it; neither was Pontius Pilate, and neither were the leaders of the religious establishment.

We’ve seen this recently in our own city, when the Salvation Army tried to rebuild their old church on Alberta Avenue so that they could minister to the poor and homeless in that area. Prosperous local citizens complained about this; all these prostitutes and junkies and street people hanging around the church were going to negatively impact their property values! Of course, when we read the gospels, it’s unquestionable that Jesus is far more interested in helping drug addicts and prostitutes and street people than in my property values, but of course, if you’re a landowner you might not see it that way! But as Jesus said,

“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. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me” (John 15:20-21).

In other words, don’t be surprised if you run into opposition when you try to be faithful to Jesus. After all, people weren’t always wildly enthusiastic about him either!

But here’s the point: it shouldn’t be a surprise to us to run into opposition, and even hatred, from the world around us, but it should be a surprise – it should strike us as completely incongruous – if we run into the same thing from our brothers and sisters in Christ. The horror of Cain’s murder of Abel is that they were brothers: Cain murdered someone who had emerged from the same womb as he had. And John underlines this point in the language he uses.

‘All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them’ (v.15).

This is what happened with Cain and Abel, he says: Cain was angry with Abel, and his anger hardened into resentment, and then eventually the result was fratricide.

Jesus makes the same connection in the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’, and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgement’. But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool’, you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22).

And we may also remember that Jesus’ brother James writes these words:

‘You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness’ (James 1:19-20).

So at this point we should probably stop and ask ourselves, how am I doing with this teaching of John and Jesus and James? John is quite clear that hate is morally equivalent to murder, and Jesus says the same thing about anger. John is especially concerned with anger in the Christian community. It’s as if he’s saying, ‘Brothers and sisters, you’re going to get enough of that from the world outside. When you come into this church family, make sure it doesn’t happen there too. Make sure that what you give each other is compassion and gentleness and love’.

And yet we know that it does happen in the Christian community. People in churches rub each other up the wrong way; we attack our sisters and brothers because we disagree with their opinions; we resent it when others get more attention than we do; and, of course, when that happens, instead of going to the other person and talking it over, we tell our friends about it, and we get the gossip machine going. Churches are communities of sinners and so we shouldn’t be surprised if sometimes those sinners sin against each other. But that doesn’t mean we should be content with the situation.

So in verses 16-18 John reminds us of the central Christian commandment:

‘We know love by this, that (Jesus) 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’.

These verses are packed full of essential teaching about love. Yes, it seems like a truism that we ought to love one another, but these days we so often misunderstand what Christian love is meant to be all about. So let’s say it again: this love that we’re commanded to give to each other has nothing to do with fine-sounding words, nothing to do with whether or not we like each other, and nothing to do with feelings. ‘Love’ is almost always a feeling word these days, but in the New Testament it’s not; it’s almost always about actions.

Which actions? Well, let’s take the cross for starters:

‘We know love by this, that (Jesus) laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ (v.16).

The cross was Jesus’ ultimate act of love for the whole world: stretching out his arms and giving his life as a sacrifice for sin, so that we could be forgiven and reconciled to God. In John 15:13 Jesus says “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”. But of course Jesus goes even further than this. He says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you”, but when he gave his life for the human race, we weren’t exactly exerting ourselves to obey God’s commands! Far from it! But his act of love on the cross reaches beyond his friends to the whole human race, whether or not they love him.

In the Roman world there was a saying: “See how these Christians love one another!” The Romans didn’t say that because they noticed that the Christians gushed all over each other and gave each other warm hugs; they said it because, over and over, they had seen Christians willingly give their lives for each other. And Jesus said, “By this” – this kind of sacrificial love, that is – “everyone will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:35).

I’m reminded of the story of Father Maximilian Kolbe, a priest who was imprisoned in Auschwitz. There had been an escape, and so now the word came down that ten prisoners were to be starved to death to pay for the crime of the one who had gotten away. Ten men were randomly chosen from a line, but the tenth cried out, “Oh, my wife and children!” Father Maximilian stepped forward and said, “I will take his place”. “Who are you?” asked the commandant. “I am no one – just a Catholic priest”, he replied. The commandant shrugged and said, “If you want it, so be it”. So Father Maximilian was taken with the other nine, and over the next few weeks they were all starved to death. He prayed with the others and comforted them, and he himself was the last to die.

Father Maximilian was following the way of Jesus. ‘We know love by this’, John says, ‘that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ (v.16).

But you and I probably won’t be called on to do something like that. It might happen, of course, but the probability isn’t very high. It is, however, very likely that we will be called on to practice the next verse; in fact, this is probably where the rubber hits the road for most of us:

‘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?’ (v.17)

This is where I get very encouraged about being the pastor of St. Margaret’s. Our recent visit from Tim Schultz from World Vision, in which we not only sponsored two new children as a congregation but had another seven or eight taken by individuals or families in the parish, was just the most recent example of the generosity of people in this community, for which I’m very thankful. And we need to stay the course with this and not get deflected from it.

Let’s remind ourselves of what John is saying here: love is the evidence that we have come to know God. ‘We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another’ (v.14). And this love we’re talking about isn’t words or feelings but practical actions. So if I claim to be a follower of Jesus but I grudge every cent I give to the poor, how can the love of God really live in me? If I’m spending all my time trying to find excuses not to be generous – “They’ll just waste it, you know” – “It all goes to overhead, doesn’t it?” – then how has my heart really been touched by the love of Christ? If my use of my money and possessions is no different from the person next door who doesn’t claim to be a Christian, then how am I really following Jesus?

No, one of the central differences the gospel makes in a person’s life is the transformation from selfishness and greed to love and generosity. Jesus told us that our heavenly Father showers his blessings on good and bad alike, and loves to give good gifts to those who ask him. Well then, Jesus would say to us, ‘Go and do likewise’.

And of course, this isn’t just about money; for many of us, our time is a far more precious commodity. Really, the greatest gift of love we can ever give to another person is to spend time with them. Did you notice that phrase? ‘Spend time’. Truly, time is something we spend; every hour of our life that passes is an hour we’ll never get back. God calls us to be generous with our time as well as our money, and yet we all know that churches and other community organizations are finding it harder and harder to get enough volunteers to offer the kind of services they’d like to provide to those who need them. This is love, too, a very practical and demanding form of love, and if we close our hearts to those who need it, how does the love of God live in us?

Well, it’s time to bring this sermon to a close, and as I do so, I’d just like to say that I’m well aware that I’ve had the easy part this morning. I get to talk about love. Talk is fine, but as my brother Mike likes to say, “Christianity isn’t meant to be a talking religion, it’s meant to be a doing religion”.

I started out this morning by telling you about my old friend Ken Burningham. After he died, there was a conversation amongst some of us about what scripture verse ought to be used for his memorial. For myself, I had no doubt about the answer to that question, because I knew which verse meant the most to him: it was verse 18 from today’s reading:

‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’.

Or, as the New Living Translation puts it,

‘Dear children let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions’.

Right: time to stop talking, and start practicing what I preach. But I should warn you – when we come together again next week, old St. John will have more to say to us about love!

Right: time to stop talking, and start practicing what I preach. But I should warn you – when we come together again next week, old St. John will have more to say to us about love!