April 20, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Today we don’t have shepherds in the wider society. Today we have managers. But shepherds and managers are not the same.
Whenever Jesus uses the pastoral image of a shepherd for himself, the point is nearly always the same: as the good shepherd of his sheep, he will risk his life and even temporarily abandon the flock if that’s what it takes to save the one lost sheep. As the true shepherd who loves his sheep, he will let himself be killed rather than see one single sheep harmed. In every image of the flock which Jesus employs, it is always clear that as important as the whole flock is, each individual sheep is as important to him as is the larger collective.
But many folks today don’t think that way at all. Instead we hear about giant corporations that do cost-benefit analyses for their products. They calculate how much risk they can get away with in an effort to pad the bottom line by not having to lay out any extra money for additional safeguards or further research & development.
So food companies have been known to let certain products hit the market despite their knowing right up front that there is a slight risk that certain people could well get sick from this food and maybe even die. But if the percentage of people at risk for that is small enough as to be statistically insignificant, then they forge ahead. Politicians often live by polls and so base some pretty big decisions on projected outcomes. Even if some people may be disadvantaged by this or that program cut, if the majority will benefit (and so vote the right way once again at the next election), then those who will be harmed are back-handed aside as statistically irrelevant.
Ours is a world that looks to see how much it can get away with. Ours is a society where the majority rules and the minority had best just learn to live with it.
But not so with Jesus as the good shepherd. A cost-benefit analysis would never cause the shepherd to leave the 99 sheep on their own for a few minutes in favor of finding the one lost lamb. If the shepherd had a risk-management committee, they would never advise him to let the wolf kill the shepherd but would say you could better survive to fight another day even if for the time being the wolf nabbed a sheep or two.
In other words, ours is a world and a society made up of hired hands with very few true shepherds around anymore. We manage risks and outcomes but don’t put our lives on the line to avoid all bad outcomes.
But then, perhaps it’s for that very reason that we could all use a truly Good Shepherd in our lives. Now, maybe, more than ever.
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
Those of you who are familiar with art may recall a funny habit that many Medieval painters practiced for quite a long time in Europe, and particularly in Germany. Artists such as Lukas Cranach and others painted many depictions of biblical scenes but they did so with the curious twist of dressing the biblical characters in the contemporary garb of the Middle Ages. So in one Cranach painting of which I have a copy, you see Mary and Joseph tending to their newborn son in a Bethlehem stable. You also see shepherds and others in the picture but every last one of them looks like a then-contemporary European. The men are wearing tights, silk shirts with puffy sleeves, and those big hats common to that era. All in all it was an interesting way to contemporize ancient stories.
But that mixing up of the old with the new and the past with the current must also have caused some eyebrows to be raised. Can you imagine what most conservative Christians today would say if some artist painted a portrait depicting Joseph in a pair of Gap jeans, Mary wearing Ralph Lauren blouse, and the magi in snappy suits from Armani?! There would almost surely be an outcry. You should not import the holy, sacred images of Scripture into a contemporary setting like that. It creates confusion, doesn’t seem terribly respectful. And anyway we perhaps risk “losing” something of the original presentation by mixing it up with the trappings of our modern world.
But in a real way, can we even avoid looking at the old through the lens of what is current? In this Eastertide lection from the Year B Common Lectionary we arrive at the most famous metaphor for Jesus in the Bible: the good shepherd. We have all likely seen one form or another of this particular image depicted countless times in most of the churches we have ever visited, on greeting cards, in artwork, and in many more places besides.
The odd thing, though, is that although the world still has shepherds in it, the experience of being with a shepherd is as foreign to most of us as being with a real cowboy in Idaho or with some Eskimo fishermen in Alaska. We know that such people exist, but we don’t have much to do with them and so their jobs and lifestyles don’t loom terribly large on our mental horizon most days. We know far more about teachers, lawyers, doctors, business people, and accountants than we do about shepherds.
But although the imagery seems outdated, has humanity in the modern world really outgrown its need for someone to love us fiercely and forever the way only a truly good shepherd can? In our quiet and secret moments, we yearn for someone stronger and wiser to take care of us. As Neal Plantinga once wrote, those of us who were raised in solid and good homes carry around with us the memory of how delicious it was to be tucked into our cozy beds at night without worries that would threaten our rest. Kids go to bed without fretting about whether ice will back up under the shingles, or whether the forecasted heavy weather will turn violent, or whether the bills can be paid, or whether someone at the IRS might just find that one tax deduction a bit too creative. No, as children we wriggled drowsily in our beds awash in the knowledge that someone else was in charge and so we happily allowed ourselves to slip over the edge of slumber the way only a child can, with literally no cares to make our minds too busy to sleep.
We adults carry that memory in our sub-conscious and we yearn for something like it again. Indeed, we pine for it even more acutely because now we know what it is like to live without that security. Now we know what it’s like to wait for results from the pathology lab. Now we know what it’s like to watch a deadly storm roar ever closer on the TV’s radar scope. Now maybe we’ve gone through the pain of having to bid first grandparents and then parents and finally even friends a final goodbye.
Has our need for a good shepherd really faded just because our familiarity with sheep and shepherds is not as acute as was perhaps true for the people who first heard these words spoken by Jesus? Hardly. We still live in a dangerous world. Wolves abound. We will never come to a day when we will not need someone who will care for us no matter what. We need someone who can see every wolf that runs our way and who will get killed himself rather than abandon any one of us sheep as statistically insignificant. We need someone with the vision and the wisdom to lead us safely through the landmine-pocked landscapes of life in a world which is as bewildering as this one often proves to be.
Unless you really think that it is easy to see your way clearly through the multiple ethical quagmires that technology and genetic engineering are creating, then you need to be led around by someone vastly smarter than you. Unless you really think that you on your own can resolve the toughest questions of justice which confront us today, then you need a shepherd you can trust to lead you along toward that better day when justice will roll down live a mighty river and flood every street and back alley of this creation.
So go ahead and put modern clothing on Jesus the Good Shepherd. But however we choose to update the imagery, we cannot deny that today as much as ever, everybody needs a shepherd.
The Gospel of John is oddly devoid of the much-loved parables of Jesus that make up such a significant portion of the Synoptic Gospels. Maybe by the time John set his gospel down in writing he figured the world did not need a third or fourth re-tread of some of those great stories Jesus used to tell. Instead John took note of another tendency Jesus had when speaking: his use of the “I Am” phrase. Ever the theologian, John knew full well the resonances that phrase carries for those familiar with the divine Name as it first emerged in Exodus 3: “Tell that ‘I Am’ sent you” is what Yahweh told to Moses when he inquired after the divine moniker. And so every time Jesus opened his mouth to start a sentence with the Greek phrase Ego eimi, theologically astute people know the weight and import of those words on Jesus’ lips.
Maybe one way to liven up a sermon on a passage / an image as overly familiar to many people as the Good Shepherd would be to take a broader perspective on John’s Gospel and all those many places where Jesus utters an “I Am” saying. After all, in the course of John Jesus will claim to be a door, a shepherd, a loaf of bread, a road, a light, a grapevine, and a resurrection.
That’s not a typical way people speak.
Years ago on the news program 60 Minutes the singer Paul Simon said that not long after Simon & Garfunkel released the iconic song Mrs. Robinson with its refrain “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you,” DiMaggio himself contacted Simon to express bafflement as to what that line could possibly mean. After all, DiMaggio had not gone anywhere—why, he was a spokesman for Mr. Coffee now! “He had not yet,” Simon told Ed Bradley, “begun to think of himself as a metaphor.”
Great observation. But then, who does think of him- or herself metaphorically? Wouldn’t we wonder about a co-worker who was known regularly to spout lines like “I am the antibody that protects my family from the virus of secularism” or “I am the oil that keeps our company’s pistons well-lubed”? Who talks that way?
Jesus did. And as C.S. Lewis once observed, a man who spouts such lines as “I am the Light” and “I am a Gate” is either the single most important person you might ever meet or a man as nuts as someone who walks around claiming to be a poached egg. Christians find John 10 to be so meaningful because we’ve opted to believe what also Peter said in Acts 4 (another lection assigned for this Year B Sunday in Eastertide): Jesus is now so vital, that only by his name can a person be saved.
Because that is true, all those otherwise odd “I Am” sayings in John turn out to be not so odd after all.
Author: Scott Hoezee
If only the Common Lectionary had gone on just one more verse! Stopping shy of verse 13 deprives us from seeing one of the great passages of the Bible. Because it is there that the ruling authorities—who are seeking to hush up the apostles—find themselves powerfully impressed that the people doing all these things are, all things being equal, hicks and unlettered rubes.
The word often translated as “unschooled” literally means “unlettered” (Greek: agrammatoi) which might mean unschooled but seems closer to “illiterate.” These guys were illiterate idiots. Yet they now possess a boldness and an eloquence for which there was no good explanation except maybe—just maybe, possibly, outside chance—that it had something to do with another thing the authorities take note of: these men had been with Jesus.
They had been with Jesus.
Would that fact alone account for their ability to heal a crippled person and then be able to speak so eloquently about it? Well, not if Jesus had himself been no more than an ordinary man. Something else was going on here, but the Sanhedrin could not bring itself to acknowledge the obvious: namely, that the “something” that was going on here smacked of a divine movement and a divine presence that quite probably validated—or at least leant a gargantuan amount of credence to—the claims these men were making.
And what were those claims? Well, they were on the grand side of things and they were not the kinds of claims that brooked much by way of nuance and compromise. Jesus equals salvation, and apparently he’s the only One who brings that salvation, too. He is the key to the entire salvific edifice God has been building all along. In fact, Acts 4:11 is one of the earliest New Testament uses of that verse from Psalm 118 about the stone that the builders rejected becoming the head of the corner.
As I have noted in other sermon starters on this website, very few if any casual—or even rigorous—readers of the Book of Psalms would have tumbled to Psalm 118:22 as a likely candidate to become the most oft-quoted Old Testament verse in the New Testament. Yet that is exactly what Psalm 118:22 is. No other single verse from the Hebrew Scriptures comes up more often in the New Testament than this one. It beats out more familiar and loved psalms, including Psalm 23 (the Psalm lection for this same Sunday). It beats out Psalm 150, Psalm 8, Psalm 19, Psalm 42, or any other psalm whose words get embroidered on counted-cross-stitch wall hangings and printed inside of Hallmark greeting cards or emblazoned on the bottom of Precious Moments figurines.
Just what was it about that odd verse that so attracted the attention of the apostles? In some ways, Psalm 118:22 is itself a little like the rejected stone that verse talks about: it’s a tiny and obscure verse that is easy to cast aside and yet it is a verse that has gone on to encapsulate a central move and fact of salvation. Somehow the New Testament writers knew that as it turned out, the key to understanding God’s salvation was not going to be found chiefly in pieces of soaring rhetoric or in demonstrations of world-class divine power. It’s rather like Elijah finally finding God not in howling winds, storms, or earthquakes but in a still, small voice that tickled the back of his eardrums like the whirring of a gnat’s wings. Somehow God was going to do what he had been doing all along (for those with eyes to see) and that was to lift up and elevate and glorify not the obvious candidates for divine election but the least likely folks: childless old Abram and Sarah, sneaky Jacob, stuttering Moses, spineless Jonah, Mary and Joseph’s boy Jesus (of Nazareth of all places!).
God has a penchant for rejected stones. He specializes in glorifying the unlikely. And something about that gracious and surprising work of God is captured in Psalm 118:22 and fits the ministry of Jesus perfectly. Salvation is always surprising because it’s always by grace alone (and if you don’t think grace is surprising . . . then you don’t understand grace at all). And so when the apostles, like Peter in Acts 4, found themselves “filled with the Holy Spirit” (cf. Acts 4:8), the Spirit led them to a lowly little textual nugget embedded deep inside one of the lesser known of all the psalms and prompted Peter to use that little verse as the perfect summary of what God’s ways are all about.
It was not an obvious claim. It was not a claim anyone would make unless convicted deeply by the very Spirit of God. But once a person is so convicted and so says the kinds of things Peter declares in Acts 4, any reasonably functioning person would know that it would do no good—as the Sanhedrin goes on to try anyway—to tell such a person not to talk about Jesus any more (cf. Acts 4:18).
Compared to the soaring power of Peter and John’s words in Acts 4, the Sanhedrin’s words looked like an attempt to hold back a roiling wave on the ocean by thrusting your hands out in front of you. It’s just not going to work. There’s far too much power behind the wave.
Yet somehow it all stemmed from the fact—so innocent-looking on the face of it—that these otherwise illiterate fools had “been with Jesus.” There’s transformation that comes from being in the presence of Jesus.
Although in a different way, we latter-day disciples who now have God’s own Holy Spirit living right in our hearts, connecting us to our living Lord Jesus, have been with Jesus, too. We’ve been with Jesus. We are with Jesus. “The Lord is near,” as Paul put it to the Philippians. Here’s hoping and praying that this fact alone is enough now and then to make others look at also us and wonder what all accounts for the hope and the grace and the joy we exude.
“Maybe it’s because they’ve been with Jesus,” folks might conclude about also us.
And what a fine thing that would be for someone to conclude!
When you think about it, the claim Peter makes that salvation can be found in no one other than Jesus is not only remarkably strong, this bold assertion comes remarkably early in the story of God’s new people. Think of it: the Roman rubbing out of Jesus—their neat crossing-out of his very existence—had taken place within months of the events recorded in Acts 4. Jesus’ death had been a public event that no one disputed. He had died. He had been buried. And really recently at that.
Just imagine someone today claiming that Joe Kleinfelder from Topeka, Kansas—who died and was buried just before Christmas 2014—had become the single more significant figure in the world such that everyone’s destiny was now tied to Joe. Who could believe it!?
Such a very short time after Jesus’ very public demise and people were running around the Mediterranean Basin to claim that a carpenter’s son from the backwaters of the Roman Empire and who had been duly dispatched by the might of that same Empire had become so awesomely powerful and important that he alone can secure a person’s eternal destiny. This Jesus of Nazareth was anything but ordinary—the claims being made about him by these uneducated former fishermen and such brooked no middle ground between being true or false.
If what Peter claimed was true, it was the dearest truth anyone would ever hear. If it was false, it was the biggest piece of lunacy anyone would ever hear. A couple thousand years later people still go toe-to-toe to debate that very point, and not a few folks of the Richard Dawkins variety get downright angry over those who believe in religion of any kind, much less this loopy stuff about Jesus.
But the men who made those claims would not have always made those claims, not even across the years they spent in Jesus’ physical presence. But something happened to change them and make them proclaim what they did. And precisely because the claim is so huge, even all these years later it’s really not finally something you can meet with indifference.
Author: Doug Bratt
Psalm 23 is so familiar, so ingrained in historic American culture that those who preach and teach may feel intimidated by it. After all, it’s the psalm that characters as diverse as Katherine Hepburn in Rooster Cogburn and the hip-hop artist Coolio in “Gangsta’s Paradise” utilize. Pastors and others have also probably read it more than any other Scripture passage in hospitals, at funerals and during graveside services.
So those who wish to preach and teach Psalm 23 may feel like those who try to preach and teach the Christmas and Easter stories. We may assume we just don’t have anything new or dramatic to say about it. Yet those who proclaim the gospel don’t necessarily look to communicate new truths. We want to let the Holy Spirit use us to communicate something of the gospel of hope and comfort, even if that good news is familiar and nearly as old as humanity itself.
Psalm 23’s words seem to at least suggest God the Shepherd has safely brought the psalmist through some kind of crisis. No one enjoys enduring the crises sickness, suffering and other forms of misery produce. Yet as Rolf Jacobson notes, it’s the crisis she’s endured that seems to, by the power of the Spirit, generate Psalm 23’s psalmist’s stirring profession of faith.
This serves to remind God’s sons and daughters that although danger, evil and other crises can very painful, the Holy Spirit can use even those troubles to strengthen our faith and deepen our trust. And because the psalmist doesn’t identify the specific crisis she’s endured, that Spirit can also apply Psalm 23’s truths to all sorts of difficulties its readers may be enduring.
Those who preach and teach Psalm 23 want to be sensitive enough to those problems to not be glib about either the psalm or its message. What’s more, we don’t wish to analyze and dissect this psalm as we might some inanimate object or other literary genre. This is lovely poetry that’s full of beautiful metaphors and striking images. So we want to try to be somewhat lyrical and poetic in our preaching and teaching of it.
Psalm 23’s author immediately identifies “the Lord” as his “shepherd.” Certainly shepherding was a familiar vocation in Israel. Shepherds provided for and protected the sheep under their care. Their bosses held them accountable for their flock’s well-being. But preachers and teachers may want to explore with listeners more modern metaphors for such caregivers. Shepherding is, after all, a largely unfamiliar vocation to most westerners. So might we, for example, compare Israel’s shepherds to modern nannies or day-care providers?
The Old Testament speaks a great deal about Yahweh as Israel’s shepherd. In Genesis 48 an elderly Jacob/Israel professes that God “has been my shepherd all of my life.” In Isaiah 40 the prophet speaks of God as tending God’s “flock like a shepherd.”
However, the Ancient Near East also sometimes spoke of its rulers and other leaders as “shepherds.” This adds extra poignancy to Ezekiel 34’s talk about shepherds. There, after all, God accuses Israel’s shepherd-leaders of only taking care of themselves and looking out for their own interests. By contrast God insists God is the Shepherd whose priority is searching for taking care of God’s “sheep-children.”
James Mays sees Psalm 23 as a kind of polemic against the claims of divinity that so many ancient rulers made for themselves. After all, the psalmist professes he entrusts his well-being not to any human shepherd-leader, but to the Shepherd whose name is “the Lord.” So like so much of Scripture, Psalm 23 rejects both human claims of self-sufficiency and grabs for the divine status that belong to the Lord our Shepherd alone.
Psalm 23:1-4 describes things shepherds must do for their sheep because their animals can’t do them for themselves. While some may find it distasteful to be compared to sheep of which we often think as “dumb,” this metaphor helps us focus on our joyful reliance on God’s provision of every good thing. In fact, Psalm 23 insists God the Shepherd is so generous the psalmist will never be “in want.” In other words, the psalmist joyfully professes that God will give God’s children so much that we’ll never lack any good thing that we really need.
Much of Psalm 23’s most lovely imagery is protective imagery. The psalmist professes God makes him lie down in green pastures. If sheep lie down, it’s a sign they feel safe enough that they don’t have to stand to defend themselves. In verse 4 the psalmist adds when she walks through death’s dark valley, she needs fear no evil because God the Shepherd is with her. So the psalmist professes those whom God graciously shepherds can feel safe because God keeps them safe.
Though the Lord is God’s sons and daughters “shepherd,” we still hurt and struggle. However, Psalm 23 reminds us God won’t abandon God’s “sheep” to whatever threatens us. The valleys through which God’s people must sometimes walk are so dark that we can scarcely see the hand in front of our faces. Yet Psalm 23 reminds us God remains right beside us. As a result, we don’t have to be afraid.
Some of Psalm 23’s beautiful imagery is also leading imagery. God the Shepherd, professes the psalmist, leads her “beside quiet waters.” The Lord, in other words, leads the sheep that are God’s people to places that offer both rest and nourishment. The psalmist also professes that the Lord leads her “in paths of righteousness.” Scholars note that this image is somewhat ambiguous. The psalmist may intend us to understand God the Shepherd leads God’s sheep along safe paths. Or she may mean us to understand that God graciously leads us along morally good paths. Yet those options aren’t mutually exclusive. After all, God leads the sheep that are God’s people along paths that are both safe and righteous.
Other images in Psalm 23 are those of honoring. When the psalmist speaks of God preparing a table in the presence of his enemies, he seems to be alluding to the practice of kings throwing banquets as a way of confirming alliances and friendships. As Jacobson notes, by throwing a banquet for the psalmist, it’s as if God honors him in the presence of those who want to dishonor and harm him, in other words, “his enemies.”
Preachers and teachers often rightly focus on Psalm’s 23’s imagery of God’s leading of God’s sheep-children. God, after all, certainly does lead and guide God’s sons and daughters. However, God the Shepherd doesn’t just “go before” God’s sheep. God also goes with God’s children. After all, the psalmist recognizes that even in life’s darkest “valleys,” God is with her. So it’s as if God the Shepherd stays not just ahead of the flock, but also somehow right in the middle of it. On top of that, God the Shepherd, or at least God’s goodness and mercy, follows the flock that is made up of God’s sons and daughters for as long as they live. So Psalm 23 gives God’s children license to imagine God as not only leading and being with them, but also following them. Its God is a God who surrounds God’s children with God’s loving and generous presence.
On the fourth Sunday of Easter, the Revised Common Lectionary pairs Psalm 23 with John 10:11-17. There Jesus calls himself the “Good Shepherd.” So not only does Jesus claim divinity for himself, he also says that he’s the One who lays down his life for his sheep and calls sheep to himself. He is also the shepherd out of whose tender grip no one can ever wrest his sheep.
St. Patrick’s Breastplate is a hymn whose old Irish lyrics people originally attributed to St. Patrick during his work in Ireland in the 400’s. And while it was probably actually written during the eighth century, it expresses something of Psalm 23’s sentiments:
“I arise today through God’s strength to pilot me: God’s might to uphold me, God’s wisdom to guide me, God’s eye to look before me, God’s ear to hear me, God’s word to speak for me, God’s hand to guard me, God’s way to lie before me, God’s shield to protect me, God’s host to save me from snares of devils, from temptations of vices, from everyone who shall wish me ill, afar and anear, alone and in multitude.”
I John 3:16-24
Author: Stan Mast
Rarely is taking a test a joyful experience, but the author of I John has woven four tests into his letter/sermon designed to bring his readers joy. “We write this to make our (yours and mine?) joy complete.” (I John 1:4) The way to complete joy, he says, is to be sure of our salvation. “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (I John 5:13) How much of the unhappiness we experience as believers can be traced to an uncertainty about our salvation? A Christian who is uncertain about God’s love will be an unhappy Christian. So, to increase our certainty and our joy, John gives us four tests. To locate them, just look for the word “know” throughout I John.
In connection with last week’s lectionary reading, we looked at one of those occurrences in I John 3:10, where two of the tests are woven together. “This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are. Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God, nor is anyone who does not love his brother.” That kind of interweaving of tests is common in I John; we’ll find it again at the end of our reading for this Sunday.
At one time I wondered if this clumping together of different thoughts could be traced to John’s advanced age. As happens with many older folks (one of whom I am rapidly becoming), his thoughts jump around and run into each other, in spite of the Spirit’s inspiration. (Inspiration is organic, after all). But now I think that the intermingling of tests is very intentional and ingenious. To keep us from becoming prematurely sure of our salvation just because we passed one test and to keep us from despair when we barely pass another test, John wants us to see the total results of taking the tests. It’s a bit like taking a battery of psychological tests as part of entering seminary. Different tests tell us about different parts of ourselves. Taken together the psychologist will hopefully get a more accurate picture of the student. To be really sure that God loves you and that you have eternal life, John gives us these four tests.
Today he zeroes in on the second test, the social test mentioned in 3:10, loving our brothers and sisters. The verses between that verse and verse 16 underline the impossibility of a true child of God hating a brother. Then John repeats the test. “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers.” Now in our reading, John answers an implied question, asked perhaps by his Gnostic opponents. What is this love for brothers? They might have defined it in fine philosophical terms related to some secret gnosis. But John cuts through their fancy language with a simple picture.
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” John doesn’t offer up little vignettes from daily life to help us define love for fellow Christians; he hangs a masterpiece portrait of love in our mind’s gallery. Love is nothing less than this picture of Jesus hanging on the cross, the long promised Christ crucified with common criminals, the very Son of God emptying himself of not only his dignity, but even his very life. That’s what it means to love other believers.
That picture of Jesus is like one of those old Renaissance paintings that cover an entire wall. It is so overpowering that we can hardly see ourselves in it. That’s why John gives us a miniature of it for our own mental gallery. After saying, “And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers,” he shrinks the picture further. “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can God’s love be in him?”
With those words, John takes the radical command to lay down our lives for each other and makes it more practical and plausible and perhaps even more painful. Instead of laying down our life, Paul talks about our material possessions. But the word there is bios, meaning life, or the means of life. John isn’t talking about the luxuries of life; he means the bare necessities, what it takes to sustain your life. “If you have such things and you see you brother in need….” The word “see” has the sense of a sustained look—not just a glance in which you barely see him, but a careful examination.
If you really see the needs of your brother, and “you have no pity on him….” Again, the words here are pictorial– “have no pity” is a colorless translation of kleise ta splangchne, which means literally “to close, or shut, or bar your bowels.” The ancients saw the bowels as the seat of emotion because when we are emotionally moved, our intestines are moved. We feel love in the pit of our stomach or our bowels are roiled with anxiety or we are moved to feel pity at the pain of another. John says, if you have the ability to help another Christian and you take the time to really see him in his need but you “bar your bowels” from feeling anything for that brother, “how can the love of God be in you?”
John’s words are sharp, but he doesn’t use them to undercut their assurance. He intends to move them to real love and deeper assurance. We know that because his next words are an encouragement to people he sees as God’s children. “Dear children, let us not love in words or tongue, but with actions and truth.” Love is more than merely understanding the problem of poverty. It is more than being moved by compassion for the poor. It is more than being able to talk a good line about what love requires. Love means actually doing something about the needs of your brother or sister. Love takes what you have in your own life and goes to work with it to alleviate the needs of a fellow believer. John calls us to take pity on the poor not as a guilt trip, but as a labor of love in response to Christ’s labor of love for us.
Pointing at this vivid picture of love in sacrificial action, John applies his test. “This then is how we know that we belong to the truth….” It’s not the possession of advanced knowledge or the ability to talk profoundly that bring us a sense of security and confidence before God; it’s actually doing something for the needy brothers and sisters among us. The ability to pass this “social test” will set our hearts at rest in God’s presence when our hearts condemn us. The grammar of verses 19-20 is almost hopelessly tangled, but I think we all know what John is talking about from our experience. When we fail one of his tests, when we aren’t righteous (his moral test) or we doubt the Good News about Jesus (his doctrinal test) or we don’t sense the Spirit’s presence in our lives (his spiritual test), our hearts condemn us. “You aren’t much of a Christian. Maybe you aren’t a Christian at all. Anyone who would continue to commit the same sin over and over, anyone who would question the Scripture, anyone who grieves the Spirit by living the way you do can’t be a child of God.”
When our hearts condemn us, says John, remember what God said about loving your brothers. Don’t let your oversensitive conscience take away your assurance. God says that if you love your fellow Christians the way Jesus loved you, even if you don’t do it perfectly, that is proof that you are a child of God. Our culture often says, “Listen to your heart.” Sometimes that is a good idea, as John says next. But when you’ve passed this social test, then don’t listen to your self-condemning heart. Listen to God who is greater than your heart and knows everything. If you really love, you can really know, no matter what your heart says. Rather than being a condemnatory text (as some of the Reformers thought), verse 20 is really designed to comfort.
On the other hand, says verse 21, when your heart does not condemn you (because you obey God’s commands and do what pleases him), then you can have confidence before God and you will receive anything you ask for. That’s a sentence that needs a careful parsing. Many Christians have been deeply shaken when they have understood those last words like a Twitter message. “You will receive from him anything you ask.” That’s true only when we “obey his commands and do what pleases him,” that is, only when we are so in tune with God that we only ask what is his will. John is not teaching that complete obedience is the cause or condition of answered prayer. He is saying that we can have confidence as God’s children when we pass the tests. Being obedient to God’s commands gives us confidence that God will give us what we ask.
John concludes this section on the social test by mixing all of the tests together in order to give us complete confidence before God. “And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ (the doctrinal test that will be developed in 4:1-6) and to love one another as he commanded us (the social test further developed in 4:7-21). Those who obey his commands (the moral test dealt with in chapter three) live in him and he in them. And this is how we know that that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us (the spiritual test that will be woven through the next two chapters).”
As I said earlier, John is not trying to make things harder by giving this multiplicity of tests. He is trying to help us become more assured, so that we can have complete joy in what God’s love has done for us in Christ. To prevent false assurance based on the fact that we are, for example, law and order people, John applies the test of brotherly love. On the other hand, to prevent discouragement based on the fact that I am not as loving as I should be, John applies the test of doctrine. I do believe in the name of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Taken separately, these tests can result in presumption or despair. Taken together, they give us a reasonable assurance based on the Word of God that we really are children of God.
Jerome tells this story about the apostle John. “When the venerable John could no longer walk to the meetings of the church but was borne by his disciples, he always uttered the same address to the church; he reminded them of that one commandment which he had received from Christ himself, as comprising all the rest, and forming the distinction of the new covenant. ‘My little children, “Love one another.”’ When the brethren, wearied of hearing the same thing so often, asked why he repeated the same thing, he replied, ‘Because it is the commandment of the Lord, and if this one thing be attained, it is enough.”
Regarding the connection between assurance and happiness, some time ago I read Therapy, a best-selling novel by David Lodge. It was about a man who is so deeply unhappy that he has immersed himself in therapy. He is in psychotherapy, aromatherapy, physiotherapy, cognitive-behavior therapy, and acupuncture therapy. His psychiatrist has him write down a list of all the things that are right about his life and all the things wrong. On the “things right” side, he lists: professionally successful, well off, good health, stable marriage, kids successfully launched into adult life, nice house, great car, and as many holidays as I want. On the “things wrong” side he lists one thing: I am unhappy most of the time.
When I preached on I John many years ago, saying that an unhappy Christian is an uncertain Christian, one of my congregants challenged me. “I think there’s a great difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is tied to circumstances, joy is tied to Christ.” I completely and publicly agreed with her statement. As the character in Therapy discovered, your life can be filled with happy circumstances, but you can still be most unhappy. On the other hand, the Gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us that you can have many things wrong with your life and still be filled with joy, because you know for sure that you have eternal life through Jesus.
As we preach on John’s words about active love, many of our listeners will recall the poignant exchange between Tevye and his wife, Golde in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Their daughter is getting married to a man she loves. The marriage between Teyve and Golde was arranged; the first time they met was on their wedding day. So now Teyve wonders to Golde, “Do you love me?” She is annoyed by the question and refuses to answer at first, but then she sings these famous words. “Do I love you? For 25 years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow. Why talk about love now?” When he persists in his question, she finally answers, “Do I love you? For 25 years, I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him. Twenty five years my bed is his. If that’s not love, what is?”