April 27, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
When I was a pastor, I felt a sense of personal hurt whenever members transferred to other congregations, particularly when such transfers had nothing to do with a job relocation or a geographic move, as is sometimes the case. It was made worse by the fact that lots of such people never say good-bye, never drop a note, never explain—maybe it felt awkward to them to do so precisely because they sensed you would take it personally. But indeed, as a pastor you maybe baptized their children, presided over their marriage, did a funeral for a loved one.
But then these members of your flock disappear one day and that is that. It hurts. But even at its most painful that is nothing compared to how Jesus feels when he loses a branch–because in that case it means not that the branch is serving God elsewhere on the vine but that the branch is little more than kindling wood.
John 15 reveals all kinds of interesting things. But one of the most startling perhaps is how much Jesus wants to be close to his people (and how close in fact he is to his people when all this abiding goes on as it should). This is, in other words, a lyric piece of Gospel.
You may have noticed in verse 2 that the branches the Father cuts off are described as having been “in me.” This soon-to-be dead wood once had every bit as intimate a relationship with Jesus the Vine as every other branch has. It is not as though these branches had once floated freely above the vine or had had at best only a small connection to the larger vine stem. A branch is a branch and it is organically united with the vine. To lose such a branch is to lose part of your very self. The act of cutting that branch is a wounding, scar-making affair. Small wonder Jesus expresses such fervency in John 15 that disciples not let this happen! Jesus is desperate to keep everyone, desperate that they remain in his love even as Jesus himself and his words remain in the hearts of all branches.
Most people in North America (and in other parts of the world, too) are accustomed to living in very voluntaristic societies. We view our membership and involvement in most every institution as something that is wholly up to us—we can initiate membership and we can terminate membership at will. Hence we tend to view the status of our membership, of our belonging, to this or that group sort of at arm’s length. Being a volunteer member carries with it a vague sense of detachment. I come and go as I please, thank you very much.
And so even in terms of church membership—and here I am recalling something Eugene Peterson once wrote—we have a hard time wrapping our minds around the idea that to say “I am a member of Second Church” is (biblically speaking) like referring to your own hand as a member of your body. Being a voluntary member of some group means joining or resigning are rather easy things. Being a body part carries with it quite other connotations! A hand can’t quit the body without some pretty dramatic effects. Or, in the specific case of John 15, a branch cannot leave the vine without some trauma involved. Pruning, cutting, cleansing a vine involves pain, for the branch but also for the host vine.
There are lots of interesting insights to be drawn out of a passage as rich as John 15. But perhaps in this Eastertide Season, a reminder of what it means to dwell “in Christ” as a member of his community is as important, if not bracing, a reminder we preachers can provide to people who may over time come to regard their membership in the church altogether too casually.
Commentator Dale Bruner calls John 14 Jesus’ great “Father Sermon” since nowhere else does Jesus talk so much about his Father–in 42 verses Jesus uses the word “Father” twenty-one times, about once every other verse. John 15 brings us to what Bruner calls the “Son Sermon” because here Jesus talks a great deal about himself. In the span of just 31 verses Jesus uses the first-person pronoun “I” a whopping seventy-one times, nearly twice per verse on average! (John will present Jesus’ “Spirit Sermon” in chapter 16, which is the longest single section in the gospels where Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s work.) John’s presentation and packaging of the events in the Upper Room make him quite unique among the New Testament’s four gospel accounts. But one thing is clear: the theology John teaches and conveys in these three key chapters has gone on to become extremely foundational for the Church along the ages.
What does the person of faith look like? Is the faith-filled person someone who exudes a serene confidence, a calmed and hushed and unperturbed spirit? Or is the faith-filled one the active and always-in-motion kingdom worker who is mostly a kind of holy blur of volunteerism? Is faith a set of convictions that could be counted-cross-stitched and hung on a wall or is faith seen best only when it is put into practice out on the nitty-gritty streets of the real world?
In the Bible Abraham is the father of all faith, and his life was mostly a series of journeys that involved trust. By faith Abraham packed up everything he owned one day and set off on a long trip toward an as-yet unspecified far country. God said “Go” and Abraham went. God said “Go to a place I will show you later” but Abraham did not reply, “Well, if I’m going to go, could you at least give me a hint, a general direction, a region on the map?” No, Abraham just went–no map, no end destination. Just a wing and a prayer, a dream of starry skies and sandy seashores and a home country out there . . . Somewhere
And that’s faith, we say. It was a leap of faith, and most of us believe at some level that sooner or later faith will involve a leap, a jump into the unknown. Abraham’s own journey of faith had its ups and downs and setbacks, but his story climaxes with one final excursion into the unknown when God told him one terrible day to take his son, his only son, Isaac whom he loved, and kill him on yet another unspecified mountain locale that God would show Abraham later on, only after he had set out. And it was only when the dagger, glinting in the morning sunshine on Mount Moriah, was raised up over Isaac’s rapidly heaving chest that God said, “Now I know!” The journey of faith was complete. Abraham had once more leapt into the unknown, proving his faith.
Frederick Buechner has written that faith should be seen as a verb and not a noun because faith is always about the sacred journey along life’s varied pathways. Others point out that in the Greek of the New Testament people are not said to believe in something but rather they believe into something, again hinting at movement, the risky stepping out onto thin air. To people like this, faith is never a creed because that is too static, too settled. Creeds make faith look like a big overstuffed easy chair that you settle into in your living room in a kind of cozy spiritual serenity. But real faith, some say, is about hitting the road, trusting God to lead you along. Faith is active and moving, not static and dry.
It’s an old debate, of course. Martin Luther’s world changed (and he then changed the rest of the world) after he read Paul’s hope-laden rhetoric that we are justified by faith alone! Faith is a gift given to us by grace. We don’t have to do anything to get faith. But then Luther discovered the letter of James. James was one of those who didn’t want faith to be the overstuffed easy chair and so said over and over that faith without works is dead. If you’ve got faith, you’d better be out there living and working and journeying along in very active ways, James said. Well, Luther didn’t like that at all. “James makes me so angry,” Luther said one day, “that I feel like throwing Jimmy into the kitchen stove!”
Luther wanted faith to be like a precious jewel hidden in our hearts. Others claim that the best image for faith is walking. Some say faith is a matter of the head and the heart–what you know and how you feel. Others say it’s a matter of the hands and feet–what you do and where you go.
In John 15 we get a little of both. On the one hand, faith is about remaining, abiding, staying still and calm and in one place, rooted to Jesus. At the same time, we are called to produce fruit, to be active, vibrant, and verdant.
Author: Scott Hoezee
May I just ask a rather simple, straightforward question: Where in the whole wide world did this Ethiopian fellow get a copy of Isaiah??
I mean, it’s not like he had downloaded it onto his Kindle. It’s not as though while he was in Jerusalem he found it on the “remaindered scrolls” table at the local Flea Market nor in the “Used Scrolls” section of the Jerusalem Barnes & Noble.
These things just were not floating around, readily available for rental or purchase. In fact, from what little I know about the world before Guttenberg invented the printing press, all print matter materials were rare. Even most synaogogues would be expected to have perhaps at most a single copy of the Scriptures. Nothing in print existed that had not been carefully done by hand as original copies only—carbon sheets and papyrus were notoriously ineffective!—and that just was not that common.
So where did this man—a high official in a foreign court, I will grant you—lay his hands on a copy of sacred Scripture? You don’t suppose he stole the thing, do you? Or did he manage to use his wealth to buy it off some Roman occupier who had lifted it from a synagogue? But why would he do that? Was the Queen of Ethiopia a collector of rare manuscripts such that this particular courtier was thinking he’d curry favor with her Majesty by bringing back a new item for her collection?
However it happened that he got a hold of this thing, it seems fair to say that his acquiring a copy of Isaiah was rare. Probably it was not done for any spiritual or particularly noble purpose. Possibly it represents an odd—albeit perhaps not completely unheard of—collision of circumstances, the holy “coincidence” of which is only enhanced when at just about precisely the exact correct moment, Philip finds this guy reading Isaiah’s words with a decidedly quizzical and confused look on his face.
In other words, lots of things had to go exactly right for this story to have happened the way it did.
Does it strike you as maybe a lot of divine providential fuss to get at just this one eunuch (himself an unlikely candidate for divine favor according to other parts of the very Hebrew Scriptures the man was reading)? And is this perhaps all the more strange given that we have no idea whatsoever as to whatever became of this eunuch? We are told that he went on his way rejoicing, which is a positive thing, but did the man have a ministry beyond that? Did the Gospel come to Ethiopia and to the royal court there on account of this man’s new baptismal identity in Christ?
We don’t know. As with the fate and future of just about every person whom Jesus ever healed in the four gospels, we just don’t know what became of this eunuch. The New Testament is chockfull of nameless, faceless folks who got touched by Jesus and, later, by his apostles, but who then disappear into the narrative ether. Yet at the heart of this well-known story we do indeed see a most marvelous portrait of grace. To God, apparently, and to his incessantly active Holy Spirit, it was not too much effort to get all the game pieces on this particular chessboard moving so as to make everything happen in just the right sequence to save just one lone man. Even as Philip must have been utilized in a spectacular way to get this man from puzzlement over Isaiah to a joy-drenched baptism in a river in a very brief span of time, so the Spirit did all kinds of quietly spectacular things to make this come together.
Commentators think this little narrative is inserted into this section of Acts as a kind of “Meanwhile” scene. Sometimes you see this on a TV series or in a movie: the main action of the film is happening in Moscow perhaps or in London but then the screen fades to black and a narrator may say “Meanwhile, on a small farm somewhere outside Tulsa . . .” and then we cut to a whole new out-of-the-way scene that reveals something really important to the plot. In this case, this little “Meanwhile” scene is meant to convey to us that whatever else was happening in the still-forming early church, the gospel was indeed spreading far and wide. The believers had been forced to scatter after the shocking event of Stephen’s dreadful martyrdom—and a certain man who will be called the Apostle Paul has not yet arrived on the scene to bring Jesus to the Gentiles—but nevertheless and “Meanwhile . . .” things were on the move in a global sense.
It’s not different today. Because among other things, this little story from Acts 8 should remind us that at any given moment—and I do indeed mean at ANY and EVERY given moment—there is always a “Meanwhile . . .” scene to which we could cut and in which we’d witness a stunning work of the Holy Spirit taking place in all kinds of unexpected ways and places and involving all kinds of unexpected folks.
The Spirit of Jesus never stops. Thanks be to God!
Perhaps one of the best World War II movies ever made was Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. In the story, a squadron of soldiers is dispatched across France right after D-Day to locate Private James Francis Ryan. All four of his brothers had already been killed in the war, and so General Marshall decides that the last remaining son was going to go home to his bereft mother before she loses him, too.
In the course of saving this one man, most of the original squad is killed in various skirmishes along the way. At the end of the film, as the squad’s leader, Captain Miller, is also dying, he looks Private Ryan full in the face and says, “Earn this! Earn this!” But how can a person earn what has already been given to him? He can’t. It was a gift that he could not earn before he got it and certainly it makes little sense to talk about earning something after you already get it. That’s why we generally don’t give people paychecks until after the work is done and the hours are put in. You earn it first. You can’t earn it if you already have it in the bank.
But the idea there was that Ryan needed to lead a changed life because of what he had been given. The experience of others’ sacrificing themselves for the good of Ryan and his mother (whom they never even met) was to be so great as to alter his life’s course so that, in a sense, he could earn it, be worthy of it, in retrospect after all.
The sacrifice of Jesus that we encounter in baptism—and that those of us who were baptized long ago remember each time we see someone get baptized—is like that. The person who gets baptized, be that person an infant, a child, or an adult, does not get baptized because he or she earned it or attained a sufficient level of understanding of the gospel as to make it OK to be baptized. Baptism is not the end result of a process but a free gift that begins a process. After baptism everything we do should demonstrate that we, in some way, understand, we “get it.” We don’t really “earn” our baptisms but we live in such a way that we demonstrate that we know full well what the man who did earn our salvation went through in order to allow us to share in his death and resurrection. It’s already been earned for us. We now live to show our praise for that glorious gospel fact as each of us goes on his or her way rejoicing.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 22 is poignant prayer of lament of a persecuted child of God. It begins with the anguished cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet throughout much of the psalm, the psalmist prays as though she’s not entirely certain that God is even listening to her.
However, Psalm 22’s tone is quite different by its end. It suggests the psalmist is reassured God has not, in fact, abandoned him. After all, Psalm 22 ends with a majestic vision of the scope of the praise that all of God’s children will one day offer the Lord. The description of this worldwide praise is what Brent Strawn calls “expansive.”
Yet though throughout most of the psalm the psalmist seems largely uncertain as to whether God is, she speaks directly to the Lord anyway. She even anticipates the day when all the peoples of the earth will praise the Lord with her. So it’s as if even as the psalmist figuratively lifts her eyes to the God “enthroned as the Holy One” (3), she also looks around at the people around her and across the world. That makes the verses 25-31 an appropriate expression of praise for the Easter season.
Yet even verses 25-31 aren’t expressions of naïve triumphalism that refuses to acknowledge the misery that plagues our world. Psalm 22’s author recognizes the reality of want and need. In verse 26 he speaks of “the poor.” In verse 29 he refers to “all who go down to the dust.” And in verse 29 he also speaks of “those who cannot keep themselves alive.” The reality of that misery that surrounds him may even fuel the psalmist’s sense of God’s abandonment that characterizes so much of Psalm 22.
However, the psalmist insists misery won’t get the last word in God’s world. She envisions a day when not only God’s Israelite sons and daughters, but also people from across the whole world will offer their praise to the Lord. In fact, as noted in an earlier reflection on this passage, the psalmist envisions God’s praise as spreading across the world a bit like ripples extend outward from the center of a pond.
Praise to God’s may find its genesis, by God’s grace, in God’s Israelite children who “seek the Lord” (26). However, the psalmist insist that praise will spread to “all the ends of the earth” and “all the families of the nations.” Interestingly, he doesn’t even summon people from across the world to join him in praising God. Instead, he simply says it will happen. “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him” (Italics added).
So the psalmist envisions a day when even people whom socio-economic realities now often divide will be united in their praise to the Lord. Whether people are now poor or wealthy, some day the Spirit will unite them in worshiping God. The psalmist eagerly anticipates a time when even those who now “go down to the dust,” perhaps to kneel before powerful oppressors, will also someday kneel instead before the Lord of heaven and earth.
In fact, asserts the psalmist, someday even those who can’t “keep themselves alive,” the dying, will kneel before the Holy One. James Mays notes how striking such an assertion is. After all, in the psalmist’s world those who are dead don’t praise the Lord. So while verse 29 doesn’t refer to those who are already dead as praising the Lord, it’s worth noting it does assert that someday the dying will also recognize they belong to the Lord.
Another striking feature of the scope of the praise to God that the psalmist envisions is her inclusion of “the rich of the earth.” This is a kind of reversal of expectations. After all, the Scriptures often warn those who are now wealthy, especially people who have unjustly gained their wealth, will someday forfeit it. In Psalm 22, however, the psalmist insists that God is so generous that even “the rich of the earth will feast and worship.”
The ripples of praise spread so far across God’s world that they even extend into the unknown future. After all, the psalmist asserts “posterity” will serve the Lord. “Future generations will be told about the Lord.” In fact, even those who are not yet born will be told about the Lord. It’s a striking assertion that’s made by a psalmist who’s not even sure she’ll live to see another day. It’s almost as if she insists that no matter what happens to her personally, the praise she has offered will spread across the world.
Particularly in the light of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, Psalm 22 expresses an eschatological vision. It invites worshipers to envision the day when, in Jesus Christ, people from everywhere and every circumstance will come to worship the Lord. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, people from every corner of the world and setting are already coming to faith in the risen and ascended Jesus Christ. Yet preachers and teachers also remember that the full realization of Psalm 22:25-31’s vision awaits the new creation where, by God’s grace, rich and poor, young and old will join in praise to the Lord.
In the meantime preachers and teachers of Psalm 22 may wish to reflect with hearers on Psalm 22’s implied ethics. As God’s kingdom comes, they may want to ask who fill feed “the poor” so that they may now “eat and be satisfied”? Who will work to do all that they can to see that the “ends of the earth” come to “remember and turn to the Lord”? Who will tell “future generations” and “a people yet unborn” about the Lord of heaven and earth?
In 2011 the Pew Forum released the results of a study of the size and distribution of global Christianity. It reported the number of Christians worldwide had quadrupled in the past 100 years. But since the world’s overall population also grew rapidly, Christians make up about the same proportion of the world’s population today as it did a century ago.
The share of the population that is Christian in sub-Saharan Africa climbed from 9% in 1910 to 63% is 2010. In the Asia-Pacific region it rose from 3% to 7%. Indonesia, a Muslim-majority country, is now home to more Christians than all 20 countries in the Middle East-North Africa region combined.
Nigeria now has more than twice as many Protestants (broadly defined to include Anglicans and independent churches) as Germany, the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation. Brazil has more than twice as many Roman Catholics as Italy.
1 John 4:7-21
Author: Stan Mast
Comments and Observations
When I read this passage, I hear the Beatles’ famous song, “All You Need Is Love.” But I don’t hear John agreeing with John, Paul, George, and Ringo–not completely. Though he insists on the absolute importance of love, John has more important things to say about love than “all you need is love.” Perhaps the most important thing he says is in verse 11. “Dear children, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” That linkage between our love for each other and God’s love for us is the distinctively Christian message of this text. If I Corinthians 13 is a poem on love, then I John 4 is a complex piece of music in which we hear variations on a theme.
John’s symphony of love begins with a statement the Beatles never considered. Where can we get this love that is “all we need?” “Dear friends, let us love one another, for loves comes from God.” God’s love is not only the reason we ought to love (as in the theme, verse 11), but God’s love is the source of our love. Calvin says that God’s love is the “fountain” from which our love flows. Wherever we find true love, it came from God. Indeed, says John, “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love, does not know God, for God is love.”
Those strong words can lead to some wrong conclusions if we don’t read them carefully in context. They have been interpreted to mean that what we believe doesn’t really matter. It’s how we live, and particularly how we love, that matters. Religion and theology don’t matter nearly as much as ethics and morality. Faith, particularly the content of faith, is much less important than love for our fellow human beings. But as the rest of I John indicates, that is not at all what verse 7 means. Another of the tests John gives to help us be sure we are true children of God is precisely what we believe about Jesus. “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.” (verse 15 of this very chapter)
The key to interpreting these apparently open-ended words of verse 7 is to recall that John is writing against the incipient Gnosticism which insisted that the key to salvation is the possession of a secret knowledge. You know that you know God if you know certain esoteric doctrines. No, says John, the key to assurance, the secret of certainty is not knowledge, but love. “Everyone who loves… knows God. Whoever does not love, does not know God.” That is true, says John, because God is love—not Light or Spirit or even Truth (as the Gnostics might have claimed), but love.
Above I said that wherever you find true love, it came from God. The important word in that sentence is “true.” John has a specific kind of love in mind here. The word for “love” throughout our text is the Greek word, agape, which is repeated in one form or another 43 times in I John, 32 of those occurrences in this section of the letter. John is not talking here about eros (love drawn by the worth of the beloved), or philos (affection for a member of the family), but agape (love for the unworthy stranger, even the sinful rebel). Thus, John is not saying that wherever you find eros or philos that came from God. He is talking specifically about the kind of love God has show to sinners who didn’t love God. That’s exactly what he explains next. After saying that God is love, he defines that love not as an abstract idea, or as a powerful emotion, or even as a divine attribute, but as a specific action of God. “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.”
Does this mean that God sent his Son to demonstrate love, to reveal the way God wants us to love, so that we could live in love? Well, yes. That’s what John says. But that is not all he says. The purpose of Jesus coming to earth was not merely to set an example of love. He showed us God’s love by becoming “an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” The word hilasmos has to do with expiation (covering sin, as with blood) and propitiation (removing or satisfying the wrath of God). Thus, John claims that the death of Christ was not only the revelation of how much God loves us, but was also the way God redeemed sinners whose sins deserved his punishment. In other words, God’s overwhelming love didn’t make that hilasmos unnecessary; in fact, it was precisely God’s love that provided hilasmos.
And, says John, God sent his Son for us, not because we were so loveable, but simply because God loved us. This idea of self sacrifice for those who are unloving and unlovable is exactly what John is pointing to when he says, “Dear children, since God so (outos, to such an extent) loved us, we also ought to love one another.” It is important to notice that we aren’t commanded to love each other as we love ourselves, as the second great commandment put it (Matthew 22), but as God loved us in the death of Christ. This is the distinctively Christian theme that sets this Scripture far above any other call to love, whether it’s the rocking Beatles or the sentimental Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
Having called us to love each other as God loved us and having shown us what that means by pointing to the cross, John makes an incredible claim about that love. He begins with a statement that has deep biblical roots. “No one has ever seen God.” We might expect John to continue as he did in John 1:18, “but God the one and only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” That would point to the revelatory effect of Jesus life. But instead John says here that, “if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” Rather than simply knowing God through the work of Christ, John says that if we love each other as God loves us, we actually have union with the unseen God. What’s more, that is exactly what the love of God had in mind when God sent his Son—not just a more complete knowledge, but deep union, abiding (menei in Greek) in God and God in us. When we abide in God by loving each other, God’s purpose in loving us is completed. His goal of reuniting all things in Christ (Ephesians 1) is accomplished. That’s how important it is that we love one another.
But that kind of union is pretty ethereal and mystical. How can we know that we are abiding in God? How do we know that we love each other well enough? As he has done before, John applies two of his other tests to help us grow in our assurance. “We know we live in him and he is us because he has given us of his Spirit?” (verse 13) That’s the spiritual test John introduced in 3:24 and expanded in the opening verses of this chapter. Then he introduces the doctrinal test in verse 14 and makes it crystal clear in verse 15. “And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.” Put all three of those tests together (social, spiritual, and doctrinal) and you can be sure of your salvation. “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.” (verse 16b)
We might think that John is done with this test of love for each other, but he wants to drive home how important it is with two more hard words, both probably aimed at the Gnostics. In verses 16-18 he focuses on “the day of judgment.” That probably grows out of verse 10 where the Son of God is “the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Our need for expiation and propitiation points to the certainty of God’s final judgment of sinners. But John may also have raised this judgment theme because his Gnostic opponents were blowing off all John’s talk about love. “We all know that our gnosis matters more than this simple business of love.” So John talks about the day of judgment in terms of love for each other.
Reiterating his theme of “God is love” for the third time and repeating his theme about loving and abiding in God for the second time, John says in verse 17, “In this way love is made complete in us….” In what way? Well, probably by loving each other and thus abiding in God. As we do that, “love is made complete in us (or among us in our community)….” And the more loving we are, the more we are like Christ in the world. And the more like Christ we are, the more confidence will have on the day of judgment. If we love each other in the way God loved us, we don’t need to fear punishment on that day. John is not teaching that we are saved by our love. He is telling us how we can know that we are saved and, thus, how we can be confident that we have nothing to fear on that Day. The one who fears God’s judgment doesn’t really know God. You think you know God by your special gnosis, but you only know God when you love each other as God loved you. If you love God by loving each other, you won’t be afraid to face God on that day of judgment. Love casts out fear.
In his second hard concluding word John attacks the often repeated claim, “I love God, even though I hate that person over there.” That’s an empty claim, says John. For one thing, says verse 20, God loved us first and poured his love into us. So if we don’t love each other, that’s a sure sign that the love of God isn’t in us and we don’t really love God. Indeed, “If anyone who says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar.” To John that is obvious.. “Anyone who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” That’s just common sense. And quite beyond common sense, we have God’s explicit command. “Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
Those last words, particularly, will go down hard in a world and church filled with partisan spirit and justifiable rage in the face of horrendous evil. We’ll need to stress three things in a sermon on this text. First, John is talking about hatred here, not mere disagreement or dislike. We are called to agape, not eros or philos. We are not called to give up our principles or wink at evil. So, we must be careful not to use this text to condemn fellow Christians who feel passionately about the wrong in the world.
But, second, this text is a strong call not to let our strong feelings keep us from loving each other as God loved us. John speaks in no uncertain terms about the importance of love by linking it inextricably to God’s love. In a real sense, we have no choice if we are Christians. No matter how we feel about others, no matter how much we may disagree with them or dislike them, we must love them enough to lay down our lives, as Christ did when he disagreed with and probably disliked us.
And third, we must be careful not to preach a work’s righteousness here. John’s strong words have led many Christians to think that we “get saved” by loving. And that’s right, but it is God’s love for us that saves, not our love for God and each other. This text is not about how to be saved, but about how to be sure that we are. We are saved by Christ, and we can know we are in Christ when we love as he did. When we aren’t sure, we must follow John’s words in the opening verses of this letter—confess our sins and trust in that Advocate who is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
Here’s an angular and graphic way into this well-known text. In his best-selling autobiography, American Sniper, Chris Kyle looks back on his bloody past (over 160 sniper kills) and says this: “I am a strong Christian. Not a perfect one—not close. But I strongly believe in God, Jesus, and the Bible. When I die, I believe God is going to hold me accountable for everything I’ve done on earth. He may hold me back until last and run everybody else through the line, because it will take so long to go over my sins. ‘Mr. Kyle, let’s go into the backroom.’
Honestly, I don’t know what will really happen on Judgment Day. But what I lean toward is that you know all your sins and God knows them all, and shame comes over you at the reality that he knows. I believe that the fact that I’ve accepted Jesus as my Savior will be my salvation.
But in that backroom or whatever it is when God confronts me with my sins, I do not believe any of the kills I had during the war will be among them. Everyone I shot was evil. I had good cause on every shot. They all deserved to die.”