The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
April 22, 2018
Acts 4:5-12; I John 3:16-24
“For God so loved the world…”
“There is no greater love than this…”
“Abide in me as I abide in you…”
Please join me in a spirit of prayer: “Gracious God, as we consider your Holy Word and its meaning for our lives, grant us the faithful, wild imagination we need to understand anew how to manifest Christ’s love in the world, Amen.”
The Letters of John, from which we’ve just heard a reading, are a commentary on the Gospel According to John. The Letters were written a generation after the Gospel to a new, younger generation. These Letters were meant as exposition, instruction, reflection, and guidance on the Gospel’s content. In many ways, the Letters track closely to the Gospel’s verses. “There is no greater love than this, than a man should lay down his life for his friends,” reads the Gospel. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us,” reads the Letter. In the 15th chapter of the Gospel, Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” The Letter proclaims, “All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.” The Letter of John compresses the two great themes of the Gospel According to John––belief in the name of Jesus and loving one another––into one packed verse: “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of the Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as God has commanded us.” The great commentator also dwells repeatedly on two of the most powerful themes of the Gospel—the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, and the idea of God and Christ abiding within humans just as we abide in them. Each of the Gospel’s great emphases are in the forefront of our lesson this morning from the commentary, whose author is sometimes referred to by modern-day commentators as “the elder.” The elder has so much to share with a generation who didn’t experience personally the riveting events of Christianity’s birth. The elder wants them to experience the Gospel text that creates and shapes their community in a way that will give them the truest faith, and then, the most faithful discipleship.
I wonder if, in the elder’s community, there was a phrase like ours today: “Talk is cheap.” To the elder, the central message of the Gospel is love, and in particular, it is love in action. “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?” the elder wants to know. Then as now, I imagine there were people who would say something like, “I really love the poor, the hungry. They are precious in God’s sight. If they work hard, maybe they’ll be eating better soon.” No! When anyone is poor, hungry, or suffering in any way, if any of us has the resources to mitigate that suffering, we are to share what we have immediately. Long term solutions take a long time, and while they are under way, we are to help people immediately. The elder read the Gospel of John and its injunction to love and decided it was not possible to say that you love someone and then leave them to their suffering. Would any of us do that with someone we really love? If our child were burning up with fever, wouldn’t we do what’s in our own power to bring that fever down? If that same child clearly needed professional medical attention, wouldn’t we get it for her immediately? If we love others, why don’t we do it for them? Or is it a different kind of love? A pals-y love, a non-family love, an every-tub-on-its-own-bottom kind of love? The elder read the Gospel of John and learned of a savior who died—who gave his life—for a world of people he didn’t know, most of them not fitting anyone’s description of someone who is “deserving.” Our lack of deserving made no difference to Christ, who submitted to torture and execution on our behalf. We are to offer an infinitesimal fraction of that sacrifice on behalf of those who suffer around us and, with Christ’s example, it is to be regardless of our—or anyone’s—estimation of their deserving of our love. “Just love,” said Christ. “Just love,” echoed the elder. If you’re honest with yourself, you know that you aren’t deserving either. So love fully, and selflessly, and give away what you have to those who need it. That’s love. Spare us all the verbiage that’s empty of action.
Many years ago, I was in Africa, in Côte D’Ivoire, and on a Sunday morning, I found myself attending a Methodist church in a small village. The service, to be honest, was rather boring. Dry, dry readings, prayers, sermon. But then the time came for the offering to be taken up, and the place caught fire. Women, children, and men danced down the aisle to put their money in the plate. There were two offerings, one for the work of the church and another for a missionary supported by the congregation. All the people sang. All the people danced. My French is mediocre and I didn’t catch all the words but what was so clear is that the people knew they were blessed to have something to put into the plates. They waved the money through the air! The currency was flapping, the singing was jubilant. In the United States, in the churches I’ve known, the offering is a time of obligation, when all of us begrudgingly put something in the plate. It’s our hard-earned money; does anyone else deserve it? Can we be sure that the people to whom it’s going are worthy of it? As I’ve been thinking this week about the biblical teaching to just give what you have so that others might live, I remember that long-ago congregation in Côte D’Ivoire, and the gratitude and fulfillment those parishioners had in knowing that they were so blessed to have something to give away. “Praise God!” was their message, and we should listen to it.
In writing this sermon, I began to fear, that in trying to be faithful to the depth of the biblical injunction to give what we have to those who need it, that I would come off incredibly hard. Then I came across these convicting words of Martin Luther, from his Large Catechism. Martin Luther believed that anyone’s withholding of help to safeguard the life of a neighbor actually is a violation of the Fifth Commandment, and thus is a form of murder. Martin Luther wrote, “… this commandment is violated not only when a person does evil, but also when he fails to do good to his neighbor, or, though he has the opportunity, fails to prevent, protect, and save him from suffering bodily harm, and injury. If you send a person away naked when you could clothe him, you have left him to freeze to death. If you see anyone suffer hunger and do not feed him, you have let him starve. Likewise, if you see anyone condemned to death or in a similar peril and do not save him, although you know ways and means to do so, you have killed him. It will do you no good to plead that you did not contribute to his death by word or deed, for you have withheld your love from him and robbed him of a service by which his life might have been saved. Therefore, God rightly calls all persons murderers who do not offer counsel and aid to men in need and in peril of body and life.”
For John the Evangelist and his commentator, believing in Jesus and loving all humanity—these things don’t simply have the same source, they are the same thing. They have to be. Jesus Christ’s embodies God’s love. If we believe in Jesus Christ, we therefore believe in love—holy love, God’s love. And because we thus believe in love, we inhabit it and act on it. When I think of our shared opportunities to inhabit God’s love to those who are suffering, I think repeatedly of efforts to close off this country in every way to those who are in danger in their home countries. Gangs, warfare, starvation. My own family came to this country because, as my late father used to put it, “we were running out of potatoes in the coal fields of Wales.” We were hungry.
The Gospel of John and its commentator the elder believed that embodied love is the sign within any person or community that God is present. Where is God found? Where love—audacious and costly love, love in action—where love is present. God is there. We actually summon the very presence of God among us when we perform acts of love! We make God abide in us; we make Christ abide in us when we perform acts of love! “Where charity and love are found, God is there,” as we’ll hear our choir sing in a few minutes. How about that—we make God and Christ present to people when we perform acts of love, and of meeting human needs! We are actually so powerful when we share our love, as the elder says, in “truth and action.” We repeat the deeds of God in this, for we read that God so loved the world that God sent us our redeemer. God didn’t love us so much as to nurture sweet feelings—God acted on love: God sent us Christ. Then Christ acted on love, by laying down his life for us. And we play our part when we act on love by bringing whatever help is needed to those around us. “God is love,” the elder says only a few verses after our passage for today. God is love. We abide in God—we participate in God—when we love as God loves. So let us be a people of such audacious and graceful love, prophetic and costly love. There is no higher calling!
––Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, D.L. Bartlett, B.B. Taylor, eds. (Louisville: WJK Press, 2008), pp. 442-447.
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