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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Signs of Love

2015-04-26 1 John 3:16-24 Signs of Love


First, thanks to everyone who helped me work on the sermon this week. If you missed it, I posted verse 18 on Facebook and asked if this was a command or a correction. Some of you said a command, some said a correction. Others went a different route and said it's gentle instruction. Still others said it's a description of how to love well. We'll get to all that in a moment.


What struck me was that this is one simple line of scripture… about love… and one Facebook post produced three or four ways of interpreting it. This is not a controversial verse. This is, "Love one another, y'all." You'd think we'd at least be able to agree on that.


One sure thing I've learned in almost 25 years of ministry is this: No matter what verse you're reading, scripture always (always, always) reveals at least as much about the person reading it as about God. Count on it. And sometimes I wonder, too, what scripture reveals about the person writing it, and why he or maybe even she said what he said the way he said it. I think these are all signs… of something. But what?




You ever get a feeling about a person? A feeling that what they're saying has something else behind it? Of course you do. We all do. Like those people who smile all the time. That's just creepy. Nobody's that happy.


Every now and then I get a feeling about scripture. Call it a suspicion. A sense that something's going on behind the scenes. Something's happening that made the writer feel a need to speak up. For instance, my personal favorite verse, Proverbs 16:31: "Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life." I can only imagine what prompted the writer to choose to make that The Word of the Lord (thanks be to God). Actually, I can imagine pretty easily. Easier all the time.


Am I the only one who does this? I don't think so. You read a piece of scripture and think, "Why in the world is that in the Bible"? Something must have been going on, so they wrote a proverb or a law. Churches are famous for this. Something happens once. It ruffles feathers. So they pass a policy. And they put it on a sign. Go in any church kitchen in the continental United States – there will be signs.


They put signs in other places, too. I was at a meeting at a church and in the bathroom stall they had this strategically located, laminated sign: "Please flush toilet after use." You know you're in the South, and you know they really mean it, because it said, "Please." It also had a clip art picture of a toilet, in case someone thought they meant the sink. You know why the sign was there. I wonder – if you're not going to do it without a sign, will having the rules in print really make a difference? But you have to try. People can't be trusted. If they'll do something once, they'll do it again. This is why we make rules. The more you know about people, the more rules you need.


So, working as I do with people, and being accustomed to churches and rules, I see today's scripture as a sign. Maybe a sign from God. But maybe also just a sign from one person to another, from a committee to the new people who don't know that if you slam the refrigerator door, the freezer pops open (which, yes, is a sign in our kitchen). In particular, I think about verse 18: "Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action." I think it's a sign.




Going back to what you and others said on Facebook about this verse about love. Here are some of the words you used to describe it: command, correction, invitation, imploring like a frustrated parent (won't say who said that but he has two young boys), elaborative instruction, explanation, directive, exhortation, and reminder.


This love thing sounds so simple until people get ahold of it. Even worse – when a preacher does. A young minister friend of mine who still remembers something from seminary reminded me that in the biblical Greek, "Let us love" is the cohortative, jussive tense. Which is exactly what I was going to say before he interrupted me. Kids.


Do the nuances make a difference? It depends. A lot depends on which version of the Bible you're reading, or what situation you're in, and what you think of love, and how you've experienced it. Love could be a feeling, as in, "I love those shoes; I must have them." Love could be a command: "Love your little brother! (At least act like it in public.)" Love could be coercion: "Love me or I will hurt you." Love could be safety, as our therapist friend, Missy Bradley-Ball said: "Love is a verb... it is simply not only a word…. Actions create safety...words may until actions do not line up. [Love is] congruency." That is, love is learning to walk it and talk it at the same time and in the same direction. Love is what builds a sanctuary, a home.


I have no reason to believe that the people to whom John's letter was read were any different than we are. Even Dr. Seuss knew, a person's a person no matter how small, or old, or young, or straight, or gay – which is something a lot of people are arguing about these days. Frankly, I find the arguments about same-sex marriage to be a profound distraction from going about the kind of love – love for friends and love for enemies – that the Bible teaches.


But you know how it is. You get people together in a church or synagogue or mosque or temple, or school, or state, or political party, or Supreme Court – they start making rules. Some rules are printed large, with clip art pictures. Some say please. Some say, "Thou shalt (or else)." The rules that really get you are the ones that are unspoken. You may not know what they are, but you know when you've broken them. Love can build a bridge, but rules about love just tend to build walls. Which is probably why I read this letter from a minister to a congregation as a letter from a minister to a congregation. I think it's a sign of something deeper.




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


"Little children," he starts off. Is he doing a Children's Sermon? No. He's writing to adults. Newly converted Christians? Is that why he's calling them, "little children"? Perhaps. But judging by the context, I think it's a sign of something else.


"Little children," he says. John says this a lot when he's talking to his congregation. I take it as a term of endearment. (I once had a preacher who addressed us as, "My people." Every time he'd say it, I'd think, "Won't you let my people go?") If John were southern he'd being saying, "Hey listen, y'all. We're all friends, here, right?"


"Little children, let us love," he says. My young preacher friend who remembered his Greek was grammatically correct. John's imploring his listeners. "Come on, people. Let us love." He's trying to convince, not command. But why? Is it because there were issues around how to love or whom?


Then comes the NOT. This is the part that rings my bells. Because John could have said, "Let us love." Period. Or he could have been straightforward: "Let us love in truth and action." That's his point, after all. But instead he adds in the "not". He says, "Let us love, NOT in word or speech, but in truth and action." To mini-minister me, that's like flashing neon. It's a sign.




I get all sorts of trade journals and Internet articles about the state of the church in the United States. They can be really depressing. People are leaving churches in fairly high numbers. They're becoming Nones. Not Catholic nuns. But Nones as in, "none of the above." Why is this?[1]


This is where it gets interesting. If you ask church leaders to read this sign of the times, they say, "It's because the church has departed from the Word of God." And, they also say, "Because young people –not the gray-haired crown-of-glory people like me – young people just don't understand commitment." And then they say, "We need more rock bands and cappuccino machines."


But if you ask the "young people" and I mean that as a term of endearment, not necessarily a description of age, they're leaving because churches are better at putting up signs than building bridges. Churches have always been better at talking about love than loving unlovable people. The Apostle John, who was one of the disciples who deserted Jesus when the police came, the Apostle John, who was part of a very unlovable group of disciples, understood on a personal level what it meant when Jesus said to, "love your enemies." To forgive people before they ask. Anybody can love people who are just like them. The love of Christ is hard. It's really hard. It's so much easier to talk about theoretically loving hypothetical people, should they ever get lost on the way to the lake and end up in church on Sunday morning.


Commenting on the scripture, one of our Facebook friends said, "[John] knows our tendency to talk rather than walk." Or, to put it another way, he knows our tendency to walk when the talking gets hard. I am so guilty of this. It's so much easier to hide in a coffee shop than to speak the truth about love in love. I don't like unlikeable people. They're not likeable. I hate conflict. It makes me physically ill. Boy, there's a great advertisement for Christianity. "Follow Jesus. It'll make you sick." Any old savior could tell us to put up happy signs and make fluffy speeches. But the Bible says to love, NOT in word or speech, not in slick signs and slogans, not in empty talk – but in truth and in action.


Sometimes I really don't like the Bible.




I see what John's writing in his letter as something just about any of us could write to a church, whether in 2015 or 1015. This isn't a new phenomenon. The Blessed Saint John dealt with it. Martin Luther dealt with it. Billy Graham dealt with it. Pope Francis deals with it. Skipping church is no longer punishable by law (dang it). Going to church is no longer socially advantageous. And I think those of us who want church to continue are panicking. We want someone to blame for all the problems. This year it's Liberals and gays. But the truth and deed is closer to home.


The age-old complaint is, "I don't want to go to church; it's just a bunch of hypocrites." Well, yeah. What better place for hypocrites to be? What better place for sinful people to be than in church? We're not here because we're Nones. We're here because we're Nots. We're here because, like John's congregation, we wrestle with loving NOT in word or speech, but in truth and action. Scripture is timeless, not because it tells us what to do in any situation; Scripture is timeless because it tells us who we are, in every situation. We're "little children" of God. See what love the Father has for us that we should be called Children of God… even when we don't deserve it. Even when we fight with our brothers and sisters. Even when we say ugly things and put up signs instead of bridges.


The greatest sign of God's love, the greatest sign ever, doesn't say a word. The greatest sign of God's love doesn't say "do this" or "don't do that" or even, "Please." The greatest sign ever of God's love just stands there. The greatest sign we have of God's love is the cross. By God's grace the cross stands before us, reminding us that there is nothing – nothing – in heaven or on earth that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. The cross stands in silence. But it stands in truth, and in deed.


Little children, friends, God's people: Let us love. Let us love, not in word or speech. Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. Let us love in the truth and the action of the cross, that no shadow of death, no shadow of sin, no shadow of our own form, will ever, ever separate us the love of God.