NW Deanery Holy Eucharist Homily
April 21, 2018
Fr. Dan Tuton
In writing the first of his three letters, John describes what kind of life it is that reveals that one is God’s true child. And in this time immediately before we convene to elect a new Bishop for the Diocese of the Rio Grande, I think John’s main message is especially relevant to us here and now. It has to do with the priorities of God’s kingdom. So I’d like us to focus on that for the next few minutes. The epistle reading is 1 John 3:16-24, which may be found in your pew Bible on p. 188 of the New Testament portion, if you’re inclined to reference the text as we go along.
So we start off in verse 16 where John writes this: “We know love by this: that Jesus laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” This sounds very much like what Jesus himself said: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
How’s that for a first criterion for being Christ’s true child? Sometimes Christians are accused of taking the easy road. And unfortunately, for some Christians, that accusation seems not far from the mark. You see, in the heady freedom of grace, there’s a temptation: Once we’re baptized and being good churchgoers and all that, we may feel like our ticket to heaven is punched, and the rest is just kind of a negotiable afterthought. You know, all those things about loving your neighbor, staying in unity with your fellow believers, and so on.
It’s an especially strong temptation in a place like our own country, which has enjoyed the freedom to worship, more or less without fear (at least so far). In other words, it’s pretty rare in our culture to be faced with the threat of death for exercising our faith. But this isn’t the case in many places around the world. From Bonhoeffer to Martin Luther King, Jr., to the many anonymous martyrs nowadays in the Middle East and Africa, there are many in this world for whom John’s words in this important letter have held a keen edge. For them, being a disciple of Jesus does have a cost. More than anyone they know that love may demand from us the greatest sacrifice a person can make. This was modeled for us by Jesus, of whom John writes, “he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
Perhaps our greatest witness to the truth of the gospel comes from our willingness not to retaliate or to hate, but with dignity in our hearts and forgiveness on our lips, to refuse to let our pain feed the cycle of hatred. This isn’t just a practical instruction in the case of persecution, but really it’s a message about the transformation of the heart. It’s a decision to place ourselves in the healing radiance of God, and let the Spirit transform us into people of God’s peace. For the Christian, self-sacrifice for the love of others is a state of mind and even a way of life.
John writes of a related state of mind in the very next verse, and I’d like to spend a little time on this one. Because next he asks a piercing question: “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 to help?” John says our obligation is to help our brothers and sisters in need. And here it’s enlightening to look closely at that phrase “brothers and sisters”—which is the word adelphoi in the Greek. It’s been pointed out by many Bible scholars that, when Jesus and the New Testament writers use that word, they’re nearly always referring to fellow believers. Okay? “Sisters and brothers” generally equals “fellow believers”.
While there are many scripture passages mandating that we care for all of the needy (not just Christians), even in the oft-quoted passage in Matthew 25, where Jesus says, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters, (these family members, these adelphoi) of mine, you did for me,” he’s talking mainly about believers—taking care of their needs. So the imperative to care for the less fortunate and the hurting is especially strong when it comes to fellow disciples of Jesus.
In the larger world this emphatically includes sheep not of this pasture. Syrian Christians, Egyptians, Armenians, Sudanese, Iraqis, the Palestinian Arab Christians in the Holy Land, and right on around the world in places where persecution is happening right now; these are our brothers and sisters. And John says, “How does God’s love abide in any who have the world’s goods (you know, wealth, safety, security and so on) and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”
The Greek actually reads more like “…sees a brother or sister in need, yet isn’t moved with pity right down to their very gut.” We’re not just to say, “Well, I wish you a meaningful martyrdom. Thanks for taking one for the team. See you on the other side.” It’s our God-given responsibility to help in whatever way we can, and in whatever way that is pleasing to God. Praying and speaking up in advocacy are two such ways.
And that next line in John’s epistle drives the point home. He writes, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Truth and action. So, applying this again to our persecuted sisters and brothers overseas and at home, we have two imperatives here that beg action from us. The first is nothing less than being willing to die for one another, and the second is to help our brothers and sisters in need, perhaps in the form of protecting them from suffering or even death.
Now here, again, I’d like to emphasize that the mandate to help, and especially to help our fellow believers, is a state of mind, and a high priority. What this means is that whatever differences we might have with each other, our unconditional, sacrificial and practical love for each other as siblings in Christ’s family is of utmost importance.
Now, I’m sure it’s no news flash to you that our nation has become polarized, and that the extremes on both sides have created a shrill, angry environment in which true listening is increasingly shut down. In other words, we’ve gone tribal. With a little prodding from certain folks who gain some form of profit from our hostility, we’ve returned to that fallen human state of seeing the “other” as an enemy who needs to be defeated, rather than a fellow traveler in this life with whom we might share a whole lot more in common than we ever thought.
We’ve seen this happen not only in our nation, but also in our denomination. In my humble opinion this is something that we don’t want to see happen again, and I’m pretty confident that most of you feel the same way. Here’s the thing: Times of transition are very often times of stress. It’s then that we become especially sensitive to perceived threats to our own priorities and even to our own power. John knew that, and Jesus knew that. That’s why both focused on developing a firm disposition of generous and sacrificial love. And it’s this disposition that helps inoculate us against the disunity within the church for which Jesus prays to the Father on the night before his passion, in John 17. “Father, I pray that they may be one, as we are one.”
And in today’s epistle John writes, “And by this (by our love) we will know that we’re from the truth and will reassure our hearts before God whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and God knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.”
The wording here is a little complicated, but what this cooks down to is basically this: By our sacrificial love we know that we’re united with God, and we can be assured that God will work through us. He’ll give us what we need to do his work. God is greater than our anxious hearts, and he reassures us with his Grace. And it’s in this overflow of grace that we stay in healthy relationship with God and with each other.
Finally, in verse 23, John distills the prescriptions in this text down to the basics. He says, “This is God’s commandment: That we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he commanded us.” Believe and love. This formula is simple, but make no mistake, it’s also sweeping, and it may not always be easy. In the beauty of grace we have a job to do, and it entails work. We’re not required to jump through endless hoops to earn God’s love, but neither are we just to grab onto cheap grace, and idly wait for the train to heaven to come tootling down the track. Rather, we’re to channel our gratitude for God’s love into obedience and into the kind of humble service that guards us against unforgiveness and disunity.
John’s message in this week’s epistle reading speaks directly to us. “This is God’s commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us. 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.”
So, my prayer for us this day is that, especially as we close in on a very special Cinco de Mayo, we remember who we are, and we remember whose we are. And I pray that sacrificial and practical love will not only help us to harmoniously elect our next sub-shepherd for this Diocese, but will also unite us through the Spirit in a common mission built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. Amen.