Fourth Sunday of Easter, 29th April 2012
Although they bear the same name—John—they were not written by the same person. The writer of the gospel was not the writer of the epistles. Tradition claims that they all came from the same pen – or quill – but they didn’t. It’s easy to think so because they share a similar theological outlook, they share a common vision informed by the gospel-writer’s community and influence. The gospel is John, while the epistle is Johannine, and both point us in the way of Jesus Christ.
It’s the Common Lectionary that links these readings together. But even without the lectionary, it’s easy to see the connection. In John 10, we have Jesus’ famous declaration that he is the good shepherd, the shepherd “who lays down his life for his sheep.” He doesn’t rely on hired hands to care for his own; he directly cares for them—cares for us. “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me….” The shepherd has more than one flock. In time there will be one fold, and the shepherd will lead them. He will call and people will respond because they know his voice and trust it. He cares passionately for all the sheep. We might say this shepherd is more than good; he’s actually beyond good, exceptional really, because he is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. That’s an extraordinary shepherd. In fact, this shepherd loves the sheep so much that he chooses to suffer for the sheep, to lay down his life. No one tells him to do this, he’s not forced or constrained. “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down and I have power to take it up.” Power rightly used. Power used in action. Power used in love for the sake of the sheep. And so God’s love pours through him with delight and joy because he is the good shepherd.
In 1 John, we hear an echo of this same teaching: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” By the time these words were written, after Jesus’ resurrection, written to a community of Jesus’ followers, written to a church, we see that the author calls for belief “in the name of [God’s] Son, Jesus Christ” and then, clearly, that we “love one another, just as [Jesus] commanded us.” This, too, is a direct quote back to John’s gospel, to when Jesus gave the new commandment, “that you love one another, just as I have loved you” (John 13:34).
Now, to believe in the name of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, means more than simply acknowledging that Jesus existed, more than intellectually saying, “Jesus is the Son of God.” To believe here means to confess that something of God is known through Jesus, something of Jesus is known through God; to know that the way of Jesus is the way of God and the way of God is the way of Jesus; that the life of Jesus is the life of God and the life of God is the life of Jesus; that the truth of Jesus is the truth of God and the truth of God is the truth of Jesus. To acknowledge this, to know this with our hearts, not from a distance, but from deep within, is what it means to believe. To make his way our way, our way his way, is the life of faith. And if our hearts know this to be true of Jesus, then our hearts will follow in the way; if our hearts know this, then our feet are bound to follow. Faith and action.
Faith leads to action. If it doesn’t lead to action, to thoughtful expression in tangible ways, then you have to question whether it’s really faith. Otherwise faith is empty or hollow, tradition or custom or simply going along with the crowd or just hypocrisy. That’s why the author of 1 John urges his community, “Little children,” (and this is a term of endearment), let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Let us love with more than our tongues, more than empty confession, empty talk, empty preaching, but with something deeper, deep in our hearts, to love with our whole beings.
To “love in truth” means here, literally, to love from the truth, that is the truth about who God is, the source of truth. Rooted in the truth of God’s love in Christ, firmly grounded with that knowledge, that awareness surging through our lives, from that truth, that right now we are participating in the Being of God, from this truth – act, do something, live, move, change, serve. Allow this truth to flow and overflow over into action.
It’s important to highlight here that this is not an exhortation to become Christian busybodies, Christian do-gooders, becoming exhausted with the busyness of action. Before you act, there’s something else that needs to happen first. Note the order. Pay close attention to what’s being revealed here.
Rooted in God’s love, we act. Abiding, dwelling, resting in the knowledge of God’s love, we act. Actions divorced from love become self-serving and can do much harm. Actions divorced from love might have more to do with our egos, our selfish motives, maybe even fear. 1 John says that we know what love is like because he laid down his life for us and we ought to lay down our life for one another. The text then asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s good and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” It’s easy to hear this as saying: we ought to love our brother and sister, that’s what we do—a meal here, a visit there, giving, giving, giving, that’s what Christians do, right?—but then completely overlook or ignore the first part, which suggests that in order for us to really love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31), to quote Jesus, we must first be abide in God’s love in the first place. How does God’s love abide, indeed?
This passage and Jesus’ description of himself as the good shepherd suggest that we give and share and love out of our abundance, not from what we lack. When we are abiding in God’s love, living close to the truth, to the source of our being, drawing from that Source, then we are able to care for our neighbors in need. Look at Jesus. Jesus is fully aware of God’s love for him and out of that abundance, the fullness of his life, he willingly lays down his life. No one forces him to do this. He lays it down because he chooses to, because it’s an expression of his nature, who he is really, authentically, truly is. He’s not trying to be good or do good. He is good and therefore loves this way. I am the good shepherd, Jesus says – and this is how I love and those who know my voice do the same.
This is what love looks like. Both of these texts are really talking about love in the Christian experience. Both point to the way of agape. What does this word mean? It’s something more than friendship (philos) or romantic-sexual love (eros), more than the bond between family members (storge). It’s been defined as selflessness or unconditional love. Every place love is mentioned here in the Greek we find some form of agape. “We know agape by this, that he laid down his life for us…;” “How does God’s agape abide in anyone...?” “Little children, let us agape one another.” Jesus said, “Agape one another.” God agapes Jesus because of the way he cares for his sheep. In the next chapter of 1 John it becomes even more explicit: Agape is from God, because God is agape.
As I read these texts together this week what be clear (or clearer) to me is the way both texts characterize agape as other-focused, a turning away from oneself and giving oneself over to another, a laying down what one has so that another can take it up, a yielding, a letting go. It is to hold an other in high regard—a Thou—to give one’s self over to the other, to want the best for the other, and not for the sake of oneself, for what one will get out of it. And all of this is done, not from a position of absence or lack or need, but from a strong sense of oneself, abundance, and fullness that one is able to give away. If, as Martin Luther (1483-1536) said, “sin is the heart turned in upon itself” (Incurvatus in se), then love is the heart turned outward, that gives with a full and overflowing heart that’s being filled continuously by the Source of love, a heart that’s free to give because it is full.
If this is correct, then we are given a profound window into the very heart of God’s nature and way of being. For isn’t this the way God has been loving us from the beginning of time and promises to do to the end of time? For God’s agape gives itself over and over, gives itself away again and again without worries of depletion. It pours forth from a bottomless generative Source that creates and creates and creates, that gives and gives and gives, “letting be” and “letting be,” like in Genesis, calling forth life and life and ever more life, calling the universe and our souls into existence, saying, “Thrive! Thrive! Thrive!” Forever fanning, extending its outward, in an outflow sun-like, not directed inward, but outward—not because inward is bad, but because it’s already full to overflowing and there’s plenty to share.
When we’re in prayer or contemplation abiding in this truth, abiding in the awareness of how God’s agape is toward everything and everyone, something miraculous and graceful occurs in us: we discover that we can let go. We can let go of our narcissism and our ego-centricities and the myriad ways we pull people into our orbits, into our inward worlds to meet our needs and allay our fears, and then maybe we can come to discover and really see the needs of our brothers and sisters and begin to help. We can let go of our need to dominate, manipulate or control…people, feelings, situations, outcomes. Sometimes agape means letting go of the people we love, of relationships, the letting go of dreams and aspirations. There is a grace that is found in such moments of release. For agape does not insist on its own way (1 Cor. 13: 4). We can let go of our anxieties and our worries about the future, our income, our children, our security, our nation. We can let go of the past, of our hurts and regrets. Then we might be able to focus on the needs of the people around us and really serve.
All of this mind might sound Buddhist. There’s an echo of Taoism here, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (c. 604-531 BC) said, “By letting it go it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go.” But didn’t Jesus say the same thing about losing— letting go—in order to find? There’s a difference though, it seems to me. Jesus offers this way of being as an expression of love itself, because love is free to let things go, and when that happens we gain everything, a hundredfold and more. We don’t gain the world by grasping and hording and accumulating, but by letting it go, releasing it from our grasp, letting it be in love. We give it away. We find Jesus saying the same thing in the Gospel of Thomas, “Whoever finds the cosmos and becomes rich must ultimately let the cosmos go” (Logion 110). Or, as Presbyterian writer and minister, Frederick Buchner put it, “We find by losing. We hold fast by letting go. We become something new by ceasing to be something old. This seems to be close to the heart of that mystery. I know no more now than I ever did about the far side of death as the last letting-go of all, but now I know that I do not need to know, and that I do not need to be afraid of not knowing. God knows. That is all that matters.”
You don’t get to an insight such as this by thinking your way there, but from abiding in love, resting, trusting, know[ing] that I do not need to know and do not be afraid.”
I was really struck with what Richard Rohr says about all of this in Falling Upward, which we’re studying in adult education just now. He says that for all of our talk about love (agape), it’s easy to overlook that “Jesus praised faith and trust even more than love.” Not because agape is secondary to faith, but because “it takes a foundational trust” to fall into God’s love, to trust it, that then frees us to let go. “Then, and only then, will deeper love happen.” It’s a deeper love that is forever calling us to let go. Why? In order to for us to receive the larger vision and the larger purpose and the larger hope and glory of God’s love that we are being invited to experience, by God’s grace. Thanks be to God!