22 April 2018

Love in Action

1 John 3:11-24

Fourth Sunday of Easter

I’ll get straight to the point: love is a verb.  That’s it. That’s the sermon. Perhaps I should stop here.  This is the good news; this is the gospel.  Love, God’s love, and every expression of God’s love in us and in the world, is less a noun, than a verb.  “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8), the author of 1 John tells us.  Love is integral to the being of God.  John’s not merely saying that God does loving things.  It’s deeper than that, he’s saying love is God.  Because God is always God, and cannot refrain from being God, God is always love.  God is—I like to think of God as less a noun than a verb—and by virtue of God’s being, God is love, and therefore loving.  God is continually love, loving the world, loving us into being, loving us, in love with us, loving the enemy when we can’t. God’s love, the kind of love talked about in Scripture, creates.  It’s this love, as Dante came to know, “that moves the sun and the other stars.”[1] God’s love creates and it heals and forgives and restores and transforms.  God’s love judges and challenges and corrects us.  God accepts us wherever we are, to be sure, but never leaves us there.  God’s love takes us by the hand and then leads us forward, always forward—never ever back.  God’s love sends us out into the world, rooted and grounded in this same love (see Ephesians 3:17). We could say that love is God’s mission. God’s love is on the move, moving us, sending us.

Love is always a telltale sign of God’s life in us.  We can discern God’s presence by an increased capacity to give and receive love. And this love is always calling us to action, calling us to service.  God’s love is generative, it calls us to give generously of our resources, and time, and talents and love itself—even to the point of seemingly reckless abandon and hilarity. For God loves a hilarious giver (2 Cor. 9:7). And this love invites us to be hilariously creative and innovative. 

At some level, we know this in our heart of hearts.  But it’s so easy to forget all of this—and whenever we forget this, we sin, we fall.  All sin is essentially forgetfulness.  When we forget who God is and who we are in relation to God, we sin, we fall.  It’s clear that John knew the church needed to remember that “God is love.”  Now, we don’t know which church the author of 1 John was writing to. Maybe he didn’t have a church in mind, perhaps it was written for every church. These letters of John (1, 2, 3 John) are sometimes called the catholic epistles, catholic meaning “universal,” letters for everyone. The church, then and now—every church—needs to remember that “we love, because God first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19).  And because God’s love is operative in us through Christ, we love the world in a different way, a more radical way. 

We will love in ways that the world will consider ludicrous or risky or foolhardy or zany or wasteful.  Don’t be surprised by their response.  Don’t be surprised that people don’t get this.  “Do not wonder, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you” (1 Jn. 3:13)—hates you for the way you love.  We live from a different set of rules, under a different authority; we are not bound by the forces of death, but are determined and shaped and loved by that which yields to us life.  In fact, John tells us we can test the spirits to see whether our lives are being shaped by death or life.  He says, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love one another” (1 Jn. 3:14). Enacted love is the proof.  “By this we know love, that [Christ] laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 Jn. 3:16).

And then John presses the point even further. We have a responsibility for our neighbor. “But if any one has the world’s goods,” that is, if you have money, resources of any kind, any amount, “and you see your sister or brother in need, but then close your heart against her, how can you say that God’s love abides in you?”  Love does not hold back. It gives. You see, this love, God’s love is more than a feeling. It’s more than a theological platitude.  It’s more than an idea.  It’s more than things church people like to say to sound pious. “Little children,” John says, a term of endearment.  “Little children…dear ones, let us not love in word or speech,” he says, “but in action and in truth” (1 Jn. 3:18). I like how John Calvin (1509-1464) beautifully comments on this text from 1 John: “Let us not profess by the tongue that we love, but prove it by the deed; for this is the only true way of showing love.”[2]

And we love, not because it’s a command, not out of duty. Well, yes, it is a command.  Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). But remember it’s a command that comes from the one who is love, whose mission is love.  We love because we are the objects of God’s love. This means, if you think about it, by virtue of our existence, by virtue of the fact that you’re breathing and your heart is beating, by virtue of being alive in this beautiful creation, by virtue of being here, we are right now participating in God’s mission of love.  This is the Missio Dei, the mission of God.  Missio meaning “sent.”  Missio Dei is an old designation that goes back to Augustine (354-430) and Aquinas (1225-1274).  God’s mission of love is seen in God sending the Son and the Son sending the Spirit and the then the Spirit sending us. God is the sending God, the missional God,  God with a mission. And we are God’s emissaries, a people sent.  Jesus said in his priestly prayer, “Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world” (John 17:18).

Stressing the missional dimension of God is really important for us to remember in the church.  We often think of mission as all the good deeds and projects and works done by a particular church or done by missionaries, done “out there” beyond the walls of the sanctuary, somewhere in the so-called “mission field.” We think of mission as one aspect of ministry done by a church, along with others forms of ministry, such as Christian education or caring for the sick or ordering worship.  This is often what we associate with the word “mission” and how we use it.  Sometimes it’s a synonym for “charity.”  But these views don’t really serve us well and biblically/theologically-speaking they hinder us from serving the Kingdom.  And mission is definitely not another word for charity.

For the past century, theologians such as Karl Barth (1886-1968), Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), Lesslie Newbigen (1909-1998), David Bosch (1929-1992), Jürgen Moltmann, Alan Hirsch (who spoke here at CPC more than ten years ago) have tried (and, for the most part, have failed) to get us to think differently about mission.  We need to reframe this.  We need to turn things around, turn our understanding inside out.  “It’s not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world,” Moltmann insists, “it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.  There is a church because there is mission, not vice versa.”[3]  The mission belongs to God.  In other words, the church doesn’t have a mission; God’s mission—God’s mission of love—has a church.  The church is the “container,” or, better, a conduit, a channel of God’s mission.  The mission doesn’t belong to us, it’s not ours, but God’s.  God determines the mission and the church’s task is to figure out how to make it happen—which means that we have to make sure we’re not standing in the way, that we’re not obstructing the mission (which the church has a habit of doing). God’s mission of love moves through every aspect of the church and is not limited to what we call “mission.” All that we do flows from and expresses God’s mission.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) said, “Faith in action is love and love in action is service.”  

Love is service.  I stand in awe of the many ways this congregation demonstrates God’s love. In several minutes, we will ordain and install women and men to particular works of service.  As trustees, deacons, elders, you are call by this congregation to lead us as we together live out the mission of God. Ordination in the Presbyterian Church, being set apart, is not to status or privilege but to service; you are set apart to do a particular work.  Yes, at times there will be long meetings that are tedious, frustrating, and even mind-numbing (some, certainly not all), but never underestimate what God is doing through you.  Never, ever underestimate how God’s love is at work through your season of service.  This is true for all our trustees, deacons, and elders.  As you serve, I invite you to ask yourself and to pray: how can I best serve God’s mission through this community of faith? This is a good question for all of us. Love in service.

Love in action. Shortly, Alex Hall will share this year’s Envision Fund awards, providing grants totaling $140,000.  Consider the potential impact this will have, both here in Catonsville and around the world.  This is God’s love at work through us. Hilarious generosity flowing through us!  We’ll be reaching out to the community, strengthening the ministry and outreach of CPC, helping those in need, serving as agents of healing and hope, providing a future for God’s people, here and in Howard County, and Baltimore City, and in the Presbyterian Church (USA), in Tanzania.

God’s mission of love, friends, the work of the gospel, is alive in us and through us transforming the world! We don’t have a mission, God’s mission has a church: you and me, together. Remarkable.  Isn’t this exciting?  Amazing?  How can anyone say the church is boring?  Well…sometimes the church is boring. When we’re only caring for ourselves, worrying about our own self-preservation, that is boring and lifeless and soul-crushing—and certainly not what the church is for.  

It’s an extraordinary gift, friends—dear ones—a priceless treasure, to be part of the church of Jesus Christ when we consider what God is doing and will do—right now—through us.  Thanks be to God!

[1] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: III. Paradiso, trans. John D. Sinclair (New York: Oxford University Press, 1939), Canto XXXIII, 485.
[2] John Calvin, Commentary on the Catholic Epistles, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom45.i.html.
[3] See Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).