Sunday, 26 April 2015

Love is an act- 1 John 3

We live in a world where we are surrounded by words. There are words on billboards, on our computer screens, in magazines, on signs. You go into the bathroom and there is advertising and graffiti. As we drive through the city words pour over us through the radio and from billboards. At home they spill out through the TV and computer. Words are used to manipulate us into buying things, to persuade us to vote a certain way, to inform us of news and of what they believe to be truth, to entertain us, and you name it. We seem to swim in a sea of words with very little silence, and if there is silence we are likely reading words.   

A downside to living a life swimming in words that are often used to manipulate and persuade us is that we have become suspicious of words. We don’t really take them very seriously. We say things like “Words are cheap” and “put your money where your mouth is”. We know words are easy to say- Even words we don’t really believe, or don’t believe enough to act on. We have lots of motivations for saying words besides the truth that we believe them.      

This isn’t necessarily a new problem. Jesus saw meaningless words as being a problem in his own culture and so he taught, “I say to you, do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matt 5:34-37). We take oaths because our word isn’t good enough. We don’t trust it on its own. But, the existence of oaths implies that our “yes” isn’t really a “yes”, unless it is said under an oath- “cross my finger, hope to die, poke a needle in my eye”. The existence of oaths implies that we can’t trust each other, so we need contracts and signatures because our “yes” or “no” just aren’t good enough. The words are taken too lightly and can be meaningless.   

Jesus told a parable about words. He said, “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” (Matthew 21:28- 31). Jesus is saying that words count for very little if our actions don’t match. And, if our words don’t match our actions, it is our actions that count.  

In John 14 Jesus says, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word …” (John 14:23). We can say we love him all we want, but if our actions don’t match then we have reason to question the truth of our words. If we love him, we will act on his teachings. Words are cheap. Actions are more costly. Jesus desired that we would be genuine. That we would avoid hypocrisy by aligning our words and actions.      

We hear a similar message in John’s letter today, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:16-18).  John is particularly concerned that our love have a real action connected to it and that it not be merely a word that doesn’t mean anything. Our actions expose the truth or the falsity of our words. If we claim to love someone in need, and have the ability to help, but we don’t, then John would suggest there is a reason to question if that love is true.   

We hear a similar teaching from the letter of James.  “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (2:14-17).

The concern for the poor is strong in both the Old and New Testaments. Jesus and his followers were really fulfilling and highlighting these Old Testament teachings.  In the Old Testament we are taught that having money is not inherently wrong. Private property is assumed.  The Ten Commandments condemn stealing and coveting, and Israel is encouraged to be generous. So it is not wrong to have things. It is assumed that we will have property and goods.  The Promised Land itself was promised to be a place of prosperity. The Old Testament never says that poverty is a good thing. Poverty causes suffering and so it is not what God wants for His people.

            While we do have some rights to our property we are also taught that in essence all that we own really belongs to God. We are managers of the resources that have been given to us. One of the heresies of our time is that we don't really believe that our bank account, or house, or car, belongs to God. We tend to think that God would be stealing if God drove off in our car.  Deuteronomy 10:14 says, "To the LORD your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it." 

            We are managers of what God has given us, and we have certain rights as managers when it comes to property. However, the Old Testament teaches that care for the poor overcomes our rights to private property. Our property rights give way under the obligation to care for the poorer and weaker members of society.

            We are also taught that giving to the poor and giving to God were essentially the same as shown by the Triennial Tithe (Deut 26), which was saved and used to help the aliens, the fatherless, the widows, and the Levites (who were the ministers) (Ex 26:1-15).  Also, the Bible teaches that when the people harvested they should not try to harvest too efficiently so that the poor could come and harvest some as well.

            Some of these laws are a bit alien from our world. Most of us don't harvest, and most of our poor are in the inner city. But, the essence of the message still speaks to us. Our own rights to private property do not override our obligation to help the poor.

            The Old Testament teaches that to be religious without any concern for justice or the poor is a lie. If we can reject of ignore the poor, then we cannot embrace God. It is a lie and God sees right through it. This is because God often chooses to align himself with the poor and oppressed. God picks sides. That is important for us, rich North Americans, to remember.  

            This is made a bit trickier when we start to look at the cultures we are dealing with. The Old Testament and Jesus were largely living in a world were towns were small and people tended to stay in the same place with their families. The massive cities we are dealing with are relatively new. Take London, England, for example, from the years 300-1200 AD the population was 10,000-25,000. And London was a big city. To give a reference, the town of Sylvan Lake is 13,000. I think our experience of the city where just about everyone we pass on the way to work is a stranger is a relatively new experience in terms of human history. So when Jesus and the prophets mention the poor, the people listening to them would have faces and names come to mind. They would know their stories and why they living such difficult lives. These were people they knew.

In our world we are overwhelmed by the images of poverty we see all around the world. They don’t have faces or names. They are a faceless, nameless crowd with outstretched hands from the other side of the world. We pass by people sleeping in doorways and rummaging through garbage cans, but we don’t know their names, or their families, or their stories. Helping those in need in the ancient world was, in some ways, less complicated. We have created a vast social net to help those in need, but there are holes in that net and people do fall through.

As 21st century North American Christians we have a daunting task in front of us. Future generations will look back on us and they will know we were aware of the plight of the world. The innumerable orphans left in the wake of AIDS in Africa, for example. We know about this. We hear the statistics that over 20,000 people die every day because of a lack of food, most of those are children. We feel overwhelmed when we start looking at poverty in the world and so we want to throw up our hands and just stop looking. Those with tender hearts can’t handle the pain of focusing on that for too long. It’s too much.

So what do we do? As followers of Jesus, we say we love and that love has to take action. We cannot deal with all the evil and injustice in the world. It’s just not possible. But … we can deal with some of it. We can look for a pocket of injustice where our talents and resources can make a difference. Mother Teresa once said, “If you can’t feed 100 people, feed just one”.   

As followers of Christ we are called to lives of deep love, and I see that in many people in this congregation. I am deeply moved and inspired by the love and generosity I see in this congregation. We are called to love, and it is a love that looks like the love of Jesus. This love active in a person causes them to even lay down their own life in sacrifice. This doesn’t mean dying, but it does mean a kind of self-forgetfulness, or getting lost in the other person. It means love is not just a word or a feeling, but a real tangible action. “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:17).               

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