Year B, Easter 4
1 John 3:16-24
Most of us have probably heard the phrase, “Let your conscience be your guide.” It comes from the film Pinocchio, which is about a wooden puppet who wants to be a boy. He must prove himself worthy by showing that he is brave, truthful and unselfish. To help guide him in this quest, he has a little cricket named Jiminy Cricket who is the voice of his conscience. One of the famous songs is, “Give a little whistle.”
The first lines are:
When you get in trouble and you don’t know right from wrong– Give a little whistle!
When you meet temptation and the urge is very strong—Give a little whistle!
If only it were that easy…if we could simply determine the right thing to do by whistling. (Of course that would be a problem for people incapable of whistling.) We are bombarded in our culture with advice like “Let you conscience be your guide.” “Follow your heart!” “Listen to your heart!’ “Go with your gut.” It’s this idea that somewhere inside each of us is wisdom and truth and if we can become in tune with that part of us, we will discover the right path.
I am not sure that is true. Because our hearts can sometimes lead us astray. Our gut or our feelings are usually based on our own best interest, which might not always be the best interest of everyone around us. Thankfully, as Christians, we have this handy book (the Bible). The Bible is full of wisdom and guidance. Unfortunately, it can be a little harder to discern the wisdom of the Bible than it is to follow our gut or google something on the web. Calling on the wisdom of the Holy Spirit requires more than a whistle.
While the Bible can be difficult to decipher, especially if we are looking for an answer to a specific problem, there are consistent truths in the Bible. I know it is hard to sit down and just read the Bible. Most people think that they have to start with Genesis. However, if you want to read an entire book of the Bible and you do not have a lot of patience or time, consider 1stJohn. By the end of the Easter season, we will have read from this book every Sunday for 6 Sundays. There are only 5 chapters in the whole book (which is also a reason it’s a good book to start with).
One of the reasons I think our lectionary spends so much time on 1st John is because it’s emphasis on love. You might think, well the whole Bible is about love. That is true, but 1st John is dense with love. Despite the fact that it only has 5 chapters, the word love appears more often in this book than any other book in the New Testament—except the Gospel of John which is four times as long. First John is dense with love.
As I was reading the lessons for today, I kept coming back to one line. “God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” In the Episcopal Church, we use a specific translation of the Bible called the NRSV. I found the NRSV translation for this verse tricky which led me to read through other translations. Another reliable translation reads, “ For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart.”
It’s not just that our hearts can be unreliable at times, sometimes our feelings can be destructive. We can be plagued by doubt, fear, anxiety and guilt. Occasionally those things that plague us are based on very real experiences. However, sometimes it’s not a real experience. There are some of us who are simply more inclined to experience feelings of doubt and anxiety than others. It’s just the way we are born. And even if we are one of those people who are fortunate enough not to be inclined toward those feelings of guilt and doubt, everyone can experience those emotions under strain and stress.
Let’s assume that you are inclined toward guilt and while you know that God has forgiven you (in theory at least) it’s still hard to get past it. It still affects how you think and act. When you feel guilty all the time, it’s harder to be in relationship with God. That is one way our heart can condemn us.
Another example might be the way society tells us that what we have or who we are is never enough. Every marketing campaign ever created is based on the idea that you need the thing that is being sold and you need it because you lack something, something that other people have. On social media, we see the best of other people’s life, which means that despite the fact that we are more connected than ever, people feel more isolated, lonely and inadequate. Any time of the day or night, we can find someone who seems to be doing better than we are. As a result, we become more self-focused and less inclined to be in relationship with God and one another. That is another way that our hearts condemn us.
The good news is that God is bigger than our heart or the ability of our heart to condemn us. John goes further to say, “Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God…” If we have boldness before God, that means we can be honest and free. We can consider our faults and our failures and we can move past them. We can be free to act in love, to show our love in truth and action. That is another big point of this reading from 1st John. We don’t just talk about love, we demonstrate it. It’s a lot easier to show love when you are not riddled with doubt, fear, anxiety or any of those corrosive emotions.
This is all fine and good, but whistling would still be easier. Having a talking cricket at our side would come in handy. While John doesn’t give us a catchy song he does provide the heart of the Christian message succinctly. John writes, “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” Even if that is all you can remember, that would be enough. Believe in Jesus and love one another.
You know the interesting thing about Jiminy Cricket? Apparently back in the day, people would use the phrase when amazed or afraid. It was said in place of Jesus Christ so people could avoid using the name of the Lord in vain. It is not a surprise that Walt Disney would choose a variation of the name of Jesus Christ for the voice of wisdom, conscience, and friendship.
While I think it would be extremely helpful if we could call upon the wisdom of Jesus with a whistle—and be even be better yet if we all had our own personal animated insect following us around serving as the voice of reason— we have something and someone better. We have God as a constant companion. At the end of our reading, John writes, “All who obey his commandments abide in him and he abides in them.” Abide means to stay, or make your home in something or someone. God sent Jesus and then the Holy Spirit to make a space within each of us where he/she could rest. That means, we don’t have to whistle or depend on someone on the outside providing wisdom. We have the Spirit within.