May 2, 2021: Being right isn’t enough

May 4, 2021

 Year B, Easter 5                                                                 1 John 4:7-21                                                             

            In the church, we like to discuss the humility of Jesus Christ.  Typically when we are referring to his humility, we are talking about his humble origins—being born in a barn to a poor couple with no connections.  Or…we focus on his death on a cross, the experience of being stripped, whipped and then hung on a cross between two criminals.  It was a method of killing that was meant to humiliate.

However, while his birth and death are powerful images, they are not very relatable displays of humility.  Where I see Christ’s humility most abundantly is in his ability to love people, even when they were wrong.  Jesus was the very embodiment of the truth, yet ironically, he was often considered wrong.   He was judged or scolded by not only the religious leaders of the time—but sometimes— his own disciples.

 He knew he was right.  If he had wanted to, he could have forced people to see the error of their ways, but he chose not to.  Why?  We know he wasn’t a pushover.  He still corrected people and taught people.  He spoke the truth.  He engaged in debate, but it was always out of a place of love.  He was right.  He was always right and even he allowed himself the humanity of not being able to convince people of how right he was.  That….from an all-powerful, all knowing God…that is humility.

            We often act like church conflict is a modern phenomenon, or at least a phenomenon of the last 500 years.  But conflict in the church has existed as long as the church has existed.  1stJohn was written in about 100 AD.  By this time, the Christian community was somewhat established.  There was some structure and even doctrine to an extent.  Once there was a core set of beliefs, people started arguing about that core set of beliefs.  That was what was probably happening in this community that the author was writing about.  People were arguing and they were so mad at one another, some left the community all together. 

            The author of 1st John was working hard to remind people in the community to love another—not because they were all of one mind, not because they were Christians, not even because they deserved to be loved, but because God loved them.  That was it. That was the only reason that mattered—the only reason that still matters.  We love one another because God loved us first. 

And it wasn’t a gentle admonition the author was giving.  He said, “Those who say, ‘ love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars…”  If you cannot show love to your fellow believers, then you cannot love God.   That was the interesting part of this.  He wasn’t even talking about their enemies; the author was talking about the people in their own community.  And that makes sense when you think about it. It’s harder to sincerely love the people we know than those who we don’t really know at all.

            This idea of loving one another is not new to 1st John.  We hear about it in the Gospels, most potently in the Gospel of John.   At the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” 

Jesus said this to his disciples, right after Judas left to betray him and immediately before he told Peter that he would deny him (which by the way, Peter told him he was wrong about that.)  In the midst of all that pain, he washed their feet and shared a meal. He was showing his disciples what it was to love people, even when they have betrayed and denied you, even when they have deserted the community.  Jesus knew what they would face after his death, resurrection and ascension.  He knew how hard it would be establishing the Christian community.  He wanted them to see what it looked like, to love people who hurt you. 

            On the one hand, this all seems so obvious.  Of course we are supposed to love one another. We hear that over and over! But the rationale is less obvious.  Imagine a parent saying to his/her bickering children, “I love you and therefore, you must love one another.” I am not sure that would be very effective. 

But there is more at stake than simply how we treat one another.  The author wrote, “if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” The word that is translated to perfect in Greek doesn’t define perfect in the way we perceive perfection. It doesn’t mean without flaw or sin. It means completed or fulfilled its purpose.  We must love one another because that is how God’s love for us is complete.  It’s a full circle.  God loves us. We love one another.  God’s love is made complete when we love one another.  God’s love lives in us and thus we love God.  This is not simply what we are asked to do as Christians, it is our primary purpose.  It is our very reason for being.

There has been a constant tension in the Christian faith between maintaining the doctrine of our faith and loving those who we may perceive are compromising that doctrine. We have seen it in a microcosm in the Episcopal Church over the last 20 years.  We could not agree about gay marriage and ordination, so a large amount of people left.  I am not saying they were wrong to leave.  That would kind of defeat the purpose of this whole sermon.  But it split the community.  It didn’t help us get along.  It didn’t solve any problems.  It just ensured that we wouldn’t even try to talk anymore.  They can’t learn from us. We can’t learn from them.  That makes it a lot harder to love another.

So what is the answer?  For once, it’s fairly obvious—but not easy.  We do as Jesus did.  We continue to engage in dialogue with those whom we disagree. We recognize that no matter how well we make our case, we may never convince our brothers and sisters in Christ of that case.  Yet despite that, we continue to come to the table as Jesus did at the last supper. We share the bread and the wine.  We even serve one another as Jesus did when he washed the disciples’ feet. We follow Jesus’ example. 

That doesn’t mean we can no longer stand up for what we believe in.  The author of John says that when we love one another and make God’s love complete, then “we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.” That is the great irony in this.  We think that not being victorious in an argument makes us look weaker. But in terms of our relationship with God, we have become bolder, more fearless.  I think the key is that we never stop trying to make our point. We do it as gracefully as possible, but we keep doing it, while also making sure that we listen even more than new speak.  I know this is hard, especially for a preacher.  But it is what God asks us.  Be bold. Be fearless. But above all, be loving.

Photo by Harli Marten