Scripture: 1John 3:16-24
How do you define love?
It’s something we are great pleasure in, right? We love music, or camping, or baseball, or books. But somewhere inside we know that there is more.
Love often describes a deep romantic or sexual attachment to someone. But again, this description is not nearly enough.
One dictionary describes love as “an intense feeling of deep affection”: like how we love our children, or our country, or our friends. But even this does not describe all that love is.
How to define love seems always to be a point of contention, both within the world and within the Church of Jesus Christ. But the fact is: we don’t have to define love; God already did. And that definition of love is offered to us in the first verse of our scripture reading: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1John 3:16 NIV).
Love is when someone or something else becomes more important than yourself.
When it comes to faith (then), it is no coincidence that Paul says in 1Corinthians 13 that love is head and shoulders above every other virtue, behavior, or action. That among the choices of faith and the world, “the greatest of these” will always be love (1Corinthians 13:13).
If we are believers in the one true God……
If we are followers of the Way, the Truth, and the Life……
If we are disciples of the Christ who taught us the real meaning of love,
then love will be the foundation of who we are.
In these very theological verses of 1John, the author is arguing for a kind of undeniable, all-encompassing, yet very practical application of love in the lives of Christ-followers.
What is the core way we express that love?
Or the reverse of the same question: What is the surest way to demonstrate we have left the path of Jesus?
Today’s scripture lesson sounds the answer clearly: generosity. Generosity.
Listen to v.17 again, this time from The Message translation:
“If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it, but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear.”
Generosity is a sort of basic kindness—compassion at it’s most rudimentary. Can we—as human beings—as creatures created in the image of a God whose nature is community—can we know that someone else suffers (or even will die!) because of what we have, and yet still refuse to offer them some? Can we still refuse to share what God has shared with us?
The answer of 1John is: “No.”
No we can’t.
At least: we cannot if we have even the most basic, immature, fragile awareness of who Jesus is. Because as soon as Jesus enters the picture, everything changes.
The Radical Change of Jesus
In continuing what God has been doing in the world—in fulfilling the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17)—Jesus turns everything on its head: “the last will be first and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). As we discover in Matthew 5:
Now, it is the poor who inherit the kingdom, not the wealthy and powerful.
It is those who mourn who are comforted, not the comfortable.
It is the meek who inherit the earth, rather than the selfish and bold.
The hungry and thirsty who will be filled, instead of the gluttonous or rich.
The merciful receive mercy, rather than get taken advantage of.
Those with simple, pure hearts are the ones who see God.
Those advocating peace embody God as God’s children.
And the ones persecuted because they are truly on God’s side will spend eternity in God’s Kingdom.
None of this—none of this—is the way our world works.
In fact, all of it seems to be the complete opposite. Since Jesus is the perfect “imprint of the invisible God” (as Colossians 1:15 asserts), he reveals the true way of things to we who have had our vision manipulated by this world and its powers. It is not easy to lose the blinders that the Enemy has strapped to our brains—impediments that distort our vision of reality and truth. But that is precisely the liberation that Jesus seeks to enable for us: “You have heard it said……but I say to you……” (cf. Matthew 5).
Given the centrality of this radical reversal to Jesus’ life and ministry, we cannot expect anything less regarding the topic of generosity.
As revealed to us through Jesus and the scriptures, True generosity can only come from the intersection of two realizations: (1) that everything belongs to God, and (2) that we are so deeply interconnected that harm/benefit to someone else produces harm/benefit in ourselves.
Let’s take these each in turn.
Everything Belongs to God
“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1 ESV). A simple and beautiful reminder that everything belongs to God. So simple and so beautiful, we could almost overlook its expansive reality, were it not intertwined throughout the rest of scripture.
And indeed: throughout the bible, this is the consistent message: everything within creation belongs to the Lord of Creation; everything in our possession is simply entrusted to us as temporary managers.
Thus, ownership as such does not mean what we think it means. The biblical view of ownership does not allow us to believe in “mine.” All things, instead, are “Thine”—that is, God’s. All wealth, all things, even all life, is owned by God and loaned to us to use according to God’s purposes.
Whether we’re encountering the stories of the Abraham & Sarah, reading the Psalms, or watching the Parable of the Talents unfold in the gospels, we are taught that everything belongs to God.
Realizing that the things we have belong to God then frees us to embody God’s generosity in ways that contradict the culture of selfishness around us.
Freed from being possessed by possessions, we can live God’s truth in the world by sharing what we have with others—believing in both the goodness of creation and its sufficiency when treated as God intends.
But there is that second dimension that is also necessary for us to live out true generosity. We can know that everything belongs to God; but if we do not realize our interdependence with one another, we will lack the compassion that prompts true generosity.
What I mean is this: the apostle Paul talks (in 1Corinthians 12 and other places) about the Church as a single organism—a body. We as individuals cannot simply “opt out” (vv.14-20).
Whether we want to or not, whether it is convenient or not, whether we think it is a drain on us or not—we are bound together in a web of interconnectivity. That means—among other things—that when one of us is hurting, the threads of that web drum out an SOS that impacts the rest of us. Paul says:
“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1Corinthians 12:26 NRSV).
But it’s not just the Church that works this way; we are increasingly discovering the interconnectedness of all of creation. One of the most fascinating discoveries in the last years has been about trees. Ecologist Suzanne Simard (and others) have learned that different trees are connected in various ways—both physically and (remarkably) by chemical communication.
Roots from different trees fuze together and support one another in lean years.
Related trees adjust competitive behaviors by using underground fungal networks to let one another know of their presence.
Defense enzymes are released underground and through the air that warns nearby trees of attacks by pests like insects……or humans.
Some even release chemicals through the air to attract predators that eat those pests.
We are discovering that when one tree is cut down, other trees suffer, as well as the host of other life forms that depend on that tree and its life cycle.
The Application of Generosity
The point is this: if we cannot learn that the hurt of others affects us as well, we will never be moved (like Jesus) by compassion, and we will never demonstrate true generosity.
“How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1John 3:17 NRSV)
Take a long, hard look around this room.
Take a long, hard look at our community.
Take a long, hard look at our world.
So much pain.
So much need.
So much loneliness.
So much hopelessness.
So much grief.
I came not “to condemn the world,” Jesus says, “but to save it” (cf. John 3:17).
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Mark 2:17 NRSV).
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 NRSV).
“Just as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40 NRSV).
These are Jesus’ own words. And there are plenty of other places in scripture—the Old and New Testaments—that speak to the importance of kindling generosity in our hearts. But I’m not sure any others are as clear—or as damning—as what is found in our scripture lesson itself.
Hear the Voice of God, speaking across the centuries, from another translation once again:
“If a person owns the kinds of things we need to make it in the world but refuses to share with those in need, is it even possible that God’s love lives in him?
My little children, don’t just talk about love as an idea or a theory. Make it your true way of life, and live in the pattern of gracious love” (1John 3:17-18 VOICE).
Soften our hardened hearts.
Instill your mercy in us.
Remind us that though we are individuals,
we are part of something more than ourselves—
that our choices affect others, and theirs us.
Help us hear how others’ experience
is often different than our own.
Teach us to hear
as readily as we want ourselves to be heard.
May we be ready to respond with compassion and kindness
instead of selfishness and self-justification.
Teach us to love our neighbor more than ourselves,
sharing from among the good things you’ve entrusted to us,
giving as freely as Christ gives to us
the forgiveness and grace that lead to abundant life.
And in doing so, we pray
that your love shine brightly through us,
that all others will come through grace into your holy family,
and that your Name will be praised,
through the working of the Holy Spirit,
the love of Jesus Christ,
and the power of you, O God our Father. Amen.