What Is but “Ought Not”

Scripture: James 3:1-12

One-Upping James

Preachers are a strange breed of people.

Here is a passage of scripture that is packed to the gills with metaphors and analogies:

bits and ships

winds and rudders

sparks and fires

wild beasts and domestication

all kinds of trees

and even salt and freshwater springs.

Yet there is something in the preacher that cannot help but try to come up with a new–and even better–analogy than the biblical writer. Even though I’ve encountered countless insufficient attempts at “reinventing” these metaphors, I’ve yet to hear any that could count as an improvement. And that’s probably because these metaphors still work in the world we live in.

We still use bits to control horses.

Ships still use rudders.

Sparks still cause fire.

There continue to be domesticated animals of all sorts.

Trees keep reproducing “according to their kind” as Genesis described.

And we haven’t become any more adept at drinking salt water.

It all still works. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to attempting brainstorming some “improvements” myself.

“Ought”

There’s also something different about the way we preachers think about things. It may be our training, it may be our observations, it may be the painful stories of others we have heard. But whatever the reason, there are times something that appears mundane takes on extraordinary significance to a preacher. And this text has one of these challenges for me, too.

It’s found in what looks like a passing–and plain–phrase in v.10: the verse that really represents the heart of the whole reading. In the New Revised Standard Version, it reads: 

“From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” (James 3:30 NRSV)

It’s that “ought”–or in the NIV, “should”–that raises my pastoral hackles a bit. Let me try to explain why.

The Weapon of Fear

There are a number of weapons that the Enemy uses against us with great efficiency. The greatest of these, I believe is fear. There are countless stories in both Old and New Testaments wherein someone reacts with fear, instead of love or trust in God, and clearly deviates from the path of God-likeness. Elsewhere in the New Testament, 1John argues that fear and love are opposites. Looking at the world around us, and reflecting on our human history in both the recent and more distant past, it’s not too hard to find our own illustrations of human actions driven by fear, and the disastrous consequences for humanity (and too-often, for the reputation of Christ and God’s Kingdom).

The Weapon of the Illusion of Self-Sufficiency

Another weapon I see deployed with startling efficiency might be confused with pride, but it’s the actually the illusion of self-sufficiency. It is the deception that we are enough in and of ourselves. While other factors certainly came into it, this is the core of the deception of the first humans in Eden: they don’t need God to determine right from wrong; they can do it themselves. 

Again, the scriptures are littered with stories of our defeat by this weapon. Perhaps most obviously, this weapon was used in bringing about the defeat of both the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, and again that of the Southern Kingdom of Judah around 140 years later. Instead of trusting in God for safety and prosperity, they trusted in their ability to navigate foreign alliances. They thought they could do a better job themselves, but it proved to be precisely their dalliances with these other nations that brought about their defeat. 

And once again, we don’t have to think too hard to be convicted about our own illusions of self-sufficiency, even as we contradictorily profess reliance on Jesus as Lord. There’s something in the very fabric of our makeup as “Americans” that imbues us with a high valuation for this deception–we want the deception to be true; we want to be self-sufficient, and we look down on those who are not.

“Deceived, we are,” Yoda might say.

The Weapon of Guilt

But a third powerful weapon (that I believe is) used by the powers of darkness against humanity with savage effectiveness is guilt. 

This may surprise you, I realize. Guilt has, after all, been part of the stock-and-trade of preachers for at least 250 years. Guilt has driven alter calls for generations. It has undergirded evangelistic endeavors. It has been used to manipulate behaviors to conform to specific religious and moral norms.

And all that shows you just how potent this weapon really is, and that even those regarded as most faithful are not immune from its deception.

Guilt paralyzes us. It does not draw us into a better version of ourself. It does not drive us toward love, but it evokes embarrassment. And that leads us to withdraw from others, to hide our brokenness, and to fall into deeper and deeper isolation. In other words, guilt makes us weaker by moving us away from God.

Back to “Ought”

Which is why I cringe when I hear people say what someone “ought” to do or “should” do. “Ought” and “should”–at least in the way we communicate here and now–is the language of guilt. 

Pastor Michael, you ought to preach more interesting sermons.

Pastor Michael, you really should dress nicer.

Pastor Michael, you ought to spend more time doing what I think is important.

There is (I hope you realize) a way of communicating all this constructively and without using words that induce guilt or shame. But when “ought” and “should” really gain destructive power is when we apply them to the past.

I really ought to have used a different illustration. Why didn’t I think of that?

So-and-so really should have learned by now… why do they keep hooking up with such losers?

Did you hear about such-and-such? They really ought to have expected this would happen!

Perhaps by now you can better see the connection to our scripture lesson.

Dangerous Speech

Despite this lengthy digression (as it might seem), I do not think James is trying to evoke guilt. I think he is instead creatively and passionately trying to illustrate a contradiction between who the community of Christ is called to be, and what they are in fact doing.

The gossiping church member has apparently been a cliche since the very beginning. 

I enjoy watching BBC murder mysteries, and it seems every episode there’s a scene where someone–usually some little old lady–exits a church building and is gossiping about someone before she even gets out of earshot of the pastor. In those mysteries, such things are sometimes redeemed, as the gossip contains hints that lead to catching the killer. In real life, however, I have yet to discover such positive outcomes of this guilt- and shame-ridden enterprise.

In Matthew 5, as Jesus is teaching his followers how to read and interpret their scriptures, he warns of the danger of words. They think that because they never laid a hand on another person that they’ve kept the command “do not murder.” But Jesus (Matt 5:22) is clear that they have murdered people with their words; to call names is to destroy something of the humanity in each other.

This isn’t any different than what James is arguing here, especially when he calls the tongue “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). He is not, of course, condemning the physical organ of the body, but rather the ways it is used. If we are (James 3:9-10) going to bless God as we sing and proclaim his praises, how then (James asks us) do we speak harshly and destructively about (and to) people who bear God’s image?

 

I grew up watching a lot of 1980’s sitcoms, especially of the “PI” variety. I remember a number of times when someone would start to use foul language and another character would counter “You kiss your mother with that mouth?”

That’s the sentiment James is bringing out in v.10 of this reading. Hearing the destructive ways they are speaking to and about each other, James asks, “You bless your God with that mouth?…… You speak of Jesus with that mouth?”

That’s not the way it is supposed to be, he says. 

James doesn’t want to guilt them into inaction–or into hiding or being more sneaky about their sin. James wants them to see the inconsistency between who they say they are and how they are living, and he wants that awareness to drive them toward Christ-likeness–a change that will lead them to value others more than they do currently.

You see, the image of repentance in the bible–through all the stories of failing, and there are manyrepentance is never about driving people to experience guilt. It is always about people learning of an inconsistency between what is and what can be. 

brokenness vs. wholeness

doing harm vs. bringing help

hypocrisy vs. consistency

isolating vs. bringing into community

Reconciling Work

The work that Jesus tasks us with is not to invoke guilt in others. It is not to get others to repent of their evil ways. It is not to be the morality police of the world. As “ambassadors for Christ,” the work we are called to is instead the work of reconciliation. And it’s important to note what Paul says that ministry looks like. In 2Corinthians 5, Paul says this:

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.” (2Corinthians 5:18–20 NRSV)

Note the way Paul describes Jesus’s own reconciling work. He points out that it is both the same kind of work that God accomplishes through Jesus, and that this reconciling work involves “not counting their trespasses against them.” If we are doing the reconciling work of Christ too, then that will describe what we Christians are about as well.

But does it? Or do our tongues get in the way of genuinely Christ-like ministry? Christ calls us to something more. That was James’s challenge 2000 years ago, and it is just as much a challenge today.

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The Basics

Scripture: James 2:1-17

Intro

I’m not sure if it’s James or the lectionary that schedules these readings and sets the limits, but lately it seems there’s something to the number four. 

Last week, we read and reflected on four proverbs that James groups in his presentation of how to make a difference in the world you live in. 

This week, he discusses four convictions—or perhaps commitments—that sum up a back-to-basics approach to how the Christian life is to be lived out.

Favoritism

This chapter begins with a blast that strikes deep, even 2000 years later:

“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” (James 2:1 NRSV)

“Why, James!” (we respond, like some southern belle in an old movie) “What-ever do you mean?”

Fear not: James clarifies things. And even though James says “if” to frame his evidence, I can’t help but wonder if he really means: “remember that time……”

Remember that time the community leader showed up in their neatly pressed suit, and how welcoming you were of them?

Now (James asks) remember that time that young lady showed up in that halter top and slashed jeans?

Remember that time that guy arrived late in those filthy clothes and smelled of booze?

Remember that time those kids came with that new family and they kept running around and making noise during the sermon?

Remember that time there was that older person who fell asleep and kept snoring?

Remember when that known drug user was here?

Remember that homeless woman?

Remember? James asks. Do you remember how they were treated? Because they were not treated like that wealthy, important guy. There were whispers—some not as quiet as others. There was gossip the following week. Some people avoided them; others just failed to welcome them. But it was (James tells them—and us) a cataclysmic failure to embody our faith.

 

Listen.

A part of our human nature stereotypes and responds to internal prejudices. Evolutionarily, it has helped us survive as a species. But we are not called to “survive as a species.” We are called to embody Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God. That calling supersedes all others, no matter what. Or it should……

When we are being transformed into the image of Jesus, our stereotypes and prejudices will be challenged. As we learn to love as Christ loves the world, we will learn to look on those society discounts with compassion instead of skepticism. Through our practice of being the body of Christ, we will discover ourselves treating those on the margins as though they were themselves Jesus.

James is clear: Favoritism is incompatible with Christ.

Honor the Poor

This conviction dovetails closely with the second: God honors and values the poor and so must we. In verses 5-6, James accuses the church of dishonoring the poor and reminds them of God’s special interest in the poor of the world.

“Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor…” (James 2:5–6 NRSV)

Though James doesn’t use as many direct quotations as Paul typically does in his writings, James is no less knowledgable about their shared faith tradition. It is pretty clear that James is referencing a teaching of Jesus that will eventually be recorded in Luke’s gospel, chapter 6, verse 20: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20 NRSV).

Jesus himself is of course building on a wealth of tradition wherein God commands the faithful to care for the poor. Whether we look to the Law (cf. Deuteronomy 15), the Wisdom literature (cf. Proverbs 19:17), or the Prophets (cf. Ezekiel 16:49), we see God repeatedly telling the faithful to care for the poor, to treat them with dignity and respect, and to work generously for their benefit. God is even pretty insistent that if a person isn’t respecting the poor in these ways, their supposed faith is worthless in God’s eyes. 

As we think of James’s back-to-basics instruction for Christians, the heart of Proverbs 19:17 comes to mind. That proverb proclaims “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and will be repaid in full” (NRSV). The way we treat the poor should be the way we treat God; or—to put it in more Christian terms—the way we would treat Jesus himself is the way we should treat the poor: to do to them is to do to him.

Fulfill the Royal Law

In case all this isn’t clear enough for us, James then directs us back to what the early church considered the most central teaching of Jesus—what he terms the “Royal Law” of Christ: 

“You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (James 2:8 NRSV).

This teaching—particularly considering the way Jesus defines “neighbor” to include even one’s enemies in the parable of the Good Samaritan—this teaching is the core of how one lives a truly Christ-like life. In a section of scripture focused the basics of living a Christian life, this teaching is certainly its heart.

James is careful to connect it to the previous instructions as well.

Showing partiality is a violation of this Royal Law. 

Dishonoring the poor is a violation of this Royal Law. 

While they are busy judging others for not measuring up to their own sense of religiosity, they have themselves fallen into sin against God. Instead of prejudicing certain sins against others to inflate their sense of self-righteousness, James instructs the church to embody Jesus’s Royal Law by showing abundant mercy.

Lived Out Faith

Thus we come to the fourth commitment. Instead of your life being distinctive because of who you associate with, or what you look like, or how much “righteousness” you appear to possess, James insists that what should be distinctive about the Christian life is that our faith is known through our actions.

After insisting that “judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy” (a paraphrase of Matthew 7:1-2), James verbalizes the too-often disjointed relationship between faith and life. Having faith, he says in v.14, is of no value at all if it is not lived out in your life. He even suggests that faith alone isn’t enough to enact salvation, a statement that has proven challenging for interpreters ever since.

Our challenge as more modern readers—at least in part—is reconciling this teaching of James with those of Paul. In one of my study bibles, I found a note that I think may be helpful for us. It says:

“Paul describes the root of salvation: a person is saved by God’s grace through faith. James is explaining the fruit of salvation: saving faith is a faith that works.” (The Voice, p.1499)

I think they’re right here. Perhaps James has in mind here the parable of the soils, recorded in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8. In that teaching of Jesus, the seed of the Gospel is received by a variety of soils—these people “have faith,” at least in a rudimentary sense. But for a variety of reasons, those seeds never produce a harvest at all. The soil that Jesus calls “good” is the soil that produces a harvest. So for James “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17 NRSV).

 

This command by James to let your faith be known through your actions is both the final instruction of this section, as well as an illustration of the previous three principles that were discussed. 

If you are fulfilling the Royal Law of Christ, your faith is being lived out in your actions and commitments.

If you are honoring the poor, your faith is being lived out in your actions and commitments.

If you are not showing bias and prejudice, your faith is being lived out in your actions and commitments.

Politics

Now just to stir the pot one final time today (because I do seem to like pushing my luck), I’m going to make a confession: I do believe most Christians think they are living out their faith through their actions and convictions. But I’m not sure this faith is always rooted in Jesus the Christ.

Especially in our nation, and especially over the last thirty years or so, there has emerged a class of leaders that claim to speak for Christians and seek to wield that power for political gain. They have dictated to millions of Christians which issues are most “Christian” and most worthy of fighting for. Perhaps not coincidentally, these tend to the issues that are the most politically volatile, and therefore malleable for other purposes.

I do not see in them much overlap with what we are reading here in James—in a text that is specifically aimed to reveal to Christians how their faith should be made known in the world.

I do not see in them much overlap with the life of Jesus, whose “excellent name…[is] invoked over [them]” (James 2:7).

I do not see in them much overlap with the God of the Old Testament, who destroyed Sodom because she “had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49 NRSV).

You see: standing out from the world is not that difficult–there are a thousand ways we could stand out. But standing out as a Christian must be rooted in living out God’s mercy–not by voting a certain way, or dressing a certain way, or even holding certain doctrines. 

If we want to follow Jesus, the bible is pretty clear about how we are to live. But we’re going to have to start listening to the bible—and the Holy Spirit—more than we’re listening to the people who are telling us how to vote.

Our Public Image Problem

Ten or fifteen years ago, we Baptists had a major public-image problem. When an average person thought of a Baptist church they thought of the hate-spewing Westboro Baptist Church. Our public image problem was so bad, I knew of a couple churches who dropped “baptist” from their name specifically to differentiate themselves from this toxic cult. Today, most still don’t have a great image of baptists, but at least they tend to know that the Westboro Baptist Church is not representative of baptists specifically or Christians in general.

But today, I do believe american Christianity is facing a similar public-image problem. Political segments have successfully seized control of various facets of Christendom, and are controlling churches and Christians with toxic theology, and wielding them as weapons in political warfare. And many of us keep going along with it, even though these so-called Christian leaders keep changing the rules and talking out of both sides of their mouth in order to keep us supporting their people. 

The way we baptists proved we weren’t like the Westboro Baptist Church was to speak and act out in ways that proved it to the world. I think american Christianity is at a similar crossroads. If we do not begin setting our own agenda—or rather, get back to the basics of what Jesus’s agenda was about—then our reputation, our witness, and our effectiveness will wither as we “blaspheme [Jesus’s] excellent name,” as James puts it in 2:7.

Remember: “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (James 2:8 NRSV). 

When it comes to the basics of living a Christ-like life, that’s as basic as it comes.

Four Proverbs

Scripture: James 1:17-27

Intro

Today we begin something new.

That seems apropos, because this—even more than New Year’s—is a time of new beginnings for many of us.

Students and teachers are newly back at it

Summer is waning and autumn will be quickly upon us

Vacations are past, and the long haul to Hallow-thanks-istmas is a distant mark on the calendar (regardless of what we are beginning to see in the stores)

It’s a time of settling down to some things, and gearing up for others

And so we—in worship—do the same.

For the next month, we will be reflecting on texts from the book of James in the New Testament. 

In terms of biblical texts, the gospels tend to get top billing—and rightly so, as they contain accounts of the teachings and actions of Jesus, our example and savior. 

After the gospels, we tend to privilege the writings of the apostle Paul, who—for whatever reasons—became seen as the theologian-in-chief of the early church. I’ve always found that peculiar, because Paul generally isn’t writing theology the way some of the post-biblical leaders do; he’s attending to church conflict and trying to encourage Christians to live like Jesus in an increasingly hostile context. 

The point is, books like James are often overlooked when we turn to scriptures. And that’s a shame, because James has a lot to offer the church today. 

Traditionally believed to be written by a brother of Jesus, James writes from a vastly different place than Paul. 

For Paul, conversion to the Jesus Way is a sudden and dramatic thing; this also means that the Christian life is distinguished by the way it is different than life before. 

For James, however, conversion is more evolutionary and the Christian life is distinguished by the way faith is lived out in the world. 

For Paul, a core focus is how to live the Jesus way in the world; for James, the focus is on issues of the heart—how to put your faith into practice.

I realize to some of you, these sound like remarkably similar things. But the distinction is important, I believe, because the faith that many of us possess and express is much more aligned with James’s way of discussing it than that of Paul.

Maybe this will become more clear as we go on—this week, and the weeks to come.

Since James is writing to Christian Jews wherever they may be, and given his emphasis on putting your faith into practice, it shouldn’t surprise us to find so much of this letter grounded in the wisdom tradition of the Old Testament. In books like Proverbs, Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, and others, our biblical authors and editors sought to record their community learnings on how to live a good, righteous, and God-pleasing life. 

Drawing off of that tradition—and building upon it—James offers the early church four new proverbs……four new pithy, easy-to-remember teachings that demonstrate “where the rubber of faith meets the road of life.”

James 1:17

The first of these is found in verse 17: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above” (NRSV). A pastor of mine from years back was fond of paraphrasing this verse in this way: “Every good gift comes from God.” I’ve often found myself repeating this to myself and to others as well. 

Why’s this so powerful? I think it’s because many of us struggle with seeing where God is in our lives. We see the chaos. We see things going wrong. And we’re good at turning to God in those times. When all hell is breaking lose, or when death is immanent, or when it is obvious that there are not enough resources to fulfill obligations—those are times you will find me on my knees…… broken…… pleading—deeply—with God. 

But when things are going along swimmingly on an even keel—glorious sunshine and an easy breeze? In those times I tend to believe I’m more self-sufficient than I really am. And I don’t think it’s just me, either.

Remembering that “every good gift comes from God” has two primary benefits.

First, it takes our focus off the bad and chaotic and onto the good. Anyone who knows me knows I’m not naturally a “look for the silver lining” or a “keep on the sunny side of life” kind of person. But if I can break my fixation on what’s not working and see that God has miraculously brought about any good in my life, it does tend to have positive repercussions.

Secondly, I think it teaches us to actually look for what God is up to. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard folks saying they don’t know how to hear God. Well, a first step can be to simply start tuning yourself to the right frequency—to be actively looking for God’s action in your life. 

And according to James, the way we can know it is God’s action is by identifying “generous acts of giving” and the “perfect/complete/appropriate/timely gifts” that we receive. Like Fred Rogers urged us to “look for the helpers,” James urges us to marvel at the good that comes to us, and know that God had something to do with it.

James 1:19b

With the second proverb, James may well cut to the heart of a great deal of the conflict we experience in our lives and world. In verse 19, he says: “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19 NRSV).

In terms of the proverb proper, there’s not much to add. 

We know it.
We understand it.
We just don’t do it.

And it seems we’re getting even worse at it. Five years ago this month, I was discussing with some clergy friends the state of ministry in these United States. More than anything else, we lamented how our nation seems to have forgotten how to engage in civil discourse, and how this regression divides our churches and hinders the Cause of Christ. 

At that time, I recall one of us—the oldest of the group, if it matters—remarking that he couldn’t imagine how things could get much worse before society as a whole would collapse. Well, it seems the joke’s on him, because our depravity in this way keeps plumbing deeper and deeper depths. 

And clouding it all—or perhaps fueling it all—seems to be an increasing sense of self-righteousness that somehow justifies this lack of civility and unwillingness to listen to each other. But James stresses in the following verse: “Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (James 1:20 NRSV). Despite our desire to cast our anger as “righteous,” James is clear that it is not God’s agenda we advance when we act on our so-called “righteous” indignation.

Now, as an aside, it is important to know that James is not talking about feelings here. Feelings are a natural part of the human existence. James is talking about outward expressions of anger—what we do……and especially how we treat one another. 

Several times in this letter, James differentiates between inward feelings and outward expressions, criticizing outward expressions that are not consistent with the Christian life. His problem in this verse is not with anger-the-feeling—it is with acting out anger, especially when we cast it as righteous.

I have long appreciated the way the Desert Dwellers of the early centuries attended to this proverb and similar teachings. One time, a leader named Joseph confessed to another leader named Nisteros that he was unable to control his tongue. Nisteros asked him: “When you speak, do you find peace?” The answer, of course, was “no.” So Nisteros replied: “If you do not find peace, why do you speak? Be silent, and when a conversation takes place, prefer to listen rather than to talk” (in Daily Readings, p.26).

It’s simple, but in our rush to impress, or to control, or to avoid, we are usually formulating a response before the other person is even done speaking.

“Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

James 1:22

The third proverb in our reading is found in v.22: “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1:22 NRSV).

A hundred years or so after James was writing, a terrible heresy plagued the early church. It was like a serpent without a head, and proved difficult—if not impossible—to eradicate. It seemed to emerge almost independently in different churches, each local manifestation taking a slightly different flavor. But perhaps the central characteristic of this heresy was the feature that gave it its name: gnosticism. “Gnosis” means knowledge, and gnosticism taught that we are saved, not by the work of Jesus on the cross or in the grave, but by knowing the right things. 

Jesus—gnostics believed—passed on secret knowledge to his disciples, and it is by possessing that secret knowledge—by believing the right things—that they were saved.

I’m sad to say that the heresy of gnosticism has never been fully eradicated from the church of Jesus Christ. In fact, despite this perversion of Christianity being declared antithetical to the way of Jesus countless times over the centuries, it remains a radical thing for me—a western, American, Christian pastor, to insist that “salvation is not about believing the right things; salvation comes from following Jesus.” 

For the gnostic—ancient or modern—that just won’t do. But for the Christian? For the one seeking to embody a biblical faith in Jesus as the Christ? It is the only way to live.

“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”

James 1:27

Finally we arrive at the fourth proverb, found in v.27:

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27 NRSV)

I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but I believe James has sequenced these in a way that they build on each other. 

The first turned us toward God and tuned us to God’s “frequency” of generousity

The second countered our basic instinct to put ourself first in relationship and community.

The third insisted that faith impacts how we live our lives: our choices, commitments, and beyond.

And this final proverb now clarifies what those choices, commitments, and the like should look like.

We humans have never been very good at doing religion. When we look back to the Old Testament, we see countless examples of folks who didn’t sacrifice the right way, who didn’t honor holy spaces, who didn’t engage in the right rituals, and who kept privileging their practice of faith over human beings created in the image of God.

In a post-Jesus world, there shouldn’t be any chance we again fall into these errors—after all, Jesus is a full and complete revelation of who God is and who we are called to be. But we humans do seem to excel at repeating our mistakes. 

So James offers us a litmus test for our religious life. If we want to know if our religion is true to the one true God, known most fully through Jesus the Christ, we measure it against this yard stick—How are we caring for those on the margins of the world, and how much has the church conformed to the world’s way of doing business?

Sisters and brothers, when I consider the American church as a whole these days and measure it against James’s standard, it does not look too good. But I’ll leave you to reflect on that yourselves. 

Drawing it together…

Instead, I’ll offer one more thing for us to think about. Reading through this chapter has convinced me that James does more than give us some easy-to-memorize verses to carry around in our back pockets. I think there’s something to taking them all together……to assuming that they together say something more than each does individually.

Perhaps (I’m beginning to wonder) these are keys to making a real impact on the world. Maybe they offer us an answer to that elusive question of how we can know that our lives make a positive impact on the world.

Maybe, taken together, these proverbs do just that. Maybe they are indeed a back-to-basics roadmap for living out a good, righteous, and God-pleasing life. Maybe they show us how to help Christ’s kingdom come, and God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

All of these proverbs are teachings that James is going to return to in his letter—scriptures that we will be reading, and further reflecting upon, in the weeks to come. 

So come now, let us reason together. Let us discover again the ancient paths that produce abundant life.

Kindling the Kingdom of God

Scripture: Romans 8:22-27

Creation is in labor

When I first started really getting into translating the Hebrew language, one of the things that I found remarkable was how much imagery in the bible is rooted in the image of childbirth. For a language that usually talks about the process of making a baby as simply “knowing” each other, Hebrew tends to compare a lot of things to the swelling of pregnancy, the relentlessness of contractions, and the incomparable “pains” of birth.

Childbirth is a threshold event—there is before, and there is after. (That may be the only clear-cut and certain thing about it.) And aside from death, there may not be another experience in life that draws so firm a line.

So in before-and-after events of Isaiah 42:14 (for example), when God is so pained by the injustice of the world (and especially that perpetrated by Israel) that God steps back and allows their consequences to crash over them with devestating effect, Isaiah knows of no better description than this. God says: “I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant” (NRSV).

When (in Psalm 88) the psalmist is trying to describe the relentless and overwhelming nature of being on the wrong side of God, the best imagery available is that of the relentless and overwhelming contractions of childbirth (often translated as “waves” here), which seemingly interminably wrack the mother’s body.

And so here (in Romans 8), as Paul is searching for a way of describing the ultimate before-and-after event (the return of Christ and the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God), he too—Jew among Jews—reaches for the imagery of childbirth.

Starting in v.18, Paul begins to imagine with (and for) the Roman church “the glory about to be revealed to us” (v.18b). And here, it is in fact all of creation that is “groaning in labor pains” (v.22). The Kingdom of God that is being birthed into existence does not just affect we human beings—but everything that iseverything that God made, and called “good” back in Genesis 1.

Labor Pains

It’s not too hard to see these “labor pains” if we open our eyes and look around us. Another week has gone by……

Another school shooting……

Another round of dehumanizing rhetoric……

Another series of murders in the Near East due to misguided theology……

More terrorist bombings: India, Nigeria, Afghanistan (2), Iraq (2), Indonesia (5)—and that’s just this past week……

Another week of wars and rumors of wars……of natural disasters and evacuations……

Another week of political corruption being exposed……

Another week of the most vulnerable slipping through the cracks……

Another week of our deep division being exposed by something as simple as a soundbite and the words: “laurel” and “yanny.”

Truly Paul is right: all creation is quaking, wracked by wave after wave of contractions, nearly splitting itself apart as it awaits transformation at the emergence of God’s kingdom.

But what about us? How is our labor coming along?

“Likewise” Means We Too

You see, Paul follows up v.22 with v.23, moving from the labor pains that creation is experiencing to the ones that we are experiencing “while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (NRSV).

Paul expects that we—if we are followers of Jesus in whom the Kingdom begins—we will be “groaning” as we are similarly wracked by the contractions of a Kingdom that wants to be born. 

But I don’t think we’re dilated at all.

And I wonder: Perhaps we need some “spiritual pitocin” to help us along. 

You know: if a woman’s labor isn’t moving along as it needs to for everyone to be healthy, she is often given pitocin. It induces labor by jump-starting contractions in the uterus. It is not (admittedly, in my passive experience) a pleasant thing to need. Birth is traumatic enough without anything being forced more than happens naturally. But sometimes that push is exactly what needs to happen in order for mother and child to pass safely from before into after.

And while it might not be pleasant for us, some “spiritual pitocin” might just ensure that we survive the birthing of God’s kingdom too.

Pentecost

It’s been required before, you realize: that little IV bag of the Holy Spirit hooked up to the people of God?

Nearly two-thousand years ago in a city named Jerusalem, the disciples were in labor with the Church of Christ Jesus. It wanted to be born—it needed to be born. But those “contractions” just weren’t happening. 

The disciples were still afraid. 

The disciples were still struggling to make sense of what happened: Jesus’ life and Jesus’ death; their failings and Jesus’ forgiveness; and the way Jesus just disappeared back to heaven, when they were hoping for an eternal kingdom then and there. 

Acts 2 describes the disciples as “all together in one place,” which is remarkably similar to how they were described when the risen Christ first appeared to them in John 20. 

Forty days with the risen Christ and they’re still stuck, closed up from the world? 

Forty days with the risen Christ and they’ve still not grasped that Jesus meant that “Great Commission” thing?

If something didn’t happen soon, the Church was going to have to come by C-section.

But something did happen on that Pentecost day: 

There weren’t any IV bags, but there were tongues of fire.

There were no shrieks of unnatural contractions, but there was a “whoooosh” as the extraordinary Spirit of God filled the room.

There was no cursing at husbands, but the Gospel was miraculously heard in all languages simultaneously.

And the disciples even appeared drunk from the giddiness of this birth.

Against all odds, and despite the Body of Christ not working quite as nature intended, the Church was born. 

That same church continues today. 

Admittedly, its teenage years were rough. 

Sure, there were a lot of bad decisions in early adulthood as we were usually full of passion and just as often misguided.

And it’s no secret that we’ve made huge, blasphemous, God-betraying mistakes—both in the distant and recent past—mistakes that cannot be forgiven lightly……if at all.

But if there is one thing we have, it is the hope that what God is doing does not rest solely on our own shoulders. 

As followers of Jesus, we are often messengers—or even ambassadors, as we are called in 2Cor 5:20. 

And as followers of Jesus, we are often “the eyes through which he looks with compassion on the world”; we “are the feet with which he walks to do good”; we “are the hands with which he blesses all the world.” 

But the Pentecost story reminds us that always, always, God will do what it takes to move things along toward health, healing, wholeness, and love.

Kindling the Kingdom

This Lenten season and Eastertide we have been seeking out ways to live the life of Christ more fully—”to walk just as [Jesus] walked,” as 1John describes it (2:6 NRSV). 

All of it—our entire journey—combined could be summed up as “kindling the Kingdom of God.” For that is our task today—as every day. 

Jesus himself urged us not to get caught up in the uncertainty and busy-ness things, of the fear of each other and whether there would be enough. Instead, he simply insisted: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and then all these things will be given to you too (Matthew 6:33 VOICE). 

 

If we need a dose or two of pitocin to birth the kingdom, I am sure God is already measuring it and checking it against our chart. But let’s make sure we’re doing all we can of ourselves, too. 

Let us follow Jesus instead of the world.

Let us look to the well-being of others before ourselves.

Let us prove the goodness of creation with our generosity.

Let us pursue justice instead of fairness.

Let us confess our sins so no one can claim we are hypocrites.

Let us seek to see the image of the Creator in each and every person.

Let us overwhelm fear with love.

Let us practice the Kingdom of God as though it were already here.

For such is the model left for us by the one and only person who has taught us true life.

In the name of Jesus the Christ, Amen. And let us pray:

Prayer

God,

What a journey these past months have been.

If there is one thing that has become clear to us,
it is that we we have become conformed too much to our world,
and transformed too little by your Spirit.

Send that Spirit among us now,
kindling our hearts with fire as in ancient days,
overcoming the obstacles within us and outside us
by the power of your unrelenting love.

May your name be praised
on this and every day,
within our hearts, mind, and lives;
as we offer our whole self to you—
the one who made us,
redeemed us,
transforms us,
and will one day resurrect us
to the new, abundant, eternal, and true life
that is available to all
who will become like little children
and follow the Christ.

Amen.

Kindling Obedience

Scripture: 1John 5:1-6

Post-Obedience

When theologians and philosophers and historians and social psychologists and other people who look at how the world changes find places of transition, they label them. And since the new world that’s emerging hasn’t really developed yet, they tend to refer to what is coming by what is past. So they make up words that start with “post”:

post-Classical

post-Enlightenment

post-Industrial

post-war

post-modern

post-truth

I wonder if we are living in a post-obedience world.

In the wake of WW2, the Nuremberg trials heard person after person insist that they should not be held accountable for the atrocities they committed—because they were only obeying orders.

Psychologist Stanley Milgram was curious how so many “regular” people could end up doing such terrible things. He designed a now-infamous experiment wherein people would be instructed by an authority figure to administer painful electric shocks to others. He concluded:

“Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority” (Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority).

In other words: even when asked to do things that anyone would say were wrong, most of us would do them anyway—if the right authority asked us to.

While Milgram’s experiment has been questioned on many grounds, his basic conclusion has been affirmed by other research over and over again. Obedience has a dark side, especially since we do not tend to really question the authorities in our lives.

But all of this is just a part of how we experience our world anymore. Even graffiti artist Banksy offered this critique of obedience in the book Wall and Piece:

“The greatest crimes in the world are not committed by people breaking the rules but by people following the rules. It’s people who follow orders that drop bombs and massacre villages.”

Is obedience even seen as a virtue any longer? I don’t know. In this post-obedience world, verses like our scripture lesson this week seem kind of quaint and irrelevant—like a relic of an earlier, more naive era in humanity’s youth.

We know (at least abstractly):

that there are times we should not obey a friend (“If Johnny jumped off a cliff with all his friends, would you do it too?”)

that there are times we should not obey a parent

that there are times we should not obey a boss/employer

that there are times we should not obey a pastor

that there are times we should not obey a government

Can we believe in obedience at all anymore? Is there any value to this concept that the bible speaks often and highly of?

If there is, surely the Spirit can help us reclaim the value of obedience, can’t she?

Perelandra

Clive Staples Lewis was a British author of the last century, most famous for his “Chronicles of Narnia” series. But C.S. Lewis made significant contributions to our Christian worldview that extended far beyond this one fictional series. He was, himself, a latecomer to faith in Jesus; and he became (for his generation) perhaps their greatest Christian apologist—that means he communicated faith: both in the terms of the world at large, and in a way that that was accessible and even attractive to unbelievers.

Part of why Lewis proved so successful in this regard was his willingness to engage hard questions and posit creative—and unorthodox—answers. His novel Perelandra has significance for us this morning, in the context of our scripture reading.

Perelandra is the middle volume of his three-part “Space Trilogy,” and it envisions traveling to a planet that is early in its own creation. In fact, the planet Perelandra is developmentally parallel to the Garden of Eden, a genuine paradise and only two people. Like with the Genesis story, there is only one thing that is off limits. And like the Genesis story, the characters wrestle with why anything would be forbidden at all.

The main character of Lewis’s reimagining, Dr. Ransom, is the one that journeys from earth to this new world. He argues that such “forbidden fruit” is required for us to demonstrate true obedience in love to God. He says:

“I think He made one law of that kind in order that there might be obedience. In all these other matters what you call obeying Him is but doing what seems good in your own eyes also. Is love content with that? You do them, indeed, because they are His will, but not only because they are His will. Where can you taste the joy of obeying unless He bids you do something for which His bidding is the only reason?” (Perelandra, 118).

[repeat:] “Where can you taste the joy of obeying unless He bids you do something for which His bidding is the only reason?”

It’s an interesting observation, for sure.

Parenting

Let’s put this in the context of parents and children. If I instruct one of my children to get in the car because we’re going to the zoo (and presuming they want to go to the zoo), they’re probably going to obey the instruction. They want to obey the instruction, but not because of anything to do with me. They want to obey the instruction because it produces the result they want—they get to go to the zoo.

I am grateful for this kind of obedience. As a parent, I’m grateful for any obedience I can get. But this is different than the kind of obedience Lewis is talking about in Perelandra.

Let’s imagine now that we’re out and about somewhere—maybe at a public park—and I see something that poses a real threat to my child. Maybe they’re playing near the road and I see a car driving erratically. Maybe there’s another kid about to crash into them and knock them from the equipment. Maybe my spidey-sense is tingling and I don’t know what that means, but I’ve learned to trust it. Whatever it is, my child does not see the threat. They do not see the goodness of my instruction, nor the benefit to themself…… And maybe they even think my instruction looks bad to them—like it’s going to mean they don’t get to have the fun they want.

Here is where the parenting-rubber meets the road. If my child obeys my instruction—even when they do not see the goodness or purpose of it, and even if they think it prevents them from having what they want—then this is a different kind of obedience. This is obedience that is rooted in the love that we share, rather than in common priorities or mutual benefit.

As Dr. Ransom argues in Perelandra, there is a joy in obeying that can only be experienced when our own motivations are stripped away—when obedience is rooted in love and relationship.

The Shepherd

Though it may have felt a bit coarse at the time, Jesus’s teaching in John 10 about the Good Shepherd may be helpful for us here.

Even back then—way before this post-obedience era began—it is clear there were authorities who were teaching the wrong things and leading people to do bad things—even manipulating fear and hate and crowd-mentality to crucify one Jesus of Nazareth. But in John chapter 10, Jesus addresses this obedience crisis head on, naming names and taking no prisoners.

There are many who claim to be leaders—people who ask for (or even demand!) your obedience, loyalty, or action—but not all of them deserve your obedience.

There are those who sneak around in the dark, thinking it shields their wrongdoing.

There are those who who jump over the walls they tell you to stay within, thinking themselves exceptions to the rule you must follow.

There are those whose agendas result in death and destruction and theft, who pretend themselves to be agents of salvation.

There are those whose real aim is the power and authority and recognition that comes with being a leader, but they are inattentive to the needs of their followers to the point of criminal negligence.

But twice Jesus contrasts himself with these pretending shepherds, claiming “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11, 14). Four times he references his laying down his life for his sheep. And repeatedly, the reason that the Good Shepherd’s sheep follow Jesus’ voice is because they “know him.”

You see, this is a big deal. If we’ve had an experience of Jesus’s redeeming and transforming love, we know him. We know Jesus. Jesus has revealed himself fully to us, demonstrating his purposes, his methods, his motivations, and his mentality in his willingness to die that we might “have life, and have it abundantly,” as he says in John 10:10 (NRSV).

Two thousand years ago, Jesus effectively said: Put me to the test and see for yourselves.

And we did.

We ran Jesus through the wringer:

through being tried by the media,

through the ancient version of “frontier justice,”

through our corrupt courts,

through public abasement.

through the abandonment of his closest friends and allies,

through torture as cruel as waterboarding,

and through one of the most painful, humiliating, excruciating means of execution the world has ever known.

But Jesus did not recant.
He did not recuse himself.
He did not show even the slightest crack in what we thought was a facade, but which was proven to be the very heart of God.

In proving that he is a good shepherd, Jesus proved that he can be trusted with something as precious as our obedience. That his purpose really was selfless: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 NRSV).

Challenge

Ultimately, as followers of the Christ, we are not called to be obedient to the government, to pastors; to employers, friends, parents, or even (and I know this will seem controversial) to the bible. Our obedience is to Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who died and was raised to new life again.

He is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11). He is the one who calls to us and says “My sheep hear my voice…and they follow me” (John 10:27).

Sisters and brothers, Jesus is calling. Do we believe in him enough to follow his “royal law” of loving even our enemies as ourselves?

The world awaits our answer.

Kindling Love

Scripture: 1John 4:7-21

“Simply” Hard Teachings

I love these verses. For me, this reading contains some of the most important words of scripture that did not originate from the mouth of Jesus.

“God is love” (v.8).

“Since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (v.11).

“God is love” (v.16).

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear” (v.18).

“We love because [God] first loved us” (v.19).

All these things can be hinted at in every other part of the bible, but here they find their most direct expression. So direct, in fact, that sometimes it seems hard to do more than just quote them.

But as simple as they are, these are hard teachings to really accept—especially for us today.

The Fear Industrial Complex

An article I read recently began with this observation:

“It’s a multibillion-dollar industry. It fuels the Internet. It dominates political campaigns, talk radio, and the evening news. It sits on therapist couches and speaks on Facebook feeds. No respecter of persons, it steals sleep from feeble beggars and mighty kings.

What is this pervasive, inescapable, suffocating phenomenon?

Fear……

On paper [the article continued], we should have fewer fears than any generation before us. We’re surrounded by security systems, advanced medicine, organic food, and endless information on a glowing rectangle in our pockets.

Yet we are deeply, miserably afraid. Far from loosening the choke hold of fear, the material blessings of our age seem only to have tightened it.”

And what are we afraid of? In short: everything.

scarcity

losing influence/resources/power or control

being wrong (investing in the wrong things; fighting the wrong battles)

looking foolish (aka “what others think”)

aging/death

isolation/being alone

It’s not just limited to spiders and the dark: we are driven by fear each and every day.

Day in the Life…

You arrive home from work or being out or whatever, and you turn on the news—just in time to hear the newscaster offer the tag before they cut to commercial. The newscaster says: “These three items are found in 95% of American homes and may be killing you right now. This and more stories after the break……”

The first commercial begins: a handsome, silver-haired man in his mid-50’s steps away from his spouse to smile into the camera with his icy blue eyes. “Do you ever have a headache,” he asks, “that doesn’t go away when you sit down?” “I didn’t think anything about it, but thankfully Pat made me talk to our doctor. Turns out, it’s a warning sign for a ridiculously rare heart condition that I probably don’t have. But since my doctor prescribed Preventra, I don’t have to worry anymore. My life is too valuable to leave things to chance. Is yours?”

Turning off the TV, you decide to try the radio. The DJ’s are on opposite sides of some hot-button political issue, each escalating the rhetoric of the other to argue that their opponent’s ideas will be the death of civilization as we know it.

Their bickering is interrupted by an urgent news report about a white supremacist who drove a van into a crowd some long distance away from your home. You turn off the radio and decide to cancel your plans to go to the mall that weekend.

Looking around, you pick up a magazine—you know, some fluff rag filled with top ten lists and style advice. Opening randomly, you land on an article titled “Ten Signs Your Spouse Is Cheating on You.”

You’d like to just put all this away—to be done with TV and the facebookery and everything that traffics fear for advertising dollars. But then you’d be left with the voices in your own head. The ones that say:

You don’t do enough
You are not enough
You didn’t try hard enough
You didn’t come through in time

What about this?
What about that?

You’re letting people down
You’re letting yourself down
You’re letting God down

It seems—for so many of us—that there is no escape from fear. Fear is peddled to us 24/7. It is marketed to us constantly because fear sells. It sells hamburgers and pizzas, adult beverages and soda pop, magazine subscriptions and political candidates, bicycles and vacations…… Everything that is sold is sold on the principle of fear: “If you do not have this, you’re missing out.”

And you don’t want to miss out, do you?

 

The truly sad thing about all this is that there should be a shleter from this emotional marketing storm: the church. Many come to a church needing to know that they have value without all the other stuff—or despite all the other stuff—and instead……they are subjected to the same fear-mongering that convinced them they needed to try that new laundry soap.

Instead of an encounter with the true and living and loving God—instead of experiencing liberation by the Prince of Peace—they are told that they are hopeless sinners……whom God will rejoice at torturing and tormenting for all eternity……because they do not measure up to the impossible ideal of a perfect life. But don’t worry! Act now and your salvation comes with free shipping! Just repent of your sins……come down the aisle……pray this prayer……send money to this ministry……join this church……volunteer for this activity……invite your friends…… If they will only do all these things and so much more, then God’s “sweet sweet Spirit” will welcome them into those pearly gates. Now doesn’t that sound nice?

It is an abomination

It is blasphemy to attach God’s name to such methods and message.

No Fear Tactics

Sisters & brothers, our scripture text today is clear: “Perfect love casts out fear” (1John 4:18). It assures us that where fear is, there is no love, but also that love—wherever it is—will drive out fear.

And first and foremost that means (for us churches), that when we “sell” Christ using the same kind of fear tactics the world uses to sell everything else, we may change behaviors, but that will be all. People may outwardly conform to our expectations and demands……at least for a while.

But fear never changes hearts. Only love can do that. Only love can change hearts and lives. Only love can move us in that pure, whole, authentic way that God uses to bring life and love and hope to each and every one in creation.

The most repeated command in the bible is: “Do not fear.” It’s true.

But is that the most frequent soundbite the Church has broadcast? No. It doesn’t even rank.

To Do

So what can we each do about it? Well, here’s some suggestions—but they’re certainly not the only options.

1. Prayerfully ask God to help you see when fear is being used to manipulate you and others. It’s sort of like buying a car: You never realized there were so many out there until you really noticed one yourself.

2. Speak up and speak out when you see it happen. Don’t be a jerk, but it is ok to “just say ‘no’ to emotional manipulation.” Don’t use it with your spouse or kids. Name it when your friends post that article on Facebook. Speak up for those who have no voice.

3. Ask those you trust to hold you accountable. None of us are perfect. And even the most self-aware among us have blind spots you could drive a Mack truck through. If we’re going to change our behaviors and our thought patterns, it’s going to take more than we’ve got in ourselves. And God’s going to need somebody—enfleshed—if God is going to be able to work do this transformative work in us.

4. Believe in the power of God’s love. Whether you agree or not, I think this is a lot harder than we admit. It’s easier to believe the world’s way of things, when we look around us and the world seems to be right: the strong survive, the generous get taken advantage of, take care of yourself because nobody else is going to, and so on. In the face of such cultural force, believing that love can overcome all obstacles, redeem every trauma, and resurrect any death seems……quaint, at best. Like the way children believe in fairy tales until they realize the way the world really works.

But according to the scriptures, God’s way of love is the way the world really works.

The first really is last. The last really is first.

Become like a child if you want to enter God’s kingdom.

The Samaritan (rather than a faithful Jew) models neighborliness and fulfills God’s instruction.

You must be born again.

Let the one without sin cast the first stone.

That widow’s two pennies were a greater contribution than all of the wealthy combined.

Who among us wouldn’t abandon the 99 sheep to pursue the one that was lost?

Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.

The kingdom of God is in you.

None of it makes any sense, according to the American Dream and whatever else this world has taught us. But all of it slides into perfect focus when we abandon ourselves to the reckless love of God, demonstrated through Jesus the Christ.

“Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (1John 4:11–12 NRSV).

Where charity and love are found, there is God.

May we kindle love in our hearts this Easter season, that God’s Spirit may move through us, burning away the chaff built by this world in our hearts, our communities, our nations, and all of creation.

Generosity

Scripture: 1John 3:16-24

Definitions

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.

Applying Love

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.

Interconnected

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.

There is:

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).

Prayer

Merciful God,

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.