Living Love in Truth and Action
Easter 4B: April 29, 2012
For a number of years now, I’ve been a member of an online community made up of Nebraska football fans from all around the country. There’s a part of the website where people can go to discuss stuff not related to sports—a lot of it ends up being politics or religion, but there’s also conversations about music or family matters…quite often people will post prayer requests if there’s something going on, and will be assured of having folks from all over and from all sorts of religious or non-religious backgrounds praying for them or sending them good thoughts.
There’s a guy who posts fairly regularly who goes by the name of Pops. Pops is a Vietnam veteran, a recovering heroin addict, and a biker who lives in Texas. He’s also one of the kindest souls you’ll ever know. He has devoted his life to two causes—working with heroin addicts, and helping abused kids, and the man wears his love for those causes on his sleeve like nothing else. He’s a founding member of his city’s chapter of Bikers Against Child Abuse and has told countless stories of the lives that he’s come into contact with. One of his mottoes is, “You never stand so tall as when you stoop to help a child.”
A few days ago, Pops posted a picture showing a quotation by Cory Booker, who is the mayor of Newark, New Jersey. Here’s what it said: “Before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people; before you tell me how much you love your God, show me in how much you love all His children; before you preach to me of your passion for your faith, teach me about it through your compassion for your neighbors. In the end, I'm not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as in how you choose to live and give.”
Oh, I almost forgot to mention. Pops is also an atheist.
When I first got to know him 6 or so years ago, he was an angry atheist. He had been hurt by the church, and he had seen the church hurt others, and so not only did he not believe in God, but he would’ve been just fine if those who followed God just up and disappeared. And he wasn’t afraid to let Christians know exactly how he felt, either. Pops isn’t one to mince words.
Six years ago, Pops never would have in his wildest dreams considered posting a quotation about God and ministry and faith. But over those six years, he and I have had a number of conversations. He’s heard about the FEAST ministry. He’s heard about the Table. He’s heard about this congregation’s ministry in Tanzania, in Louisiana, in Pine Ridge.
Pops still doesn’t believe in God. But where his heart was hard, it has been softened. Where once there was animosity, there is now openness and respect. Why? Because he’s had the chance to see faith in action. He’s had the chance to know that there really are faith communities out there who serve with no ulterior motive, who love God’s children simply because they are God’s children and not because they expect anything in return or because they’re trying to live up to some sort of standard or to score brownie points with God. I like to tweak him a little bit and call him a minister, tell him that he’s doing God’s work, call what he does with addicts and with kids ministry. I do it in fun, but I also do it because it’s the truth.
Pops knows a thing or two about the kind of living out the words of the quotation he posted from Cory Booker, and I think he knows a thing or two about living out the words we hear today from the writer of 1 John.
He writes, “We know love by this, that he(Jesus) laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How 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? 18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
Jesus laid down his life for us. Today in the church is known as Good Shepherd Sunday—we heard Jesus tell us, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” What we get in this picture of Jesus as shepherd is not this storybook picture of a freshly scrubbed Jesus surrounded by cute, fluffy sheep. Rather, it’s the picture of a person who is so committed to the care and the wellbeing of these sheep that he is willing to throw himself in the face of danger, sacrifice even his very life to save those sheep from destruction. God didn’t just stop at telling the world, “I love you.” It wasn’t just word or speech, but God became LIVING Word, embodied word, word made flesh, in the person of Jesus. In truth and in action Jesus lived, he healed, he raised the dead, he forgave, he befriended those who were on the edges or on the outside of society—people like lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes—people who were supposed to be untouchable. But he didn’t stop there—he proclaimed God’s love for us in every step toward the cross, in every hammering of the nails into his hands and his feet, in the emptying of himself to take on the powers of sin and death. And he didn’t stop at martyrdom—he rose, and because he now lives we know that we too have been given newness of life and freedom to live not for ourselves, but for others. This was true love, not just word or speech, but love that was lived in truth, spoken through action.
As those who claim to follow Christ, we are called to follow that same path of self-giving for the sake of the other. Christ was given much—he was, after all, God made flesh, but he emptied himself in loving service. And that’s what the author of 1 John is proclaiming for our lives, too. Laying down our lives for one another. Realizing that we have been given much—the NRSV translates verse 17 as asking how someone can have the world’s goods and refuse to help, but if you were to look at the actual Greek, the literal translation is not “the world’s goods” but “the life of the world.” So we’re not just talking about material goods, but anything that we have been given that can be of service to anyone in any kind of need. Have you been given the gift of education? Of listening? Of organization? Of being great with kids? Of compassion? Of being a leader? Of being good at following directions and working behind the scenes? Or of wealth? Of power? Of being put in positions of possible influence?
True love, the love that Jesus shows for us and that the author of 1 John wishes for us to show the world, is love in action. It is making the conscious decision that what I have been given is a gift that doesn’t end with me. Instead, it is a gift that flows through me, goes out beyond me, speaks the truth of the gospel loudly not through words that are spoken but through deeds that bring life and healing, that break down walls and build up those who have been broken down by the world. We don’t just say love. We don’t just proclaim love. We do love. Love is an action. Love is a verb. Love is what gets us out of our heads, gets us out of the trap of thinking that the church should only be about the business of purely spiritual matters, and stay away from the messiness of social issues. Love is when our social issues, the things we see in the world around us, BECOME spiritual issues that we are called to confront and act on. It is our witness to the world that Easter makes a difference not only after we die but also right now, that the cross and Jesus’ resurrection have transformed us into a people who live to bring life out of death, to bring light out of the dark places in the world, to follow Jesus into the pain and the brokenness around us in God’s work of transformation and reconciliation, as God works to make all things new.
Love is following the example of my friend Pops, the atheist who does ministry, who does God’s work, living love for “the least of these” in society. Love is following the example of Jesus the Good Shepherd, who laid down his life to give us new life. Love does not stop at word and speech, but is truth that is embodied in action. Through this kind of love, we most clearly speak the hope of the resurrection, the truth of God’s power, the abundant life that is the Kingdom of God for all creation.
Our Saviour's Lutheran Church