Louder than Words–1 John 3:18-20

Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. –1 John 3:18-20

I woke up yesterday agitated, bothered that everything in my life seemed just a bit off kilter. My relationships were rocky. My eating is off the tracks. My exercise is non-existent. I’m behind on my grading. Everything’s just a bit messed up.

Part of me wanted to leap out of bed and make a lengthy to-do list. Supplemented by a list of resolutions, that might do the trick.

Part of me wanted to pull the covers over my head and sleep the day away.

Part of me–or maybe something independent of me–recognized the answer why I still lay in the bed. “Get my relationship with God right,” this little voice told me, “and all the other things will work themselves out.”

“Yeah! That’s it,” I assured myself as my feet hit the floor. “I’m going to get my relationship with God right. Then life will be peachy.”

Within two hours, life stunk. I’d yelled at two of my kids and talked sharply to my wife. I topped a hearty biscuits-and-gravy breakfast off with two bismarks. Nothing was going right.

“Why?” I shouted as I stood outside in a driving rainstorm, shaking my fist at the sky. (Okay, that setting I just added for effect.) “Why didn’t things work out?”

No sooner did those questions cross the threshold of my mind than I realized the error of my day. Simply saying that I would get my relationship with God right wasn’t enough. I had to actually do something about it, a something that I couldn’t just wave my hands and make true in the act of rolling out of bed.

Of course, I’m pleased that my lapses don’t foul up my standing with God. Doing right doesn’t make me more redeemed, but it’s not worthless either. It’s like my citizenship in the United States, I think. If I fail to salute the flag properly, that doesn’t take away my citizenship. But saluting the flag, singing “God Bless America,” and otherwise living out my citizenship remind me of the land of my birth. Similarly, my devotion to God helps me to remember whose I am. In the end, that’s all that matters.

Give ’til it Hurts–1 John 3:17

If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? –1 John 3:17

My brother-in-law struggles with his sense of salvation. Regardless of how well he has learned the gospel of Grace, he cannot separate his mind from the sense that works must be important. I’m not talking about the James-style works as the outward manifestation of inner faith. I’m talking about the sense that somehow works are going help save him or that a lack of works will interfere with his salvation.

A couple of years back, I heard him indicate that he had not done enough if somebody in Kansas City was cold during the winter. (He is a furnace repairman.) Apparently, at least in that moment, he was taking the warmth of the entire metro on his own shoulders. Must he forgo sleep in order to fix busted heaters all over town? And why should his furnace-fixing responsibility stop at the city limits? Why not in the state of Missouri? Why not the United States?

Sometimes we have to be careful when considering Scripture and see exactly what it says. One way to read this verse is to believe that as long as I have something and someone else has less, then I should be giving things away. According to that logic, I should sell my house and my cars and everything I possess until I descend to the level of the poorest people or they’re brought up to my level. Is that what John says here? Not quite.

As long as I have material blessings, I should look on my brother’s needs with pity. That doesn’t say that if I have $100 and nine other people have nothing that I should get ten $10 bills and divvy up the loot equally. It says I should have pity on my brother’s need. I should care. Typically such caring will include giving.  However, John does not say that I must give until I’ve given down to the level of my needy brother.

How much should we give, then? Neither John nor Jesus answers that question. Our caring and the way it is manifested, is something between us and God. I’ve seen God perfectly capable of telling me I have not given sufficiently. The question then is how we respond to that message. If the love of God is in you, you will care and you will respond. The “how much” of that is not for me to determine.

A Tale of Two Jesuses–1 John 3:16

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. –1 John 3:16

You can’t go wrong with the three-sixteens, can you? (Try believing that after reading I Chronicles 3:16.) I’m reading a book right now called American Jesus by Stephen Prothero. In this book, the author traces the images and ideas about Jesus throughout American history. While I feel that he overstates some of his conclusions, the book is filled with marvelous insights. More importantly, it provokes thought.

Prothero notes the shifting emphases regarding Jesus as the years pass. For example, he argues that you’d be hard pressed to find a “Jesus as friend” hymn or sermon in 1700s and before. Along those lines, he notes the tendency of certain Liberal churches to focus on a de-historicized Jesus, taken out of the context of the Biblical narrative. After all, in the most prolific image of Jesus, Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ,” what is Jesus doing? Nothing! These same churches tried to ignore the death and resurrection of Jesus. If they did mention the crucifixion, then it had nothing to do with atonement. No, Jesus, in their eyes, died simply to provide a great moral exemplar, a sort of noble gesture.

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t even consider making that sort of gesture. If I’m going to risk my life or give up my life, I’m only going to do it in order to accomplish something worthwhile. I might go to the gallows in order to keep somebody else’s neck out of the noose. That’s the move made by Charles Dickens’ Sydney Carton makes at the end of A Tale of Two Cities. If Carton’s death did not provide for Charles Darnay’s escape, it would be simply a suicide. But that’s not the case. If Jesus’ death had not provided for your and my eternal life, then it would have been a very showy, very misguided journey into torture and suffering.

Yes, we learn about the nature of love by looking to the great example of Jesus, but we have to see the whole Jesus. The whole Jesus, unlike Warner Sallman’s portrait, is not simply head and shoulders. It is hands that healed, feet that walked, lungs that struggled for breath on the cross, and every other portion of the frail human form, dedicated to the redemption of you. That’s love.

Kids will be Kids–1 John 3:13-15

Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him. –1 John 3:13-15

Tuesday morning, I sat in a hotel restaurant in Nashville, watching as some ninety high-school musicians milled about. Although most of the kids, a band traveling from Toronto, looked relatively distinctive, two of them stood out for me.

One I labeled “The Captain.” He covered his red hair with a ball cap that read “Captain.” He wore shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, both plaid and terribly mismatched. The Captain always had a swirl of crew around him. Clearly this was a personality to be reckoned with.

My second favorite had blue hair–not the naturally occurring sort you sometimes find on older women–that stood straight up on one side, as if she had dipped her hair into blue-colored glue and then taken a nap. She also wore a sort of tutu skirt that stood out from her hips a good twelve inches. I called her “The Ballerina.”

After breakfast, the kids brought a veritable mountain of luggage into the lobby. They then stood about in the gaps between piles of bags and talked. A rather timid hotel employee came up behind a group who blocked the only route to the front desk and freedom. “Excuse me,” he said quietly. “Excuse me.” They ignored him.

“That means we’re going to knock you down if you don’t get out of the way,” I blustered. They gave me that teenage-disdain look and shuffled aside.

I tell this tale not to ridicule teens. They do a fine enough job of that themselves.  What I would ridicule is the notion that these kids were particularly odd. They were teens being teens. Yes, they dressed funny. Yes, they prattled on about nothing nonstop. Yes, they failed to pay attention to their impact on the world around them. So what? Are we really surprised?

John, today, points out the unremarkable nature of people hating believers. We shouldn’t be surprised, he tells us, when people hate us. In fact, when unbelievers don’t hate, that is the surprising turn of events. We should not be surprised at anything that sinful, unredeemed people do. He doesn’t say it, but I think it a reasonable extension that we should be surprised at the things that believers do.

Most significantly, I cannot avoid surprise and disgust at some of the things that I do. Unbelievers, like teens, don’t know any better. What’s my excuse?

I Am Ironman–1 John 3:12

Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. –1 John 3:12

Tonight–actually a week ago–I attended a special advance screening of the new film Ironman. Since you might well have not seen this movie in the few days since it opened on May 2, I thought I would assure you that it was definitely worth every penny that we spent to see it. Did I mention that we had free passes?

Seriously, I’m not that much a fan of comic-book movies.  Spider-man was okay and Fantastic Four sort of bored me. Probably what bugs me most is the rather obvious direction these films go. The heroes, though flawed, remain heroes, and the villains, as hard as the writers attempt to make them difficult to perceive, can be recognized from their first appearance on-screen.

In Ironman, the baddest of the bad guys is Obadiah, played by Jeff Bridges. You can tell he is evil, due to his bald head and his warmth toward the hero. If he weren’t bad, there’d be no reason for him to be taking up frames.

The worst thing that Obadiah does in the too-long span of this film is attempting to kill our hero, Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey. What drives Obadiah toward homicide? Was he born a killer? Not really. Obadiah, in this film, like Cain in Genesis, moves toward murder because his own actions are evil. In this case, Obadiah wants to protect his illicit arms sales to good guys and bad guys alike, since better weapons lead to a better world. Tony Stark, for all his flaws, had a conscience and attempted to restrict sales simply to the good guys.

Comic book morality barely registers on the complexity meter. You have a good but troubled hero with amazing powers and an inexplicable point of vulnerability facing off against unscrupulous and utterly wicked villains with equally (or maybe more) amazing powers and a less obvious point of vulnerability. Typically, the hero is tempted toward a misuse of his power, but in the end, virtue always triumphs over evil.

While life is not quite so simple, in the end, we (heroes?) are tempted toward a misuse of our powers. Sin, we discover, leads on to sin, when we surrender ourselves to the evil one. Before long, perhaps like Obadiah, we find ourselves doing things unimaginable at the outset.

Our call is to be Ironman: uncompromising and willing to use our abilities for good. Living thus, we won’t be able to fly, but our lives can be every bit as heroic as the comic-book hero’s.

…and my lungs and limbs and all the rest of me.