(Hey friends - taking a bit of a sabbatical from the blog and writing life to rest up. I found myself writing the same stuff over and over and that means I need to experience more. Here's a sermon I gave recently. I may also be switching to Substack soon - stay tuned!)
Living into Love
(Text: 1 John 2:3-11, audio link)
One of my favorite seasons of the sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm features Larry David starting a coffee shop business to get back at someone else. What happened was that Larry David was served lukewarm coffee, and the owner refused to own up to it. So, Larry started up another shop. Pretty soon, all over the area, celebrities quit filmmaking and start their own businesses. They’re called spite stores. Jonah Hill starts a deli because he found a hair in one of his sandwiches. Sean Penn opens up a bird store because a store refused him a refund. Mila Kunis opens up a jewelry shop because a store wouldn’t fix her watch. It’s poking fun at this culture of antagonism and self-centeredness. And whether or not the writers knew it, it kind of sums up the pettiness inside all of us. So what does this have to do with what we just heard, and what does this letter have to say to us today about things like spite?
So, with his letter, John was writing to a community facing a theological crisis. An early form of Gnosticism was starting to emerge that was still in its early stages. From the context of this letter, it is implied that since there was a belief that the flesh, or the physical body, was beyond redemption, it was okay to have no moral constraints. If there is no redemption for the body, then what point was there in doing good? One of John’s arguments is that since Jesus is both fully God and fully human, we have to trust the way that He lived was good.
In 1 John 3:10 we see exactly how this pre-Gnostic theology played itself out in the lives of those who followed it: “This is how God’s children and the devil’s children are apparent: everyone who doesn’t practice righteousness is not from God, including the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister.”
Later on in verse 16, John continues: “This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. But if someone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but refuses to help—how can the love of God dwell in a person like that?”
John was noticing that a big part of this form of Gnosticism was participating in the cultures of antagonism and injustice that were happening. People who needed help were being ignored for a “gospel” that preached self over others. It was not only a theological issue, but a justice issue.
Flash forward some two thousand years, we see similar attitudes play out in our churches. Prosperity preachers stand up on the stage and boast that blessings are equal to wealth. Revenge stories in literature and film like The Godfather are celebrated (not that it’s a bad movie at all.) The people the world pays attention to the most are the people who stoke the fires.
So, how has the church responded to this culture of ego and antagonism?
When I was studying the Iraqi and Syrian church, there was a dispute over a theologian named Nestorius back in the fourth century. They ended up splitting off into what is considered the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Church. Today, neither side knows fully why they split off from each other and they both agree they overreacted. However, that tension is still there.
I took a local friend of mine, Robby, out for coffee. We meet once a month to talk shop about theology. He’s a Syriac Christian too. I asked him once why there aren’t many Arab Protestants or evangelicals. He took a deep sigh and said, “When the evangelical missionaries came, they thought we were all Muslims.”
This next part just feels so absurd to me, but it happened. The western evangelicals had come to a tipping point - their message wasn’t being received well. It was so much in vain that they resorted to paying Arabs to convert to evangelicalism. What they would do when Arabs would ask for aid was to say, "You'll get an extra hundred dollars if you convert to Christianity."
And well… they paid well but it didn’t pay out. When the Armenian and Syriac genocides started happening around World War 1, most of the evangelical missionaries fled and it was the Catholic missionaries, in large part, who stayed - and that is why Catholicism is the majority Christian faith around Iraq.
This animosity isn’t as felt today as our worlds have blended together somewhat. When I first stepped inside one of the monasteries in New Jersey, I was met with a priest. He was still learning English and so I used bare basic terms. I think I said, “I’m a Protestant Pastor.”
He got this huge goofy smile on his face and shouted, “Joyce Meyer! We’re the same team!”
What makes these stories so compelling is that they speak to an almost universal theme of ego and selfishness over the obvious virtues that we, as Christians, believe to be true. Stories of revenge and getting back at the Other are celebrated. If you ask critics what they think the greatest movie ever made was, they will usually jump to The Godfather - a mafia movie that is centered all around revenge. I’m not hating on The Godfather, but it is fascinating to me that stories of forgiveness and mercy are rarely celebrated in our culture.
But Scriptures tell us that is a universal problem. There was a whole group of religious leaders in first century Palestine who believed the Messiah was finally going to overthrow the Roman empire with a sword. They demanded Jesus help to kill a woman caught in adultery. They demanded that Jesus ignore those stuck in poverty or with serious illnesses, because the theology at the time said it was a result of personal sin so therefore they were rightfully earning what was coming to them anyway.
Really, how many times do we hear that in our world too?
What makes these stories feel absurd is that the church is replicating the same culture of antagonism that we often find in the world. It is easy to paint with a broad brush in this world, but a part of loving God and others is learning people’s stories.
But what is at the source of our cultural antagonisms? What is really going on?
I was listening to Tom Morello’s radio show last week. Morello, for those that don’t know, fronted both the bands Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. He also has a political science degree from Harvard, so he has quite an entertaining range of topics to talk about.
He talked about how spent his summers in Marseilles, Illinois. Growing up, he remembered the community being vibrant and had many good memories. He described it like a Norman Rockwell painting. He went back to visit recently, and he was horrified to see many houses abandoned and the streets littered. Confederate flags hung everywhere, drug addiction is rampant. When he talked to the kids, they said their only options for employment were the military, Wal-Mart, or drug trafficking. The poverty rate is 20%.
He then said it made sense, then, for things like white supremacy to take deep root - because these communities feel ignored. When the solution is painted to be some outside force such as immigrants, they immediately latch onto that answer because they feel seen. Whenever poverty is discussed on a national level, the first image that pops into people’s heads are inner city issues - very rarely is rural poverty discussed. A repeated comment that was made to Morello when he visited was that this community felt like they were abandoned by both Democrats and Republicans.
I’m a white, privileged, educated, male - and I often have to remind myself of stories like that whenever I feel the urge to join in on the antagonisms or when I find myself frustrated at the way things are. I’m also incredibly opinionated and stubborn about lots of things. But I need to remember that people are carrying around all sorts of stories that I don’t know about. I have to remind myself that when we find ourselves in an us vs. them mentality, we forget what the real problems actually are - and it is even harder to live in love. It is hard for the church to be the church when we dabble in the dehumanizing process of ostracizing the Other because of their politics or theology.
A Gospel that doesn’t convict its followers to live into love and to embrace the Resurrection life of cultivating peace is not a Gospel worth following. It’s not even half the truth. It’s fire insurance. I love how Eugen Peterson begins his translation of 1 Corinthians 13:1-7 in The Message:
“If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.”
So what is John’s solution here?
Looking back at the passage, it’s one of those irritating and yet so obvious solutions that feels like a Sunday school answer - and it’s to live like Jesus lived. In the New English Translation of this passage, it says this in verse six: “The one who says he resides in God ought himself to walk just as Jesus walked.”
And yet we live in this tension of recognizing we are sinners in desperate need of understanding of what this love is. That’s what grace is for. That’s what forgiveness is for. It’s for us to point at ourselves in the mirror and say, “Even though I’ve not been able to live in love and I’m guilty, I’m still radically and deeply loved by God - and I need to show it.”
For the Christian, we have to recognize that we are becoming by grace what God is by character. When we walk in the footsteps of Jesus, we become painfully aware of just how human we are - and how much more necessary it is for our world for the church to live into this ideal of love.
James Cone wrote in The Cross and the Lynching Tree that, “Christianity has always insisted that the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear.” Whatever side we are on and wherever we are at, we have to remember our primary calling as Christians.
So what does this look like practically?
It means surrendering the idea that we all have within ourselves that life is all about us. One of my favorite variations of the serenity prayers goes like this: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know that person is me.” Because ultimately, we cannot change people - we can only accept them as they are and witness how God is working in their lives. Love isn’t only commanded when it’s for easy people - it’s commanded when it’s for hard people too. A good quote I hear often in Christian hippie circles is: “An enemy is a friend whose story we have not heard yet.”
We aren’t the main characters in another person’s story. We don’t get to decide for another adult what choices they make, and that’s probably one of the most frustrating things about both being a human and being a Christian. But also, when you feel that urge to be angry or upset at someone - consider taking five steps back and examining the whole situation.
When I worked at the Boys and Girls Club, I would always tell my employees to look for the problem underneath the problem. I would tell them that when a teenager is caught smoking in the bathroom or when a kid tells you to go do something that I can’t repeat in a sermon, don’t look at that problem by itself. Look at what is going on in their life to cause them to act that way. That secret is true for loving anyone.
Listen to the problem underneath the problem - and realize life is hard enough as it is without any of us being a jerk or being antagonistic. Being a Christian means letting go of your ego and letting yourself be saturated in God’s unconditional level.
Forgiveness, mercy, compassion - these are the marks that John says that will distinguish us from the world. So the question we should be asking ourselves every morning is this: “How am I living into love today, and if I can’t, what needs to change?”
There is a time for confrontation, for flipping over tables, for rebuking the powers… but there is also a time for listening to the problems underneath the problem. And sometimes, what that means for us at the end of the day, is accepting a lukewarm cup of coffee and not being a jerk about it.
How are we going to live into love this week, and how are we going to view each person as having a story we have yet to hear?
Let’s close in prayer.