1 John: Desire and Decision
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 26, 2015
1 John 3:16-24
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 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? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
Dierdre Lewin, our clerk of council, brought to my attention that April has been named “volunteer appreciation month.” Across the country in workplaces, schools and charities, volunteers are being honored. Why don’t we do so as well, we thought?
As I began thinking across the wide range of tasks that members volunteer to take up – whether it is helping to host the recent presbytery meeting, committing to serve on a church committee, organizing donations for the thrift store or teaching ESL – it became clearer and clearer to me that the word “volunteer” has an additional layer of meaning when we use it in the church.
Now plenty of people – students with community service projects, retired adults in the neighborhood – may pop buy the church looking to “volunteer.” And this is wonderful. Help is always needed and welcomed! But when we as members volunteer, what does that mean? After all, in our membership vows we pledge our time, talent, gifts and service to the church. Is volunteering over and above these commitments? Or somehow different from these commitments?
In many ways what looks from the outside to be “volunteerism” looks from the inside as simply what we do for one another and the community as members of the church. But it is good to pause for a moment with the word “volunteer.” It comes from the Latin word voluntas, which means “will”. Volunteering is about a choice – not about compulsion; it isabout desire and decision. And when desire and decision meet, well, there we find love.
In this morning’s lectionary passage from First John we read, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” For the writer knows that talk is cheap. He insists that followers of Christ love “in truth and action.” Now what’s interesting here is that truth is not applied to a statement, to a confession, or to a belief. Instead the writer insists that the truth of love is known by what we do and what we do is modeled on what Christ did.
But what is love. Well according to the writer, love has two characteristics. First it is sacrificial – it is willing, even to the point of death, to put the well-being of another before ourselves. Second, it is generous – whoever has goods in this world will be unable to refuse to help a brother or sister in need.
Now I need to pause to distinguish sacrificial love from abuse, because all of us have heard or experienced stories of abuse – where a partner, a child, a friend has stayed in a relationship that is dangerous physically and emotionally because a careless sort of theology has insisted that the abused person continue to sacrifice themselves for the good of the abuser.
I want to say clearly, that is not what we believe in the church. Several of us wore our orange t-shirts to the tag sale yesterday as part of the UNite Campaign to end violence against women and girls. Every person is beloved of God. The understanding of our call to sacrifice is predicated on free-will, on a choice that is made without compulsion, threat or consequence.
Abuse is the opposite of sacrifice, for it continues not by choice but by fear. If you are being abused, please come and tell me or one of our ministers about it. Or call the My Sisters Place hotline. We will help you find safe, next steps.
Sacrifice, is something chosen, something offered freely, for good purpose. It might be a small sacrifice or a huge sacrifice, but it is a choice by a free person to place their relationship with others ahead of their own well-being. It is the ultimate antidote to a consumerist, selfie society that finds all kinds of rationalizations for self-indulgence.
Sometimes, if we are honest, we also question sacrifices we’ve made – have we made the right choices? Have we unduly hurt people in doing what we thought was right? What do we owe our children, our jobs, our spouses, our own integrity, our God?
Sacrificing as a part of our devotion to God, doesn’t make it easier – it makes it harder. Because God does not allow us to forge easy categories of who is worth sacrificing for – oh well I’ll sacrifice for friends but not enemies; I’ll sacrifice for my family but not a stranger. And it also exposes us to the further realization: that we’re not the only ones making sacrifices, others are sacrificing for us as well. We are not simply mini-gods down here, nobly sacrificing without cost and with no need for replenishment. Rather mutual sacrifice is the ethic of the early church, which makes us realize our dependence not only on God, but on one another.
The second characteristic of love the writer points to is that those who have goods of this world cannot refuse to help their sister and brother in need. But we question this, don’t we? What if someone asks us for help over and over? Is it ever OK to draw a line? And what is “enough?” What is the “right measure”? Now those are good discussions to have, but with them we start veering away from what the text is driving at.
Listen to what the text says again – in a rhetorical fashion: “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?”
What’s interesting to me is what the writer DOESN’T say here. He doesn’t say, those of you who are rich, give to the poor. He doesn’t say if you have a lot of the world goods give some to others who are in need. No. He writes “anyone who has the world’s goods” – the writer may, in fact, be writing to a poor community where everyone is struggling. Basically, he’s saying if you have something, a resource that someone needs, help them. Perhaps that means sharing it. Perhaps that means giving it away. Perhaps that means finding a collective solution. But the writer underscores that any goods we have are goods that are intended for the well-being of us all.
And that brings us back to volunteering. When we in the church volunteer in the church, we do so because of desire and decision. We freely offer ourselves to one another and in service to the world. We do this, not in hope of repayment or reward, but because we know that when we choose to live this way of love, sacrificing and sharing, we experience the new life God has promised for us here and now. A life that entwines our lives with one another. A life that demands all. And a life that promises all. Thanks be to God.