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April 22, 2018

I John 3:16-24

Love, then Let Go


Raise of hands:  Anyone here ever felt discouraged?  Discouraged by the world, discouraged that God’s love doesn’t seem to make much of a difference?  Then today’s scripture is for you.  John’s First Letter, written by the same person who wrote the Gospel, was sent to a small, beleaguered group of people who are trying to follow Jesus.  And finding out it wasn’t quite as simple and effective Life isn’t working out the way they thought it would – Apparently, God’s love in Jesus doesn’t make everyone get along.  Apparently, their love for one another wasn’t changing people the way they thought it would.   Listen for word from God, from The First Letter of 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. 17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister[a] in need and yet refuses help?

18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

23 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. 24 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.

May God bless our hearing and our understanding of this word.   Because it’s true – Outside of the narrow context of military service on the battlefield, we aren’t too sure what “laying down our lives” for each other means.   We know the formula very well:  Jesus laid down his life for us; we should be willing to do the same and lay down our lives for one another.  But what exactly does it look like to “Love one another as God loves us.” 

The people who first read this letter are discouraged – Loving each other as God loved them wasn’t working out the way they thought.  They weren’t getting along.  They were fighting with each other.  People were choosing sides and leaving because they couldn’t agree on what this love looks like in their real world.  It’s a reality we all face :  We have these ideas and hopes and dreams about how love – Our love, God’s love - will show up, and change the world, or at least  change the people we love.  And then, it doesn’t, and we wonder, what is the point of sharing God’s love, if it doesn’t turn out the way we think it should?   What is the point of practicing faith if it doesn’t change anything, at least the way we think things ought to change?  

John tries to answer them:  Lay down your life for one another, by helping out when you see someone in need, and then God will answer your prayer. A nice, neat, easy package with a bow on top.  Right?

Hmm.  Laying down our lives for one another.  Our 21st century understanding of this is very narrow compared with what those first century Christians would have heard – Because they understood that yes, Jesus DID lay down his life, BUT then he got back up again.  And the laying down was to show how the love of God is more powerful than death.  And what Jesus really laid down was his own ego.  His own ideas and hopes and dreams of how his love would change people, would change the world. 

That’s what those early Christians were wrestling with, and that’s what we wrestle with, because we are not so good at that – This laying down, letting go of – the effectiveness we think our love, God’s love, will have.   We have our own ideas and hopes and dreams of how our love will change people.  And when our love doesn’t have the effect we realize we wanted, we get mad at that other person.  And we wonder if it’s worth helping them at all, if they aren’t using our help to improve their lives.

Remember this line in the passage:  Love one another in truth.  The truth is, love – true love – God’s love - is so, so much harder than we act like it is.  Love is not like the secret formula – if we just get it right, if we just figure out the perfect loving thing to do for that person in need, that person we love, then they will change.  But that’s the hard truth of love:  It doesn’t turn out how we expect.  It doesn’t make life easier.  It doesn’t dissolve conflict.  It doesn’t improve that other person’s life the way we think it should.  Love does not get our prayers answered –

Yes, I know that’s what this passage seems to say – That, and I quote directly from the Bible here: “Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.”  Sure, we read this to mean that we have to be BOLD in telling God what we want!  And if we’re bold enough, we’ll get what we ask for!

How’s that working out for you?  I’m guessing, not the you thought it would.  In fact, none of this faith life works out the way we think it will.  The truth is: God loves us, and when we trust that love more than anything else, then God will answer the true prayer, the deep prayer of our hearts.  Which isn’t necessarily the words we say or the pleas we make.

Sure, we pray:  “please make this health test come out right.”  “Please don’t let it be cancer.”  “Please let my child not be bullied, or be a bully.”  “Please let my baby or my grandbaby be born healthy.”  “My dying parent has suffered enough, please take them quickly and gently.”  “Please let me find a job, fall in love, stay in love.” 

Those are our very real, very heart-felt, very legitimate prayers.  Even Jesus prayed some of those prayers – The night of his crucifixion  Please take this cup from me!

But God knows the prayer behind those prayers:  God, please don’t leave me.  God, I am scared.  God, I don’t think I can handle this.  God, please love me enough that I can let go of how I think everything should turn out.  God love me enough that I can know your love no matter how my life turns out.

And even Jesus prayed, “But not what I want, but what you want.”  Which brings us back to the question:  What does God want?  If God lives in me, then I live in God, and God lives in you, and I’m supposed to love the way Jesus loved, then, what?

In day to day life, when we’re just walking along, we don’t think too much about God’s love.  It’s like the oxygen we breathe in.  But then, bang, and our lives are turned upside down, and the air feels thin and we can’t catch our breath and it feels like maybe there isn’t enough oxygen and you wonder if you can survive this new reality.  And you wonder if God still loves you – Because how are you going to survive this life, as it’s unfolding?   This is too too hard.  Unbearable.  But then, you do survive.  You take another step, you gasp another breath, you get through another hour, another day.  You look back and see how God was there all along.  That’s answered prayer.

So, this love – The love of Jesus, of letting go of outcome, or trusting the love of God enough to love one another in spite of our own hopes and dreams and ideas.  This life invites us time and time again to practice that love.  And it is practice.  It takes practice. 

Because the world tells us love is one thing, but that’s not what God’s love looks like. We fall into the trap of believing love means protecting those we love from the pain of this life.  That’s laying down our lives for someone else – Protecting someone else, rescuing someone else, offering advice to someone else, showing someone else the right path, getting them to change.

But that’s not what love is.  Love is not rescuing someone else.  It is not holding expectations of the effectiveness of our love.  It is not expecting them to change.  It is not protecting our family and friends from bad news – It’s trusting them with it.  Love doesn’t get to determine or announce or demand the outcome – It doesn’t have much to do with the outcome at all.

In Sunday School recently we were talking about the O.Henry story “The Gift of the Magi.”  You know the one – It’s the Great Depression, and it’s a married couples’ first Christmas together.  The young woman has the long gorgeous hair, admired by all who see it.  The young man has his grand-father’s pocket watch, handed down through the generations as a reminder that times will be better again.  And what happens?  He sells the watch to buy combs for her hair, she sells her hair to buy a chain for his watch. 

And the world says “Well, that was a waste.”  Or “Hmm, maybe they should work on their communication skills?”  or “Well, what was the point of that?”  “Now no one got a decent gift.” 

Instead, we hold our hopes and expectations for how our love will transform another, how they will receive it, how grateful they will be – We hold all that lightly.  That is the life we lay down – The life of the ego that says, “If God loves me then all my prayers will be answered when and how I want.”  The life that says, “If you loved me, you would …. Do what I ask, make me happy, change so I’m not so worried about you, so it’s easier for me to love you…”  The life that says, “If I just love you the right way, you will change… you will love me back ….” 

The first part of that statement:  That we are to love in truth.  There isn’t much truth in the world these days, and there is little truth about the nature of love.  Because the truth is, love is hard.  Love does not turn out how we expect.  Love does not change the world, at least not the way we think it will, or should.  It doesn’t make us agree, or get along.  It doesn’t erase conflict, it doesn’t get our prayers answered the way we think.  But this life is all about practicing God’s love, and knowing God’s love, and sharing God’s love – Regardless of outcome, or expectation, or hopes or dreams.  God’s love, shared, is the oxygen that gets us through those days when the air is thin.  And so because we trust in our Maker’s love, we offer our love to one another, trusting God will use that not how we think, but how God thinks.  Beloved, love one another, for love is from God.  And it isn’t easy.  But it is all that matters, in Christ.