2 John

            Perhaps it is ironically significant that today’s lectionary New Testament lesson is all about love.  After an acrimonious season of electoral politicking, and a forward look at some more of the same, we need the message of this oft forgotten little epistle.  And, so, yet another irony is that this brief letter is nestled in a place in the New Testament where few believers ever take a peek.  Perhaps love itself has become a forgotten virtue among the very people entrusted to uphold its beauty and grace.
 
            Everything in the Christian life rises and falls with love.  Even to say this is a gross understatement because God himself is love.  John is known as the Apostle of love, and he consistently and constantly espoused the primacy and permanence of love whenever he had the chance.  Truth and love must go together, always.  John says to the church, personified as a very special woman, “We love you because the truth is now in our hearts, and it will be there forever.”
 
            The true muster of the church and of individual believers is their love.  A profound lack of love is the litmus test that belies a faulty and heretical doctrine of Jesus.  No love is always the clue that there is going to be some impure teaching behind it.  The real enemy of Christ is the one who claims Christianity but does not love in either word or deed.  If we really want to love God, we will love one another, and vice-versa.
 

 

            Loving God, there is never a time when you do not love.  Let that same virtue dwell in me all the time, as well, so that the world will know there is a God in heaven who cares.  Amen.

1 John 4:1-6

            The Apostle John gave some spiritually sage advice to a group of his disciples who were being influenced by false believers:  “Dear friends, don’t believe everyone who claims to have the Spirit of God.  Test them all to find out if they really do come from God.”  Lots of people make claims, but the real muster of a Christian is in embracing an embodied spirituality that truly meets the holistic needs of others.
 
            For John, there was no room for the Platonic Greek dualism of body and spirit.  Jesus was a real man with a very real body.  To deny this was to deny the faith.  Ethereal musings about the insignificance of the body were flatly rejected by John.  The apostle was concerned that the supreme Christian ethic of love be practiced through attention to both body and soul.  This means words are not enough; actual demonstrations of love are needed in order to communicate Christ to others.
 
            I’ll be the first guy to insist on some deep theological reflection on the great spiritual, cultural, and social issues of our day.  But if it does not lead to the end of some very real tangible acts of love based on that reflection, then we have not yet been called God’s friend.  Correct doctrine will always lead to loving actions of faith.  We are to glorify God with both speech and service, and never just one without the other.
 

 

            Loving God, since you cared for us by sending your Son, the Lord Jesus, to this earth as a real human being, so let my very real body and soul glorify you with words and ways of love through the power of your Holy Spirit.  Amen.

2 Corinthians 5:11-17

            “We are ruled by Christ’s love for us.  We are certain that if one person died for everyone else, then all of us have died.  And Christ did die for all of us.  He died so we would no longer live for ourselves, but for the one who died and was raised to life for us.  We are careful not to judge people by what they seem to be, though we once judged Christ in that way.  Anyone who belongs to Christ is a new person.  The past is forgotten, and everything is new” (CEV).
 
            Simple observation:  The Christian’s rule of life is to be love.  Love is the distinguishing mark of the believer in Jesus Christ.  A person filled and ruled by Christ’s love for him/her sees all of life in a new and different way.  Positive confidence and optimism replace negative skepticism and pessimism; grace takes over and trumps the old judgmental spirit; living in the present state and being attentive and mindful of others negates living in the past and holding onto old hurts and animosities.
 
            The person who does not change, refuses transformation of heart, and eschews the renovation of the mind is not being ruled by Christ’s love.  But the person who allows the love of God in Christ through the cross to thaw his/her cold heart into a new white hot passionate life in the Spirit is experiencing the resurrected existence to which we have been called.
 
            Try this today:  monitor your words and actions.  At the end of the day, ask yourself:  Were my words and actions done in love?  What percentage of those words and actions were loving and unloving?  Was I compelled by Christ’s love, or by the love of self?  How can I bring the value of love to be more operative in my behavior and speech?  Who will I share my plan with?
 

 

            Loving God, you demonstrated your love for us through the cross of Jesus.  May my life be so filled with grace that what comes out of my mouth and what is done in my behavior is consistently characterized by love.  Amen.

What Do You Want?

 
 
Let’s make a very important observation about how Christ’s church is designed to function:  The church is meant to operate on desire, not duty (2 Corinthians 9:7).  “Each person should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”  Paul was a cheerful giver.  What kept him going was the love of Christ:  “For Christ’s love compels us” (2 Corinthians 5:14).  We are to be motivated in the Christian life and in the Christian church by desiring Jesus, and not by sheer duty.  Desiring God is the only thing that will keep us going over the long haul.  Sustainable spiritual health can only be had through love and desire.  Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15).
 
            As Christians, we do not obey in order to be accepted and loved by God because we already have love and acceptance.  Rather, we obey because we love.  God would rather have us give a dime out of desire than give a thousand dollars out of duty.  Jesus is looking for love.  He doesn’t need our money because he already owns everything.  God wants our love.  Why do you do what you do?  Is it out of desire, or duty?
 
            You are what you love.  It is our desires that define us as Christians and as the church that Jesus is building.  What do you want?  That is the question which every Christian and church must ask ourselves.  It is the first, last, and most fundamental question of Christian discipleship. Jesus asked it.  It is the first question he ever asked of someone in the Gospels:  “What do you want?” (John 1:38) he asked the first two people who were following him early in his ministry.
 
            Jesus is still asking that question “What do you want?” because what you want determines where you will aim your love.  Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity.  We are to hunger and thirst for righteousness, we are to desire right relationships with God and others.  This is very different than being told that we have a duty to believe and do what is right.  Duty will not last forever, but desires will be diligently pursued and fulfilled.  Sheer duty will not get me very far as a husband.  But desire will cause me to cross land and sea, to scale mountains and walk through valleys, in order to be with my beloved wife.  So, the real question is:  “What do you want?”  Is your love aimed in the right direction, or is your love directed toward things which will never satiate your hunger and thirst?  Are you looking for love in all the wrong places?
 
            Philosopher and theologian James K. A. Smith of Calvin College has said, “To be human is to be animated and oriented by some vision of the good life, some picture of what we think counts as ‘flourishing.’  And we want that.  We crave it.  We desire it.  This is why our most fundamental mode of orientation to the world is love.  We are oriented by our longings, and directed by our desires.”  Do we really love Jesus?  What do our actual desires and actions tell us?  In which direction are our hearts really aimed?  The church is meant to function in desiring God, and not dictated by religious duty.
 

 

            If what churches want is full auditoriums and sanctuaries so that they can meet large budgets to support growing building needs, then that says something about who/what they really love.  If what churches want are faithful followers of God who learn to live and love like Jesus, then that says something about who/what they really love.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting to take over the world; it’s the reasons why and the methods we employ that are the real issue.  Here’s the deal:  believing all the right things, having wonderful programs and ministries, and uplifting worship services doesn’t mean much if the basic orientation of it all is trying to fill-up our religious quotas and keep score.  If we have a scorecard at all, then we’ve gotten on the wrong ship.  The grace boat is still sitting in the harbor waiting for us to get on.  But we have to want it.  

Love, Not Hate

 
 
            Jesus will build his church (Matthew 16:18).  The church has been designed from its inception to be the hope of the world.  God the Father sent God the Son to this earth to live a holy life, to teach us how to live, to die on a cruel cross as an atoning sacrifice for our sins, to rise from death, to ascend to heaven, to send God the Holy Spirit for us as we engage in the mission of proclaiming in words and actions that there is new life in Jesus. 
 
            So, the church is being the church when:  lives are changed; hatreds are overcome; failures are forgiven; grace overwhelms and melts hard hearts; selfishness is diminished; compassion grows into an immense hope that Christ is doing just as he said he would do – build his church.  When the church is working right it is the hope of the world because it is:  experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit to rejoice with those who rejoice and cry with those who cry; lifting holy hands in prayer and praise to the God who loves us; and, reaching-out with heartfelt mercy to those who desperately need this good news that Jesus has graciously forgiven all our sin through his once for all death on a cross.
 
The church is meant to love, not hate (1 John 3:14).
 
            “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers and sisters.  Anyone who does not love remains in death.”  I need to ask this question because the Word of God demands it:  Do you hate anyone?  The Scripture tells us that hate means we are still dead, not alive.  Love is the distinguishing mark of the believer in Jesus Christ.  The person with hate has so many barnacles built up on their underside that they cannot move at all through the water of life with any joy or fulfillment.  What is more, they are dragging down the rest of the fleet that seeks to move in concert together in the love of Jesus.
 
            Jesus Christ did not die on the cross so that we could hate someone, or a group of people.  Christ died so that you could love.  If love does not characterize your life, you are dead.  That means you are separated from God.  That sounds serious, and it is.  Hate has absolutely no place in the church whatsoever.  “Anyone who hates his brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him” (1 John 3:15).
 
            As followers of Jesus, we not only should love, but we should not put up with hate in the fellowship of believers.  You are under no obligation whatsoever to listen to hateful speech and allow hateful actions because the church is meant to be a reflection of God’s loving and healing acceptance of people.  It is not the loving thing to do to let others spew hate in front of you, no matter who they are.  Maybe you could respond to hateful words by saying, “Sounds to me like you need to let God pressure-wash some barnacles off your heart.”
 
            If you keep having the same conversation with someone over and over again; if every time you raise a new idea, the same person lists three reasons why it will never work; if fondness for the past exceeds passion for the future; if small things always become big things; if someone chronically complains to you; and, if there is never any love behind what someone says to you; then, there is hate behind it all and it just might be that such a person needs to hear the gospel of grace and be delivered from their life of sin.
 

 

            Every church on God’s good earth must have a zero-tolerance policy toward hate, and a 100% commitment to love.  God has not called us to hate anyone, but to love.  The church is only the hope of the world when it loves others.  The world will know that there is a God in heaven, and a Christ in the church, when people within local congregations love one another, when particular Christian denominations go out of their way to bless others, and when the love of Jesus compels us to drip grace on the most unlovely of people. Indeed, they will know we are Christians by our love.

Maundy Thursday

 
 
            We are journeying with Jesus through Holy Week, the most sacred time of the Christian Year.  When we think about Holy Week, we are familiar with Good Friday and certainly Easter; but Maundy Thursday?  On this day the church remembers the last evening that Jesus shared with his disciples in the upper room before his arrest and crucifixion.  The experiences in the upper room were highly significant because this was the last teaching, modeling, and instruction Jesus gave before facing the cross.
 
            Maundy Thursday, then, marks three important events in Christ’s Last Supper with his disciples:  the washing of the disciples’ feet; the instituting of the Lord’s Supper; and, the giving of a “new” commandment to love one another.  Let’s briefly unpack these three impactful words and actions from Jesus.
 
            For Jesus, this was all about and for love, God’s love.  On that fateful night, having loved his disciples for the past three years, Jesus showed them the full extent of his love by taking the posture of a servant and washing each and every one of the disciples’ feet, including Judas.  After demonstrating for them a totally humble service, Jesus said, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15).  This was an incredible act of love.  We need to rightly observe that Jesus Christ loves me just as I am, and not as I should be.  He loves me even with my dirty stinky feet, my herky-jerky commitment to him, and my pre-meditated sin. 
 
            Not only did Jesus wash the disciples’ feet, but he lifted the cup of wine and boldly asserted:  “Take this and divide it among you.  For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”  And he took the bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you, do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way, after the supper he took the cup saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:17-20).  Because of these words of Jesus, the church everywhere throughout the world, for two millennia, have practiced this communion, this supper so that we might have the redemptive events of Jesus pressed firmly into both our minds and our hearts by means of the visceral and common elements of bread and wine.  We are to not just know about Jesus, but are to experience being united with him.
 
            Having washed the disciples’ feet, and proclaimed to them the meaning of his impending death, Jesus gave them a clear commandment:  Love one another, using the same model he had showed them (John 13:34-35).  We represent Christ on this earth when we carefully, diligently, and persistently practice love.  Although love was by no means a new concept for the disciples, in the form and teaching of Jesus love was shown with four distinctions:  Jesus as the new model of love; a new motive of love, that Christ first loved me; a new motivatorto help us love, the Holy Spirit; and, a new mission, the evangelization of the world using the power of Christ’s love to accomplish it.
 

 

            So, you see, Maundy Thursday is a highly significant day on the Church Calendar – one which deserves to be observed, and an opportunity to remember the important words and actions of Jesus on our behalf.  Through Jesus Christ we are to live always in love, modeling our life and church ministry after him.  In Christ we are to allow love to characterize our life together as we proclaim God’s love in preaching and sacrament.  A watching world will only take notice and desire to be a part of our fellowship if we are deeply and profoundly centered in the love of God in Christ.  This is the reality that Maundy Thursday brings to us.

Romans 12:17-21; 13:8-10

            Not everybody is likable.  We all have others that drive us crazy on the inside with their annoying habits or ungodly ways of life.  But sometimes we might experience much more than being irritated.  Raging vitriol that results in verbal persecution; becoming the targets of evil intent; and, in some cases, finding ourselves victims of violence done to us or a loved one can stretch our Christian sensibilities to their maximum.  It is understandable that in such cases we would be upset, angry, in grief, and desire justice.
 
As we reflect back on Reformation Day and the great truth that we are justified apart from any work of our own but by grace alone through faith, this helps to give understanding as to why we do not take vengeance into our own hands.  We are clearly exhorted in this passage of Holy Scripture to “repay no one evil for evil” because “vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  If justification is a work of God to rescue and redeem sinners from their plight, then wrath is also a work of God.  Just as to be justified is initiated and made possible through Christ by faith, so vengeance belongs to God, as well.  Our part in the whole affair is to trust God that he will take care of judging the world.  Judgment is way above our pay grade.
 
What is within our purview is showing love, even to those whom we consider enemies.  If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, then we will leave plenty of room for God to do what God does best:  either show mercy to sinners; or, execute judgment upon them.  It is really all his business what he does with his creatures.  Our business is coming under the lordship of Christ and allowing God’s new creation to work itself out through us.  We are to work for the kind of justice that provides others with what they need, not what they deserve.  The world cannot become a better place if we keep insisting on playing judge, jury, and executioner.  Sometimes the best way to show love is to sincerely pray for the person for whom we have such difficulty loving.  Who do you need to love today?
 

 

Just and merciful God, you are the rightful Judge of all the earth.  Help me to trust in you to the degree that I can give room for you to do whatever you want to do in others’ lives.  I pray you will grace many people with the repentance that leads to new life in Jesus.  Amen.