How Will They Know We Are Christians? Part III

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
April 29, 2012

The Fourth Sunday of Easter

1 John 3:16-24 

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 and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.

Today we continue a series from 1 John called “How Will They Know We Are Christians?” and today’s sermon is creatively titled, “Part III.”  For those of you who are just joining us, 1 John is a little book way over in the back of your Bible.  In fact it’s so far back you may have to use the table of contents to find it.  In the first sermon I suggested that 1 John was written in the context of a church split, where some people had already left the church and only a faithful remnant remained.  In fact, some scholars think that 1 John is not so much a letter written to the church, but something more like a sermon, delivered in the church.  And the person who delivered it may have been the bishop, or overseer, of the churches in that area.[i]  

If it had happened in our time, and in our tradition, it wouldn’t be the bishop who was called in, but the Director of Missions for the local Baptist association, and he would have heard about the trouble they were having over at that church long before anybody contacted him.  But then one Monday morning he would get a call from the chairman of the deacons who would tell him the whole, sad story—how after their last pastor left they’d had some doctrinal differences that had turned into a messy fight that had led to an ugly split and that now there were only a handful of people left behind, most of them pretty beat up.  In the end he might say, “Do you think you could come over here some Sunday morning and preach for us?”  And the Director of Missions would say yes, of course, and start to work on a sermon that would address that particular situation.  The very next week he would step up that that pulpit and look out over a church sanctuary that was nearly empty, and he would sigh and say, “My little children,” and then he would start to preach.  He would want to take them back to the foundations of their faith, so that they could rebuild on something solid.  He would remind them of what they had been taught from the very beginning.  And in this church, apparently, they have been taught two things above everything else. 1 John 3:23 says, “This is his command: to believe in the name of his son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he has commanded us.” 

The trouble began with that first thing.  There were some in the church who had been seduced by some early form of Gnosticism, who had begun to believe that the flesh was essentially evil while the spirit was essentially good.  If that were true, they reasoned, then the son of God couldn’t have come in the flesh; it must have only appeared that way.  They began to say that the divine Christ—who was spirit—put on the flesh of Jesus like a man might put on an overcoat, and that when that overcoat was nailed to the cross it wasn’t Christ who died, but Jesus, and on Easter morning it wasn’t Jesus who rose from the dead, but Christ.  It sounds almost logical, doesn’t it?  But as I’ve said, that’s the trouble with heresy.  It’s never 180 degrees away from the truth but only a few degrees in one direction or the other, so much like the real thing that you can hardly tell the difference.  These people believed in Jesus and they believed in Christ: they just didn’t believe they were one and the same. 

That’s something we’ve come to call the “Docetic Heresy,” from the Greek word dokeo, meaning “to seem,” or “appear,” but in the beginning it wasn’t a heresy—it was just a difference of opinion.  Some people were on one side of the issue and some were on the other.  It happens all the time in churches, whether it’s a discussion about what color the new carpet in the sanctuary should be or a decision about who can be a member of the church.  And you know how it goes: we have a hard time leaving things in the realm of opinion.  Soon it’s not just their ideas but those people who are the problem.  We begin to raise our voices, and point our fingers, and call them names, and when we do we abandon that second foundational truth, which is to love one another as he has loved us.  At the beginning of today’s reading the preacher of 1 John says, “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 and sisters.”

Let’s pause right there for a moment.

If love is laying down your life for someone, how many people do you truly love?  Count them off on your fingers right now; how many people would you actually be willing to die for?  One?  Three?  Five?  It’s not many, is it?  Probably no more than a double handful.  And so, like the man in Luke’s Gospel who asked, “Who is my neighbor?” we might want to ask, “Who are my brothers and sisters?”  And the answer we would get from the preacher of 1 John is that it’s any other member of the church, which may explain why that question about who can be a member is such a hard one for us.  If this is someone we may have to lay our lives down for someday then we want to make that decision very carefully. 

It’s a little bit like adoption.  You don’t just say to your spouse one day, “Hey, let’s adopt!” and the next day bring home a baby.  You have to talk about it for a while, maybe for months.  “Can we afford it?  Do we have room in our home and our hearts?  Are we willing to make a lifelong commitment to someone we’ve never met?”  Our new membership process here at First Baptist is better than the old one.  These days we ask people to attend all four sessions of our Connections class and have a conversation with the pastor about their spiritual journey.  Then and only then do we vote them into our membership.  That’s better than it used to be when we would vote as soon as someone walked down the aisle, but it’s still a long way from really knowing someone, isn’t it?  What if I called you up this afternoon and said, “Hey, do you remember John who joined us a few weeks ago?  Well, it turns out he needs a kidney transplant and I was wondering if you would give him one of yours.”  What would you say?  And yet the preacher of 1 John doesn’t seem to think that’s too much to ask.  He says, “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us; we ought to be willing to lay down our lives for each other.”

He says it because there were some in the church who were in need, and there were others—probably the same ones who had left the church—who refused to help.  This preacher is shocked by that kind of behavior.  He says, “Honestly!  Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.  Are you telling me there are members of this church who won’t lay down a five dollar bill for their brother or sister?  How can they say that they have the love of God in them?  Dear children!  Let us not love with words of speech, but with actions and in truth!”  He was probably talking about those who had left the church but he was also talking to those in the pews, wasn’t he?  He was setting a standard for behavior in the Christian community.  He was saying that if you have the world’s goods, and someone else in the church needs something, you ought to share.  And again, it explains why this question about who can be a member is such a hard one for us.  If we start welcoming more and more members who don’t have the world’s goods, then the ones who do have it are going to start feeling nervous. 

And that’s why I was interested in this article by Stan Wilson, pastor of Northside Baptist Church in Clinton, Mississippi.  He said: “Our church has an unwritten rule: we will never ignore a member’s basic need. Whenever our members know of a need in the church, they call me. ‘Is there any money in the benevolence fund? You know Johnny got cut back on his hours, and his kids need help with school supplies.’ The answer is always yes. We’ve yet to encounter a need we couldn’t fill.”  He says, “Another church I pastored hosted a church-wide garage sale to meet a medical need. So, even though it’s an unwritten rule, I believe it to be ironclad. We will not let another member go without food or medical treatment. If a young person needs help going to school, we’ll find a way. If someone’s house is unlivable, we’ll find them a new one or invite them into a spare room.”[ii] 

I would say that’s true for us here at First Baptist as well.  From time to time someone will let me know that they need some help buying groceries or paying a bill, and usually, with a phone call or two I can find a way to meet that need.  We seem to believe that no member of this church should ever have to go hungry or shiver in the cold.  But we haven’t ever written that down, have we?  Stan Wilson says, “One Wednesday night, I asked those in our Bible study why we have never thought to make explicit what we all know to be true. Why not say it out loud? It seems like great news to me in an anxious age, when we live in fear of economic collapse or terrorist attack, and are just waiting for the housing bubble to pop or for oil production to peak. Why not make it official? Why not state out loud that no matter how bad it gets, we will be there for one another?”

Now he said all this back in 2006, before the housing bubble burst or the economy collapsed, but his church still didn’t make it official, and it was probably for the same reason we don’t make it official.  Because we believe that if we said that, if we ever said out loud that no member of First Baptist will ever have to go hungry or shiver in the cold, the line of people waiting to join this church would stretch from Richmond to Roanoke.  But listen to what Stan Wilson says.  He says, “I know of a church that’s made such a statement. The Church of the Servant King in Eugene, Oregon, has a rule that no one in its membership will be in need. The members claim that this rule has freed them in surprising ways. They work fewer hours so they can spend more time with one another; they are able to afford to work less because they know they can count on each other. Their common life looks like—well, fun.”  He says, “The rest of us are busy working two jobs to a family. Our kids skip recess because they have to study for national tests. I wonder if a simple pledge never to let one another starve would loosen us up. If we knew that it’s not finally up to us to secure our future, wouldn’t that free us so we could begin to spend a little more unhurried time together and with our families?”[iii]

Like so many other things in the Bible—turning the other cheek, loving our enemies, praying for those who persecute us—this may be a question that never gets answered simply because we are afraid to try.  Maybe, because we are afraid that someone will take advantage of us, we never experience true community—fear holds us back.  But let’s go back to that adoption thing for a minute.  According to the preacher of 1 John “we are God’s children,” and it’s not that we were born that way; it’s that God has lavished his love on us, brought us into his family (1 John 3:1-3).  Paul talks about this in Romans 8.  He says, “You didn’t receive a spirit of fear; you received a spirit of adoption” (8:14).  And so now you are the children of God, inheritors along with Christ of every good thing God has to give (vss. 16-17).  So, take a look to your left and right this morning.  Do you see who that is sitting on the church pew beside you?  It’s a child of God, just like you.  You are members of the same family.  And it’s not because somebody voted on your membership; it’s because God has called you his own, dear children.

Now, I don’t know how it is in your family, but in my family we take care of each other.  That’s the rule.  Christy is the one who brought us the language.  She said, “Family takes care of family,” but for as long as I can remember that’s what we’ve tried to do.  The rules haven’t changed, but the circumstances have.  Maybe you’ve heard, but my daughter, Ellie, is getting married this Saturday.  Back in October she and a young man named Nick McNevin, a very talented chef from Australia, went to New York’s City Hall and got the paperwork out of the way, but this Saturday—in a remote, undisclosed location—we’re going to have a celebration, complete with fancy dresses and wedding cake and violin music, and when everything is said and done my family will be larger by one.  How do I feel about that?  (Australian accent): Great.  Ellie has known Nick since she was in high school, where he was a foreign exchange student.  They corresponded for more than a year before he moved to New York.  By the time I met him they were deeply in love.  So when he offered to shake hands I reached out and pulled him into a bone-breaking bear hug.  I thought, “If Ellie loves this man then I’m going to love him, too.  And if she wants to bring him into the family, I don’t want to stand in the way.  I want to throw open the door and drag him into the house.”  Since then I’ve gotten to know him a good bit better.  I’ve found out that he’s thoughtful and funny, and that he takes good care of my daughter.  Not only that, but he’s cooked for me a few times—the most incredible gourmet meals you could possibly imagine.  I don’t only love him: I like him!   He’s become part of the family.  There’s no going back. 

And that’s a good thing.  If I can learn to love Nick like a son then maybe he can learn to love me like a father.  And one of these days when I’m old and feeble maybe he will be the one sitting beside my hospital bed, spooning foie gras into my mouth and helping me wash it down with champagne.  He may already know it but if he doesn’t maybe he will learn it from me that family takes care of family.  Apparently that’s what God wants—for his family to take care of each other—and that’s the example Jesus set.  As the preacher of 1 John puts it: “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us; we ought to be willing to lay down our lives for each other.”

That’s how they will know that we are Christians.

—Jim Somerville 2012

[i] Tradition has it that John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” eventually came to Ephesus and started a church there, but he may have also started other churches in the area, in places like Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.  When he died someone else must have taken over—maybe someone who had followed his teaching very closely (someone who was his beloved disciple), and when there was a split in one of those churches it may have been this person who was called in to help.  2 and 3 John are written by someone who identifies himself as “the Elder.”

[ii] Stan Wilson, “The Ties that Bind,” The Christian Century, May 2, 2006, p. 18.

[iii] Ibid.


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