How Will They Know We Are Christians? Part IV

A sermon by Rev. Lynn Turner, Senior Associate Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
May 6, 2012

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

1 John 4:7-21

I got a phone call on Thursday morning from my friend and colleague Bart Dalton: “So Lynn, how’s the sermon preparation going?”

I said, “not so good. I’m stuck.”

He said, “Well if it makes you feel any better, a friend of mine just posted on Facebook that the hardest part about writing a sermon is not figuring out what to say but figuring out what not to say.”

I said, “I am well on my way to a great sermon!”

I’m so glad to be with you this morning. Our pastor has been preaching a series from 1 John, “How Will They Know We Are Christians?” And just in case you have been away, let me remind you the setting of the series as described by our pastor over these past three weeks.

Imagine if you will a church that has been split over doctrinal issues, and those who remain in the church, faithful followers of Jesus, needing a word of encouragement to move forward in their mission, have invited a guest preacher to come in and remind them once again of the foundational principles of what it means to be a true follower of Christ. A sermon, if you will, on how the world will know that they are Christians.

In chapter 1, the sermon began reminding them that true believers walk in the light, true believers confess their sin. In chapter 2 he reminds them that true believers walk in obedience to the commands of Christ. And last week in chapter 3 we were reminded that true believers lay down their lives for their sisters and brothers, true believers care about one another in the family. And so today we move into part 4 of this great sermon, and I in true fashion after our pastor have creatively titled my sermon How Will They Know We Are Christians, Part 4. Or maybe it should be part 3-B, for today’s passage continues this thought of last week, that of loving our brothers and sisters, to the point of being willing to lay down our lives for one another.

Truth be told, that is a tall order, isn’t it? How do we get to a place of love like that?

Well the preacher starts out in verse 7 of 1 John, chapter 4, be saying “My friends.” Or I like the language of King James a little bit better here, it says “Beloved, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Whoever loves is born of God and knows God, for God is love.”

As I was reading through this text this week, love is mentioned twenty-seven times in these fourteen verses. God is mentioned at least twenty times in these verses.

Let me share with you two simple scenarios. I want you to imagine this morning that we are all on a ship. It springs a leak and it starts sinking. While we are fleeing to the life rafts, you manage to grab a backpack before it all goes down. Unbeknownst to the rest of us, your bag contains a bottle of water and some canned meat, tuna, spam, something like that. So we are huddled together in the life raft, bobbing up and down along the open sea, and eventually we spot and island in the distance. So we start paddling toward that island, and as we get closer we see that the island is incredibly bare. There doesn’t appear to be a stick of shrubbery, no sign of water, it’s basically a big rock in the middle of the ocean. But it’s our only hope, so we row toward the island, and as we get closer, your brother turns to you and says “Man, I am so thirsty!” What do you do?

Scenario 2, same deal, our ship is sinking, we flee to the life raft. Unbeknownst to everyone you have a bag containing water and canned meat. As we bob along in the open sea we spot and island in the distance, and as we paddle toward it, we see that it’s luscious, luxurious. It’s full of life. you can see the trees heavy with choice fruits on them. There is a gushing waterfall in the distance. It is a tropical paradise. And as we row toward the shore, your brother turns to you and says, “Man, I am thirsty!” What do you do? Do you give your brother a drink of water?

Well, in scenario 2 you’d be much more likely to give him the water, wouldn’t you? In fact, in scenario 2 you might even throw the whole bag open and say “Water and Spam for everyone! Let’s celebrate!” wouldn’t you?

In scenario 2 you would treat your little bag of goods a lot differently, wouldn’t you? Why? Are you a much nicer person in scenario 2? Are you suddenly more moral? Have you suddenly gotten a heightened sense of ethical duty? Is your conscience stronger now? What’s changed between scenario 1 and scenario 2?

Well, here’s what’s changed: your vision has changed. You’ve seen an abundance of life, and it’s liberated you to be more generous and loving. That’s the only difference between these two scenarios. It has nothing to do with the quality of your moral fiber. It has everything to do with what’s out there. If your vision is captured by a new reality out there, then you’re free to be more generous and loving. you see, you celebrate, you are assured that things are going to be okay, and suddenly you find yourself a more loving person.

And so the plea of 1 John, especially in chapters 3 and 4, is this, and can’t you just imagine the elder preacher leaning over the pulpit and saying this to the congregation of faithful believers: Look friends, look, there is an abundance of life. It’s going to be okay! We are in tropical paradise territory people, so burst open your backpack and share the water and the Spam!

Of course he didn’t say it like that. He said it like this: “Beloved, let us love one another.”

That’s it, that’s the preacher’s whole sermon. You who are loved, go and love others, for love comes from God. You could even say that love is coming continuously from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God because God is love.

If I was going to give a title to the sermon today, it would be this: God is love, go live in love.

And truthfully it’s that simple. We could say the benediction right now and go home. But I just can’t leave it there just like that. Because if I leave it at that it would be like someone on the life raft telling you to be generous with your Spam because, trust me, there’s a paradise island out there, somewhere, and you’d say, “really? Show me.”

You’ve got to see the abundance of life before you love. You’ve got to see it and be assured of it, and so that’s what the elder does in the rest of this passage this morning. Let’s try to unpack a little bit of what this passage says about the flowing love of God, and the heart is contained in that little phrase, God is love.

It sounds so obvious and yet it’s not because unconsciously we believe somehow that the source of love is within us, don’t we? That we have the capacity to love separate and apart from God. It’s the subject of endless songs, of movies, of romance novels. When you think about it, the word “love” for us, is a generic term that conjures up all kinds of meanings and connotations in our minds. But perhaps this morning you might catch a glimpse of a new vision of what that phrase means.

I have on my bucket list to one day make it to Rome and see the incredible painting on the Sistine Chapel of God giving life to Adam. You likely have seen this painting, it is everywhere. It actually was hanging downstairs in the choir room and I borrowed it today. You’ve probably been wondering the whole time, what has that painting been doing on the baptistery? It’s undoubtedly one of the best known works of Western art. It depicts God reaching down to touch Adams’ fingertip, through which the breath of life is transmitted.

Commentators say that only the most jaded of tourists can fail to marvel when standing in that chapel and looking up, gazing at that mural, so laboriously and painstakingly, so powerful in its depiction of the life-giving power of God. Those who see it stop, they study it, they appraise it, they admire it. What a masterpiece. What an artist.

In the words of Asary, a famous art history writer, he said “It is a figure whose beauty, poise, and contours are such that it seems to have been fashioned that very moment by the first and supreme creator rather than by the drawing and brush of a mortal man.”

By not painting the fingers of Adam and God touching, you’ll notice the gap between them, he left that small space between the two, Michelangelo creates a tingling tension. An anticipation of that wondrous moment as we all wait for God to complete his creation in Adam.

What an incredible vision of this passage in 1 John. God who is love, reaching down to touch us so that love flows through us to one another. But here’s the most amazing part: There is no longer a gap between the two fingers. For God closed that gap when he sent his son Jesus to die on a cross for you and me, and so the love of God is transmitted into us through Christ so that we in turn can touch the lives of one another.

We really cannot love without the love of God. It would be like trying to hook up a string of Christmas lights without plugging it in to the wall. And here’s the most amazing verse for me in this passage, it’s verse 12. From the Message it reads this way: “No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us. Perfect love.”

When we reach out to touch one another in love, verse 12 says we are completing God’s love. One commentator wrote it this way: It means that love reaches its intended goal when it flows from God, through us, to our fellow believers. Is that not amazing to you? That you and I actually have a part in completing the love of God in one another?

When we do not love, God’s love is not complete. Well the author John writes it in verse 9, “God sent his son into the world so that we might live through him.” So that is why the elder goes on to say these rather harsh words in verses 8 and 20 of this passage. He says “Whoever does not love does not know God because God is love.” And in verse 20 he says “If anyone says ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

So how will the world know that we are Christians? By the way that we love one another.

Why is it so difficult for us at times to love? Why are we so afraid to love? Perhaps it is because we are trying to love on our own strength and power. Our own vision of love has turned inward. We’ve unplugged from the source of love, for truly the source of us loving one another can only come from the essence of who God is, and that is so stated in this passage that God is love. It’s not just a character trait, it’s his identity. To the very core of his being, God is love. And that love is wrapped up in the relationship that God has with the Son, and that he has with the Holy Spirit, and the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are who they are because they are constantly giving and receiving love with one another.

To comprehend this sweeping character statement about God as love, I want you to take a moment and substitute the name of anyone you know, your mother, your father, a friend, a well know Christian, a hero of the faith, even yourself. Substitute it for God for a moment. Few are the people we would simply describe with the word “love.” Mom may be the most loving person you have ever known. she may have shown you what mature self-giving, genuine love is like, but no matter how full, and how rich and how steadfast her love, the statement “Mom is loving” can never be changed into “Mom is love,” for love does not characterize her as it characterizes God, only can it be said that God is love. And because God is love, true love can only come from him.

And here’s a though that just hit me so powerfully this week: When I am not loving, it means I am not allowing God to live through me. I’ve unplugged from the source of love and I’m living my life on my own human capabilities, and usually when that happens, fear takes over. And when fear takes over, it produces in me those things that love is not. That is why the elder reminds them in verse 18, there is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear, and when the fear is gone, we can love each other with confidence and offer kindness the way that Jesus did.

It might look very foolish to the world, it did for Jesus. His arms outstretched to a world that was cursing him, that’s embarrassing, that’s uncomfortable, it’s costly. Sometimes it’s very painful. But that’s the way he has loved us and so we should love in that way.

Paul in speaking to the church at Corinth puts it most eloquently. We probably hear these words most often at a wedding alter, but actually Paul wrote these words to the Christians at the church in Corinth because they were arguing among themselves about which spiritual gift was more important than the other. So this is what he said: Everything loses value if love is not behind it. The most important thing, even more than faith and hope, is love.

So he was telling these Christians in Corinth, cast your vision upward. Let me remind you, fellow believers what this life-giving love from the father looks like. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered. It keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

How will the world know we are Christians? It is so simple, yet so profound. The world will know that you are a Christian by the way you allow the love of God to flow though you. In this world we are called to be like Jesus. Not sinless, but loving. And not by any means perfect, otherwise Christ would not have had to die for us, but actually loving other people as the spirit who dwells within us leads us to do so.

So how about you this morning? Have you caught the vision out there of the God who is love? Do you see the abundant love and life overflowing with us? Ultimate reality is not like that barren rock in the middle of the ocean, forbidding and sparse. Ultimate reality is paradise. It is the God who is love and has invited us in, and who is reaching down to breather life and love into us, and if we’ve seen anything of his love, won’t we reach into our backpacks and share what we’ve got? 

—Lynn Turner 2012

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