4/21/2024

“The Living Body of Christ: What Do Our Actions Say?”

The Living Body of Christ: What Do Our Actions Say?

First Baptist Richmond, April 21, 2024

1 John 3:16-24

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?

In this Easter Season sermon series I’ve been talking about the church as “The Living Body of Christ,” focusing on the way the early church embodied the mission and message of Jesus and then looking at this church to see if we still do. Last week we listened to what our neighbors say about us and it was mostly complimentary. Most of us walked out of here feeling like we are doing a pretty good job of embodying the mission and message of Jesus. But this series requires us to be self-critical, like when your boss asks you how you think you’re doing on meeting the expectations of your job description. It can be humbling. You might not be killing it in every category. On the church website it says we are “bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia”—which is just what I think Jesus would want us to do, and what some of our neighbors might say we are actually doing—but sometimes I lie awake at night wondering, “Are we? Or are we just saying that?”

I know church mission statements are supposed to be aspirational, they’re supposed to call us beyond where we actually are and keep us moving toward a goal we may never actually reach, but what if they were a little more honest, a little more realistic? What if you drove past a church in the country with a sign out front that read, “Trying to keep the lights on and the doors open since 1956”?

What if there was a church in the suburbs that proclaimed, “Hoping to provide a reasonably adequate worship service with an OK preacher and an organist who hits the right notes most of the time. Visitors tolerated”? What if that beautiful old building downtown had a sign out front that read, “Simply hoping to survive the steep national decline in attendance and giving”? Those seem like realistic mission statements to me. But bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia—and beyond? That’s a tall order, almost as tall as the one implied by today’s reading from 1 John 3, where the writer seems to believe that the church of Jesus Christ should embody the love of God.

He writes: “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?” This is where I wish we could hear the text and not only read it, because I can imagine the author of those words pronouncing them as if it were absolutely inconceivable that anyone who professed to be a believer could withhold the world’s goods from a brother or sister. “How does the love of God abide in such a person?” he asks, astonished, knowing that the love of God is—by definition—selfless and sacrificial. It pours itself out for the sake of others. Jesus is our best example of God’s selfless and sacrificial love. He had that love in him. He poured it out for us. So, how can anyone say he has that kind of love inside himself if he has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?

Let me focus on two words: brother and sister. In the Greek New Testament it’s only one word—brother—but our translators know that the author of 1 John is talking not only about the male members of the church but also about the female members: “brothers and sisters” as they called one another in those days. They were trying to remind themselves that Jesus had made them part of God’s family,

and if God was their Father then that lonely looking fellow sitting next to them on the pew was their brother, and that woman trying to keep her baby quiet on the pew behind them was their sister. So, I think it’s fair to say that the author of 1 John is not asking us to feed and clothe the world, but to feed and clothe our fellow church members. That helps, but not a lot, because it is Jesus who makes us part of God’s family and Jesus seems to have a special place in his heart for those who are in need. He keeps going out to the highways and hedges and bringing back people who don’t have a place anywhere else. Which can make those of us who have the world’s goods a little uncomfortable.

“If Jesus keeps bringing these brothers and sisters in here,” we think—“these who don’t have the world’s goods—and if those of us who do have to keep sharing what we have with them, soon we won’t have any left for ourselves, and then someone else will have to take care of us. That doesn’t even make sense!” But the fact that we would even think those thoughts betrays the truth that we are afraid—afraid of not having enough. The author of 1 John can’t understand that. Shaking his head he asks, “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 to help?”

Let’s focus on the word abide for a minute. In Greek it means something like, “to remain, to dwell, to take up residence.” The author of 1 John seems to believe that if the love of God has taken up residence in you there won’t be any room for fear. Because the love of God is like the Spirit of God (in fact those two things might be the same thing). On the Day of Pentecost, when that Spirit was poured out on the believers, it wasn’t like, “Say when!” No, God just kept pouring and pouring and pouring until the believers were filled to overflowing, until strange words began to pour out of their mouths and they, themselves, began to

pour out into the streets.

When the love of God fills you up like that there is no room for fear. As the author of this letter will say in the next chapter, “Perfect love casts out fear.” You just see that brother or sister in need and you say, “Oh, honey! This won’t do! You can’t be walking around here hungry, or homeless, or shivering! We’ve got to take care of you!” And you’ve heard stories like this—I have, too—where someone pours themselves out for another person, where before you know it that person who used to be homeless is living in their house and wearing their clothes and driving their car, and you cluck your tongue and say, “Be careful! These people will take advantage of you! Before you know it they’ll be sitting on your couch, holding the remote control!” But love doesn’t care. And like the Spirit of God the love of God, especially, doesn’t seem to care.

I’ve been thinking about that in regard to this debate in the Southern Baptist Convention about whether women can be pastors. I look back to the story of Pentecost, when everyone thought the believers were full of another kind of spirit, and I hear Peter saying, “These people are not drunk as you imagine. This is what the prophet Joel was talking about, that in the last days God will pour out his spirit on all flesh (not just some flesh). Your sons and daughters will prophesy,” he says (not just your sons), because the Spirit doesn’t care. You see it over and over again in the Book of Acts. The Spirit is poured out on all flesh because the Spirit doesn’t care if it’s male or female flesh, the Spirit doesn’t care if it’s Jew or Gentile flesh, the Spirit doesn’t care if it’s slave or free flesh. Because the Spirit can fill up any kind of flesh that will receive it and so can the love of God. It can fill up the flesh of those who have the world’s goods and when it does, and when those people see a brother or sister in need, the love of God overflows in action. Those

people don’t just feel something, they do something.

The author of 1 John seems to know this from experience, and maybe that’s why he is so baffled by those who have the world’s goods, and see a brother or sister in need, and yet refuse to do anything for them. Notice that he doesn’t say they neglect to do anything for them, but rather that they refuse—that is, they make a conscious decision. I want to be as generous about this as possible because I’ve known some of those people, people who refused to share, and I believe they did it not because they were selfish or mean-spirited but because they were afraid, afraid that if they gave away even some of what they had they wouldn’t have enough for themselves. Maybe it’s also true for denominations that won’t allow women to serve as pastors. Maybe the men are not so much selfish and mean-spirited as they are simply afraid that if they begin to share their power soon there won’t be any left for them. So the question is, how do you get over that kind of fear? And the answer, of course, is love. Perfect love casts out fear.

Where can we get some of that?

The answer may be in this same passage of Scripture. In 1 John 3:23 the author writes: “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.” Believe in Jesus, and love one another. Let me say that again: believe in Jesus, and love one another. That seems so simple. And yet I have a feeling that if we believe in Jesus we will love one another, that we won’t be able to help ourselves.

This analogy popped into my mind when I was looking at this passage earlier: I thought about a little boy who decides to water the lawn because the grass has gotten brown and dry; only he doesn’t know anything about sprinklers or garden hoses; he only knows about watering cans. So he takes his mother’s

watering can to the outdoor faucet, turns it on, fills it up, and then drags it out to the middle of the yard and waters the grass. When the can is empty he takes it back to the faucet, fills it up, drags it into the middle of the yard, and waters some more grass. He just keeps doing this and doing this until he’s nearly worn out from watering.

But maybe that’s the way we love one another: by going to the source of love, by believing in Jesus, by worshiping him, by singing his praises, by spending time in his presence until our watering cans are full and we can begin to pour them out in love on all the people around us. And let me just say this while we’re on the subject:

Church is a good place to fill your can.

If you’ve been coming to First Baptist for even a few weeks now, if you’ve been participating in worship through our webcast or our broadcast, I hope you’ve heard me lift up the Lord Jesus as an example of God’s selfless and sacrificial love, and I hope you’ve heard me say that God loves you, no matter who you are, or what you look like, or where you come from. John says it another way in the next verse. He says, “All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them.” And there’s that word again. He abides in them. The Lord Jesus himself takes up residence in them. And when he does there will never be a lack of love. The last sentence in today’s passage reads: “And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.” Think about it: the Spirit of God, like the love of God, filling us to overflowing.

That’s part of my regular morning prayer. I say: “Lord, bless your church called Richmond’s First Baptist. Fill the pews with people who love you and long to sing your praises; fill the offering plates with the generous gifts of a grateful

people; fill the classrooms with disciples who lean over open Bibles, eager to hear and obey your word; fill the hallways with brothers and sisters who greet one another with hugs and laughter. Fill us with your love until it overflows onto the streets of our city and into every surrounding suburb, until your Kingdom comes and your will is done in Richmond as it is in heaven.”

I pray that prayer every day, but some days I see it answered. I still remember the day I was in my study here at church and needed to go to a meeting. I opened the door to step out into the hallway but I couldn’t, because there were children sitting in front of my door. Not little ones, like we have in our preschool, but big ones, like fourth or fifth graders. It was some of the students from Fox Elementary School trying to squeeze themselves into our building after their building had burned.

It didn’t happen overnight. When we heard about the fire some of our members and staff members began to wonder if we could take Fox Elementary School into our building. I don’t know if they said it like this but the reasoning was the same: “How can we say that the love of God abides in us if we have the world’s goods and refuse to share them with those in need?” We have this building—this big, beautiful building. It has classrooms in it and offices and a gym and a big side yard. It’s not perfect, but it might work as a temporary home for Fox Elementary. What do you think? Our staff worked hard to figure out the logistics. I remember them worrying that the deacons might not approve the idea, or that the church wouldn’t support it. We didn’t know how disruptive it might be or how long it would go on. We didn’t know if it would be two weeks or two years. But when it came time for a vote the vote was unanimous. Not one person objected. Not one person said, “But what if the pastor has trouble getting out of his study

with all those kids sitting in the hall?” I think that’s what love looks like, and I think that’s how love expresses itself—through tangible, concrete actions that say to our members, our neighbors, and our city,

“God loves you.”

—Jim Somerville © 2024