A while back I read a devotion that began like this:
Today I was arrested as I drove in city traffic. No, I wasn’t stopped by an officer, and I didn’t pay a fine, but I was arrested nevertheless. It was the evening rush hour. I was alone. I’d absentmindedly left the radio on, and I wasn’t really listening to it when the summons came: “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
I had to answer even if there was nobody there. “Who me? What you mean by ‘evidence’?”
We have been studying John’s letter for the past few weeks, and it has answers to our question about evidence. This old pastor, John, who walked with Jesus, points us to three important pieces of evidence of the real Christian life. They are tests that mark a real Christian.
First, we have the doctrinal test – what we believe about Jesus Christ. It is crucial that we believe He is the Son of God and the Savior of the world.
Then we have the ethical test – how we behave. The way in which we conduct ourselves is important. A real Christian walks the talk and exercises Kingdom-of-God values. We strive to have integrity and honesty, work with an attitude of service, and play for an audience of One, focusing on God.
Finally, we have the relational test – how we treat one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
In today’s passage, John is showing concern about relational problems in the congregation. The church to whom he is writing appears to be having some serious disputes resulting in bickering, fighting, division, and even hatred being expressed in word and action. We don’t know the details, but it appears to have begun as a dead doctrinal issue and, as so often happens, led to other things. It became a real church fight with power struggles and factionalism.
Unfortunately, we still find this happening in the church of Jesus Christ today. Members fighting over differences in politics and views on social issues, personal issues with one another, territorial power issues, and doctrinal issues as well. I’ve seen some power struggles where people refuse to talk to one another and leave the church angry and hurt. Sometimes the church even ends up splitting. It’s tragic because it destroys congregations and ruins their witness for Christ. It’s a terrible image for the church. We are called to shine as a light to the world and attract others to the Gospel. We are to be a living display of God’s original intention for humankind. Fighting amongst Christians deters others from listening seriously to the Gospel as they observe the way we relate to one another.
It not only hurts the church, but also hurts us. It hurts our souls and our brothers and sisters in the faith community. Our faith is damaged and stunted.
A few years ago John Ortberg described this issue. He said,
Bob is a leader in the Christian community. Everyone admires his impressive command of Scripture. He views himself as a defender of truth and regularly opposes those who disagree with his doctrinal positions. In truth, he doesn’t just oppose them, he delights in opposing them. He attacks them. He ridicules their positions and maligns their motives. When he listens to sermons, it’s not to encounter God but to point out flaws. Bob is regarded as a spiritual giant, but he doesn’t know how to love.
There’s Helen. She’s a veteran Christian, a founding member of her church and one of the most feared persons in it. People tiptoe around her, skillfully avoiding her critical words. These days she’s especially critical of the changes happening in their church with new people. She has no tolerance for those outside the church, people who don’t look, think, act, dress, or vote like she does. She’s seen as a mature believer, but she doesn’t know love.
It matters how we treat one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. This is John’s first point today.
As Pastor John says in his letter, real followers of Jesus Christ operate under the principle of love as they relate to one another. This is the main idea of today’s reading – Christians love one another. John did not concoct this in his own mind. It is something Jesus taught him.
Do you remember the Upper Room talk Jesus gave to His disciples found in John’s Gospel? One of the things He really emphasized was this: “A new commandment I give to you that you love one another as I have loved you. By this all will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:34-35). Jesus said it twice as if to emphasize it.
He was talking about a deeper love than we might think. The word love is used rather loosely in our world today. We love baseball and apple pie, but that’s not what Jesus had in mind.
Perhaps you know the Greek language has three words for love in the Bible.
• Eros is the word from which we get the word erotic. It’s a feeling we have.
• Phileo is a friendship type of love.
• Agape is a love which gives itself away for the good of others. This is the word Jesus and the apostle John are using.
First of all, agape love is an action. It’s not something you feel; it’s something you do. It’s not something you talk about; it’s a verb. It is meant to be active. John asks, How could we say we love if we see brothers having shortages of food and goods and not respond to them? In agape love, we look beyond ourselves and take action to help one another. It’s sacrificial. It is the picture of Jesus dying on the cross as He sacrificed His life for our sakes and paid for our sins.
Agape love is also an act of the will. It is intentional. John calls us to listen to this command and act upon it.
Agape love is unconditional. We love even those with whom we differ on all sorts of matters. Remember, “While we were still sinners Jesus gave His life for us” (Romans 5:8).
An example comes to mind. It is a love story from my own congregation. An elderly man became sick and was moved into a facility away from his wife, Jan. But because of her dementia, she could not care for herself. So a friend in her Bible study group, Nancy, took it upon herself to start caring for Jan. Even though she was not related to Jan in any way except as a sister in Christ, she took her to doctor appointments, took care of her finances, and even helped her to move. Then the group jumped in to help. Jan is not the easiest person to care for, but they are taking really good care of her, even though it’s not convenient. She lives quite a distance from the church, but they give her a ride to church every weekend.
This is what John had in mind when he said, “Love one another.”
Why love? John gives us our motivation – God is love. His very essence and nature is love. All His other attributes – wisdom, justice, mercy, and goodness – express love. By trusting in Jesus Christ, we are citizens of God’s kingdom. As His children, we strive to be like Him.
By the way, we actually have the ability to exercise this kind of Agape love through the Holy Spirit. Being born of God through Jesus Christ, He works in us and empowers us to love.
Love is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. We will never love perfectly, for our old self continues to rear its ugly, egotistical head within us. However, we are given a Helper to live a life of loving others.
We love out of gratitude. John says, “We love because He first loved us.” Our desire is to live a life in response to His love that expresses our love for Christ and pleases Him. Therefore, we love because He first loved us.
We love because it is an act of faith and trust. As we love those around us in a sacrificial and unconditional manner, we obediently express our belief that Jesus taught us to love one another. We trust that He knows what makes life work, even when it seems demanding and doesn’t feel comfortable or convenient. We express our trust in Him by putting what He says to work.
Finally, we love because it bears fruit honoring Christ. John says His love is perfected or completed in us.
Leith Anderson, a wonderful pastor, preacher, and writer, says this: “One of the most profound mysteries of Christianity is the invisibility of God and how we can know He is real, even if we cannot see Him.” John explains, “No one has ever seen God, but if we love each other, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (I John 4:12). People cannot see God, but they can see the love of God in us when we behave just like God. It is not natural to love the unloveable, but we can supernaturally love them.
When we love the unlovable, it somehow completes the love of God in us. It shows us the God we could not otherwise see and proves His love in us is real. Loving others confirms our Christian faith in a tangible way. It bears fruit honoring Him as others see us loving one another.
Lucian, a Greek writer who lived in the early days of Christianity about 150 A.D., marveled at the church, even though he did not believe in Christ. He wrote these words: “It is incredible to see the fervor with which the people of the Christian religion help each other in their wants. They spare nothing. Their first legislator, Jesus, has put it into their heads that they are brethren.”
I found another statement in history as someone marveled while observing Christians in the church: “See how they love one another!” This is what Jesus wants people who are outside of the faith to see as they observe us following Him. This is incredible! See how they love one another!
Brothers and sisters in Christ, as you listen today, we have a very important calling before us from Jesus Christ. The world around us is in need of His love. Christ is counting on us to be His hands and His feet, His voice and His body, His witness to these people so they might know Him and His love. He is counting on us, then, to love one another. How we treat each other in the church matters. Jesus tells us to love one another as He has loved us. “By this, all people will know you are my disciples.”
Make a commitment to actively and intentionally love your brothers and sisters in Christ, no matter what. Amen.
Pastor Steve Kramer