Children, Seek Perfect Love

1 John 4:7-21 (NLT)

This is the fourth sermon in a six-part series, “Children of God.” It is written in conjunction with Life Group Bible studies held through Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.

Here in the fourth chapter of 1 John, the author builds toward an idea that John Wesley found very important, the notion that we can “move toward perfection.” A modern way of saying this might be, “More and more each day, we can grow in our ability to love.”

I think today it is best if we simply follow the path the author has laid down for us, a path toward perfect love. I’ll try to ensure at each milepost we understand what John is telling us.

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

Absent a context, the opening words of today’s Scripture can seem like a trite assertion. Yeah, Christian love—we hear that phrase over and over. Don’t forget what John’s church has been through, however. There have been sharp disputes, and after such conflict it is not hard for good people to fall into bitterness and anger, emotions that will hang on long after trouble has ended.

A people forced to fight for what they believe usually need healing once the struggle ends. Even among those who have stood together, trust may have eroded. In Ephesus, the ones who turned away from the truth about Jesus Christ had once been trusted members of the churches in Ephesus, pledged at their baptisms to the same concepts as those who remained faithful.

Let’s also remember what we’ve already learned from the author. Love is an action! When I imagine these people heeding their leader’s words about loving each other, I see them traveling house to house, worshiping together, serving the world side by side, and getting back to the basic business of being in church.

God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.

Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us.

Now we’re really back to basics! First, we hear the core gospel message, an echo of John 3:16. Also, we hear that God first loves us before we love him. It has to be that way. If God were not constantly using love to penetrate the dark cloud of sin surrounding this world, we would not even be able to know on our own he exists. And through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, the cloud is being driven back!

That appropriate response to God’s gift, our obedience to his will, is best expressed as love. And we also hear the beginnings of where John is taking us. God is love, God lives in us, and that love inside us is a dynamic experience. It will grow toward “full expression.”

And God has given us his Spirit as proof that we live in him and he in us. Furthermore, we have seen with our own eyes and now testify that the Father sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. All who declare that Jesus is the Son of God have God living in them, and they live in God. We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love.

This is an expansion on the idea of God living in us once we declare Jesus Lord and Savior. It also is clear evidence John thinks in terms of a Trinitarian God. It is true the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible, but the idea of God working as Father, Son and Holy Spirit comes up repeatedly, and particularly in John’s writings.

God works in us as the Holy Spirit. John is able to attest to having seen God at work in the world in flesh, as Jesus Christ. We cannot say we have seen God in the flesh, but we are reminded we can have just as direct an experience of God—more direct, in fact, if having God in us, whispering to our spirits, is a closer relationship than having God stand before us in the flesh.

I think we do have a closer, deeper experience! We are a blessed people, we who know God in the post-Pentecost era!

God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.

Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. We love each other because he loved us first.

We live in God and we move toward perfection. This is not an arrogant, obnoxious declaration that “we are perfect.” The word in a Wesleyan sense simply means it is possible to love others with the intensity Jesus showed when he went to the cross to die for the whole world.

As we move closer to perfect love, there also is great reward. Love drives out fear! In particular, we have no reason to fear God’s judgment, and that should mean our little fears are driven away, too. Most of those fears are rooted in a negative view of death, but Christians trust there is nothing beyond death but acceptance and bliss for all eternity.

I have actually been told by church people that it’s not wise for me to remind people they are going to die, but I decline to heed that advice. Unless Christ returns beforehand, I’m going to die, you’re going to die. People of faith, hear me: So what?

I invite you to confront the reality of your deaths boldly and without fear. I’m not asking you to invite death. Life in this world can be just as wonderful as it is painful, and it’s worth experiencing in full! But you will live this life so much better if you let your love grow, in the process becoming more fearless each day.

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers.

Yes, John closes us out today with something like a test. It is a test many of us are going to fail from time to time, for we can become angry at fellow believers, at times even hating them. When we fail in such ways, we can at least feel confident our loving Savior will give us another chance. His grace is abundant and magnificent.

Anger, particularly anger with our fellow church members, is a signal we need to get back to basics. It may be that some legitimate dispute needs to be resolved—let’s never forget the model for dispute resolution Jesus gave us in Matthew 18:15-17. (There are some important concepts related to forgiveness right after those verses, too.) But to cope with our anger, we also need to be more intentional about loving God in worship and in prayer, and we need to immerse ourselves in God’s holy word.

In all those actions, we encounter God’s love, we are healed, and our love moves toward perfection.

How to Bless a Nation

Ezekiel 2:1-5

The Scripture for today is sometimes known as “Ezekiel’s call.” God is summarizing what he would have the prophet do—go to a people who have forgotten God’s word and tell them, “Thus says the Lord God.”

Leading up to this call, Ezekiel has a truly ethereal vision, filled with images of heavenly creatures, wheels in the sky and a sapphire throne, all rattling him to the core and reminding him of who rules over all things. The vision initially stuns him, but it also strengthens him and equips him to go to the severely lost and broken nation of Israelites, whom God has turned over to their enemies as punishment for their turning away.

It is difficult to read Ezekiel so near the anniversary of our nation’s founding and not make some connections to our own situation. I don’t think anyone would disagree that we in recent decades have been uncoupling the nation’s values from traditional Christian values. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling a little over a week ago allowing homosexual marriage is just the latest evidence of how times are changing.

This disconnect between the secular and the sacred began long before this particular ruling, however. Where human sexuality is concerned, we’ve been creeping down the secular slope for about half a century now, becoming more accepting of promiscuity and divorce as part of the so-called “sexual revolution.” Pornography is now more accessible than the “I Love Lucy” show was in the 1950’s. Almost as a side note, abortion has become so acceptable that we hardly speak of it anymore.

There are other areas where we ignore the Bible. We have tolerated all sorts of abuses by business and industry in the name of free markets, even using our astonishing power to make war where we see our energy interests threatened. We prop up our economy with artificial economic “bubbles” that create short-term gain for the market savvy and long-term pain for the average person on the street. Occasionally an Enron or a Bernie Madoff draws a little confused outrage from the general public, but the system endures.

None of this is spiritually smart, of course. I say that as a Christian who believes the Bible is by far our best guide to God’s will. We pray for new revelations from God, but even those have to be tested against our best understanding of what God has already revealed. As you might expect, I don’t like the unbiblical direction we are headed as a nation.

At the same time, I have great hope regarding the direction American Christianity can now more easily go. If you have spent most of your lives conflating Christian and American values, my optimism is going to be a little confusing or challenging.

I used to watch (for a few minutes, anyway) a local televangelist in Upper East Tennessee who preached in front of a graphic rendering of a Bible morphing into an American flag. He probably is very agitated right now about what is happening in the good-old USA. I’m not. I believe American Christians are on the cusp of a great opportunity, assuming we can learn to separate the Bible and the flag in our minds.

Using our best hindsight, I think we have to admit the church makes a huge mistake any time it begins to rely on the secular world, particularly the political world, to carry out God’s will. Going to the polls and voting a certain way becomes a weak sacrament. Post a political rant on the Internet, write a few letters to our representatives, fund a lobbying effort or two, and we think we’ve done our part for God.

When the church functions this way long-term, the government eventually takes over many of the church’s God-ordained roles. The government becomes the primary caregiver of the poor, the sick and the imprisoned. It educates; for a time, we expected public schools to teach our kids about the Bible and how to pray, and I still hear church people complain this no longer happens. The government officially marries people. I can marry a couple before God, but if they want the marriage recognized in any official capacity, I or someone else has to sign a state document. How did we let all that happen?

Christians also manage to offend those we are most called to reach when we use the government to execute our mission. Be it the old “blue laws,” Prohibition or the Moral Majority’s lobbying efforts of the 1980’s, the unchurched don’t like to have someone else’s version of morality forced upon them. When they sense this happening, they are less open to the grace-centered relationship God offers through Jesus Christ.

So, if we are not primarily voters, political activists or Facebookers, what are we? I think we need to become what we once were, builders of deep spiritual community, an escape from what is worldly. Other than voting our consciences like any good citizen, let’s forget politics and simply treasure the freedom of speech, religion and assembly we currently enjoy.

The early church and its best successors through history have offered what the secular world could not, an environment where all people can enter with their sadness, brokenness and sin. There they can grow in their understanding of their worth to God—he did, after all, find them worth dying for—and what it means to be holy before God.

The best democracies speak of the pursuit of happiness in this life. Christianity at its best tells you about a relationship that gives happiness now and for eternal life. The best of the secular world provides freedom to move about and chase economic success. Christianity at its best helps you to find roots in a community and the love of a people you never want to leave.

Christ offers us big-picture joy, an experience transcending this nation, this world, even this universe. As these deep Christian communities grow, our nation will be blessed through the expansion of God’s kingdom from within, no lobbying, lawsuits or votes required.

Such a shift in thinking begins with you, Christian. Are you ready to take your faith seriously, placing Christ above all things? What will you do to make your church a true Christian community, one open to anyone wanting to enter the kingdom of God and its life of holiness and joy?

Freedom from Bondage

July in the United States is a time when we think about the value of liberty. I’m going to spend the month in a sermon series where we look at the freedom God offers us.

Specifically, I’m going to use texts from Exodus, an Old Testament book where we hear the story of God’s special relationship with the Israelites and the miracles God performed to free them from oppression in Egypt.

Today’s text, Exodus 6:1-11, has a couple of key points I want to highlight. First, God is revealing himself to the people of Israel in a new way. Through Moses, God is offering a deeper relationship with his chosen people by telling them a more intimate name by which they can know their God. In English translations, we usually use the word “Lord.” One transliteration of the name in Hebrew is “Yahweh.”

I also take particular note of how God continues to plan and pursue the Israelites’ freedom from Pharaoh despite their unwillingness to listen to Moses, a disbelief brought on by prolonged bondage and abuse.

It’s a powerful story, one that has inspired people enslaved in one way or another for centuries. But what does it mean to us today?

Well, first of all, we see how God desires freedom for his creation, in particular the people made for a relationship with God. God’s actions in Exodus are a precursor to God’s efforts to free the world from the bondage of sin, returning us to a state of holiness so we can be in his presence. Working as Jesus Christ on the cross, God breaks the power of sin and death, freeing us for eternal life.

Secondly, even as people freed from sin, we sometimes continue to wrestle with bondage in different forms. We can fall back into sin and find it difficult to escape despite the power we’re given; we can suffer in other ways, too, as we await Christ’s return and the final destruction of the evil that remains.

I’ve experienced my own form of bondage in recent years, something I’ve kept to myself for too long. It’s a spiritually crushing problem that’s hard to talk about, especially if you’re a pastor trying to live out the stereotype of never looking weak.

I get depressed, sometimes to the point where it’s difficult for me to focus on Scripture, prayer or other activities that keep me connected to God. This depression hits me particularly hard in winter, making me think it’s probably a seasonal, light-related thing.

I thought I had it licked this winter, taking precautions that are supposed to help. In late winter and early spring, however, it hit hard, swallowing me up like a soggy blanket.

My wife, Connie, noted dryly I had mastered the art of Lent, that somber season when we share in Christ’s passion and the walk toward the cross. It’s an important season to pass through, but the joy of the resurrection is supposed to snap you out of it! It didn’t this year, at least not right away.

I bring this up because I am reminded in Exodus how God worked in community with the Israelites, just as God works in community through the Holy Spirit now. God willing, I’ll experience another winter late this year and early next year, but I pray that this time I’ll remember I’m surrounded by people I can trust, people who can pull me up when I find myself sinking low.

Depression is just one form of bondage. There are so many others. Ongoing sins and various addictions come to mind. None of us should be afraid to admit we find ourselves bound from time to time. After all, church, that gathering of God’s people, is where we go to have the hateful knots untied.

A Survival Plan

Second in a Sermon Series

Second in a Sermon Series

Nehemiah 4:15-23

Last week, we began our January sermon series, “What’s in It for Me?” We’re looking at some of the practical benefits of being in a church community.

You may remember that we talked about how one of our key practices, forgiveness, actually makes our bodies and minds healthier. Today, I want us to consider how involvement in a healthy church community also can serve as a key part of a family’s survival plan.

I’m not speaking metaphorically. I’m talking about survival in the face of very real dangers—staying alive after a major storm or earthquake has knocked out water and electricity service across a region, for example.

Now, I know some of you may think this sounds a little kooky. We don’t like to think about events that may never happen in our lives, particularly when we live in a relatively secure environment with easy access to water, food and heat.

Some of you know exactly what I’m talking about, however. You’ve volunteered or even been employed to work in disaster zones after a major catastrophe, and you’ve seen how quickly modern urban areas like New Orleans, Gulfport, San Francisco, Atlantic City, and Manhattan can spend days, weeks or even months without basic necessities following a natural disaster.

Human-caused disasters can wreak even more long-term havoc. For example, in 1984, Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, was modern and peaceful enough to host the Winter Olympic Games. By 1992, however, the Bosnian War was underway, and the city came under siege for four years. Its residents went from being model citizens of eastern Europe to constant targets of sniper fire as they ran about trying to buy a little bread.

I’m not trying to be scary. It’s just a reality that the brokenness of the world can intrude anywhere, and people can be left struggling in the wake of such events. We’re talking about a truth that has been constant throughout human history.

Our Nehemiah text takes us back to such a time, about four-and-a-half centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ. The Jewish people had come under the control of the Persian Empire. Nehemiah and other Jewish leaders had been allowed to return to Jerusalem, which had been destroyed by war, to begin rebuilding it. The people were surrounded by enemies, however, and when they began the work, they didn’t even have an intact wall around the city to protect themselves.

They responded by forging a community. We get a picture of how they worked with weapons in hand, restoring the wall while ready to run to each other’s aid should an attack occur. They stayed inside the wall at night, working in unity to keep each other safe.

There also had to be an extensive support system to make all this happen. Clean water had to be found and transported. Food had to be prepared. First aid and other medical support must have been constantly needed. A system of trumpeters provided communications so the people would know when there was a threat. I have no doubt that everyone large and small, young and old had a role in rebuilding the wall so they could proceed with the restoration of their city.

Most importantly, these people shared a common belief. They worshiped the same God, and despite all they had gone through, they believed God’s promise that they would one day be able to live safely in their city again. You can tell by Nehemiah’s words that these people drew strength from their common knowledge that God was with them.

“Rally to us wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet,” Nehemiah told the people. “Our God will fight for us.”

It’s a model for how a religious community survives in times of crisis. Work together, sharing the skills you find in the group. Put your faith in God into practice—trust that he will preserve a community faithful to him.

I occasionally like to read books and magazines on survival skills; it’s something I’ve enjoyed since I was a boy. I suppose there’s something comforting in at least thinking you might know how to start a fire and make water clean enough to drink under difficult circumstances.

I ran across an interesting magazine, “Living Ready,” a few weeks ago. The winter issue has an article that’s closely aligned to this sermon.

Dr. Kyle Ver Steeg contrasts the stereotype of the lone survivalist in the “Army Guy” costume vs. the reality of how people survive difficult situations. He draws heavily on his experience working in Haiti shortly after the massive earthquake that struck there in 2010.

To prepare for a long-term survival situation, “I am of the opinion that the single most important thing you can do is to build a network of trustworthy, capable and likeable people,” Ver Steeg writes. “I would add that you should also work on becoming a part of your community and to develop skills that will be useful to your particular group.”

Later, he makes this particularly pertinent point: “If you are a churchgoing person you already have such a network in place. Think about if for a second. Churches already have leaders and a community of likeminded people with varied skills. They are used to working together to accomplish goals. Many churches already do mission work in desolate areas of the world. These people have knowledge and experience that some of the most survival-minded people do not.”

It makes sense, doesn’t it? In a crisis, relying on the relationships and shared skills we’ve been developing for years in church should be a natural response.

A survival plan is something we all hope we never have to use, but it’s certainly a great church benefit to have.