It the fifth Sunday of Easter, and like the very first disciples, we have gathered together on the first day of the week to be with our family of faith. There are certainly a lot of other places we could be this morning. But here we are. We are here, together as a community of faith because like the very first disciples we have seen the risen Lord.
Somewhere along the way, probably during some of our weakest moments, those moments of pain and despair, those moments of great anxiety and fear, when we needed him the most, the risen Christ inexplicably came into our lives, stood in our presence and filled us with a peace that is simply beyond all human understanding.
So here we are, gathered together on this first day of the week, assembled in this place as believers. We’re here because we believe in Easter. We believe in the wonderful good news that Christ is alive and, even more than that, he is alive for us.
Now the question is: what are we supposed to do with this Easter Faith that we have? How are we to live as Easter people?
There is no more direct answer to this important question than the one found in the little book we call 1 John.
When I was in seminary, I had to take two semesters of Biblical Greek and at least one semester of Hebrew. In my first year of Greek, the first book of the New Testament that the professor had us to translate was 1 John. Why? Because in all the New Testament, the Greek in 1 John is the most simple and direct. There are no complex, convoluted arguments, no long clauses or other linguistic difficulties that make the translation of some of the other New Testament books a nightmare. 1 John is simple and to the point. In fact, I can sum up the entire book in basically three words: “Love One Another.”
Three of the most simplistic, but at the same time, three of the most difficult words ever put together in one command. Yet, this is how God expects believers in the risen Christ to respond to Easter.
Love one another. It is difficult because the “one another” we are supposed to love is not just our close friends and family, but also those who have misused and mistreated us. We are commanded to love one another, all people, including our enemies.
Every time I read or hear this command, I immediately think of that list that most of us carry, at least in our minds: that list of people who have wronged us.
Of course, none of you here in Farmville are on my list. I think of that long time member of my church in Winston-Salem who wanted me to fail so badly as pastor of the church that he actually wanted the church to fail. Although he gave very generously when the offering plate came around every Sunday, he never gave one dime to our church’s budget. He earmarked all of his money to go to the Baptist Children’s Homes.
I have in me to forgive someone who wanted to hurt me, but to hurt the church?
Then there was that lady in that same church who not only liked to run me into the ground in her conversations with others in the church, but she also seemed to enjoy taking about my family. She told one group of ladies in the church that my son Carson, who was two years-old at the time, was one of the unhappiest children she had ever seen, implying that somehow Lori and I had made him that way by being bad parents. “I wonder what really goes on in that home,” she said. Because, “When I keep the nursery, he never smiles.”
It is one thing to talk about me, and it is another thing all together to talk about my children—a two year old, for goodness sake! I am pretty sure there was a very good reason that Carson never smiled around that woman. Carson wasn’t unhappy. Carson simply had good instincts.
Although we have this clear, direct commandment through the scriptures to “love one another” sometimes I think (or maybe hope) that God must have meant something else. I think: “God must not know some of these ‘one anothers’ that I know!”
I can better conceive of God saying something like: “You know, in this fallen and fragmented world of sinners, let us somehow learn to live with each other.” Now that’s a commandment that makes good sense! “Despite your differences, learn to live with each other.”
I think I would prefer God saying something like: “Respect one another” or “be kind to one another.” “Be courteous.” “Play nice.” Yeah, I like that. Sounds reasonable enough.
What about, “Be tolerant?” I really like that commandment. “I don’t have to like him, but I guess I can somehow tolerate him. I guess I can in someway put up with her.”
How about, “Let bygones be bygones”? That’s another good one. “We’ve got to move on and get over it. Get over them. Forget about them and the things they have done to hurt us. It’s simply not healthy to hold onto resentments or grudges forever.” Although it is sometimes easier said than done, I think I can live with that commandment.
But the scriptures say considerably more than all of the things I may want them to say. “Love one another.” And here in 1 John, it is a direct command. It’s not an option.
Love one another. I met Lori 29 years ago this month, and it was love at first sight. Twenty-nine years. That’s a lot of years. That’s a long time. And I know, so before she says it aloud from the choir loft, I’ll say it for her—it’s been even longer for Lori.
When you really love another, you have this wonderful capacity to always see the best that is in that another. I know Lori does that with me, or she wouldn’t be with me today. When I do all those things that I do to annoy her, sometimes hurt her, she summons the strength to look past it all. And in so doing, my weaknesses, my quirks, and all of my shortcomings grow small, while my virtues, the few that I have, grow large. That’s love.
Love necessitates that no matter what the other has done to hurt us, we somehow focus on the positives. Love compels us to look for mitigating circumstances, to devise strategies whereby we earnestly attempt to see the other in the very best light.
If another hurts us, or if another is behaving badly, throwing stones at us or the police, love compels us to ask ourselves questions like, “I wonder what was going on in his or her life that made him or her feel the need to act out like this?” or “I have certain ways about me that antagonize others. I wonder how I antagonized him?” or “I have gotten a lot of good breaks in my life. I wonder what bad breaks she got that her to view me in this way?”
But once we give up on love, all moral bets are off. We become free to dehumanize, even demonize our enemies. They are no longer persons, no longer human. They are pigs, aliens, trash, thugs, rag heads and abominations. And are called other names that are too vile to repeat from this pulpit.
There’s an old saying, that in war, we actually kill our enemies twice. First we kill any shred of humanity in them, and then we kill them with bullets. The two go together.
But First John tells us to love one another. This means that when we or society is wronged, all moral bets are never off. In fact, according to this ethic, it is precisely when we are used spitefully or wrongfully that the true moral test begins. Elsewhere, the scriptures note that if we love only those who show love to us, what is that?
I believe one of the reasons it is so easy for us to write people off, to write love off, is because we have been taught the false gospel of evangelicalism.
The evangelical gospel says: “All people are sinful, and because of that, God has condemned everyone to hell for all of eternity…unless we repent and accept Jesus. Then, and only then, God will love us and let us go to heaven.” It is primarily a gospel of fear; not love. And as John says, fear has nothing to do with love, but has to do with “punishment.”
Consequently, it is easy for us to demonize and dehumanize one another, call another a “thug.” After all, if another is behaving badly, it probably just means they are going to hell anyway!
However the gospel of Jesus Christ is completely different. The gospel of Christ says: “All people are sinful, and because of that, God loves us even more, and God will go to great lengths to reveal that love, even to death on a cross…to get us to see that love, get that love, accept that love, share that love, so that we will not be doomed for all of eternity living apart from that love.” Unlike the evangelical gospel, the gospel of Christ is all about love.
We love one another because the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the good news of Easter, demands that we love one another.
Because when the risen Christ showed up, when he came to us offering us a peace that is beyond all understanding, we suddenly realized that we were enemies of God. We realized that when this one came and said things as audacious as “love your enemies,” “pray for those who persecute you,” “if another slaps you in the face, turn the other cheek and let them slap you on the other side,” go the extra mile, “give another the shirt off your back,” “forgive another as many seventy times seven times,” “blessed are the poor,” and “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice,” “visit the prisoner,” “welcome the outcast,” and “love one another as I have love you,” we betrayed him, and we crucified him. When the risen Christ came to us, we suddenly realized when this one preached love, lived love, shared love and commanded love, unconditional and unmerited, we were so offended by it, we killed him. And yet, God in Christ still came back to us in the resurrection and loved us even more. Even when we did nothing to deserve life, God in Christ, love incarnate, love himself, laid down his life for us to give us life, abundant and eternal.
God not only puts up with us, respects us, and tolerates us, but God comes to us, calls us by name and embraces us. God looks past our flaws, our failures, and believes in the very best that about us and calls that best that is within all of us to come out.
God loves us and therefore commands us to love one another. “If I have loved you, then you should love others.”