The Command to Love - A Sermon for Easter 6B

1 John 5:1-6

We recently sang the hymn “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” That is the hope, isn’t it? We want to be “one in the Spirit,” and “one in the Lord.” We hope that “unity may one day be restored.”   After all, we are Disciples of Christ, “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” 

Last Sunday we heard a word from 1 John that invites us to “love one another, because love is from God.” He also tells us that “everyone who loves is born of God” (I Jn. 4:7). John wrote these words to a congregation that was in the middle of a big fight that threatened to tear their community apart. So, when he told them to love one another he was reminding them that they were born to love.    

This Sunday we hear another word about loving one another. In our reading for today, John talks about love, and he continually uses forms of the Greek word agapē. Tom Oord defines agapē as “acting intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being, in response to that which produces ill-being” [Oord, Nature of Love, p. 56]. This agapē form of love is an expression of God’s very being, because God is love. Therefore, if we abide in God, not only will we love God, but God’s love will flow out from us so that this fragmented world of ours can experience wholeness.  

John tells us that “everyone who loves is born of God” and that “everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” I believe there is a connection here between loving and believing that Jesus is the Christ. When we put our trust in Jesus, we experience God’s love, which makes us “God-begotten” people, or as the Gospel of John puts it, in Christ we are “born again.” Because we are “God-begotten” we are children of God, and since “everyone who loves the parent, loves the child,” when we are in Christ, we love the children of God. That means, we’re family!

Now, all of this works well in the abstract, but we know that family relationships aren’t always loving ones. We have our disagreements. Sometimes they’re serious disagreements. Churches divide. So do denominations that make unity their polar star. Just because we’re family doesn’t mean we have this love-thing down pat. Therefore, and there always seems to be a “therefore,” Judith Lieu points out in her commentary on this letter that “the horizontal relationship is always mediated through God.”  We love one another not because we recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. We love each other because God is at work in our midst, transforming us into children of God, which enables us to love one another  [Judith Lieu, I, II, III John (NTL), kindle loc. 3475-3477]. 

So, if God is the mediator of love, how do we love God? The answer is this: we love God by obeying God’s commandments. While these commandments aren’t supposed to be burdensome, the words “obey” and “commandment” can be off-putting in an age like ours that celebrates freedom over obedience. But, remember, Paul told the Corinthians that while “all things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial” (1 Cor. 10:23).  

Our denominational tradition has always preached a message of freedom. It’s deeply planted in our DNA. But, we call ourselves “disciples of Christ,” not just because it sounds biblical, but because we are students and followers of Jesus. To be a disciple involves obedience to Jesus our master.   So, what are these commandments that aren’t burdensome? 

We might want to start with Jesus’ two commandments, which involve loving God with our entire being, and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. Of course, the second command leads to a question: who is my neighbor?  Jesus answered that question in the Gospel of Luke with the parable of the Good Samaritan.  

Now Jesus drew these two commands from the Hebrew Bible, which has a lot of other commands. Some are less burdensome than others, but you might say that each of these commandments found in the Hebrew Bible are expressions of the two great commandments. You might call the Ten Commandments clarifications of the two Great Commandments. If you dive deeper into the Hebrew Bible, you will find more than 600 other rules and regulations that expand on the Ten. So, maybe the command to love is more burdensome than John is letting on, or is it?

The command to love God is found in the Shema, the Jewish confession of faith, which declares: “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5). This command summarizes the first table of the Law revealed on Mount Sinai, which includes prohibitions against making idols and worshiping them, as well as a prohibition against profaning the name of God. There is a positive command here—keep the sabbath. Everything starts here, in submission to the God whom John declares is love. 

By loving God, we love our neighbor, which is the second great command. These commandments, which are called the second table, include honoring parents, as well as prohibitions against murder, stealing, and bearing false witness, to name a few. The last command, might be the key to the rest. Don’t covet! That’s because coveting comes from the heart, and is often the motivation for breaking the other commands (Deut. 5:1-21). Such is not the behavior of one who is “God-begotten.”

This leads us to the final point, which we might call John’s mission statement. That’s because, in John’s mind, loving God leads to participation in God’s mission. That mission, in the words of John, involves conquering the world, which might be John’s way of inviting us to participate with Jesus in the establishment of the kingdom of God.

Here is where things get sticky. We have around sixteen hundred years of Christendom that colors our reading of this call to conquer the world. Down through the ages, armies “marched as to war with the cross of Jesus going on before,” while missionaries followed in their wake bringing the good news of Western civilization in the guise of Christianity. Pictures of little boys in places like Africa dressed in white shirts and ties and little girls dressed in western-style white dresses conveyed to the people back home that the gospel civilized the natives. It made people feel good, but I’m not sure that is what John or Jesus had in mind.

If we’re to receive a word from God here, we might want to rethink this idea of conquering the world. We might need to translate this calling in light of the past. It also might help to remember that John is writing to a congregation living in a very different context from ours. These Jesus followers were largely powerless. They didn’t have government support, armies, or much wealth at their disposal. All they had was the power of love that was revealed in Jesus’ death at the hands of the Roman imperial government. Yes, Jesus rose from the dead, but the Christian community faced significant threats from outside and from within the congregation as well.  

When John speaks here of conquering the world, I don’t believe he envisions armies marching unto war, armed with sword and lance, imposing the kingdom of God on the world? Instead, as Judith Jones puts it, “truly Christian faith conquers the world not by military might or doctrinal arguments or coercion, but by love.” 

Jesus came into the world preaching the kingdom of God. In this spirit we sang “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.” The music of this hymn itself can stir the soul, while the words remind us that in the resurrection Jesus is crowned Lord of all.  We sang “let every kindred, every tribe, on this terrestrial ball, to him all majesty ascribe, and crown him Lord of all.” With this song on our lips and on our hearts, I close with this word of hope from Walter Brueggemann:

So here is your mission, if you choose to accept it:
Stand with Jews who also wait for Messiah.
Stand with Christians who see God’s power in Jesus.
Stand with Gentiles in mercy, all the others who are not like us.
Stand in that company and you will find yourself filled with hope for what God will yet do.         [Brueggemann, Gospel of Hope, p. 91]

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Easter 6B
May 6, 2018


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