On the Right Track: Love and John 13:35

2731183371_1010ca9bdb_nHow do we know that we are on the right track in matters of faith? How do we know that we are “good with God?” Some will point to life experiences. If everything is going well for you, and your prayers are being answered, then obviously you must be on the right track. Others will point to spiritual experiences and say that if you can speak in tongues or have experienced some form of miracle then you must be on the right track. Still others will point to religious activity, that if you are keeping up with religious observances and practices, then you must be on the right track.

But how would Jesus answer this question? Thankfully he answered it long before we asked:

34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35 NRSV

Notice that Jesus did not say everyone will know we are his disciples if our lives went smoothly, or if we showed ourselves to be be super-spiritually gifted, or really religious. Rather our love is the evidence we are His followers. John also links love with reassurance that we are on the right track:

18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 1 John 3:18-19 NRSV

But don’t those who do not follow Jesus also love? My experience is that yes, people who have no interest in following Jesus are capable of being and often are loving people. So does this mean they are on the right track, living lives that please Jesus, and so are “good with God”?

Before we jump to conclusions we will want to remind ourselves of the important role Christianity has played in lifting up an ethic of love in our society. Thanks to the influence of Christianity our society has been “marinating” in an ethic of love. Christianity has added flavour to our nation and many others. So when the Beatles sing “All you need is love,” or when Katy Perry sings “I will love you unconditionally,” there is a Christian ethic shining through. People who have no time for Jesus are nevertheless enjoying a certain flavour he has brought to society.

There are societies which have not had so thorough a permeation of Jesus’ love ethic. You can think of areas rife with militant Islam where a strict interpretation and application of sharia law is seen as more honourable than an ethic of love. We all know where that has led and is leading. Or you can think of where a belief in karma can lead. If you are brought into life as an untouchable, born into a sorry state of affairs, you must deserve it. That’s karma. Jesus teaches grace. Jesus loves us regardless of merit and went to the cross for us. Though Christians can get it wrong, one cannot deny that Christianity has lifted up an ethic of grace and love in some societies in a way that other religions have not in others.

Still, we may be wondering if a person who rejects Jesus as Lord and Saviour is on the right track by living a life of love. Actually, yes, they are on the right track. But they have not got on the train. We cannot love enough to go the distance and bring ourselves into the presence of God. We can devote ourselves to a life of love all we want, but when we refuse God’s love for us, we refuse God’s offer to carry us for the distance. We would rather walk, though the destination is far. Too far.

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Love is powerful evidence that we are on the right track. But being on the right track is not enough. This destination requires getting on the train.

18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 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. 1 John 3:18-23 NRSV emphasis mine

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A Work in Progress. A Reflection on 1 John 3:1-10

1905062621_061a172acd_nIf all the scripture we had to go on were verses 8 and 9 of 1st John, we would be incredibly stressed Christians:

8 Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. 9 Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. 1 John 3:8-9 NRSV

From this alone we would come to the conclusion that the congregation and pastor together are a collection of devil-children. We know that we do sin and can sin. So what are we to do when the clear word of scripture does not align with our experience? Do we head down the path of despair that we will never measure up?

We remember that the Word of God contains more than these two verses. We do not need to go very far to find some comfort, indeed before John speaks about our sin, he speaks about God’s love: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are” ( 1 John 3:1 NRSV). John in speaking to those who have repented of sin and turned to God in Christ does not say “we might be His children . . . ,” or “we could be His children, if we are perfect everyday in everyway,” he simply says “we are His children.” Before we look at our sin and conclude that we are devil children, we look at the cross and the empty tomb to see we are God’s children. Before we look at our ability to attain perfection in purity, we look at His ability to love the impure person.

Also, we notice that perfection in purity is the goal toward which we are to progress, and so imperfection is assumed in the present. If you were to ask me how my bathroom renovation is going and I were to say “it will look good someday,” you will immediately know that it does not look good just yet. We have this same thing happening in verses 2 and 3:

2 Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3 And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. 1 John 3:2-3 NRSV

“What we will be has not been revealed,” in other words let us not dive too deep into conjecture as to precisely what our resurrection bodies will look like. Paul uses the analogy of of a seed becoming a plant to describe what happens when this body becomes a resurrection body. We are not told too much about the plant! But what we do know, as John points out, is that we will be like Jesus. And what is Jesus like? Verse 3 answers that: “he is pure.” If we look forward to perfect purity when Jesus returns, we know we still have sin now. We are a work in progress.

However some will stop with “we are a work,” and will forget the progress part. They will point to the love God has for the sinner and conclude that it is okay to remain a sinner. That misses the point for several reasons as John makes clear:

First, only a fool will make no progress toward a worthy goal. It is a foolish handyman who does not desire progress toward the goal of fixing a leaky roof. It is foolish beyond measure to not progress toward purity. John assumes that we will: “we will be like him . . . all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” I can attest to the fact that progress is exciting in renovation projects. When it comes to holiness, progress toward the goal is even more exciting!

Second, to continue in the enjoyment of sin is to act contrary to God’s activity. It is the foolish employee of a roofing company who takes a shovel to potter around a garden instead of getting to the job of ripping off old shingles. As John points out: “You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.” (1 John 3:5,6 NRSV)

Third, to continue in the enjoyment of sin is to show a family resemblance to a father we should want nothing to do with, a father we should completely disown:

7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. 8 Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. 9 Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. 10 The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters. 1 John 3:7-10 NRSV

On the one hand, if we desire a family resemblance to the devil rather than to our Heavenly Father, then yes, we should suspect that our relationship with God is in question. John is dealing in his letter with heresy that was threatening to infect the church which included the notion that a life of sin does not matter. It does!

On the other hand, the presence of sin in our lives is not automatic proof that we are not God’s children. It is proof that we are a work in progress. Are you already perfect? Are you making progress?

8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  1 John 1:8,9 NRSV

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