A Destructive Love

Love is a good thing, right? Love can fix problems, build bridges and have a positive impact. But there are certain kinds of love that are destructive. We can think of the “three biggies”, the love of money, sex, and power, for example. But there is another kind of love which can be quite destructive and insidious. We find an example of it in the letter we know as 3rd John. The apostle John sent this letter to Gaius to ensure hospitality toward missionaries he sent out. Given that travel could be dangerous in that day and place, hospitality was very important. While John shows some trust in Gaius to do the right thing for the travellers, he speaks of someone who lost his trust:

I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. 10 So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing in spreading false charges against us. And not content with those charges, he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church. 3 John 1:9-10 (NRSV)

Diotrephes has four marks against him:

  1. He spreads rumours against John and his connections.
  2. He refuses to welcome anyone from John.
  3. He discourages everyone else from welcoming John’s missionaries.
  4. He throws out of his own church anyone who opposes him.

Diotrephes is a problem because he has a problem. We are told what the problem is in verse 9. Here there are two words, translated above as “who likes to put himself first”. They can be stated more literally as ‘the love of being first among them’. This is a love which is destructive.

The love of  being first was destructive in John’s day. Think of what it did to others, to the reputation of John and his connections. Think of what it did to hinder the growth of people as evangelism and discipleship were hindered. Think of what ‘the love of being first’ did to to the unity of the church when people were thrown out, and throughout the region as rejection left a bitter taste among Christians elsewhere.

The love of being first continues to be destructive in our day. It is destructive within marriage, within and between families, and among friends. If we love to always be first our only friends will be those who don’t mind always being second, or third. It is destructive within all organizations we might belong to, including the church. The love of being first is also destructive to our relationship with God.

The love of being first can be destructive even if you are considered righteous in every other way. There is no evidence that there was a disagreement over theology or church polity with Diotrephes. We would have expected John to have said something more specific if so. What John says is simply ‘Diotrephes loves to be first among them’. This is a kind of sin that is insidious. Church leaders and pastors can get away with it for a time. It can hide behind a clean life, solid theology, good preaching and everything else expected of a pastor. When there is a love of being first, it can unnoticed until the damage is done.

This leads to two questions. First, do you love being first? Second, is there a cure for the love of being first? The fist question is for each of us to answer for ourselves. Let us go on to answer the second.

John the baptizer is a great example to us of a better way:

Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. 26 They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” John 3:25-26 (NRSV)

You can imagine the possibility of jealousy on the part of John since “all are going to” Jesus. What does John say?

John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven.  . . 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.” John 3:27,30 (NRSV)

John  has a humility which allows him to fade into the background when it is no longer appropriate for him to be in the foreground. Are you able to fade into the background when it is time for someone else to be in the foreground?

Jesus teaches humility. Speaking of the scribes and Pharisees, he says that they do

 all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, . . . . The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. Matthew 23:5,6,11,12 (NRSV)

Jesus points to himself as an example of the kind of humility expected from his followers:

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:25-28 (NRSV)

Paul points to Jesus as the great example of humility:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. Philippians 2:3-8 (NRSV)

God set the ultimate example of putting others first through the incarnation. Humility here is thinking of what is best for others. Jesus did not deny his capacity to do great things, indeed he did great things for others and for us! But he did put our need for a rescue from sin above his own need for rescue from a cruel cross. Jesus did not love being first, though in fact he is first.

Love is always a good thing, right? Love for God and for people is always a good thing. But our love can become destructive when we love certain things. The love of being first is a destructive love. Let us follow Jesus in loving God and others first.

Advertisements

Shall We Make Alterations to Jesus?

Does what the Bible say about Jesus fit you or would you like to make alterations? You love Jesus but perhaps you would rather he did not make such exclusive statements like “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)? We might prefer that he had said “I am a way, one truth among many, one road to life, and people can come to the Father in various ways”. In our pluralistic day we might be tempted by a view of Jesus that seems more inclusive of other religions.

In New Testament times, Christians were being tempted by an early form of teaching later known as Gnosticism. This teaching speaks of Jesus, but does concur with what the Bible teaches about him. The apostle John deals with this temptation in a letter known as 2nd John. In John’s letter we discover three reasons to resist the temptation to make alterations to Jesus.

First, if it is not the Biblical view of Jesus, then truth falls off a cliff. John uses the word “truth” four times in the opening verses, then in verse seven he warns against deception:

Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist! 2 John 1:7

The Gnostics were making alterations to Jesus to fit their worldview, rather than making alterations to their worldview to fit Jesus. They were messing with truth.

Why are you a Christian? Is it because you were raised a Christian? This can be a great introduction to Christianity, but is not, in fact, a reason to embrace it. Why was John a Christian? It was not because he was raised a Christian. He gives us some clues in 1st John:

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— 3 we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 1 John 1:1-3 (emphasis mine)

John was a follower of Jesus because he met Jesus, learned from Jesus, saw Jesus crucified and then risen from the dead. John was an eyewitness, he knew these things to be true. John does not write a warning against heresy because he is concerned about religion, but because he is concerned about truth. If we do not follow a Biblical view of Jesus, then truth falls off a cliff.

Second, if it is not the Biblical view of Jesus, then love falls off a cliff. Love is a prominent theme in John’s letter:

It has given me great joy to find that children of yours have been living the life of truth as we were commanded by the Father. 5 And now I am asking you — dear lady, not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but only the one which we have had from the beginning — that we should love one another. 6 To love is to live according to his commandments: this is the commandment which you have heard since the beginning, to live a life of love.

7 There are many deceivers at large in the world, refusing to acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in human nature. They are the Deceiver; they are the Antichrist.  2nd John 1:4-7 (NJB)

You might think it strange that I would include verse seven, about deception, along with verses five and six, which speak about love, but in fact John connects them. Verse seven begins with a rarely translated connecting word ‘for’. We might give a rough summary of the line of thought like this: “It is great to find your children living according to truth. Now you, yourself, must double down on living a life according to truth, a life of love, because false teachers are coming, and they have a very different ethic than the love ethic you learned from the teaching and example of Jesus.”

Love is important to the Christian because Jesus, in his existence, life, teaching, death, and resurrection, is an expression of God’s love. If Jesus is something other than that, then love is no longer the main thing. Under the gnostic teaching facing the Christians in John’s day, the main thing was the separation of the body from the spirit. This led to an ethic of either extreme asceticism, because you must care less about your body, or extreme indulgence, since you could care less about your body. Either way, a life of love was no longer the main thing.

There is a popular notion that all religions lead to a very similar ethic. However, some religions in the history of the world have required human sacrifice. Not all religions lead to the same ethic and not all religions are equal. Christianity offers love as the main ethic, for Christianity was born out of God’s love. We won’t be strongly pursuing a love ethic if we are listening to an alternate views of Jesus. If all religions lead to God, then who are we to condemn human sacrifice as an unloving practice? If it is not the Biblical view of Jesus, then love falls off a cliff.

Third, if it is not the Biblical view of Jesus, then souls will fall off a cliff. John speaks of this in verse 9:

Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God; whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 2 John 1:9

If Jesus was not executed then raised, we still have a separation from God problem.

But isn’t Jesus being too exclusive when he says “no one comes to the Father but by me”? A specific problem calls for a specific solution. Suppose my motorcycle stops running and a mechanic tells me that I need new ignition coils. Will I then say, that sounds too exclusive, perhaps we should replace the carburetors, tires, wheel bearings, and piston rings? A specific problem calls for a specific solution and nothing else will help. Our sin problem calls for a God’s grace solution. When Jesus says he is the way the truth and the life and that no one can come to the Father except through him, he is not being arrogant, but accurate. Greater effort can not deal with our separation from God problem. More religion just makes things worse. Only the grace of God will help us, and that grace has been expressed through Jesus. If we are not sharing a Biblical view of Jesus, then souls will fall off a cliff.

Accurate teaching about Jesus is important enough that we should not allow false teachers to set up shop:

Do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who comes to you and does not bring this teaching; 11 for to welcome is to participate in the evil deeds of such a person. 2 John 1:10-11

In other words, when heresy knocks, don’t send Jesus out to make room for the heretic.

We may be tempted to run after alternative views of Jesus, but truth, love, and souls are in danger of being destroyed if we do. While it might sound tempting, if Biblical teaching about Jesus is not at the heart of our Christian faith, then our Christian faith has lost its heart.

(The full sermon can be heard here or through iTunes podcast here, while available. Unless need otherwise, Scriptures are taken from NRSV)

Stuck in a Moment

Feeling stuck? Like things will never change? Could be your health, family dynamics, marriage, or work. You have given up on expecting a miracle. You have settled into a new normal and it is not a good normal. You are “stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it” to borrow a line from U2. It feels like the likelihood of things changing is zero.

The apostle Paul’s letter to Philemon speaks of a situation where change hardly seemed possible. Slavery was a societal norm which was not going away anytime soon. It was just the way things were. This could work out okay for some who had good masters. It could be miserable for those who didn’t. Society itself was stuck in a moment and couldn’t get out of it. Paul’s letter to Philemon does not give any hope of change happening soon. Slavery will continue in the empire. In fact Paul didn’t just send a letter to Philemon about slavery, he sent back a slave, Onesimus, who had run away from Philemon. We might think “poor slave”, sent back to the same old, back to being stuck in a moment that he can’t get out of.

What do we think Paul would write in the letter which accompanies Onesimus? Might he say something like “be sure to make an example of your runaway so that no others will sin against you like he did?” Or, “be sure that justice is served”? Let’s read what Paul has to say to Philemon about his runaway slave:

8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. Philemon 1:8-21 (NIV emphasis added)

Fact is, while slavery continued, there were great changes happening behind the scenes. There was great hope for Onesimus, not because the institution of slavery was changing within the Roman empire, but because people and relationships were being changed within the God’s Kingdom.

Among Christians relationships were changing due to a wiping away of class distinctions:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. Galatians 3:26-29 (NIV)

While Roman society kept plugging along as it was, the Christian Church was a different kind of community. Slaves were children of God in Christ as much as anyone else. No matter one’s identity and status within the empire, all were brothers and sisters in God’s Kingdom.

Relationships were changing in another way.  There was a wiping away of personal offence. Philemon was not explicitly asked to forgive Onesimus, but it is implied. The Christian community was a forgiven people who were learning to forgive. Onesimus may have been stuck as a slave thanks to Roman societal norms, but his future never looked brighter thanks to the big changes the Gospel of Jesus was bringing to his world.

So what has this to do with the moment we might be stuck in? When we are stuck in a sticky spot and are not counting on a change anytime soon, we can focus on the things that are changing. Our health may not change, but our relationship with God, and others, can deepen. You might feel stuck, and that no one around will ever change, but you can.

It would seem that Paul prayed the Serenity Prayer long before it was written. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things that cannot change. . . ” Society was stuck with slavery. ” . . . the courage to change the things I can . . .”. The Church was a community made of up changed and changing people thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit. “. . . and the wisdom to know the difference”. Paul had the wisdom to leave the sins of the empire alone. But he did what he could to see great changes for both Philemon and Onesimus.

When we seem to be stuck in a moment we cannot get out of, God grant us the serenity to accept the things that are not going to change, and the courage to join with God in the change He is brings, especially in us through His Holy Spirit.