What one word would you use to convey the essence of Christianity?
For some it might be heaven, as in how to get to heaven when you die.
For some it might be law, as in how to live, what rules to follow.
For some it might be tradition, as in the Christian tradition is good for our society.
For some it might be theology, as in knowing all the right things about God.
For some it might be politics, meaning if you are a Christian, you will vote this way and not that.
For some it might be the word belief. Just believe in Jesus, and all will go well.
There is a word that John uses a lot in the letter we now know as 1st John. It was a word John knew the early Christian communities in his day needed to hear as they faced false teaching from a specific group of people. It is a word that maybe we need to hear in our day as we face all kinds of teaching from all kinds of people.
One Word to Describe the False Teaching, and the Word John Uses to Describe the True Teaching
Let us think first about what one word would capture the kind of Christianity the false teachers were trying to promote.
We have already seen how they were trying to change the facts about Jesus to fit their thinking rather than change their thinking to fit the facts about Jesus. We have also already seen that they missed the mark on what it means to follow Jesus, how to live as a Christians.
Bible scholars tend to agree that these false teachers were trying to advance an early form of Gnosticism. In this kind of thinking, anything spiritual is good, anything material is bad. For the Gnostics the one word that might sum up the essence of their thinking, and what they thought Christianity should be about, is escape, meaning an escape into the good spirit world while leaving the awful material world behind. And by the way, on your way there it doesn’t really matter what you do because the material world means nothing. So just do what you want while you are waiting for your escape from the body.
To this John says, and I paraphrase, “no, as Christ followers, as God’s children, we don’t just do what we want”:
For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.1 John 3:11 (NRSV)
There it is, the word, love. As John points out, this word was there from the beginning. As the apostles first taught people about Jesus, they didn’t tell them that Jesus was Lord, and that was all there was to know. Nope, loving one another was an integral part of the message from the beginnning too. It was not considered an option that might be nice to have at some point in the future. It was essential. It still is!
John goes on to say more about love, first, what it does not look like:
We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.1 John 3:12 (NRSV)
Someone who loves, who is not self-centred and jealous, will be unlike Cain, and will not murder. John continues:
We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.1 John 3:14 (NRSV)
It turns out that love is so important that it is the test of whether we are following Jesus! Speaking of Jesus:
All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.1 John 3:15 (NRSV)
In writing this John is echoing the teaching of Jesus who said:
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment . . .Matthew 5:21-22 (NRSV)
Love is the better way as Jesus goes on to say in that Sermon on the Mount.
In addition to being reminded of the teaching of Jesus, We are also reminded of his example:
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.1 John 3:16 (NRSV)
Jesus is the opposite of Cain here. Instead of taking the life of another, he lays down his own. Cain is the first example of a life taker. Jesus is the first and best example of a life giver, and of love.
We have the teaching and example of Jesus on love. We are changed by the love of God:
How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?1 John 3:17-18 (NRSV)
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action
The Christian Faith is Grounded in Love.
This word ‘love’ was an important focus when facing the false teachers in John’s day. The false teachers wanted to change the facts about Jesus to fit their way of thinking. But the facts about Jesus speak of the love of God. The incarnation, the teaching, the example, the death and resurrection of Jesus, these all speak to the love of God. Change the facts about Jesus to suit yourself and you lose the greatest love that has ever been known.
Also, you don’t just do what you want as the false teachers were claiming. You become a person of love. The word is not escape, but love.
This word ‘love’ is an important focus when we face all kinds of teaching in our day.
For those for whom Christianity is all about getting to heaven. Are you becoming a person of love here on earth? In fact, merely becoming a Christian so that you can get to heaven someday can actually be a self-centred thing. It is all about me and what I get. It should also be about picking up our cross and following Jesus in the way of generous love.
For those for whom Christianity is all about keeping law. We can keep the rules and yet somehow not become a person of love. Jesus has a lot to say about that in his teaching as found in the Gospels.
For those for whom Christianity is all about tradition. We can keep the traditions and yet somehow not become a person of love.
For those for whom Christianity is all about theology. We can know all the right things about God, yet not become a person of love.
For those for whom Christianity is all about politics. Politics is so often about power. Jesus has a lot to say about serving others with love, giving the example of washing the disciples’ feet, giving the example of the cross. A Christian does not avoid politics. A Christian is to express love through politics, loving others through serving them.
For those for whom Christianity is all about belief:
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 3:23 (NRSV)
John just can’t help but mention love along with belief!
At the beginning I asked which one word you might use to describe the essence of Christianity. Of course, we should never just reduce Christianity to just one word. But perhaps Paul is onto something when in writing to the Christians in Corinth he says,
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.1 Corinthians 13:13 (NRSV)