This morning's epistle reading comes from 1 John 3:16-24. You'll find the full sermon manuscript after the break.
This morning’s reading from 1 John instructs us to lay down our lives for others as Christ did for us. This surely is a noble ideal. We all love a good story of sacrificial love – of someone giving up their life or all their possessions for another person. In The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, the lion Aslan lays down his life for the sake of all. In the Harry Potter series, Harry is constantly making sacrifices for the good of his loved ones and in the end, even offers his own life. A classic Christmas story, “The Gift of the Magi” tells of a married couple who have no money to buy one another Christmas gifts. The husband, in order to afford a gift for his beloved, sells his pocket watch – an heirloom – in order to buy a hair comb for his wife’s beautiful hair. The wife, so as to afford a gift for her beloved, sells her long, beautiful hair to a local wigmaker in order to afford a new chain for her husband’s prized watch. Long have we in the church recorded the brave deeds of missionaries and martyrs and even make holidays in their names.
We put on pedestals those who live a radically different life for the Word of God. When we think of sacrifice we think of martyrs and missionaries. It’s great in theory and it works in practice for some people, but the rest of us? A few bucks in the offering plate every week or every other week is plenty, right?
I have long had a sour taste in my mouth for those old commercials for child sponsorship programs that said, “For just the price of a cup of coffee per day, you can feed a child. . .” I don’t have a problem with child sponsorship programs – I’m mostly in support of them – what I have a problem with is the idea that all it takes to be a good person is to give up a cup of coffee here and there.
Is a few dollars in the offering plate or the price of a cup of coffee – a tiny portion of the amount we live off of – a sacrifice, though? For some. . . it might be. For others, it certainly is not. Are a few hours a week devoted to church activities really a sacrifice or are they just given to make us feel better about doing “our duty?” Again. . . for some it might be and for others. . . it is clearly not.
It is difficult to get a real grasp on the idea of sacrificial love – laying down our lives for others – in a culture where, in spite of economic recessions, we are ridiculously wealthy by the standards of most of the world. It’s hard to get a grip on what this means when we live in safe homes. It’s hard to define “sacrifice” when it’s almost entirely unlikely that any of us in this room will ever serve as a martyr for the Gospel or lay down our life for the physical safety of another person. We might. But that’s a big “might.”
1 John says that sacrificing self should be an every day thing. It shouldn’t just be associated with being a missionary or revolutionary. We shouldn’t say, “It’s fine for David Livingstone or Martin Luther King Jr, or Mother Theresa, but I’ll never be asked to do that.” Sacrifice is meant to be a Christian ethic – for ALL Christians, not just some group of superChristians. This passage doesn’t say, “we should hold in high regard the idea of sacrificial love.” It says “We OUGHT TO lay down our lives for others.” This isn’t an ideal, it’s a charge. This is something that all Christians can and should do. It is not some unattainable ideal for us to put up on a shelf to look at and admire. This isn’t some vintage toy to be gawked at in the box and never played with.
This passage doesn’t say, “Tell great stories of sacrificial love.” In fact it says, “Stop talking and DO IT!” Don’t just say, “Jesus died for you and that’s why Christianity is awesome.” SHOW that love that sent Jesus to the cross. BE that love in the world.
John even goes so far as to ask, “How can you say that you have the love of God in you when you’re all talk and no action? How can you claim to have the love of Jesus in your heart, but ignore the needs of the people around you?” John says, “Put your money where your mouth is.” “Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk!” He says to us that if we aren’t living lives of sacrificial love, we haven’t really understood the Gospel at all.
Just before this passage, John has said that those who don’t really love one another are living in death. Loving one another is to turn away from a life lived in the shadow of death in order to live in the light of Christ. And here, John says that the only way to truly love is to act sacrificially just as God did in Jesus Christ.
Sacrificial love is not always selling all your possessions, moving to a far away land, or physically dying for another person. You don’t have to give up a kidney to be a sacrificial Christian. The key here is in “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” If we talk pretty words – even Biblical, lovely, angelic words - but don’t back them up with love, the Bible says we’re no better than the sound of a gong – just noise. Action is how others can see the love of God in the actor.
If you’ve ever been separated from a loved one by physical death – which most of us here have – you have probably experienced this. People say many things to grieving families and friends. Sometimes their words feel nice, sometimes they don’t. But rarely do we remember exactly the words people say to us in those times of need and loss. What stands out in those moments are their presence – the sacrifice of their time. We remember who brought us food – sacrifice of time and resources. We remember who was there with a hug – sacrifice through loving action. We remember who sat for a very long time and just listened to us mourn.
This is the sort of thing John’s talking about here. Words are cheap. Love is cheapened when we reduce it to nice words. But real love is big. Love is powerful. GOD is love. In showing sacrificial love, we give meaning – reality – to the Gospel that we say with our words.
Sacrifice – giving up our lives – means giving up the control over our stuff and our actions. Sometimes, it looks like a missionary called to a dangerous place where they could literally die taking the gospel to other people. Sometimes, it’s selling everything or quitting a stable and well paying job to start a new mission or ministry. But it’s not usually that apparently drastic.
Sacrificial love sits next to the Muslim woman who’s being harassed on the bus because of her attire. It looks out for a person in a dangerous or humiliating situation with no regard for it’s own safety or dignity.
Sacrificial love looks the homeless man in the eye and says, “Hello. God bless you, dear brother.” It upholds the dignity of all other people. It sets aside our earthly claims of status and says, “We’re all just people here.” It welcomes the unwelcome and loves those the world calls unlovable – treating them as beloved children of God.
Sacrificial love stops and takes the time to listen to a distressed brother or sister, no matter how much else is on the calendar that day. It sets aside the constraints of calendars and clocks and the false importance that comes with being busy and puts others first.
Sacrificial love serves others no matter what their beliefs or lifestyles are – there are no conditions on this love. Sacrificial love does not refuse anyone love or service or Gospel or hope because of who they are and what they believe. It stands up for the Jews and Muslims who are in refugee camps and prison camps and war zones just as confidently as it stands up for Christians in those camps and war zones.
Sacrificial love gives more than the bare minimum dollar amount to support the church and other charities. It doesn’t set an artificial percentage or dollar amount of “this should cover me” to financial giving, but gives above and beyond what seems reasonable or normal.
Sacrificial love looks out not just for family and friends, but for all those around them – in fact it especially serves and protects those that seem the most unlikely or undeserving.
Sacrificial love turns from a life lived in the shadow of death, the shallow waters of empty words, the false doctrine of “giving enough,” and embraces the truly loving life of sacrifice.
“ We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 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? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”