May 7, 2006
1 John 3: 23
Please turn in the Pew Bibles to the first letter of John, chapter 3, and follow along as I read verse 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.”
Amen. The Word of God. Thanks be to God.
Motivational speakers and business consultants are constantly urging us to “think outside the box.” We are told to get out of the box, crawl out of the box, jump out of the box. They urge us to walk around the box, get away from the box, look down on the box, kick the box. From corporate boardrooms to church offices, the talk is all about escaping the constraints of business-as-usual to discover fresh perspectives, new strategies, and creative innovations—to “think outside the box.”
But if everyone is trying to “think outside the box,” then “thinking outside the box” is not a fresh perspective or a new strategy. Then again, if we are always rushing to embrace new ideas, we are apt to forget who we are and what we are supposed to do.
Fast Company magazine [Rushkoff, Douglas. "Back in the Box." Fast Company, November 2005, 37-38.] offers us some cautionary tales about organizations that lost touch with their core identity.
Consider the automaker, Volkswagen. They once produced efficient “volks wagens,” "people's cars," with plain interiors and simple mechanics. The Volkswagen Beetle was wildly popular in the decades after the Second World War. Millions of drivers fell in love with the car's low price, high quality, and affordable running costs. But now, Volkswagen has abandoned “people cars” for luxury sedans and SUVs. They are out of their box. Guess who stepped into their box? BMW. We associate BMW with luxury cars, but the Mini Cooper may be the Beetle of the new millennium. It is simple, small, and affordable.
Again, the fast-food chain, Hardee's, which originated in Rocky Mount, NC, also stepped out of the box in 2005 when it hired Paris Hilton, who is famous for being famous, to strut around in a skimpy outfit, and eat a Hardee’s Thickburger in a sensuous way. Did sales improve? Not at all. Maybe they should have just built a better burger.
Another example, Dell constructed a computer empire on good hardware and the promise of helpful customer service located in Round Rock, Texas. Now Dell outsources its tech support to India, and has become just another computer company.
What's the lesson here? It's okay to get outside the box, but don't lose the box. The box is what got you here.
To use a sports analogy, and I know that some people hate sports but bear with me on this—this applies to baseball, basketball, soccer, football, whatever—the question arises, when you get to the playoff’s—the world series, the world cup, the superbowl—do you radically change what you have been doing in the regular season? The universal advice is: NO. The sports proverb is “Go with what brung you.” Now that is not good English, but it is a good point.
Groups need to identify the one thing they do best, and concentrate on doing that one thing. So in church, it is not time to get out of the box, It is time to get in the box. It is time for us do what Jesus wants us to do.
Jesus wants us to love one another. In the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we repeat the words of the Lord, “This is my body, broken for you.” Christ loved us so much that he died for us.
Across all time and space, one process is going on: Christ is annexing his chosen people to himself. The purpose of the universe is to make one thing: the mystical body of Christ, which consists of all true believers. In the end, only one person is saved. That one person is Christ. And we are only saved if we are in Christ.
Well then, how do we know that we are in Christ? That is the most important question that anyone can ever ask. What proof do we have that we are Christians? John says that we can have proof. V16 “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us--and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” The sacrificial love of Jesus is more than a nice idea and more than a noble concept. It is a pattern of behavior that we are supposed to display in our actions. In v17, John writes: “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?” To John, the answer is obvious. God’s love is not found in such a person. God's love is found in those who see a need, and respond with help.
And we benefit from helping others just as much as those who are helped. By demonstrating love not only by "words" but also by "actions" (v. 18), we prove to ourselves, as well as to others, that we have indeed been transformed by our lord and savior Jesus Christ. Verse 19 says, “And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him.” By our actions, we know that we are “from the truth,” that is from Jesus. By our actions, we are reassured that we are saved.
What is at stake here is knowledge about ourselves. We can be certain of salvation if our actions accord with God's will, if we "obey his commandments" as v22 says. And again it says that we can be certain that we have a loving, mutual relationship with God if we "do what pleases him." Thus, John is spelling out in plain language our assurance of salvation. We know we are saved by what we do.
Back in 1973, Clarence Jordan captured the concreteness of this everyday love and compassionate assistance in his Cotton Patch Version of 1 John 3:18: "My little ones, let's not talk about love. Let's not sing about love. Let's put love into action and make it real." Making it real. Putting it into action. That's what John is talking about when he challenges us to love one another.
And this is the most effective means of evangelization. Compassionate sharing of our possessions with those in need while making it clear that these charitable acts arise not from ourselves but from the love of God is the only real way to do evangelism. Or, we might say, we do evangelism by doing love.
So why is it so hard for us to concentrate on this box of love that Jesus wants us to get into? Most of us find it easier to argue with our political opponents than to love them. Most of us are more comfortable taking a stand against abortion than taking care of a woman with a problem pregnancy. Most of us would rather write a check to a homeless shelter than help someone find shelter for the night. Most of us find it so much simpler to define our religious duty in terms of making statements, rather than doing the real work of feeding the hungry, helping the oppressed, clothing the naked, and caring for the sick.
Basically, we are lazy. That is no a surprise to anyone. We take the easy path when we get in the Christian box and put our energy into making statements about war, capital punishment, abortion, and homosexuality. We seem to think that what we say makes us the good guys, but John says, you missed the point. You are outside the box.
For example, we say in South Carolina that we are a family values state. But in South Carolina we have the highest infant mortality rate in the nation. What does that say about our real family values? Not much. I have the feeling that John would say to us, you need to do something. Make love real.
But we need to understand something first. The key to making love real is to realize that love originates in God. John tells us that we know love because Jesus laid down his life for us – that is a truly divine accomplishment (v. 16). John reminds us that God's love lives in us - that's a sacred spark in us (v. 17). John calls us to believe in the name of God's Son Jesus - that's our life-giving link with the Lord (v. 23). John assures us that the Holy Spirit of God abides in us – that makes us a holy habitation (v. 24).
So, if we succeed in loving one another, the credit actually belongs to God, not to us. Any love we show is a sign and a signal that God's love is working through us. We need to remember that. We can help someone for the wrong reasons. I can help them because I want to feel good about me. That is just another form of selfishness. It is not about me. It is about God. Any success we have in loving others stems from the Holy Spirit.
Now, John does not say that we will be blessed by God once we articulate a flawless moral position. He says that we will receive from God whatever we ask "because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him" (v. 22).
In verse 23, he tells us what his commandment are: “that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another.” That's the church box. It's time to jump into that box.
Our world is in desperate need of a church that puts love into action and makes it real. Like customers looking for a good burger or a simple, solid, small car, people are searching desperately for a community that actually practices what it preaches. Over a hundred years ago, the Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard made the point that Jesus is looking for followers, not admirers. Jesus wanted people who would walk with him, do his work, and serve in his name.
One of Kierkegaard's parables told of a man who was walking down a city street when he saw a big sign in a window that said, "Pants pressed here." Delighted to see the sign, he went home, gathered up all of his wrinkled laundry, carried it to the shop, and put it on the counter.
"What are you doing?" the shopkeeper demanded.
"I brought my clothes here to be pressed," said the man, "just like your sign says."
"Oh, you've got it all wrong," the owner said. "We don't actually do that here. We're in the business of making signs. We don't do these things. We just talk about them.”
That, said Søren Kierkegaard, is often the problem in the church. We advertise ourselves as a place that is showing Christ's love and doing Christ's work, but when people show up looking for real love and real Christian action, they don't see it. And we seem to be saying, "Oh, no, we don't love people here. We just talk about loving people here." [Kierkegaard parable told by Samuel Lloyd. "Word and deed." Sermon preached at Washington National Cathedral, September 25, 2005, cathedral.org. ]
Maybe we need to get in the church box, and concentrate on doing what Jesus told us to do. This means helping a brother or sister in need, and loving one another in truth and in action. It means focusing on activities that really show the love of God to people who might be feeling unloved and unlovable. Just as business leaders today need to get back in touch with the true value that they offer their customers, we, the mystical body of Christ, need to reconnect with the valuable gifts that we can offer the world around us.
If we are going to advertise God's love, the best advertisement is to do God's love. It's time to return to “what brung us”: belief in Jesus Christ; love for one another. That is a box we should stay in until we get it right. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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