Easter 4B April 26, 2015
The young woman stood in the doorway, looking embarrassed. I hadn’t seen her in nearly a year. As I looked up her records from the last time she had come to ask for help, I hoped I had made some notes about her story that would jog my memory. When I found her papers in my Emergency Assistance file, my heart sank.
A few months after I began this appointment, I set a limit on how many times a person could receive vouchers for food and gas, and she had already met that limit.
At the time, setting a limit seemed the right thing to do. I had come to realize that several people had let the church become part of their monthly income stream. What we gave them couldn’t really be called “emergency assistance” anymore, because it had become part of their regular budget. They spent what income they received from other sources on entertainment instead of groceries, because they knew they could get groceries through the church.
Maybe I was being too judgmental, but I didn’t think it was good stewardship to use our emergency assistance fund to support poor lifestyle choices. So I set a limit. Three times, and you’re done. I figured someone who was really experiencing a temporary financial emergency would not need help for more than three months in a row. Ninety days ought to be enough time to get back on track. People who kept coming back time and again needed more than a voucher for groceries. They needed an entire life transformation. If they wanted to come talk with me about faith, my door was open. But my voucher file was closed.
And now, here this woman stood, near tears, desperate for whatever I could offer her. She’d tried everything she knew, and I was her last hope. It had been nearly a year since she’d been in my office. Couldn’t I do something?
When Jesus was teaching and healing during the early part of his ministry, there were times when the needs around him seemed overwhelming, too. In Matthew’s gospel we read, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). The fourth Sunday of Eastertide is called Shepherd Sunday. We recite Psalm 23, and remember that Jesus is our good shepherd, willing to lay down his life for us, the sheep of his flock.
This morning’s passage from First John echoes these words from the gospel, but John calls us to be more than simple sheep when we choose to follow Jesus.
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. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
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. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us. – 1 John 3:16-24
In these few verses, John touches on some themes we have already heard – God’s deep love for us, abiding in that love, believing that Jesus is the Son of God who died to save us from our sins, obeying Christ’s commands. As these themes weave themselves together, John moves toward the big point he wants to make clear, before his letter takes another direction. John’s big point is this: there’s only one thing you need to believe – Jesus is God’s Son, and you can tell that he loves you because he laid down his life for you. Now go show that kind of love to each other. It’s that simple.
Right, we nod. It’s that simple. But as we ponder what John means here, we begin to wonder. How, exactly, are we supposed to lay down our lives for each other? Does he mean we need to die for one another, just as Jesus did? But wait, didn’t Jesus die for all of us? How will our dying for each other prove anything? Let’s take a look at these verses again, to see what John is telling us about love, faith, and obedience.
First, love. John writes, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” (3:16)
When Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins, he went all out. He held nothing back, but sacrificed his own life for our sakes. John’s point is that we need to be so committed to sharing God’s love that we are willing to give our entire being to that purpose. Our lives are to be “a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1), with all the attention we would normally give to satisfying our own desires redirected toward loving each other.
“Laying down our lives” may mean sacrificing busy schedules that keep us too occupied to notice another’s need. Laying down our lives might mean setting aside our own personal agenda, so that we can be part of someone else’s life, and invite them to be part of ours. Laying down our lives could be taking the time to listen to someone who is hurting. Laying down our lives isn’t so much about dying for someone else, as it is living for someone else, putting their needs ahead of our own as an act of love.
And then John gets real. “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.” (3:17)
Loving in truth and action means sacrifice – but it isn’t always the kind of action or sacrifice you’d expect.
That woman who came to my door, looking for help, wasn’t unique. I see a dozen or so people just like her every month. They’ve reached the end of their rope, and the knot they tied in the end of it, so they’d have something to hang onto, has come unraveled. They are slipping. They are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Many times, I can’t help them. They need a place to live, or the utilities have been shut off. Their only car has broken down. The needs are overwhelming, and they are always urgent. Offering these people a voucher for $20 worth of groceries, knowing they will have to walk 20 blocks to redeem it, breaks my heart.
While I know that some of the people who come to me have made up a story they think will gain my sympathy, and some of those stories are so obviously untrue I have a hard time keeping a straight face as I listen to them, I also know that some of the heartbreaking stories I hear are very true. I know because I’ve already read about them in the newspaper.
And while I know that many of the people who come to me for help are only there because they have made really poor choices, I also know that some of the people who come to me are truly victims of circumstance. They’ve been living by the skin of their teeth for so long, they don’t know any other way to live. When a catastrophe strikes, they have no reserves, no way to handle it without some help.
What’s the best way for those of us who have plenty to help others in need – not only material needs, but the deeper layers of need that cause brokenness and pain, that send people into a cycle of poverty? How can we invest ourselves in their lives, and share our lives with them to meet the deepest need of all: to know Christ and follow him?
Offering a voucher for groceries or gas does very little to solve the root problems of poverty and hunger. Poverty of spirit is a greater need than financial poverty, but sometimes the two are very closely related. Sometimes – hard as it may sound – the most sacrificial, loving thing we can do is refuse to settle for putting a band-aid on the problem. Sometimes saying “no” to a request is the most loving thing we can do.
As we listen for the underlying cause of a person’s poverty, we need to realize that it takes a long time to get past the layers of denial and feeling victimized that often accompany deep need. These layers have built up over time, to protect the person from pain and shame. We can avoid shaming people who come to us for help, when we recognize them as our brothers and sisters.
Instead of seeing ourselves as the generous benefactor, and others as the poor recipient of our generosity, we can start seeing each person we meet as a beloved child of God, precious in God’s eyes, created in God’s likeness, just as we are. Recognizing that each person has something to offer to the community of faith, we begin to see everyone as a contributor in some way to our common good as the body of Christ.
Caring for one another is something we do within the community of faith. The danger here is that the church can become inwardly focused, taking care of ourselves more than the world we were put here to serve. But just as the airlines tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else, and Jesus says to pull the log out of your own eye before trying to remove the splinter from someone else’s eye, so we need to make sure that we are taking good care of one another in this congregation, even as we reach out to others, drawing them into our fellowship.
Sometimes, we will fail. Sometimes we just don’t do a very good job of paying attention to the needs of others, because our own needs are so great. When we doubt our own capacity to love, and beat ourselves up for not seeing the need around us, God is gracious. John writes that Christ “will reassure our hearts whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” (v. 20) He knows our desire to follow him, even when we fail at it, and we can go to him in confidence that he will respond to our desire to do his will.
Our assurance that Christ abides in us and we in him is grounded in our obedience to his command: believe that Jesus is God’s Son, and love each other sacrificially. That’s a single command, by the way. Believing in Christ and loving each other is all one thing. It’s that simple.
And it takes practice. New ways of thinking and living require lots of conscious repetition before they become habits. Laying down our lives to take up a life of love does not come naturally to us. We are self-centered human beings, after all. But John reminds us that the Holy Spirit is right there with us, to guide us toward this kind of living, this way of loving.
This is how we make disciples for the transformation of the world: recognizing that every person we encounter is a beloved child of God who brings value to the world, taking the time and energy to draw attention to that person’s value, so he or she can see just how great the Father’s love really is.
Jane Goodall, who has dedicated her life to studying chimpanzees, once said, “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” Christ calls us to make a difference by being different. Loving others is not enough in itself, or everyone who showed love could claim to be a Christian. Loving others as an act of faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who laid down his life for all of us, transforms us into the people God created us to be. Laying down our lives brings us closer to the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.
The young woman sat next to my desk, and told me her story. She described everything that had happened in the months since I had seen her last. She knew coming to me was a long shot, that she had used up all her available options. “I know you probably can’t help me with groceries, but could you at least pray for me? When you did that the last time, it really seemed to help,” she said. So we prayed together for all the needs she had shared. And I broke my own rule, and wrote her out another voucher for groceries and gas. It seemed pretty small, given her circumstances, but she was grateful. I invited her to supper on Wednesday night. She hasn’t shown up yet, but that isn’t what matters.
What matters is that she heard someone say, “You have value. You are God’s own beloved child.”
“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” – if only for a few minutes at a time, as we learn more and more how to live as followers of Jesus. “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.”