Sunday, May 06, 2012

Living Witnesses

Living Witnesses
1 Jn. 4:7-21[1]
It’s not hard to see when we look around us that we find ourselves living a world in which a lot of people are looking for love in all the wrong places.  We are one of the most connected generations of all time, and yet we are more isolated from those around us, more separated from friends, family, God, and even ourselves, and therefore lonelier than any generation of humankind.  In a recent article, one observer argued that all of our “connectedness” through social media like Facebook is in fact only an unsatisfying substitute for real relationships.[2]  The study shows that it seems the more “connected” we are through our social networks, the more lonely we’re actually likely to be!
We who have looked to the church as a place of community are, to some extent, more fortunate than most.  Communities of faith like ours serve as extended families and support groups for many of us.  But I think even those of us who continue to actively participate in church would have to admit that the Church doesn’t always do a very good job of practicing the central command that we love one another as we love ourselves.  Sadly, as much as we might wish it were not true, in the church we are all too often guilty of “shooting our wounded.”
Our lesson from 1 John for today suggests that we look to a different source to meet our needs for love.  The elder John calls us to love one another based on the fact that God is love and is the source of love.  More than that, John points to the ultimate demonstration of God’s love in Jesus.  There is some significant theology behind this.  We call it the incarnation, the belief that in Jesus, God somehow came to walk in our shoes, to experience the fullness of our suffering, our struggles, and even our loneliness. Through this amazing demonstration of love, John says that we come to know and “believe in” the love God has for us (1 Jn. 4:16). 
Now, I think the theology of incarnation is an important basis for understanding God’s love for us.[3]  But I doubt seriously that most of us came to know and “believe in” God’s love for us in the first place through dogma.  It seems to me that most of us come to know and “believe in” God’s love because somebody at some point or another in our lives served as a “living witness” of God’s love.[4]  And because we have received that love, that means that we in turn have the opportunity in each and every interaction with other human beings to be the one who helps them know and believe in God’s love for them.
Unfortunately, we often fall short in this. Even in the earliest days, the church fell short.  John the elder, who says that anyone who doesn’t love a brother or sister cannot love God (1 Jn. 4:20), also attacks people who had separated from his community over doctrinal disagreement (1 Jn. 2:22-23).  In fact, he condemns them as “antichrists” (1 Jn. 3:18-19) and children of Satan (1 Jn. 3:10)!  Doesn’t sound like there’s much love there.[5] But if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to confess that we have all been there.  We have all fallen short of relating to those around us as living witnesses of God’s love.
 I myself have to confess that I have in fact cherished hatred in my heart toward other human beings.  The sad thing about it is that when we retreat behind our walls of bitterness and hatred, we are only increasing the isolation, the separation, and the loneliness in our world.  And we do it by isolating and separating ourselves from the world of humanity around us—a world crying out for some indication that there is someone out there somewhere who cares about them, who loves them, who values them as human beings.[6]
But because we know and believe in the love God has for us, we have the opportunity to turn all that around every time we encounter another person.[7]  We have the opportunity to choose compassion, to choose to be living witnesses of God’s love for that person.  We talk a lot about God’s love; we sing songs about God’s love; God’s love and grace and mercy are at the center of our whole approach to Christian faith.  But the real question is whether we actually show that love toward the real-life people we relate to everyday. 
The challenge is that relating to other human beings can be a messy proposition; even on Facebook our relationships can get complicated.  But that’s the way life is.  It’s complicated; it can hurt to relate to another human being; it’s frustrating and challenging to try to show love.  And that’s precisely why God’s incredible love for us calls us to love each other.  God’s love for us calls us to enter into the messy, complex world of flawed people and live as witnesses to God’s love for each and every one of them.[8]

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/6/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Stephen Marche, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” The Atlantic (May 2012):60-69. He cites a 2004 study that suggested 25 percent of Americans reported that they had nobody they could talk to, and 20 percent only had one confidant!
[3] Cf. D. Moody Smith, First, Second and Third John, 107; cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1:275: “The love of God, or God as love, is therefore interpreted in 1 Jn. 4 as the completed act of divine loving in sending Jesus Christ.”  See further, Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 83.
[4] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 127: “All human relationships, …, are meant to be signs of God’s love for humanity as a whole and each person in particular. … Jesus reveals that we are called by God to be living witnesses of God’s love.”
[5] Cf. Raymond Brown, The Epistles of John, 85.
[6] Cf. Smith, First, Second and Third John, 108: “Apart from love shared, whether by God for us or by ourselves for one another, it is meaningless to inquire about God’s reality or being.” (!)
[7] Cf. Paul Tillich, “The Golden Rule,” in The New Being, 30: “For the other one and I and we together in this moment in this place are a unique, unrepeatable occasion, calling for a unique unrepeatable act of uniting love.”  Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 121: “Christians must show the friendship of Jesus in openness for others and totally.”
[8] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 115: “if we say ‘God is love,’ that means we are expected to get off our haunches and do something, make that truth happen, amidst our sisters and our brothers.”

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