Monday, May 11, 2015

Reflecting the Face of Jesus

Reflecting the Face of Jesus
1 John 3:16-24[1]
Mirrors have an interesting place in our world. It seems that as long as human beings have been aware of their appearance, there have been some kind of mirrors. And yet, the mirrors we have used to look at ourselves have always to some degree distorted the image they reflect. For example, the image we see is opposite from what others see; right and left are reversed. But as most of the ladies will doubtless know, and perhaps some of the guys too, the kind of lighting can make a huge difference in the way we appear in a mirror. If the lighting is too harsh, we can look pale, washed out, almost ghostly—or some might say ghastly. Yellow lighting softens our features, but if there’s too much yellow it can make us look ill. The plain truth is that mirrors do lie!
But more than the simple mechanics of reflection and lighting is involved here. Because the image we “see” in the mirror is significantly influence by the assumptions we make about our appearance. The same person may look young or old, depending on what details you notice. At the same time, some may see themselves as overweight, while others see themselves as too thin, and there may be very little difference in their actual body shape. Mirrors tend to reflect back what we believe about ourselves. Those assumptions we make about ourselves make all the difference in the world in what we see in the mirror and whether we like what we see or not.[2] Mirrors don’t give us a true image.
In a very real sense, I think our Scripture lesson from 1 John addresses the issue of the way we present the image of Christ to those around us. Earlier in this passage, the Elder says, “This is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (1 Jn. 3:11). It seems very clear that the way we reflect our faith is by showing the love of Jesus to those around us.  I think that’s his point in our lesson for today: “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 Jn. 3:16). Loving others in the same way Jesus loved us is the way we reflect our faith. It is the way we reflect the face of Jesus to others.
Now, love can be something hard to define. Think about it: how do you really describe love? The Scripture lesson describes the kind of love that we are to show one another in terms of “laying down our lives for one another.” That’s getting specific. But I find it particularly interesting that the Scripture lesson goes even further. Reflecting God’s love to others takes place when we have the means to help someone in need and we help them. As the Elder puts it: “ 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 Jn. 3:17). And so he concludes, “ let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 Jn. 3:18).[3]
We may find this kind of language shocking. We’re much more used to talking about loving others in terms that are feeling-oriented. Love is equated with being nice, or having a kind way of relating to others. I’m not sure we’re used to the very tangible way in which the Scripture speaks of loving others—actually sharing what we have with those in need. And in fact, having the ability to share and refusing to do so raises the question as to whether we have truly experienced God’s love. Now, of course, in our world we have to use good judgment in this. We have to discern whether what we are doing is actually helping someone or hurting them. But it seems very clear that reflecting the face of Jesus to the world around us has specific implications for how we relate to those around us.
If this is the case, I have to wonder whether we truly reflect the face of Jesus for the people in our world. Do we truly reflect Jesus’ mercy and compassion for those who are hurting, who perhaps have fallen through the cracks, or have done something terrible that they regret?  It has become almost a cliché to say that we are the only face of the Christian faith that some people will ever have.  We are the only ones who can show them God’s love and mercy and grace. But since that may not be natural or even comfortable for us to do, how can we learn to reflect the face of Jesus?
I think we start by learning to love one another the way Jesus loves us all.[4] That can be pretty hard to do sometimes. But I’m not talking about how we feel towards one another. I’m talking about making a commitment to relate to one another with the love that Christ has shown us.  I think this kind of love begins in the family of faith.[5]  One of the reasons why we’re called to community is so we can learn to “lay down our lives” for one another just as Jesus laid down his life for us. And so loving one another means making a commitment to live the Christian life in this community with one another. Making that kind of commitment to love one another is how we learn to reflect the face of Jesus to those around us.
I think this kind of love takes the same kind of commitment that we bring to a marriage or to a family.  In a family, we love one another through thick and thin, through joy and pain, through fighting and hugging.  We stick with each other, we forgive each other, we let each other off the hook, we work at seeing things from the other point of view, we support and respect and treat one another with dignity.[6] When we can look at one another from that perspective, then we can share the love of Christ with one another. Then we can reflect the face of Jesus to those around us.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/26/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church in Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Henri J. M. Nouwen, Here and Now: Life in the Spirit, 17, where he points out that the “oughts” we cling to “keep us feeling guilty about the past” and the “what ifs” keep us worried about the future, and both keep us from fully experiencing life in the present moment. Cf. also Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 34-35: “All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered.” But he also points out that such a “false self” cannot help but be an illusion, which leads to our disillusionment with ourselves and with life. Cf. also Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step, 64-67, where he discusses this phenomenon in terms of what the Buddhist tradition calls “internal formations.”  He says (p. 65), “Our conscious, reasoning mind knows that negative feelings such as anger, fear, and regret are not wholly acceptable to ourselves or our society, so it finds ways to repress them.” Instead, he encourages us to become aware of them and simply observe them with kindness.
[3] Cf. Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John, 474. He makes it clear that this is the definition of “laying down our lives” for each other. In this, he says that the Elder “is not holding up a new moral demand; rather he is reaching into the heart of Christianity’s Jewish heritage” (cf. Deut. 15:7; cf. Lk. 10:25–37; Jas. 2:15–16). Contrast I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, 195, and Stephen Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 195, both of whom claim that it is unclear what the Elder means by this. Brown points out that the reason this sharing of goods was so important is because the New Testament suggests that the churches of the First Century were for the most part relatively poor and depended on the charity of members with means to supply basic necessities of life (cf. Lk. 6:20–22; Acts 2:44–45; 4:32–37; 1 Cor. 1:26–29; 11:17–22; Jas. 1:9; 2:3, 6, 15–16). 
[4] Cf. G. C. Berkouwer, The Church, 96, where he says that the expression of Christian fellowship both in spiritual and material terms is “a plain understanding of the gospel—in other words, an understanding of the Church as the one body of Christ. … Because He laid down His life, we have come to know love (1 John 3:16), and everything is founded in that.” Therefore he concludes that it is impossible for the heart to “be closed to our brother’s need if it is open to the love of God.”
[5] Cf. Henri J. M. Nouwen, Turn My Mourning into Dancing, 83: “the community is the place where we continue to let the world know there is something to rejoice about in this new life together.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 263, where he says that love that “spends itself and surrenders itself” is the “immanent power of the resurrection” in our lives here and now.
[6] Cf. Paul Tillich, Love, Power, and Justice, 84-86, where he articulates that love’s “first task” in relationships is to listen; then it is to give, whether respect or self-sacrifice; then it is to forgive.  Cf. also Nouwen, Turn My Mourning into Dancing, 75: “Your love for others can be unconditional, without a condition that your needs are gratified, when you have the experience of being loved,” i.e., by God.

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