To boldly give ourselves away
Text: First John
The Scriptures give us many ways to talk about God - God Almighty, God as shield, God as Father, God as wisdom. And about Jesus - as Messiah, savior, shepherd, prince of peace. But there is one descriptor that for many of us transcends all others: God is Love.
Our presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, deploys this metaphor often. He describes Christian life as literally following The Way of Love. Jesus is the Way and his Way is Love, as he writes in his most recent book. And he is very fond of saying, when we are called to test out something happening in our world in light of Jesus’s teaching: if it’s not about love, then it’s not about God.
And Bishop Curry didn’t just make that up a few years ago. It’s right here in the First Letter of John that we hear today. A few verses into the the next chapter comes the very line: for God is love.
But for Bishop Curry as it was for the letter writer, love is not about feelings - not about words or speeches. It is about action. We know God’s love by God’s action, that God incarnate, Jesus, laid down his life for us. Love entails sacrifice. And we ourselves as we follow Jesus are also called to love in action. Sacrificial action. People know our love by our actions.
When the letter writer asks: 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? Then we know we’ve gotten our marching orders.
The community for which this letter was written was literally trying to survive. The followers of Jesus had first separated from Judaism, and then the community itself split over doctrine, about what believing is and how believers are supposed to act or not act, and who was in or out of the community. And so the elder who wrote the letter tried to go back to the very basics - that being a Christian means believing that God is love (and therefore Jesus is Love) and that the life of the Christian is about giving from what we have to those who have need.
That’s a pretty bold move, that in the face of the possibility that your beloved community may not survive, your call is to sacrificial action, to give from what you have when others have need. A pretty bold move.
In the last few weeks, I’ve had conversations with church folks here and church folks around the diocese and indeed around the country who are expressing apprehension about the future. After several years of declining membership and attendance and shrinking budgets, and then getting hit with a year or more of pandemic restrictions, we are all wondering about our future. It seems like more than a few of our parishioners have simply disappeared in this last year. How many of them will come back? How much more will we have contracted by next fall? Are we in danger? Is our survival in doubt? I hear frustration and I hear fear. A lot of fear. What will happen to us?
And then there are our anxieties about the world around us, a world that is deeply divided, where trust has eroded and unity is just a nice word that nobody thinks we can achieve about anything as a society. There is conflict and there are so many divisions, even among Christians.
And so it was for John’s community. Their very survival was in doubt - indeed, it appears that their dwindling community that had been wrecked by dissension became subsumed into another, larger and more stable community by the next generation.
But in the face of dissension and lack of trust and a great deal of fear about the future, John maintained that following the Way of Love is the only way for the community to remain faithful to Jesus. Sacrificial love, giving from their own treasure to help others, not just believing in Jesus but imitating Jesus by being willing to give everything away, that is the point. Not the dissension, not the doctrine, and certainly not the reliance on themselves to save themselves, but emptying themselves and trusting that God would see them through the storms that swept through their community, that was how they walked in the Way of Love.
We have many assets here in our community, as a congregation and as individuals. And John’s letter reminds us that our work is not to hoard those assets, to hold on to them as if they will bring us eternal life, but to give them to those who need them. And so last week we spent three days hosting seven communities who sent one of their own here to be ordained a Deacon in the church. And next week we are hosting a Coptic Orthodox congregation needing a place to hold their Holy Week services - a reminder that more than a thousand years of schism between the Eastern and Western branches of the church remains a reality as the East celebrates Easter using a different calendar than our Western one. This summer we are hosting an arts camp on our grounds. We are finding ways to give of ourselves for the well being of others.
In these days of anxiety it is easy to try to draw ourselves inward, to protect what we have, to downsize our work and our expectations to fit our budget and our numbers. Maybe we even allow ourselves to be tempted to spout off that quote so many people think is in the Bible but actually is not: that God helps those who help themselves. But we are reminded today that that is not walking the Way of Love. That is not practicing selflessness, not giving to those who need what we have more than enough of. The Bible says that God helps those who cannot help themselves. And God uses us through which to provide that help.
If we are to be the beloved community, then every day we must ask ourselves this question: 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? No, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. For God is love and so must we be in this world full of dissension and factions and fear. We must be bold and give ourselves away, trusting that God will see us through.