Intro: Of course he’s nice
What is the most important thing Jesus ever said? Tough one isn’t it? Was it the Sermon on the Mount? The parable of the prodigal son or the good Samaritan? Perhaps his last words on the cross? The fact is Jesus never spoke unimportant words. He wasn’t here for small talk.
I believe, though, if you had to select THE most important words Jesus spoke you would want to listen to how he answered the lawyer who asked him “what is the greatest commandment?” His answer? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.” Pretty important words – but we can’t stop there, because Jesus didn’t stop there. He continued: “And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Mt. 22:37-40).
Love God, love your neighbor. Jesus says everything else in the Bible hangs on those two commandments. They are foundational. Of all the important things, they are the MOST important. If you don’t get those, you just don’t get it. Anything else you believe is invalid if those aren’t bedrock in the way you think and the way you live.
Now, isn’t it interesting that when we start reading John’s short little letter of first John, he tells us that same thing, not just once, but three times. And that doesn’t really tell the whole story, because out of a total of 105 verses in the letter, 32 of them deal specifically with loving your neighbor – almost a third of the letter is devoted to telling us how incredibly important it is that we love each other – and that loving God is embodied in loving our neighbor.
John even uses the language Jesus used when he spoke to his disciples some six decades earlier in the upper room – John 13:35 – “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Turn to 1 John 2:7-8: Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.
He says, this is not a new command – he is reminding them of something they already know, something they have heard over and over, something that is as old as the book of Deuteronomy and beyond.
And yet, in another way, it IS a new command – though they have heard it before, it takes on a new dynamic when it is seen lived out in the life of Jesus. It is new when you start thinking of the implications it has for our life in the church and our relationships in the body.
It is old, but it is not stale and obsolete. It is as new and fresh as spring coming after winter.
We’ve heard the command before, but when Jesus says it, whether you have heard it a thousand times before, there is a dynamic newness to it.
John brings us back into this discussion of light and darkness he began in ch. 1 – “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” (1:6-7).
When we start walking with God, he says “the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.” This fog of sin and darkness starts to lift and we see things the way they really are – we start to see the truth of God’s word, and the truth of this command, John says, “is seen in Him and in you.”
In other words, the proof is in the pudding. You can talk about it all you want and speculate whether that’s right or wrong, true or false, but only when you start living it do you begin to experience the absolute reality of it.
So, here we are loving God and walking in the light, but there are some dangers along the path. People start annoying us, others get in our way, we start to look down on people who aren’t like us.
John says, “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness” (2:9) – 2:11 “Whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him.”
Who is he talking to? Not me! Not you! We don’t hate people. We love people. We aren’t murderers and liars. We don’t go around looking for ways to hurt people and get revenge. John has to be talking about someone else.
But I wonder if perhaps John would let us off the hook so easily. You see, John holds up a standard for us to measure against that is pretty demanding. And in the cultural circumstances in which he wrote there were a lot of underlying currents of tension and animosity that might never have been spoken, but had a tremendous effect on the life of the church.
Paul wrote to many of the same people to whom John wrote, and Paul gives us a few more details of some of those underlying tensions:
• Gal 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
• Col. 3:11 Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
• Rom. 14 – Those who ate meat/didn’t eat meat – celebrated special days/those who didn’t celebrate – despising and condemning one another over their opinions and cultural traditions.
• James - the tensions between the rich and the poor.
• In fact, one of the songs they sang in the throne room of God in Rev. 5, in its praise of the Lamb, illustrates the potential for conflict – “with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
• And God takes all those people with all their differences and piles them together in one church. He’s just asking for problems.
I’m glad we live this side of the cross, and have gotten over the difficulties they used to have with bringing people together who look different and talk different and think different and who bring mistrust and prejudice to that gathering.
Let’s be honest. It is the most natural, human thing in the world to have misgivings about those who are not like us in some way. And that is exactly why God calls us not to respond naturally, but supernaturally. That’s why Paul wrote to the Galatians that none of those differences matter “for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
That is the one thing the church must be able to do differently. If we live surrounded by a world that is divided by race and culture and status and money and gender, the church must be the one place where all of those walls have come down – to use Paul’s words, “he has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.” If our message is to have any impact, the world has to be able to look at the church and say, “they’re getting it right.”
But let’s be honest with ourselves – we might not “hate” people, but there are folks we can’t bring ourselves to love.
G.K. Chesterton said “Jesus tells us to love our neighbors and also our enemies; probably because they are so often the same people.”
The deceptive thing about hate is that it doesn’t always display itself in open hostility, but in passive indifference. We won’t do something mean, we just won’t do anything. Instead of acting hurtful, we’ll just avoid. It’s neat, it’s clean, it’s non-confrontational – and it’s absolutely ungodly.
If we think that by avoiding people and putting on these smiling masks of indifference that somehow we have obeyed the letter of the law to love, we’d better think again.
Love is not the absence of hostility, it is the positive development of relationships. It is the active reaching out to one another because of what we have in common. It is the honest admission of differences and the concerted effort to overcome those differences.
How do you do that? It involves a change of attitude and a change in behavior.
First the attitude:
We can’t just be satisfied with a passive indifference to people. If I’m happy with coming to church, wrapped up in my own little cocoon, untouching and untouchable, not really knowing anybody and not willing to let anybody know me, I am violating God’s will for me. I must be willing to step outside of myself and truly become a part of the family.
And let’s take that a step further. If I have convinced myself that grudges and avoidance are the way to handle people I don’t like, I cannot say I love God. I must be willing to work through problems.
Then the behavior:
There is probably someone you are avoiding because you have had a problem with them in the past. They are probable sitting on the other side of the auditorium or maybe even going to a different congregation because you would rather avoid each other than deal with the problem. Sacrifice your pride, talk with the person, be willing to listen. It will involve confession and forgiveness, probably on both your parts. That’s what God is about, that’s what his church is about.
I read an article this last week on road rage. And I started thinking – that’s what’s going on here – John is talking about spiritual road rage. We’re speeding down the road and we start getting angry at people for being in our way. We get irritated because they don’t do things the way we think they should be done. We run people off the road because they’re slowing us down. We think, “if only people would get out of my way, I could really have a great relationship with God.”
Have you ever noticed how self-righteous people don’t have much use for people? They look down on people and avoid people and think they would do just fine on their own, if they just didn’t have to deal with people.
Here’s the scary part – people who are in this darkness can’t even see themselves. They think what’s happening is someone else’s fault. They can’t see that they can’t see.
What does this mean for us? We need to open our eyes and change our hearts.
People are more important than things, than programs, than convenience, than image. If in the process of “doing church” we run over people and alienate people we are doing it wrong. People were Jesus’ highest priority – people must be the church’s highest priority. People did not get in the way of what Jesus came to do, people were the reason Jesus came, and he never lost sight of that.
Relationships are more important than being right and getting our way. Have you ever won an argument and lost a friend? Have you ever run over somebody to get your way? Count the cost. There are some things that are non-negotiable, some things that are worth taking a stand over – but they are a lot fewer than we think.
People are not an obstacle to our relationship with God – John says people are the path, they are the means to our relationship with God. Vs. 10 – “Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble.” I don’t want to jump too far ahead, but John really nails this point home when we get to chapter 4:11-12 – “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” If you want a close relationship with God, you have to love his people.
There are some difficult people to love – love them anyway. Loving people is not an optional extra – Jesus didn’t say “love those who are easy to love.” In fact, he said just the opposite. He said, anyone can love their friends/those who love them back – it takes someone special to love their enemies. And that is exactly what Christians are called to do – love the unlovable, love the people who don’t love us – go the extra mile, go beyond the call of duty. Love the people only Jesus could love, because that is exactly what Jesus does with us.
Illustration – It is still night
It was an ancient rabbi who asked his students how they could tell when night had ended and day has dawned. "Could it be when you see an animal in the distance and can tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?" "No," answered the rabbi. "Could it be when you look at a tree in the distance and can tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?" "No." "Well, then, when is it?" the students demanded. "It is when you look on the face of a man and see that he is your brother. Because if you cannot do that then no matter what time it is, it is still night."