Abiding in Love
In these weeks that follow Easter, our churches today join the first apostles in their first weeks following Easter. Each year we learn more from them about how to be Easter People - how to live in a new universe following the resurrection of Christ from the dead. They were trying to figure it all out; they talked together and prayed together about it. Some of them had seen the risen Jesus. We might say, “Well, what was left for them to figure out?” Their answer is the same as ours - everything. Who to be and how to live - from the moment of our waking each day until we turn in at night. How do we embody and live out of the transforming fact of resurrection? How shall we treat every person we know? How shall we relate to every person we will never come to know, the world over? What does it mean to follow in Christ’s Way every minute of every day? We make really large choices throughout our lives but we make an infinite number of tiny ones throughout each day of our lives. What does our faith in Christ mean every second ? Like us, the first apostles were living as well as they could without all the answers. They were believing, and they were striving, and they were feeling their way forward with all the integrity they could muster, just like us. They got some things right and they got some things wrong, just like us. Like us, still believing, they lived without all the answers.
Our passage from the First Letter of John provides us with overarching instruction for every situation, every moment, every day: abide in love - live in it, make it your abode, make it the first principle of all that you do, from eating breakfast to driving to studying to working. Inhabit love - always. God commands us to love one another, and when we obey God’s commandments we abide in God and God abides in us - we become the very abode of God. So that’s “all” we have to do, friends: love one another!
But as John’s letter to his friends makes clear, just sitting around with a heart full of affection for others isn’t enough - we have to act on that. We know the quality of people’s love through their actions - and that goes for every entity capable of love in the cosmos. We know the quality of the love of God and Christ though their actions - God, who so loved the world as to send us the Messiah, the way, the truth, and the life, the means to our salvation. And that one who was sent, Jesus of Nazareth, acted out the depths of his infinite love for us by laying down his life for us, his friends. We know the love of God and Christ through their actions - proof positive! How then can we manifest love to others?
John betrays in his letter a total lack of patience for those people who say that they are full of love, and who do absolutely nothing for those in need. John shines a spotlight on conversations in our own day that essentially go like this: “I am full of the love of Christ for you! What a bummer that you’re hungry.” Or, “Jesus loves you and so do I - too bad you don’t have health care; you’d better live healthy!” John shines a spotlight on all of us who would be hypocrites, who have the world’s goods, who see people in need, and quietly wish them well. We would never do that for anyone we really loved. What my children really need, I would do anything to secure for them. A couple of years ago on this campus, there was an initiative by student athletes to get the whole university community to donate blood samples in order to find a medical match for a fellow athlete who needed a life-saving bone marrow transplant. That’s what we do when we love. Other students learned the story recently of one of our campus custodians. The gentleman is from Haiti, and he works several jobs in the Princeton area so that he may send as much money as possible to his home village to build a conduit to bring potable water to that mountain community. The students created fundraisers here to help make that water project complete. That’s what we do when we love. John writes, “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action,” as he reminds us of the concrete actions taken on our behalf by God and Christ. We are to do no less.
I’ve experienced real joy in recent days calling to mind the many, many places where I have seen Christian love in action. Several summers ago, I sat with twenty students on the dirt floor of a shanty in Managua, Nicaragua. The woman of the house, Maria, was talking with extreme humility about her efforts to get electricity, running water, and a chest full of antibiotics for her very poor community of squatters. Maria would never claim to be an exemplar of faith, and she seeks absolutely no attention for herself, but she lives out the Love Commandment of Christ to the fullest. She does not have the world’s goods, and still she extends herself endlessly to meet the needs of others. Just last summer, with another student group, I listened to a woman in a small Cambodian city talk about her efforts at rescuing women who had been trafficked into brothels. (I don’t want to mention even her first name for fear of compromising her very sensitive work.) Posing as a staff person for some kind of health-related non-governmental organization, she would gain entry to the brothels in order to have private conversations with the essentially imprisoned sex workers. She would listen to their stories of being tricked into the brothel - sold by a relative or neighbor (they would later learn) and told they’d be going to the capital for a lucrative job in a garment factory. This rescuer would find out from the teenage girls and young women which ones really wanted to get out of the brothel, as opposed to others who were so ashamed of what had happened to them and so convinced they could never go home (for starters, how would they relate to the close relative or friend who had sold them?) that they felt the only world they now belonged to was the brothel. As my group learned from the rescuer, a deeply faithful Cambodian Christian, it was critical not to use very limited resources rescuing women who would soon voluntarily run back to the brothel. She needed to focus her efforts on those who might truly move into a new life. This woman keeps the rescued brothel workers in her shelter for as long as they need to be in physical, emotional, and spiritual recovery, before they move on to learning wage-earning skills such as hairdressing, waitressing, hotel work (many of them are barely literate). This is love in action. It’s not enough to say that human trafficking happens in one’s society and that’s a shame (and the shameful practice is quite present in the United States). Christians are called to love, “not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” That’s what love requires.
Our vocation, then, Christian friends, is one of life-giving love. The good news for us in our context is that it will likely not cost us our lives, as it did Jesus, Peter, Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, and an unending line of humble people who told the truth rather than watch people suffer. We don’t have to die, and thank God, we simply need to be faithful to whomever is around us . The literal translation of John’s words “refusing to help” are “closing one’s innards.” What an image of shutting down, keeping out, having no compassion. Let us not shut down our guts in the face of others suffering. Let us rather reach out .
Our passage this morning from the Book of Acts reminds us that we can . We are more than equipped already to love in truth and action. It never has to be heroic; it can be very small, and always sincere. Peter is not the kind of guy who should be able to heal, teach, and build a Christian community that quickly goes from 12 to 120 to 3000 to 5000. Through faith, Peter has the power to inhabit and to share life-giving love. Abiding in love, he can live out and can spread love . We already have that power ourselves. It’s not about how we feel about ourselves, but about how God sees us. We act our way into our potential, rather than getting there through solidifying our confidence or even our belief. We act, and as we act, we realize we’re doing it. In the Book of Acts , we see that very, very regular people do extraordinary things simply because they act out of love. Regular, daily, average, boring people do regular, daily, average, boring, loving, transforming, helping, compassionate things. God has given each of us regular people so much love to share, who are we to withhold it from those who hunger for it? When we share love, we abide in love, we abide in God, and God abides in us. Here it is again, Christ’s great commandment - to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Our calling on earth is to live out our love. That’s all!
Acts 4:5-12 (Mitzi J. Smith), I John 3:16-24 (Brian Peterson), www.workingpreacher.org , 4/29/12.
Acts 4:5-12, I John 3: 16-24, Feasting on the Word, ed. David L. Barlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year B, Vol. 2.