1 John 3:11-18
11 For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. 12 Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. 15 Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.
16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
The victory parade of Jesus defeating death still continues. Whatever happened to you this week or last, whatever health trouble, work trouble, relationship trouble, financial trouble, or emotional trouble you have been dealing with does not diminish the truth of the gospel, that good news that says Jesus saves you. No matter what has been ailing you spiritually, physically, or emotionally, you have a God who loves you to the point where he would let himself be arrested, tortured, and murdered so that you would not have to face the punishment for your sins. And this God conquered death so that you get to talk about heaven as your very real, very certain, very perfect, very eternal home. That is God’s love for you.
Let that sink in… God loves me to death, literally to hell, and then back again. You know, that really works for me. I like that a lot. Nothing can separate God’s love from me. With my sin, I put unnecessary and unhelpful distance between God and myself. I might ignore him at times. I do things I shouldn’t, but God will still love me and want me to live with him forever. He will still work through his Word to call me, to shatter my stony heart, to waken me from slumber, to turn my darkness to light. He will still be the God who died for me and rose again.
Do you know what that’s called? When someone does not base their love for me on my performance but loves me simply because they want to, that’s called grace. And with God’s grace there’s no fine print. There’s no obligations. There is nothing that can change that kind of love called grace, because it’s not about me and who I am and what I do, it’s about God and who he is and what he does.
Like I said, that works for me. God has a personal knowledge of me. He has a personal way of dealing with me. I’m not just a name on a long list. I’m not just a number. As Luther put it, “God has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts. Sanctified and kept me in the one true faith.” That’s a good thing for me to cherish when I feel weary and burdened. That’s a good thing for me to hold onto when I feel alone.
But sometimes I’m selfish and I take it too far. You do, too. I like that God knows me and loves me, but I can put too much attention on me. I like that God is on my side, and in this self-obsessed, ego-infatuated, me-myself-and-I world, I put the focus on this relationship between God and me, failing to enjoy the fact that God has this kind of relationship with others, too.
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” That’s a key word at the end. Yes, I have a personal relationship with my Savior. He brought me to faith and I now stand with him and will live with him forever. But it’s not just me and him. That pronoun is a first person pronoun, but’s it’s plural. It’s “us!” That means Jesus loves more than me.
For the selfish heart that stubbornly says, “My faith is between me and God,” the fact is faith in Jesus connects us into a family. Did you catch that in this letter John wrote. John says “brothers and sisters” and “dear children.” God’s grace called us by the gospel of Jesus Christ into his family. That means there are others. And these others are not foreign or strange. They are family. They were bought with the same blood of Christ. They were baptized into the name of the same Triune God. They were called, enlightened, and sanctified by the same Spirit. They are built on the same solid foundation of God’s truth. These fellow believers enjoy the same message of law and gospel. They have the same eternal home waiting for them. That lasts a lot longer than the family relationships we have on earth.
How does this family operate? Is it a smile and a nod once in a while at church? Is that how family works? Is it nice words? Some small talk with coffee and doughnuts? A congratulations at a baptism? A birthday greeting on facebook? That just doesn’t sound like the way a family works, does it?
John says, “we should love one another.” What exactly is the definition of love John is using? Is it attraction, like a teenager trying to get a date for prom? Is it a positive feelings for someone, like waving to your neighbors across the street? Is it familiarity from spending a lot of time together, like a son mimicking his father? Is that what love is? That is not even close to the way God is using it here.
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” That’s how God loves people. He shows his love in actions. He shows love by doing such amazing things for people who do not deserve it. He sacrifices himself. That is love. That is the love that exists in the family of God, as John continues, And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”
Love is being willing to lay aside your preferences, your opinions, your goals, your time, your energy, even your whole being for someone else. Love is not just saying they matter more, but showing it. And this section is not addressed to spouses – although it certainly applies – it is addressed to those within the family of God.
But families don’t always get along, do they? They don’t always have this kind of love. In fact, in a family it can get downright nasty. Did you hear that example of Cain and Abel? Cain didn’t have the right attitude toward God or toward his brother. Maybe he thought he could keep it hidden from Abel. But God saw it all clearly.
God still sees it clearly. He sees when it’s not just a busy schedule that separates his people, but careless selfishness. He sees when it’s just the lips moving and the heart is ice cold. What is happening to God’s family, when brothers and sisters cannot love one another with joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control? We are just like Cain. We are self-obsessed. We are ignorant and arrogant. We are killing love.
Do you know what that is called when you kill love with hatred, with jealousy, with slander, with gossip… It’s called murder. And if there is one thing this world loves, it’s hate. Hatred toward people who lean politically. Hatred toward people of different creeds. Hatred toward different races and ethnicities. It’s killing us. It’s killing our world and it works its way among even God’s people.
And so into our world of hate, the love of God pierced the darkness. It began with a promise to Cain’s parents, that hatred would not cut God off from his people, but God would put the hatred between his people and Satan (enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers). The love of God shined brightly the night Jesus entered our world. Angels sang of peace between God and men. The love of God walked the earth, willing to show kindness and goodness to all, even the enemies who hated him. The love of God allowed those enemies to kill Jesus, so that we would know what God’s love does for us. But the love of God did not end in death. Jesus passed from death to life. He would not let hate ruin his kingdom. With love, his death brought forgiveness and peace. He would not let his people be ruled by evil and sin. With love, Jesus destroyed sin, death, and hell.
I have a new life in Christ and so do you. We have this life where there is peace with God and each other, a life where Christ lives in us through faith, a life where hatred does not control us, a life where I look for ways to show the love of God to my brothers and sisters the way God showed his love to me.
There is a world of people just like Cain, who cannot understand this sort of thing. It’s foreign, nonsense. They don’t know Christ or care about him so how can they have his love in their hearts? Instead, they serve themselves. They hate any opposing view that does not fit their own.
Brothers and sisters, that is not us. We are not ruled by what we hate. We are ruled by the love of God. We are so saturated with it, that we cannot possibly keep it in. God’s love will never just be a me and God thing. It will always be a God and us thing. It will always be giving up what I want because God gave himself up for me. I will put the needs of others first.
This love that flows from God through us will be visible. It will be visible in this family of believers here. It will be visible like good fruit is visible on a tree. People will see your joy that exists not because everything in life is going smoothly, but because sins are forgiven and life in heaven is yours. People will see your kindness, that isn’t looking for a reward but desires to help others in need. People will see your faithfulness, that even though we live in fickle times, the risen Lord keeps us steadfast. These brothers and sisters will see it and rejoice that God’s love can do such things.
That’s gospel ministry. That’s the life we have in this victory parade. Love is what defines us, God’s undying love that called us out of the darkness of hate and brought us into the light of life. As Christ has love you, now you love one another. God grant it. Amen.