I John 3:16-24
Last week my son came by to help me trim out the windows in the basement. Well, that is not exactly accurate. The truth is I handed my son tools while he trimmed out my windows. After all if work must be done, why not do it right. We made the obligatory trip to Home Depot to purchase the needed materials. On approaching the check-out line we both had our hands and pockets full of supplies. I paid the clerk and was in the parking lot before realized I had walked out of the store with an unpaid tube of Liquid Nail in my back pocket. I promptly returned to the checkout counter to confess my transgression.
When I held up the tube of glue the woman at the register immediately apologized. “I am so sorry. What did I do wrong?”
I explained the mistake was mine, not hers. She responded by saying, “You walked out of the store with an unpaid item and you came back to pay for it?”
She then started to gush, “Oh my gosh; what an honest person you must be.” As I paid for the Liquid Nails I thought to myself, “This world has gone to hell in a hand basket if adults are praised for doing what they are suppose to do?”
The composer of I John wrote, “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” I like to think I am somewhat of a theologian. Part of my vocation is to grapple with scripture and somehow make it come alive in a culture 2,000 years and 6,000 miles apart. Words are my tools. Sometimes I use words to offer comfort or assurance. Sometimes I use words to create a spirited debate. The writer of I John is curious to know if the words of my tongue match the actions of my hands and feet. Is the writer of First John asking if I practice what I preach? Yes, but he is also suggesting something far more complicated. The writer of this wonderful letter is saying, “You preach the story of one who laid down his life for you. Are you willing to lay down your life for someone other than yourself?”
I know what you must be thinking. How did we get from Liquid Nails to self-sacrifice?
Let me begin by saying not everyone is cut out to be a martyr. I am sure folks like Oscar Romero or Bonheoffer did not wake up one morning and decide being executed was number one on their bucket list. I am equally sure one can lay down their life and still live to see another morning. In fact, the morning you witness might be brighter than any you have ever imagined.
Ronald Cole-Turner writes, “For those of us who dare to identify ourselves as Christians, self-sacrifice for another ought to be an ordinary occurrence. We lay down our lives when we put others first. We lay down our lives when we make time for others. We lay down our lives when we allow God to orient our lives toward the needs of others.”
The writer of this letter was a student of the writer of the Gospel of John. One of the characteristics of that particular gospel is the presupposition that just being a believer in Jesus is not enough. If you believe you must follow, and by doing so, your actions will begin to reflect the truths of the one we now call Christ.
A central character in the Gospel of John is the disciple Peter. He was the spokesman for the disciples. During the ministry of Jesus, Peter had a propensity for always speaking for the rest of the disciples. But in the case of Peter, his talk was cheap in the moment of a crisis. The night Jesus was arrested, Peter denied even knowing Jesus.
It is no coincidence the Gospel of John concludes with Jesus having a final conversation with Peter. The Good Shepherd asked his wayward disciple, “Do you love me?” Peter, so full of guilt, had waited days to unload the shame that had paralyzed his soul. “Lord, you know I love you.”
Do you remember how Jesus responded? He didn’t say, “Believe in me.” He didn’t say, “Go back to the courtyard and confess your sin.” He didn’t even say, “Peter it’s OK, everyone messes up.” Jesus looked Peter in the eye and said, “Feed my sheep. Become who I am, a shepherd to the lost, the lonely, the hungry and those who are afraid.”
No Old Testament text is universally loved more than the 23rd Psalm. While it is closely associated with funerals it was initially a song written to celebrate life. Furthermore it is more than just a Psalm depicting the role of God. In the Hebrew tradition, shepherd was a title traditionally given to the King. If the King led the nation to still waters he was considered worthy to wear the crown. If instability erupted, the good shepherd was the one who protected his subjects, even if became necessary to sit with his enemies and break bread. The Kings of Judah were judged on their acts of justice and mercy rather than their cleverness with the tongue or the sword.
In the New Testament, Jesus is celebrated as the new shepherd. He is the one who will negotiate the way through turbulent waters and even death. But like the kings of old, Jesus is no longer among us. In more than a symbolic act Jesus took the mantle of the shepherd and passed it down to Peter and said, “Those who believe, follow. And those who follow are commanded to act.”
Peter and the disciples are no longer with us. But the mantle of a shepherd continues to be passed from one Christian to another, from one generation to another, from one century to another. Today I dare to suggest this mantle has been passed to you. Today I dare to suggest Psalm 23 is now going to sound something like this:
We who love Jesus cannot hide our eyes from the complexities of this world.
The troubled heart or the burdened soul longs for a word of comfort or hope but mostly it longs for a quiet ear.
Streets that are safe for us are like dangerous rapids to others. Be it a child or an African-American male, our presence, our friendship, could quell those turbulent waters.
Our table should never be exclusive. Let us be open to the prayers of our friend and enemies. Perhaps in prayer together, the cup of peace will overflow rather than run dry.
There is so much hunger, and poverty, and distrust, and anger toward others. As the Shepherd, if we are giving and forgiving, if we are benevolent and caring, if we are merciful as we seek the mercy of others, perhaps those who have reluctantly followed, might be given permission to lead, as together we can celebrate the wholeness we each have received through God’s gift of grace.
It will never be good enough just to sing this song. We must live it with the anticipation that one day honesty will be expected, fairness will be the norm and acts of kindness will become contagious.
I believe when we act justly, when we speak without rancor, when we respond to the plight of another without condemnation, we will feel the life-blood of Christ pulsating through our hearts. Our hands will become energized, not just to work for, but with those who have been destined, sometimes by their own actions, to a life of mental and physical poverty. Through our self-sacrifice, through doing the right thing consistently, those who are lost might aspire to be more than the social order has determined them capable of becoming.
Bonheoffer, who never intended to die a martyr, spoke and lived these words even as his death was being ordered.
Dare to do what is right, not what fancy may tell you, valiantly grasping occasions not cravenly doubting.
Freedom comes only through deeds and not through thoughts taking wing.
Faint not, fear not, but go out to the storm, trusting in God whose commandments you faithfully follow.
Freedom, exultant, will welcome your spirit with joy.
To God be the glory, Amen.