John appears to be hunting big game today—perhaps the favorite target of everyone sensitive to religious excesses. As far as the quarry goes, it’s huge, slow, and tough to miss. As I said last week, I don’t know of any studies, but just going on my own experience, I’d be willing to bet that it’s the most frequently cited reason for giving up on Christianity—either leaving the church or deciding never to start up.
Oh sure, some will say that the problem of evil sits at the top of the list. And other folks will mention the church’s irrelevance in a modern, scientific culture. But for my money, you’d have a hard time beating hypocrisy as the favorite choice of the religiously disenchanted.
So, when John says, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action,” it seems he’s on the trail, about to bag the big one. Seems pretty clear what he’s getting at, doesn’t it? Word and speech occupy the realm of the fluffy and insubstantial on this reading.
You know what I’m talking about. Show me a sermon, don’t preach me one. Conventional wisdom in some circles has it that the church is populated with hypocrites—people who’ve got the “word and speech” part down, but are a little light on the “truth and action.”
When I was in middle school, we got a new student from the other side of the state—Benny Wesley. Benny was a nice guy. We liked him. But, man, he told some whoppers. He said he was related to Magic Johnson, that he played pick-up ball with NBA players over the summer. That kind of stuff.
One day, Benny was late to school. We asked him where he’d been.
“Well, man, it was awful. I was walking to school, like I always do. I looked up, and saw this red Ferrari coming down the road, straight at me—like 100 miles an hour. I didn’t have time to do anything, so I jumped up straight in the air—and that car went right under me. The thing is, I didn’t get quite high enough, and the roof clipped my heel. I flipped like three times, and landed in the ditch. I don’t know how long I was there. When I finally woke up, I was a little wobbly. But I knew I had to come to school—so here I am.”
“Where are the marks. You look fine to me.”
“I got hurt mostly on the inside—where the marks don’t show. Dude, I was lucky. I coulda been killed.”
Ever know anybody like that? So many stories—too good to be true stories—you find it hard to believe them.
The first question that pops into your head is, “How do I know that’s true?” I mean, anybody can say stuff like that, right? The world is full of people claiming to be something they’re not. Talk’s cheap. You don’t get to be that interesting in my mind until I’ve seen some results.
We learn early on to navigate the world, more or less, in precisely this fashion. You remember from the playground. There was always that kid who was your rival. There was this kind of competition. Unlike many adults, for whom the response to rivals is passive-aggression—kids haven’t yet learned all the subtle nuances and are completely satisfied with just plain old active-aggression.
“I’m faster than you.”
“I can draw better than that.”
And what’s the standard reply to the “my old man can beat up your old man” strategic assault?
“Oh, huh. Prove it.”
So when John throws out “truth and action,” over against “words and speech,” we figure he’s calling Christians on their claim to commitment: “Prove it,” John says.
And that’s just it, isn’t it? On a casual reading, it looks like he’s merely saying, “Refrain from being a hypocrite. It’s more important to do it than to talk about it.” And, to be honest, I have some sympathy for that reading—except, of course, when it can be applied to me . . . which is, like, almost never.
But you know what I’m saying. Gandhi said, “Be the change you want the world to see”—the implication of which is, “Don’t just talk about change—do something.”
I’m sold. Part of my job as a minister is to convince people that that’s true. We’ve got things that need doing around here, and I’m supposed to persuade you to do them.”
On the other hand, I also get paid to muck around in a garden of “word and speech,” so I don’t want to walk exclusively down the other side of the street. In fact, I’d make the case that words are a form of action. I believe words do things. They don’t just fill the space between our mouths and our ears.
In Hebrew the word davar stands for both word and act. When God speaks a word in the Jewish Scriptures, for instance, God’s already acted. When God says, “I will bless you,” God doesn’t say, “I intend to bless you—all things being equal and the transmission problems on my Volkswagen don’t turn out to be serious.” Rather, for God to speak a word is already to have that word realized, enacted, alive, moving.
Jesus stands right smack in the middle of what John is trying to say in our text for this morning. Rather than merely arguing against hypocrisy (Who, after all, would argue in favor of it?), John is driving at something else.
Notice the parallel construction of verse 18: “word and speech” are set against “truth and action.” In other words, John opposes “word and truth,” and “speech and action.”
Now, of course, we get the “speech vs. action” part—the hypocrisy clause. What seems less clear is the “word vs. truth” part. In the binary truth/word, “word” obviously means falsehood. That is to say, John’s not criticizing words in general, as necessarily inferior to action, but rather words that are spoken falsely.
But what kind of truth is John after? What kind of action would qualify, on John’s reading of things, as truth?
Simply put, according to John, those actions are true that are loving. We act in truth when we act in love.
We hear that, though, and we say (rightfully, I think), “Loving in what sense? Love how?”
We live in a culture that has systematically worked love over—from “Love is all you need” to “What’s love got to do with it?” from “Love is the answer” to “Love stinks.” So, we may be forgiven for wondering just how it is that “love” answers the question about truthful action. After all, a lot of horrible, unspeakable things are done in the name of love. People kill and manipulate and abuse, claiming love as the motivation—so love as a generic principle proves less than satisfactory as a set of moral guidelines.
But John doesn’t let love stand alone—a word seeking content. He puts some flesh on it, “We know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” According to John, we aren’t to love falsely by saying pretty things, while living another way.
We love in “truth and action,” the way Jesus did—which is to say, sold-out for those on the margins—the despised and the destitute, the oppressed and the bullied.
It’s not enough to avoid hypocrisy by acting in congruence with our words—that is, it’s not enough just to be who we say we are. Realistically, who would ever argue otherwise? I mean, after all, you can say you’re a heartless jerk . . . and actually be a heartless jerk.
Moreover, we’re not just trying to be loving by some broad calculation of human niceness. Rather, we’re trying to be loving in the way Jesus was loving.
The truth we’re after is not the truth of love defined as it’s popularly defined—in a million different ways—most of the roads of which lead inexorably back to me and my grasping, clutching little self. The truth we’re after is the truth of love demonstrated in Jesus, who gave himself up, who laid down his life for those who believed their lives weren’t even worth notice.
And all of this might remain at the level of abstraction if we left it there. It would be possible, if that was all we said, to leave here feeling edified, having been exhorted to lay down our lives like Jesus laid down his life. “That’s nice dear, but what’s for lunch?”
But John’s not satisfied with abstraction—not content to let us feel affirmed in our determination to live quiet, honest lives—uncontaminated by controversy or expense.
John gets particular: “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 to help?”
Ouch! Give preachers enough time and we’ll find some wiggle room in there for you—but I’ve got to tell you, it’s hard. John doesn’t seem to be opening things up for a long series of qualifications: “I would help, but you know the kids have oboe lessons, and the pet ferret is having cataract surgery. The Dow’s down, and if things don’t improve, we’re going to wind up having to dip into savings to maintain the box at the race track. Times are tight.
“Plus, if you start helping those people, pretty soon they’re going to start expecting it. Then, what’re you gonna do? Right? You see what I’m saying?”
In fact, there are some politicians who think the best way to help those kind of people is to cut ‘em off, let them learn to start doing for themselves. Don’t help them more; help them less. You don’t want to incentivize poor decision-making.
John’s not having it. He’s got a pretty narrow view of this issue, if you ask me: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s good and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”
I much prefer conditional sentences: If the brother or sister in need seems redeemable, then you should help. If he’s an American citizen who has a job I recognize as valuable and appears to bathe semi-regularly, then it’s okay.
If she keeps having babies when she can’t afford it, then you don’t need to worry about her.
If they were smart and got a good, fixed-interest rate mortgage they could afford, then maybe they’re worth helping.
Conditions. Simple, really. If this, then that. If not this, then don’t bother with that.
John’s not into conditional sentences, though; he’s full of declaratives: “Do this, whether or not that.”
He says, “Little children, let us love . . . in truth and action. Obey God’s commandments. Love those in need.”
I’d love to find some wiggle room in there, but I’m afraid I can’t help you.
Mother Theresa, the saint of the gutters, who gave herself to the dying on the streets of Calcutta, had a hard time following God. You’d think with spiritual superstars that it’d be easy. But, as most of us have probably heard, Mother Theresa struggled mightily with her faith. She regularly questioned the existence of God, feeling alone and isolated, abandoned by the one she felt called to serve. But, in spite of doubts that would paralyze most people, serve she did.
In August 1982, Pope John Paul sent her to war-torn Beirut so that the victims of war would know of his solidarity with them. Mother Theresa determined shortly to go into the heart of the killing fields in West Beirut to rescue a small group of the victims of the violence. Everyone warned her against going. It was too dangerous. She would only be able to help a handful. It wasn’t worth it.
She ignored them, and said she’d pray for a cease fire. On August 12 at 4:00, she lit a candle she’d brought with her to Beirut, and started praying. At 5:00, the shooting stopped. Shortly thereafter she went to a place where there were 38 Muslim children, ages 7 to 21—all mentally or physically handicapped—all starving, dirty, and frightened—for all practical purposes, left for dead. She organized their extraction from the war zone. Two days later, she went back and brought out 27 more children.
Before she came, nobody wanted these children. Too sick, too much trouble, too much else going on. After her journey into West Beirut, however, people began to step up. Neighbors started bringing food. Pretty soon the government officials and the doctors showed up.
One of the Red Cross officials who admitted quite candidly that his initial reaction to Mother Teresa’s presence had been that a saint was not what he needed most, afterwards acknowledged that he’d been astonished at the efficiency and energy that went hand in hand with her spirituality. She was, he said, “a cross between a military commander and St. Francis.”
Mother Theresa, in her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech said, “It is not enough for us to say, ‘I love God, but I do not love my neighbor,’” since in dying on the Cross, God had “[made Godself] the hungry one—the naked one—the homeless one.” Jesus’ hunger, she said, is what “you and I must find” and alleviate.
That’s how Mother Theresa said it. The way John said it was, “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 to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
So how do we know love?
According to John, we know it when we see it.