We Know Love By This

1 John 3:11-24 and Acts 4:1-12
© Stacey Steck

Maybe you remember that old saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.” You try to do the right thing and next thing you know, all heck is breaking loose. Just ask Peter and John after they have healed a man and end up in front of the High Priest. Yes, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Your good intentions turn into an opportunity for criticism. You try to compliment someone and they use it to get their digs in. I knew someone who liked to respond to the compliment, “Great minds think alike” with “Yes, but fools seldom differ” and to the reminder that “Beauty is skin-deep” with “Yes, but ugly goes all the way to the bone.” Yes, every great turn of a phrase has an evil twin, as does every great doctrine of the faith. The wonderful, comforting doctrine of the predestination of the elect to heaven gives rise to the unfortunate but logical conclusion that everyone else is predestined to hell. Exalting the gifts of the Holy Spirit is all well and good until it creates a second class spiritual citizenry among the riff-raff who don’t speak in tongues. And love? Well, that’s a minefield, isn’t it? What an unfortunate word on which to base our faith, loaded with so many very, very different meanings. Maybe that’s why the Greeks had at least three different words for the ideas we lump together with the letters L-O-V-E. Love is a many splendored thing, as the old song goes, perhaps with as many perspectives as people pondering it.

Yes, we have a problem with love when it comes to faith, because we are accustomed to associating the word love with an emotion or a feeling. I love my wife and children. I love golf. I love the Cleveland Indians. I love coffee. The list of things I love could go on and on, and most of the things on that list are there because I feel something for them, an attachment, a sense of joy, a fond memory. And I love God too, by the way. I love God a lot. And sometimes that’s a problem, when the way I love God is the way I love some of the other things on my list. You see, if I only relate to God like the way I relate to coffee, you know, to get my day started off on the right foot, or golf, you know, when I want to really humble myself, then I’m just kind of consuming God, trying to get what I need out of God at very little cost to myself. I’d like to think that I relate to my wife and children differently than coffee, golf, or anything else on my list, but if I’m honest I probably use them for my own purposes more often than I’d like to admit. We do that sometimes with people we love, don't we?

But mostly love is a problem when I associate my faith with how I’m feeling about God. Yes, it’s when I think that God doesn’t love me because I’m not feeling in love with God, that I get into hot water. What do I mean by feeling? Well, I mean feeling like closeness, and immediacy, and, you know, love. Warm fuzzies. Bubble baths. Teddy bears and unicorns, that kind of thing. Or maybe it’s more like when my first girlfriend broke up with me because she didn’t “feel” like she was in love with me anymore. Guys, you ever heard that one before? Or maybe you’ve used that yourself! Yes, we are inundated by feelings, we are a feeling people, and that’s good. God gave us feelings. They are how we negotiate relationships and communities, how we build up safety nets and support systems. Feelings are how we connect with people. And some of those feelings are connected to love. You know what grief is? It’s not a bad thing. Grief is a continuation of the love we had for someone. We’re still connected with them even though they’re gone, and we feel that love in a different way, but an important way. We can’t love them the same way we did before so God has given us another way to deal with loss, and it’s a feeling, a blessed feeling.

But here’s the thing about feelings. They lie. They lie to us. Not all the time, but feelings are not always our best friends. Sometimes they delude us, and try to convince us that what we are feeling is reality. Like the thrill of victory. We win a race or we win the lottery and we think we are invincible, and then we start to act like we’re invincible, and then we get burned because we’re not really invincible after all. I used to feel pretty smart back there in elementary school; top of the class, I was. Acted like it too. A real smart aleck. And then I went to Middle School where I had to compete against the smartest kids from all the other elementary schools, and I wasn’t the smartest anymore. And it only got worse when I went to high school and the number of smart kids went up exponentially again. And so I started to feel stupid, or at least not as smart as I used to feel. I remember feeling that, and my mother probably remembers me feeling that. But you know what? It was a lie. I was just as smart in sixth grade as in fifth grade, and as smart in ninth as I was in eighth, but it sure didn’t feel that way. I had no real reason to feel threatened by anyone else’s intelligence. But feelings lie. They are a gift from God but they are great deceivers at the same time.

Maybe John in his letter was thinking about our fickle feelings. “And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us.” Whenever our hearts condemn us. Whenever our feelings lie to us. Whenever we feel betrayed. Whenever we believe something based on how we are feeling that isn’t necessarily the truth, whether that’s the truth as some kind of fact, or the truth of God’s love for us. Yes, our hearts condemn us when we feel we’re not worthy of God’s love or the love of another person because we’ve done something we regret. Our hearts condemn us when we don’t believe we have the power to do what we are called to do, because we feel afraid of failure, or feel we might be judged, or feel like there’s someone out there who can do the job better. Our hearts condemn us when we feel that we don’t measure up.

But, says John, but. But “God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” “God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” What does that mean? Maybe it means that God knows the truth about us even when our hearts deceive us, the truth that we were created in the divine image. Maybe it means that the existence of God, or the love of God, or the grace of God, or the mercy of God, or the justice of God do not depend for their validity on our feelings about them or about ourselves. Can God not handle our doubt? Can God not hold our fear? Can God not contain our sorrow? Yes, God knows our hearts and knows that we don’t always know how to manage what we feel and that what we do when act out of our doubt or fear or sorrow or anger isn’t really who God made us to be, or even who we really are right now. “Little children” John calls his flock, little children, and he’s right. Sometime we act like little children who are afraid of the dark, afraid to sleep for the monsters we think are lurking under our beds, but God is greater than our hearts and knows everything, including that this too shall pass, and that sleep comes, and then morning comes, and the fear of the night is gone. At least until the next night. But God knows too that eventually we learn that there are no monsters, and the night loses its terror, and we can lay down in peace. God can overcome any fear.

So, “God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything and if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.” What’s that? We obey his commandments and do what pleases him? Yes, that’s the ticket! The golden ticket! We obey his commandments and do what pleases him even when we’re not feeling it, or when we’re feeling tired and worn out, or when we’re feeling frustrated. Yes, all of those feelings lie and tell us that we don't have to obey and do what pleases God because that’s only going to make us feel further from God or wear us down even more or make us even more frustrated. But it’s a lie. It’s a lie because the truth is that love isn’t a feeling, it’s a commitment and it’s a posture and it’s truth and it’s action. “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this, [by loving in this way] we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us, for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” Yes, the idea is that we love through the feelings until we can come out on the other side recognizing that love was there all along. We gotta fake it till we make it, as the old saying goes. When we act like we love, we learn to love. God never says you gotta like everyone. You can feel all kinds of things about a person that really make you dislike them. No, you don't have to like everyone, but you gotta love everyone, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. You gotta be committed to loving them because God loved you. God may not like you all the time, but God loves you all the time. “And we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

Those aren't my words. Those are John’s words about Jesus the Christ, the resurrected one, the one who loved us even though he probably didn’t always like us. He probably didn’t like us when we ate that fruit from the forbidden tree and when we killed our brother in a jealous rage. He probably didn’t like us when we were stiff-necked and complaining in the desert even after we got our manna and quail. He probably didn’t like us when we ignored the prophets and went right on doing whatever our feelings told us to do. He probably didn’t like us when we competed to see who could be his right hand man. He probably didn't like us when we shouted “Hosanna” on Sunday and “Crucify him!” on Friday. He probably didn't like us when we put nails through his hands and pushed a spear up into his side. No, he probably didn't like us at all. But he loved us. He loved us in spite of ourselves and the lies we told ourselves. He loved us even though no good deed goes unpunished, even though fools seldom differ, and even though ugly goes all the way to the bone. He loved us. He loved us. “And so this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” Yup, John’s words again. John’s words to help us believe in God even when we don’t feel it. And when we believe, when we love even when we don’t feel it, we’ve got access to the greatest power the world has ever known “and we receive from him whatever we ask.”

So let us ask. Let us ask God to help us love, not in words or speech, but in truth and action, so that we may know the love Christ knew for us, the love that led him to lay down his life for us, and the love which calls us to lay down our lives for others. Amen.