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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at one of the “3:16” verses of the Bible, spotlighting some of the significant theological statements that happen to fall on the 16th verse of the third chapter of a number of Old and New Testament books.
“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” (I John 3:16).
The next time you’re at a wedding, imagine standing up at the reception and proposing a toast.
“To the bride and groom,” you say. “May your marriage become a living death.”
This will no doubt have two effects. First, it will almost guarantee that you won’t be on anyone’s wedding invitation list for the foreseeable future. Second, those at the reception who know anything about the little New Testament book of I John will elbow each other and say, “Hey, that’s in chapter three!”
If you’re searching for a picture of real love, take a look at the cross. Healthy human relationships are founded on the premise that every hour of every day I must die to my own selfishness. I must nail to the cross the insidious idea that I will never be happy unless at least one other human being takes full responsibility for meeting my needs.
The truth is that somebody else has already made an eternal commitment to meeting my needs. That someone is Jesus. If I live in the strength of that conviction, I will be set free to receive God’s love and to give God’s love away.
What does it mean to know God? It means to love the way that God loves. What is the meaning of our existence? Life is an opportunity to learn how to love. Life without love is death. Unless we major in love and minor in everything else, we are wasting our lives.
The author of this letter, who is traditionally identified with the apostle John, boldly declares, “It’s time to be done with love-talk. What really matters is love-in-action.”
That’s clear in the two verses that follow today’s “3:16.” John writes, “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? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (I John 3:17-18).
John is blunt. He says that the reality of our trust in God is put on public trial according to the ways we respond to those who have material needs. “If you know somebody is in real need, and you suppress the impulse to be there for them, where do you get off saying that you know anything about the love of God?”
Only a God who promises to meet our own needs and to fill our own hearts with his love could make such a demand. But that’s precisely the kind of God who actually exists.
Modern translations are generally preferable to the beautiful but archaic King James Version of 1611 (which a friend of mine once dubbed, “Good News for Shakespeare”). It’s worth noting, however, the KJV’s rendering of verse 17: “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?”
Most of us would agree that it’s actually a very good idea to shutteth up our bowels in the company of other people. But here the King James is being entirely true to the original Greek. People during the classical age, including both Greeks and Jews, believed that compassion and generosity originated in the large and small intestines. We can understand how such an assumption came about whenever we experience a “gut feeling” that we ought to help somebody else.
Let’s go back to I John 3:16. Because Jesus laid down his life for us, we ought to lay down our lives for each other.
If love means imitating the life of Jesus, what exactly does such love-in-action look like? It often involves three things.
First, loving other people means choosing to pay attention.
Notice what John says in verse 17: “If you see a brother or sister in need…” But that’s the rub. We don’t always choose to see. It’s possible to take a once-in-a-lifetime tour of India, for instance, exulting in the Taj Mahal, without paying attention to the millions of Indians who live in grinding poverty. What can we do right here and right now? Take a different path to work. Drive through struggling neighborhoods. Shop in a grocery that’s off your beaten path. Choose to see.
Second, practice the habit of speaking to God about what you are seeing.
Keep company with the Lord as you chop carrots, take a walk, watch TV, and reflect on the things that are happening to you. Ask the question, “What can I be doing to make a difference for other people?” Pray for total strangers. See what happens next. Look for “coincidences.” And answers to prayer. And good things you cannot explain. Let God enter your life – the life that you already have – and you will be amazed at his willingness to work in you and through you.
Third, take risks by doing what you can to serve others.
Author and pastor Steve Sjogren almost single-handedly pioneered what has come to be called servant evangelism. He and members of his church in the Cincinnati area ventured every week into their community and provided practical acts of kindness. They gave away cups of freshly brewed coffee. They passed out light bulbs to homeowners. They washed the windshields of parked cars. They set up tables in shopping malls at year’s end and wrapped Christmas gifts for free, with no donations accepted.
They even went into restaurants and voluntarily cleaned public restrooms as a practical way of demonstrating God’s love. Sjogren remembers that restaurant owners generally did a double take and then said, “I could have sworn you just asked to clean my toilet for free. But that can’t be true, because nobody cleans toilets for free.”
I John, more than any other book in the Bible, shouts that deeds of love need to precede words of love.
We do the message before we tell the message. People don’t necessarily remember what they hear of God’s love and grace. But they definitely remember what they experience.
Steve Sjogren recalls a time when he was a high school student and his dad was trying to give him some constructive advice about getting better grades. They were sitting in a car together at a gas station. “Steve,” he said, “you’ve got to do better at school if you expect to get anywhere in life.” Then he pointed to the gas station attendant and said, “If you don’t work harder, you’re going to end up washing windshields and cleaning toilets.” As Sjogren puts it, “My dad was a prophet!”
In the spirit of I John 3:16, may all of us give away and experience real love this week.
In matters great and small, let’s lay down our lives for each other.
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.