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A Community of Caring and Confidence

April 30, 2012

“A Community of Caring and Confidence” 1 John 3:11-24; John 10:11-18 © 4.29.12 Easter 4B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Some of you of my generation or older may remember a story designed to teach kids to follow through on their commitments, keep promises, and help their parents. The central character was a little girl named “Nell.” She and her sibling are asked to do some chores around the house. Both pledge their love for Mom and promise to do what she asks. One of them follows through and cleans up the kitchen or whatever, while the other forgets all about the promise and goes out to play.

Jesus told the same kind of tale. There were two sons, the older of whom was asked by his father to go work in the vineyard. He refused at first, but later went on and did as the father asked. The younger son immediately agreed to do the labor, but never showed up. Our Lord asked his listeners which one did the will of the father. They answered as we would: the older.

The author of First John continues the theme in the morning’s text. “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” In other words, put your money, your hands, your feet, your time, your energy, your Facebook posts, your commitment of every sort, where your mouth is. Love that’s not lived out, proven by concrete action, isn’t love. The prophet said it well: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Lip service won’t do. As Eliza Doolittle famously put it to Freddy in My Fair Lady: “Show me.”

We don’t want anyone saying to us sarcastically: “I hear the words….” We can promise all day long, but without follow-through, without making good on what we say, nobody is going to take our rhetoric seriously. They’ll just expect the same letdown the next time, and finally will stop asking us to do anything or serve in any way. For 1 John, “word and speech” contrast unfavorably with “truth,” which he equates with “action.”

We simply cannot trust any words not backed up by action, the Elder would say. It doesn’t matter how many creeds you recite, how many prayers you pray, how orthodox your doctrines are. If those creeds and prayers and doctrines don’t lead you to do something for a sister or brother in need, they are worthless, false, hypocritical. Or as the king said in The King and I, they are “false lies.”

You may be surprised at the author’s motivation for saying what he did. Of course, he was concerned that people have enough to eat or decent clothes to wear or a roof over their heads. But that’s not his main reason for his statements. Instead, he’s concerned about what we call “Christology,” the category of theology that has to do with Jesus Christ. As I have said, there had been conflict in his church, and some people had left. Last week I identified some of them as ancestors of the Gnostics, the spiritual know-it-alls. But there was another group called the “Docetics.” Their name comes from the Greek word that means “to seem” or “to appear.” These folks had bought the common notion of their day that the body was evil; the whole material world was corrupt. The body was a prison for the immortal soul; it was nothing more than a shell for the real person. So God could not possibly have anything to do with evil human flesh. He could not have really become a human being that ate and drank and slept and cried and laughed. Jesus was just a divine being masquerading as a human; he didn’t really die on the cross.

The closest parallel is probably from science fiction. We’ve all seen movies or TV shows where an alien, probably made of pure energy, assumes human form and walks among us, fooling everyone until some incident or a DNA test reveals his or her true nature. The entity’s humanity is nothing more than a mask, a scam; there is no reality to it. That’s the way the Docetics looked at Jesus.

The problem is that such viewpoints give us no basis for morality or ethics. Anything physical, fleshy, concrete, is branded as bad, whether it’s need or effort. Not only are people in need ignored or told that their hunger or their loneliness is an illusion. Those who want to care are told there’s nothing they can do about the situation anyway.

But those who seriously believe that God came among us in the truly and fully human Jesus of Nazareth can do no less than live out their faith in concrete, specific ways. To claim that God became a human being is also to say that God values the human body. Our bodies are not evil. They are the good creations of God. God works through our hands and feet and voices and hearts and minds. That’s true whether we’re talking about caring for somebody whose home has been destroyed in a storm or who’s terribly lonely after the death of a spouse, someone who has lost their job or had their hours cut back or who is facing foreclosure or an empty pantry. It’s also true if we’re wondering what we can do about such problems. The Incarnation, the belief that God became human, means that the human body is the instrument of salvation. The presence of Christ continues through our efforts and our endeavors, our inventions and our technology, whatever we do with whatever we have. Love that’s truly love is shown in concrete actions with specific people in particular circumstances.

Love refuses to turn people into abstractions. We cannot love as Jesus did and see only stereotypes, groups, kinds, commodities, faceless others, whom we brand “those people.” Chris Hedges, the journalist and author, has put it well. In one of his books, he observes: “Ironically, it is idealism that leads radical fundamentalists to strip human beings of their dignity and their sanctity and turn them into abstractions. Yet it is only by holding on to the sanctity of each individual, each human life, only by placing our faith in tiny, unheroic acts of compassion and kindness, that we survive as a community and as individual human beings. These small acts of kindness are deeply feared by these idealists…” (American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, 205).

Hedges goes on to quote a Russian novelist who said: “‘I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious leaders, teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning” (205-206).

It is the very powerlessness of love, though, that makes us reluctant to show it, whether to members of our community of faith, which is what the Elder has in mind or to our neighbors of a different or no faith, which is the point of so much of the prophets’ teaching and Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats. Being powerless makes us feel insecure and afraid, among other things. When we feel insecure, we are likely to depersonalize others, make them the objects of our suspicion, blame them for our troubles, believe they are trying to rob us of what is rightfully ours. Fear shuts out love.

Insecurity will make us run into the arms of anyone, any movement, that promises a better world, to rid us of our troubles and our enemies. Insecurity is the first cousin to fear, and fear is the opposite of love, because love requires us to be open and vulnerable to each other. Fear shuts us down, tells us God will punish us if we infringe only slightly on his law, and will not accept those who sin. We project our fear onto others.

Stan Wilson, a writer and pastor, notes how “Our culture runs on fear and disordered desire. If we aren’t hungry for something, we won’t buy it. If we aren’t afraid, we won’t work as hard. What happens if a little congregation breaks the rules and removes the fear by promising to care for one another?

“We might reveal the risen Son of God, the Good Shepherd, the one who lays down his life for his sheep.

“With a living God loose in the world, we might no longer live in fear, and no longer believe that the world runs only when people look out solely for themselves. We might start to look out for one another, and violate one of the cardinal rules of our economic order.

“Easter has been known to evoke robust theological claims and rogue behavior. Peter and John annoyed the rulers and elders and were tossed in jail because they taught that in Jesus there is resurrection for those locked in the fear of death.

“That’s what can happen when people believe that the future is not theirs to secure, but belongs in the keeping of a Good Shepherd. They begin to live without fear. ‘We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death (1 John 3:14)’” (Stan Wilson, “Ties That Bind,”

The call of the gospel, in this Easter season and every day, is not to give in to our fear, even when we are called on to lay down our life for each other. That could be literal, like the soldier throwing himself or herself on a grenade or the mother or father dying from injuries sustained while shielding the child from falling debris. Or it could be figurative, from giving up something you want to do for just one evening to go be with somebody who is lonely to putting your life on hold to care long-term for someone who needs you. It’s becoming unpopular to stand up for a cause or to come to the defense of somebody in school who’s made fun of. It’s becoming like Jesus, and refusing to assert ourselves in greed and power, even when we could, but rather becoming a servant, and finding our greatness in the quality of our giving, the example of our openness, the strength of our vulnerability.

Only those who belong to God live out their love with such boldness. Only those who have come from death to life have the courage to take action on behalf of another. If your confidence or mine that we are God’s children ever falters, let us remind ourselves of that. We love, because he loves us. We give, because he first gave himself to and for us. With such conviction and such assurance, we are, and we become, a community of caring and confidence.


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