Love at the Center

by | Jun 12, 2022

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Hadley Kifner
“Love at the Center”
1 John 3: 1-2 + 18-24
June 12, 2022

PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION
Lord, open our hearts and minds by the power of your Holy Spirit, that as the Scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed, we may hear with joy what you say to us today. Amen.

SCRIPTURE READING 1 John 3: 1-2 + 18-24
Listen now to these words from First John, chapter three:
1 See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3 And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure…18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. 19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: 20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24 The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

SERMON Love at the Center
During the early weeks of the pandemic, our family watched a lot more television than usual. We especially enjoyed watching baking shows together – The Great British Bake Off, Cupcake Wars, Kids Baking Challenge… Recently, we discovered a new series called Is It Cake? Do you know this one? Is it Cake is a game show style series where expert bakers create desserts that look like everyday objects. The dessert replicas, along with a real version of the actual object, are presented to judges. The judges then try to determine which items in the presentation are made of cake and which are not.
In one episode called “Phony Fashion”, a judge confidently selects an object that looks like a classic black converse high-top sneaker. When she slices into it with a cake knife to determine its authenticity, she is shocked to discover that it is made of… layers of vanilla cake, raspberry jam, and licorice-infused fondant! It seemed to be a shoe – but in fact, it was one that could be eaten, not worn! Essentially, Is it Cake plays around with the age-old human quest to distinguish what seems to be real from what actually is real. (pause)
Our text today explores this same theme.
First John is considered to be one of the epistles – or one of the books of the New Testament in the form of a letter from an Apostle. In this case, the apostle is John. The Gospel and Letters of John were written in the midst of fierce theological debate. One’s place within the community at that time was defined by one’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah. There were those in the community who said they believed in Jesus who was human only; and then there were the ones who believed that Jesus was both human and also the divine Christ. Basically, some believed Jesus seemed to be or perhaps could be the son of God but they struggled to claim that as ultimate truth; and others believed that indeed he actually was both a son of man AND the son of God.
In our modern times, holy curiosity is not that different from those during John’s time. We, too, can be skeptical and unsure when the truth seems too abstract or mysterious. In a world that is increasingly “complex, nuanced and volatile,” discerning what is from what seems to be is difficult. And not only as it relates to religious belief. Marketing campaigns aim to spin the truth in ways that sometimes surprise and delight, and sometimes deceive and disappoint. Politicians and leaders of all kinds use words that have power and punch – sometimes they are grounded in fact and sometimes they are full of fluff. Even scientific fact is debatable for some at this point, with long-held theories and evidence-based practices being mistrusted or revisited. Not only as consumers or citizens or ones curious about the scientific world, but simply as humans, our own fears, experiences, and biases can complicate the task of judging authenticity. Often in life, we feel confused about who we are, which messages to trust, how we are to live, and how best to engage each other.
(pause)
The text in First John can be grounding for us here: See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are…And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another. As the world continues to swirl around us with distractions and temptations, agendas and brokenness of all kinds, we do well to stay grounded in the blessed truth of our authentic identity and certain purpose: We are children of God; we are to live believing in the person and work of Christ; and we are to love each other. No spin, no fluff, no inaccurate data to reanalyze. The words in the epistle are a straight-up character check in the form of a missive written by one of the Gospel authors and Jesus’ closest friends.
(big pause)
All of this makes me think of Mrs. Sarah Fletcher teaching my fourth-grade class about the North Carolina state symbols. We learned that the state bird is the cardinal. The state shell is the scotch bonnet. The state tree is the …. _____ pine, and the state flower is the ….______ dogwood. We also learned about the state motto: esse quam videri. To be rather than to seem.
To be a child of God, rather than to seem to be a child of God requires confidence. Confidence in the promise of God’s love. Confident that while we are broken, we can also be beautiful. Confident that while most of what we believe is deep mystery and proclaiming it may present us as foolish to the world, God’s truth declares us holy and we will one day, someday, experience our faith fulfilled eternally. Being a child of God – living the truth of the Gospel and not only talking about it – also requires humility. Who are we that God would choose us, us, to imperfectly imitate the Christ we will one day know perfectly? Who are we that we would be entrusted with a truth so powerful that it could transform the world with love? Humbly, we declare that we accept our identities as children of God and are completely overwhelmed at the thought of living fully into them. Humbly, we declare that the only way we can live as authentic children of God, for real, is to place God be at the center of everything.
Again, we can look to the text in first John for context and direction. Alone among biblical writers, John ventures to define concretely and succinctly what God is – not merely to affirm who God is. In the verses directly after the ones we just read, the text offers: above all, “God is love.”
Julian of Norwich, a theologian of the 14th century who devoted her life to contemplation and prayer, says the same thing as John in another way: “Do we wish to know our Lord’s meaning? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals the Lord to us? Love. Why does the Lord reveal himself to us? Love. How does the Lord reveal himself to us? Love. Why do we share the Lord with others? Love.”
“Love is a personal activity, not an abstract quality. First John teaches us that God is love by asserting that in Jesus, God does love.” “God does not DO love out of need to possess us or out of insecurity: God does love because God IS love. And God desires that we reciprocate with love – not for God’s sake, but for ours”- and for that of the world. We understand then that love is not an obligation, duty, or expectation – it is a gift.
Understanding love as a gift allows us to share life with each other – its delightful surprises and its devastating heartbreaks – with a courage and sincerity that makes all the difference. This is why you may hear Stephen Ministers excited about the 50 hours of training and the monthly meetings for small group supervision. They have come to experience that loving each other, loving you, is a gift for them. It is a concrete invitation to live as a child of God; it is a way to practice being rather than seeming to be. It is a blessed chance to hold the heavy and the hard with a heart wide open.
And you know of this gift, too. You love in action, too. You show up to a congregant’s thesis defense to offer encouragement. You give dinner leftovers to the hungry person you pass in the alley on Franklin Street. You deliver trash bags and ice to the home of a friend who is hosting family after a funeral. You bring cups of coffee and a prayer book to a friend waiting while his partner is in surgery. You pick up your neighbor from the airport when her trip was interrupted by an emergency. You write a check for refugee support, help youth rehearse a musical like it is your full time job when it is not, tutor a child whose parents can barely keep up with double shifts much less homework. You peacefully protest whatever issue of social injustice that has you worked up. You travel to Appalachia and stand in sewage to repair faulty drainage systems for strangers. You speak up when you witness a brother or sister floored by a racist remark. You listen to the women next to you on the bus when she talks about her family back in Ukraine. You apologize when your words come out wrong and hurt someone. You do this, even when you have no idea really how to do it, because you are children of God.
On this Trinity Sunday, we rejoice that God in three persons – Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer – walks with us every step of the way. “Is it not genius of God’s plan, that the church, the body of Christ, would “embody” Jesus’ compassion as the centerpiece of its ministry? Is it not the first task of the church to love well – in a way different from the way the world loves? Is it not the core distinctiveness of the body of Christ first to be sustained by the Spirit in order that our compassionate response to the needs of others might also be sustained?”
Love at the center.
(pause)
All praise to the Father, from whom all things come,
And all praise to Christ Jesus, His only Son
And all praise to the Spirit, that makes us one.
May we BE and not only seem like children of God.
And may the world know we are Christians by our love….
(pause)