Love one another (April 12, 2015)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: 1 John 3:11-24

Like the Gospel of John, the First Epistle of John describes important opposites: light/dark, truth/error, love/hate, Christ/antichrist, God/world, righteousness/sin, the Son of God/the devil, life/death. Whether this document was written by John the son of Zebedee or by an elder named John or by some other person named John, the author experienced reality as a juxtaposition of opposites.

John looked at the community to whom he was directing these words through a lens of opposites. Addressing them in the form of a homily rather than an epistle, he holds up love for one another as the highest manifestation of one’s love for Jesus. Either a person followed Jesus by holding fast to the gospel as it was originally preached or else one departed from the truth by affirming views that were not acceptable to the author of 1 John. Although it is not completely clear what dissent-ing practices the author of 1 John rejected, failing to live in love and solidarity with one’s fellow Christians was definitely among them.

1 John 3:11-12: Don’t be like Cain 

One way to make a point very clearly is to use a well-known negative example. In this passage the negative example is Cain, the twin brother of Abel, who he killed. This story of a sibling rivalry that ended in murder is recorded in Genesis 4. Cain belonged to the evil one, the devil, not to God, John says. Christians should not act like Cain, the sinful brother whose evil deeds were the opposite of the righteous brother’s deeds.

1 John 3:13-15: Hating is murdering 

The term “world” can refer to all that opposes God just as it sometimes does in the Gospel of John. The believers should not be surprised, John warns, when they experience the hatred of the world. The author may be remembering persecution that arose out of murderous hatred. At times that is how the world acts toward believers.

Love is life-giving, but hatred leads to death. Hatred and death are the opposites of love and life. In a burst of sermonic hyperbole (preachers have been known to use that figure of speech), the author of 1 John says, “All who hate a brother or sister are murderers.” In other words, to hate a fellow Christian is morally equivalent to killing that person. Not to love is to remain enslaved by death.

Jesus also had a radical under-standing of unloving behavior. In Matthew 5:21-22 he says those who express anger and insults toward their fellow human beings will incur the same punishment as those who murder. They will not enjoy the eternal life promised to believers.

1 John 3:16-18 Evidence of love 

How do we recognize love? John says we can know what love is by looking at the sacrificial death of Jesus. Although Jesus is not men-

tioned explicitly, John’s readers would have instinctively understood the words “he laid down his life for us” to refer to Jesus. Christians who follow the example of Jesus should be willing to lay down their lives for one another. That sets the bar extremely high. How many of us would have been willing to hide Jews from Nazi Gestapo agents? Who is willing to protect persecuted Christians from Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria?

Another way to recognize love is to respond to the needs of a Christian brother or sister. Those who refuse to help in such a situation — even though they have the material means to do so — demonstrate that they do not have the love of God in their hearts. Love means taking appropriate action, not merely having a committee meeting to discuss the situation.

1 John 3:19-22: God is greater than our hearts 

For some people, it is difficult to avoid falling into what John Bun-yan in “The Pilgrim’s Progress” called “the slough of despond.” How quickly our hearts can become discouraged as we become aware of our failures to love. John says that God is greater than our hearts. God does not condemn us. Instead God forgives us for our failures. That gives us boldness to make every effort to obey God’s command to love one another — even when we fail to do so adequately.

For discussion 

Do you think Christians in the United States experience the hatred of the world today? How do you and/or your congregation show love to one another? What can North American Christians do to show love to Christians who suffer hatred in other parts of the world?

JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.