Being in love can make us do some pretty unusual and outright crazy things. Remember when Tom Cruise jumped on Oprah’s couch? Perhaps you have a “friend” with an impulsive tattoo. Affection for another changes our brain chemistry, and alters the way we interact in some ways. It doesn’t always have to be extreme, necessarily. It could be as simple as picking up a favorite candy bar or flowers, just because you saw them and thought of that special someone, or taking on that extra task around the house because you know they hate to do it, even though truthfully you do as well. That’s love. It’s not restricted to a significant other, of course. Parents are known for actions towards their children that clearly are only done out of love, whether it’s putting out a hand for their toddler’s half-chewed food, or sitting through eighteen intermediate piano students playing “The Entertainer” at a concert. We also extend such loving courtesies to friends. How many times have you ever done someone a favor and replied “you know I’m only doing this because I love you, right?” In a variety of ways, it is clear that one way we show love is through our actions.
That is the heart of today’s message from 1 John. In this letter, the writer essentially interprets the gospel of John for a new generation. Throughout this general letter, patterns of recurring themes emerge. He fleshes out a bit more about what Jesus meant by that commandment to “love one another,” and “serve each other” in ways that were directly relatable to those reading his words. He is a wise veteran Christian leader, who: continues to help the young believers and their struggling churches to deal with the challenges of their new faith[i].
Although his context is not immediately clear, his interpretation of the relevance of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is to the point.
I love how Eugene Peterson paraphrases the central idea of the text in verse 18:
My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality[ii].
The writer of 1 John knows that love is revealed in one’s actions, and love always starts with God. The origin of this, of course, is in remembering the love with which God sent Jesus Christ into the world, and the love of Christ’s action of laying down his life for us. There is no greater love than this. The actions of God reveal to us God’s love. Jesus Christ, in the flesh, is evidence of God’s love in the world.
The pairing for this text in the lectionary is from John’s gospel, which alongside other texts for the day, is what gives this fourth Sunday of Easter the nickname “Good Shepherd Sunday.” On this day, we are called to think about the role Christ played as Shepherd, and God plays as caretaker in our lives. Specifically, we are invited to note the way the shepherd sets aside selfish ambition and personal interests for the needs of the sheep – sacrifice. This framework offers a perfect backdrop for the instructions in 1 John, because it sets up the foundation of serving and caring for others as the basis for our lives, if we truly wish to be ones who consider ourselves followers of the Good Shepherd.
The love of God through Jesus Christ should inspire us. That’s the writer’s point. It’s a pretty simple and straightforward understanding of discipleship: because God loves us, we are called to love one another. On the whole, I think we are good with articulating this vision of what it means to be Christian, particularly inside these walls on a Sunday morning. We can even become quite good about talking about God’s love for us, and how we should love our neighbors. Of course, it’s not quite as easy to live out as it is to say. The grit of everyday puts countless opportunities in front of us to love people, not in some theoretical, abstract way, but in the right in front of you, staring you in the face kind of way. And more often than not, what stares you in the face is exactly what gets on your last nerve, or what you don’t have time for that day. This is where the rubber meets the road in our faith, and our text reminds us of our calling. Or, to put it another way, as author and pastor A. W. Tozer said:
we cannot pray in love and live in hate and still think we are worshipping God.
Instead we are called to love. And it starts with what is right in front of us. So while this may seem like a passage that doesn’t exactly break any revolutionary news to us about what it means to follow Christ, it probably is one we need to hear repeatedly in order for it to really sink in. Going further, he reminds us that the presence of such loving actions is how we know that we are truly following God and living in God’s kingdom here and now.
One example of this is through Santa’s Caravan, who will welcome the Georgia Boy Choir here this afternoon at 4 pm for an incredible benefit concert followed by dinner. It’s more than just a time to enjoy world-class music. It is supporting a ministry that lives out what 1 John is talking about. The roots of this program came from a wonderful volunteer working in our food pantry looking in the eyes of brothers and sisters in need, realizing that for some children, right in our adjacent neighborhoods, Christmas would not be bringing the same kind of joy that so many others had. Now, years later, we still look eye to eye with our brothers and sisters in need, and Santa’s Caravan is one way we live out the love in action of the gospel, providing gifts and food yes, but also providing connection and hope, acknowledgement and support. There is no doubt in my mind, having experienced only two of these incredible seasons so far, that God’s Spirit is present in this work.
There are many other examples, of course, of what it looks like to care for those around us. But today I want to offer one more that might take us on a slightly different course, yet still within the realm of I think where the passage leads. As you might have noted on your calendars, today is also Earth Day, a now worldwide tradition spanning back 48 years. According to EarthDay.org, the idea of this day came from then U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, after witnessing the ravages of a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California in 1969. He tapped into the emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution and brought environmental protection onto the national political agenda, by encouraging Congress to pursue a “national teach-in” on the environment. What resulted was about 20 million Americans demonstrating on April 22, 1970, realizing that although their specific passions were different, from oil spills to polluting factories to loss of wilderness and extinction of wildlife, they shared common values – they wanted to be caretakers of creation. Today, it is estimated that over 1 billion people in 192 countries[iii].
If we are called, as God’s created and loved beings, to care for one another, not just in words, but also in action, doesn’t it make sense that some of that responsibility applies to how we treat all of what God has created, from our fellow humankind to animals to the earth itself? It follows, from 1 John and John 10, that being “caretakers of creation” is meant to be an all-encompassing idea. After all, by caring for the world in which we live, we are working to make a better world for our brothers and sisters now, and those who will come in the future. We are not called to be self-serving consumers, grabbing all we can get. Instead, we are called to take what we have, particularly our material resources, and share them with others – or at least protect them so more can use it.
Creation care is another way, then, that we live out God’s instructions to love. It can be as simple as seeing a piece of trash and picking it up, or following the classic “reduce, reuse, recycle.” It can look like considering own usage of plastic products, which have been identified as one of the most dangerous threats to both nature and wildlife. Presbyterians have been doing this for years. In fact, since 1995 we even have an organization within our denomination expressly for this purpose: Presbyterians for Earth Care. Their purpose is:
Connecting members through a grassroots network of people seeking to keep the sacred at the center of earth care, advocacy and action both inside and outside the walls of the church.
Equipping members with resources, ideas and information for a shared journey toward a healthier planet by growing and sharing theological understandings and perspectives on eco-justice issues.
Inspiring members through stories of individuals and groups who have responded to the sacred call to care for the earth – stories told person to person at events, and by newsletter, email, social media and devotions[iv].
Their work helps us pay attention to our call to be caretakers of creation, whether it’s making our physical buildings more eco-friendly or advocating for better responses to climate change. Here at Heritage, we are a part of similar work. Kevin’s Garden provides opportunities for our community to care for the land we have been given and provide food for others: it is a movement towards justice in that way. Our worship committee chose the Palms we did this year for Palm Sunday from a company called “Eco-Palms,” who in addition to providing a fair wage for their laborers, commits to harvesting practices that are more ecologically sustainable[v]. It is a small way we can live into the calling we have from 1 John 4 to use our means to act in love for God’s people, and God’s creation. Being caretakes of creation connects us to one another. Our PCUSA Co-Moderator, Rev. Tawnya Denise Anderson, reported on Facebook yesterday that during the Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington D.C., a pastor from Flint, Michigan, Rev. Monica Villarreal, shared in a workshop that she can’t even baptize with the water that comes out of her church’s tap. As brothers and sisters in faith, we cannot hear that news and simply respond with our “thoughts and prayers.” We have to put our love in active response. The opportunities will always be right in front of us.
Friends, we are called to pay attention, to see the needs of the world around us, in every sense of the word, and respond in love-filled action. In this, we become caretakers of creation, following the Good Shepherd who continues to lead us in acts of compassion and justice, who put everything on the line for us, that we might have a freedom to love as radically as possible. So may God’s love for you through Christ give you that freedom and courage to act, for the sake of the gospel. Amen.
~Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford
April 22, 2018
[i] William I. Self, “Homiletical Perspective:1 John 3:16-24,” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).
[ii] Eugene H. Peterson, The Message Remix (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2006).
[v] For more about eco-palms, go to https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/compassion-peace-justice/hunger/enough/eco-palms-2/