1 John 3:16-24 New Revised Standard Version
16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
We can sing with gusto “they’ll know we are Christians by our love” but if we pay attention
to the polls the world isn’t so sure about that. Instead, the polls say that we Christians are better known for narrowness, hypocrisy, nationalism, bigotry, etc. While I might wish this wasn’t true, it’s hard to ignore the evidence. Of course, Christianity isn’t monolithic. There are Christians who are loving, compassionate, open-minded, gracious. I’m hopeful that I am counted among those kinds of Christians. Yes, I hope that I’m known to be a Christian because of my love.
When we come to the second reading for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, a reading from 1 John 3, we’re told that Jesus shows us what it means to love others. According to John, Jesus expressed his love for others by laying down his life for us. As Mr. Spock told Jim Kirk, after going into the reactor room to save the ship at the cost of his own life, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Of course, in the next movie Spock is resurrected (do you see a pattern), but the point is well taken. That is what John would have us do as God’s children (1 John 3:1).
John points us to the cross and tells us that Jesus’ death on the cross expresses God’s love for the world. But, in lifting up Jesus as our example, that doesn’t mean John envisions us all dying. Death is not the only way we can lay down our lives for others. What John wants us to hear is that to love is to concern ourselves with the needs of others. So, if we see someone in need, then love requires us to act. If we do this, then we demonstrate that God’s love abides
John knows that it’s easy to say “I love you.” In fact, it’s easy to sing “they’ll know we are Christians by our love” but that doesn’t mean we have loved as Jesus would have us love. That is because love is more than words and feelings. As John puts it, love involves truth and actions. Love has something to do with truth and with action.
When it comes to truth, we seem to be living in a post-truth era. Many have embraced the idea of “alternative facts.” As a result, many have embraced dangerous conspiracy theories. This is especially true for parts of the Christian community. If facts don’t matter then why bother checking things out. Just go to your favorite website or TV “news” host, and embrace their message. Unfortunately, this can have deadly ramifications, as we are seeing now with the anti-mask and anti-vax movements that have taken root within parts of the Christian community. As a result, the pandemic has spread more widely and more people die as a result—all in the name of faith.
Love involves truth (not alternative facts or conspiracy theories). It also involves actions. As they way actions speak louder than words. Love is more than words; it involves investing our lives in the lives of others. So, for instance, I may not enjoy wearing a mask, but I wear it not only because it might protect me, but it also protects my neighbor, whom I called by God to love (Lev. 19:18). What John says here about love parallels what James says about faith. That is
because James believes faith without works is dead (James 2:14-17).
So, how do we know if we truly love? John believes that our consciences will prove useful on this account. He writes that “if our hearts do not condemn us,” then we can have boldness before God. That clear conscience and boldness come as a result of our obedience to God’s commandments. It would seem that John envisions the relationship between God and God’s people as being reciprocal. In other words, it’s a real relationship that brings us together with God in a way that is transformative.
As for God’s commands, we can really narrow things down to just two items. First, believe in the name of Jesus. That is, entrust your life to Jesus. It’s not simply believing the right things, though to believe does require content, it’s a commitment to following Jesus. We see this command laid out in Deuteronomy, where the people are told to love God with their entire being, body, soul, and spirit (Deut. 6:4-6). Secondly, we’re told in Leviticus to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Lev. 19:18). What Jesus did is bring the two commands together. There wasn’t anything new here, except the link between the two, which serves as the pathway to salvation (Mk. 12:28-31; Lk 10:25-28). Here in the letter, we see John trying to keep belief and compassion together. We might think it’s possible to separate them, but in reality, they are inseparable. That’s because what we believe about Jesus says something about how and what we love. The opposite is also true. What we love is what we believe.
So, to believe and to love in truth and action, as laid out here in 1 John, is to abide in Christ. This occurs by and through the work of the Holy Spirit. As the hymn suggests: “Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens, God with me abide; when other helpers fail, and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me” [Henry Lyte, 1847, Chalice Hymnal p. 636).
Note: For more on 1 John, I suggest my book The Letters of John: A Participatory Guide (Energion Publications, 2019).