Life on the Line

dandilion seed taking off
Photo credit: <a href="">Neal Fowler</a>

1 John 4:7-12

Dearest friends, let’s love each other because love is godlike. Whoever loves is a child of God and knows God. Whoever doesn’t love has no idea about God. God is love.

We know God is love because God sent Jesus into the world. With him, real life is possible. We didn’t love God first. God loves us first and sent Jesus. Jesus, the one in whom wrong is righted.

Dearest friends, since God loves us so much, we should love each other. Nobody has seen God. But if we love each other, we can see God’s life and love in each other.

The Greek word hilasmon appears only here in the New Testament. On it’s own, it means literally, “the making one.” In the Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures, though it came to be used for the “mercy seat,” the place where God sat, in the temple, over of the arc of the covenant. As such, it was the place where sacrifices were made. So many translations render it, “propitiation” or “atoning sacrifice.” The point, though, is not the method. The point is the result, setting people right again after they’d gone wrong. It’s the place where wrong is righted. In the Hebrew covenantal law the method was blood sacrifice. In the New Testament it’s Jesus.

If Jesus is the method for setting people right, then John’s bracketing this central affirmation between pleas that people who follow Jesus ought to love one another makes sense. Love for one another becomes the real care that is willing to go out of the way for, even to put one’s own life on the line for, the sake of others. In John’s tradition, Jesus did this freely (John 10:18). Now, John commends the same self-sacrificial action to those who want to follow Jesus.

Indeed, the re-enactment of Jesus’ life, putting your life on the line for the sake of others, is the only way people can have any idea what the New Testament understanding of God is about. Putting your life on the line for the sake of others is still how wrong is righted.

Give to Live

Man sitting in sunlight
Photo credit: <a href="">maewe</a>

1 John 3:11-17

From the beginning, the message you heard was to love each other. Don’t be like Cain who murdered his brother. He was from the devil. Why did he kill his brother? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s were good.

Don’t be surprised if the world hates you, friends. We know we’ve come alive from the dead because we love each other. Those who don’t love are the living dead. Those who hate their siblings are murderers, and murderers won’t live forever.

Here’s how we know what love is: he sacrificed his life for us. We likewise need to sacrifice our lives for each other. When someone has the wherewithal and yet refuses to help a friend in need, tell me where’s God’s love in that?

What we’re talking about here is envy and sacrifice. Envy is the kind of hatred that is evoked when you don’t have what someone else does. It’s the opposite of sacrifice, the kind of love that is expressed in giving away what you have to fill another’s need.

The first transaction leads from life to death. The second leads from death to life. Yet another paradox. The more of life you give away the more you have, while the more of life you take the more you die.

And its not just for religious individuals. The same is true of businesses, even nations. The more generous they are, and the more magnanimous, the more they thrive. The more demanding and self-centered, the more they wither. Consider the difference, for example, between:

  • Southwest and US Airways
  • Finland and South Korea

It probably even works that way for churches.


Here’s the Plan

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Mark 10:32-34

As they went along the road on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus began to get ahead of those who followed, who were incredulous and afraid. So Jesus took the twelve aside again and told them what to expect.

“Here’s the plan,” he said. “We’re going to Jerusalem, and the chosen one will be handed over to the thought police and the bureaucrats, and they’ll sentence him to death. They’ll hand him over to the heathen who will belittle him, spit on him, beat him and kill him. Then, three days after that, he’ll be back.”

The plan is to make such a spectacular display of the inhumanity and abuses of those in power that a movement of dissent to sweeps them from power. The plan is to inspire the sleeping masses to exercise their humanity and build a new peaceable kingdom.

Jesus knows that it’s a gambit. A pawn is intentionally sacrificed to achieve a strategic advantage and victory later on. Only Jesus isn’t asking someone else to be the pawn. He’s taking that on himself.

It’s a plan that gets implemented over and over again every time Jesus comes back to make a display inhumanity and abuse of power. It was the game plan Gandhi used to bring the British empire down. It was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s plan for the civil rights movement in the United States. It was the game plan of Nelson Mandela in the South African movement to end apartheid. The chosen one is sacrificed. The empire falls.

Then whenever a new empire arises, at the right time (three days is a Biblical term for “the right time”) Jesus, the chosen one, returns to do it again.

And again. And again.

That’s the plan.

How to Avoid Being a Religious Hypocrite

Joel Osteen
Joel Osteen, photo via Wikipedia

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Your religion is your own business. If you’re using your religion as a way to impress people, God won’t have anything to do with you.

So, when you make charitable gifts, don’t insist on having a plaque dedicated in your honor. Talk about being a hypocrite! So they have a plaque, big deal! That’s all they have, really. But when you make a charitable contribution, just do it and shut up. The gift carries its own sublime reward.

And when you pray, don’t think that having a TV show or radio ministry makes your prayers better than anyone else’s. Talk about feeding your own ego! So they have a TV show, big deal! That’s all they have, really. But when you pray, just keep it to yourself. God can hear and answer you without the aid of a radio tower.

And when you make some kind of sacrifice, don’t go around making a big to-do about it. Talk about being a drama queen! So they put themselves out a little bit, big deal! That’s the end of it, really. But when you give up something, keep the rest of yourself together and don’t whine about it. Remember that “sacrifice” means you’re doing it for the greater good, and that’s good enough.

All Jesus is saying here is what the rest of us were thinking. Put it this way: of all the plaques that were being dedicated in Jesus’ day, how many of them are still being read today? How many radio shows have come and gone in just the last generation? And how many sacrifices have been made that, in spite of all the publicity given them at the time, we can’t call to mind a year later.

Gifts with strings attached aren’t really gifts, and (though you can fool some people for a while) if it’s really all about you, it pretty much dies when you do. There’s a reason why they call it “15 minutes of fame.”

The truth is that while religion may motivate doing good things – giving to charity, prayer, and consideration for others – the motivation doesn’t make the action itself any better. And, using religion as a way of proving to everyone just how good you are is really sending the message that you think you’re better than someone else. It’s a really annoying message because (a) it’s not true, and (b) nobody cares about your ego.

Sure, Joel Osteen may attract a few thousand people to his church on any given Sunday, and have several thousand more who watch him on TV. But Jesus wants to know, when the message is, “Look at me! And if you can be as religious as I am, you can have what I have,” then so what?”

On the other hand, if you give, pray, and sacrifice without the fanfare, the people who really matter – and, if you’re religiously motivated, God – will take note.