Preachers all have some aspects of the Bible that we’re drawn to more than others.  I tend to preach on stories and poetry, and it’s less common for me to pick the New Testament letters.  But I am committed to “eating my vegetables” so to speak, reading all of the Bible and not always choosing my favorites, and so today I picked the epistle—the letter, which is an excerpt from 1 John.  Here, there’s something really important going on:  we get a sort of elevator speech for Christianity.  In this text you can imagine someone asking, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” and the answer that comes back is direct and concise:  Christians are to follow Jesus and love one another—to believe in the truth of Jesus’ life and to be willing to act because of it.  That idea will be the focus for today.

          Let’s begin with a bit more background on the text:  There’s good reason to believe that the Epistle (or letter) of 1 John was written by the same author as the Gospel of John—or by one of his students.  About a generation later than John’s Gospel, this letter seems to be addressed to a community struggling with what it means to be a Christian.  There are apparently some false prophets with impure motives in the community, perhaps vying for power, and the purpose of this letter is to help the community navigate these voices who want to lead the community.  In case any of that seems irrelevant to life today, consider for a moment that something very similar is going on in evangelical Christianity today.  There is immense debate over whether those churches have lost their spiritual identity and values in favor of a hard-right political agenda; letters and articles are written about it all the time.  To be fair, some of the same debate goes on in more theologically progressive churches too, with many wondering if social issues or inclusion of all perspectives has the effect of watering down the teachings of Jesus.  These are live debates.  So, knowing what you believe about being a Christian and then being willing to hold to it is very much a matter for today.

          In this passage from 1 John 3, the author makes a claim about how one might sum up the Christian faith:  “This is [God’s] commandment, that we should believe in the name of [God’s] Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.”  Stated another way a few verses earlier, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”  There is a part of these statements that is about belief in who Jesus was, and then a second part about what we should do.  I’m going to address the two parts of those statements one at a time.

          First, the matter of believing in Jesus, knowing who he was and that he laid down his life for us.  It’s still the Easter season, when we talk most about the death of Jesus on the Cross, and from time to time I think it’s appropriate to take a few minutes and remind one another what the church teaches about the meaning of the Cross.  Why did Jesus die for us?

          The most common, though not necessarily the best, explanation is what theologians call “substitutionary atonement.”  The basic idea here is that we are all sinners, but Jesus is without sin, and in order to “fix” what we cannot fix for ourselves, Jesus gives up his own life in order to redeem humanity and place us back in favor with God.  It’s a traditional argument, based in familiar passages of scripture and ancient traditions of priest and sacrifice.  If that seems archaic to you, consider also that this idea of substitutionary atonement fits with most of our typical cultural thinking about how justice and debt work, and that people get what they deserve, and to that extent it’s been popular in the past and still is today.  However, this theory also raises some uncomfortable questions.  Why does an act of such violence as the Cross provide a “fix” for the sin of the world, and what kind of God would be made happy by that?  So, other explanations have been offered.

          Another explanation that has always made the most sense to me has to do with the idea of “solidarity”:  that in Jesus’ death on the Cross, he acts in solidarity with humanity.  This explanation begins with a similar initial premise—that we are caught in sin, and that is why we need saving.  Let’s talk about that for a moment:  Some folks are not comfortable with talking about sin and there are plenty of other sermons to preach about that, but for today, I’ll just offer this.  Many assume that acknowledging the reality of sin means that YOU are a bad person and need to be saved from eternal life in hell, but there is another way of thinking about sin, with roots that are just as traditional.  By this more communal way of thinking, it’s not just you, but the whole world that is caught in a cycle of sin, broken and separated from God’s good intentions for us, and we need help in order to restore the world to the goodness God created it for.  It’s not just you but the whole world that needs salvation.  Most of us don’t need to go any further than the daily news to see evidence of the brokenness of the world, which is what we traditionally call the reality of sin.  But how does the Cross save us?

          Well, returning to this idea of solidarity:  what is suggested here is that in the person of Jesus, God comes into the world in order to experience life in the same way that the rest of us do.  Jesus is fully human, experiences hunger and joy, love and loneliness, and all aspects of humanity, and in order for him to be fully human, he must also face death.  In all of that, he’s just like us.  Under this explanation of solidarity and the brokenness of the world, its not God’s desire for Jesus to die, that doesn’t make God happy or satisfied—but it’s the brokenness of this world that kills him.  Jesus lives a whole life of tremendous, selfless love—and that way of life was so threatening to the regular kings of the world that they put him to death—and the mob went along with it.  God did not desire this, but God’s love for the world was so deep that God would do anything to be in solidarity with every aspect of human experience—including death.

          If I had unlimited time, I could tell you about plenty of other explanations and nuances to both of these theories of salvation, and I can offer you plenty more reading material, if you like, but for now the point might be this:  there is no single definition as to how Jesus saves us, for not all the theologians agree.  But the crux of the matter seems to be that the world needs saving, and as Christians, we mean to look to Jesus as our teacher to guide us out of the mess we are in and back to the goodness we were made for.  1 John 3 is claiming that Jesus paid the ultimate price to show us the way; the truth of Jesus is that he laid down his life for us.

          So what about the second part, that we ought to lay down our lives for one another—that Jesus commands us to love.  At first this sounds so demanding as to be impossible, so while the first part of this sermon required explaining a lot of theory, this second part, I think, requires a dose of plain sense.

          The first thing to say is that, extreme as it seems, it is not impossible to imagine a person laying down one’s life in an act of love.  Joan of Arc, Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King Jr. are the famous examples of Christians who have done this.  Many others have done so.  It is incredibly humbling to remember that there are soldiers, whether in the battles against slavery, or Nazism, or the terrors of today, who are willing to die for the freedoms the rest of us enjoy.  The same can be said of first responders in every corner of the world, or the World Central Kitchen workers in Gaza who literally laid down their lives in love for others.  This kind of sacrifice happens all the time.

          Another dose of reality, though, is that most of life is not made of that level of sacrifice, and that most days Christianity asks something much simpler of us.  It asks that when we see a neighbor in need and have the ability to help, that we step up and do it.  That’s what the passage suggests, not life and death, but rather compassion and generosity:  “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?”  With whatever situation that appears in our neighborhood or within our sphere of influence, we must give of ourselves in love.  That is the expectation.  And it can be met quite simply in opportunities we offer to you nearly every week here at Knox and that I’m sure you find in many other places as well.

Jesus challenged powerful people in his world to act differently, and to help people in need.  There are lots of ways we challenge ourselves to be more active in loving others, and I’ll simply share one way it has shown up in my life.  Years ago, I was invited to attend a workshop for community organizers, and curious about that work, I went.  Gathered in the room were lots of ministers like me and other do-gooder types, and the first thing that happened was that they asked us to pair up with someone in the room we didn’t know and talk about a question:  “Describe a time when you have taken a risk and asked a person more powerful than yourself to do something to help someone else.”  I found myself lacking many good answers to that question.  It’s not the right question for everyone, but in my case, it woke me up to the fact that I knew plenty of people with power and influence but was very rarely challenging them to do more good—because it was easier not to.  Ever since I have found it to be one way to measure if I am stretching myself to love others in a way that is sacrificial.  I wonder if there is a different question or challenge that sometimes works on you?

There are plenty of different ways of talking about being Christian.  And I know it’s true that my sermons express many different ideas that might be described as the “essence” of Christianity; I have not yet landed on just one.  But for today, the text reminds us that Jesus laid down his life for us and that we ought to lay down our lives for one another; that we are called to follow him and to obey his commandment to love one another. 

So I leave you with questions:  Do we appreciate (have we considered) the tremendous depth of God’s love for us such that there is nothing God will not do to be in solidarity with us—to live our life, to bear our struggles and griefs, and to suffer even death for the sake of goodness?  AND do we love one another enough to be willing in our own lives to do something about it?  These, says John, are the marks of a Christian.  Amen.