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Draw the Circle Wide

Draw the Circle Wide: Love in Truth and Action

Text: 1 John 3:16-24

Although it was John Wesley’s favorite book of the Bible, I find it rather difficult to elaborate on the plain, even blunt language of this letter. One online preaching guide suggests that this is a letter that one simply basks in, savoring the words, and that’s all the congregation needs, is to watch their preacher do that basking. I don’t know if you’ll let me get away with that, but we’ll give it a partial try in a little while.

Someone last week asked me who scholars believe the author of this letter was. Tradition pegs him as the same author of the Gospel of John, who, in turn, is commonly said to be John, the son of Zebedee and brother of James, referred to in that gospel as the “beloved disciple,” of “the one Jesus loved.” This is a plausible theory for a number of reasons. One is that the language, the vocabulary, used in the gospel and in the letters attributed to John is very similar, and it’s easy to imagine that language spoken by a simple fisherman. If the same man wrote these works, the gospel is dated around 85 AD, and the letters are dated five to ten years after that — and if the Evangelist was one of Jesus’ companions, that means he was quite old indeed. Many commentators of this work simply refer to him as “The Elder.”

I like the character and tone of 1 John. There’s a mellow quality about it. There is less of the sometimes-deceptively-simple-but-really-elevated theological symbolism that one finds in the Gospel of John; it’s almost as if, having seen so many years, so many developments and changes, and having completed the momentous task of describing the meaning of Jesus’ work on earth, that John, at the very end of his life, was boiling the message down even further.

He says, as many of us do, that it’s all about love. If a person unfamiliar with, or perhaps skeptical about, Christianity is to get what we are basically about, it should be love, right? And yet, love is not the word that comes immediately to mind for an awful lot of people when they hear the word “Christian.” Sadly, many are more likely to come up with a list that includes words like “old-fashioned,” “hard-nosed,” “proud,” “political,” “backward,” “simpleton,” or even “homophobic,” “anti-science,” “hateful,” or “condemning.” And it would not really be much better if what came to mind were words like “quiet,” “wishy-washy,” “not much,” or “just regular folks.”

Because the real measure should be love — and not just the kind of love that accepts everyone, tolerates difference, and doesn’t stir up trouble. Love, in a world that is filled with fear and hatred and injustice, in order to overcome evil, must be, as John says in this passage, love in truth and action — love that opens the circle instead of closing it.

I recently had occasion to re-watch one of my favorite classic films, and share it with a friend who’d never seen it before: the 1994 film Forrest Gump.

There are many ,more famous quotes from that film than this one, but you may still remember the scene in which the main character says: “I am not a smart man, but I know what love is.”

His Mama taught him: “Stupid is as stupid does.” And through her actions, she also taught him: Love is as love does. And so he did, with his wide-eyed curiosity about people, his simple kindness and acceptance of everyone, his bafflement in the face of unkindness and of selfishness, his humility and acknowledgment of limitations but, at the same time, undaunting hope in humanity and belief that he always had something to offer, something he could do.

(I love Forrest Gump.)

I dream about a world in which more people might come to view people of faith as those who love in truth and action. My prayer is that we might not become discouraged by the forces of evil and the pace of change, but that we might remain dedicated to this principle of love that is action and love that is rooted in truth and in what matters.

Would that a young person might say, “I don’t go to church much (if at all), but I know some good Christians. I know my grandmother and her friends. And they aren’t just stuck-in-the-muds holding tight to their retirement checks and resting on their laurels. They not only love and accept me, they try to get to know me. They are curious about my life. And they are passionate about the things I am passionate about: justice for everyone, and jobs, and the poor, and racism, and access to education and healthcare. And they pray, and they are generous with their time, and they listen. They care about each other and they care about me. When I do go to church with my grandma, I am welcomed just as I am. And I find them talking about things that matter. I like the quiet, and I like the joy. I like that they are unafraid of what tomorrow may bring, even when they are hobbling around in pain. I wonder if there is some wisdom to be gained from spending some time with them.”

One way of “soaking” or “basking” in scripture is through the meditative practice called lectio divina, and this passage particularly lends itself to this devotional way of reading scripture. Our Wednesday Bible study group took on this daily practice during Lent with a series of readings focused on the word Listen, and the Adam Hamilton book we’re reading together now contains an appendix with a month’s worth of lectio passages about letting go of fear. I commend those to you for personal quiet time. There is also value in “soaking together,” and we do this occasionally in worship, so for many of you this won’t be new. For those who might have missed it before, let me give a bit of an orientation. I’m going to read the passage again, only much more slowly, with pauses for you to reflect. You might repeat the verse, or a part of it, quietly to yourself, and then think about the images, memories, questions, affirmations, or callings that come to mind. I’m going to add the questions that have come to my mind, too (a little twist on the traditional method). You might want to write something down, or share a word with a neighbor. I’ll take it a verse at a time.

Let’s start with a prayer: Speak to us, Lord. Your servants are listening.

(Lectio Divina exercise follows)