|1 John 3:16-24||Psalm 23:3|
|John 10:11-18||Acts 4:5-12|
The circus has a way of making people feel free. Last weekend my dad and I travelled to Baraboo and the Circus World Museum. I've never been the biggest fan of circuses, with all their glitz and make-believe, but I'm still enjoying the feeling that comes from being at the circus. On the circus grounds, the circus seems real and the rest of the world seems unimportant. A lot of us think, for a moment at least, that we could run away to the circus and be free.
"Praise God, I am already free!"
Here is the promise God makes to you: You are already part of God's family. You already have eternal life living in you.
John wrote his letter to reassure all of us who love God. "Look how much God loves us," John writes. "We are called God's children. We really are God's children" [1 John 3:1].
It appears that the Christians John wrote to were troubled by doubts about their relationship with God. Some people, we aren't quite sure who, were trying to prescribe how a Christian has to experience life and what it means to be a spiritual person. These people, whoever they were, seemed to be very sure of their ideas. They were spirited in preaching their ideas to the people in the church. But not all Christian people had exactly these same experiences. Not all the Christians were comfortable with what was being preached. So they began to ask, "Am I religious enough? Am I spiritual enough? Am I one of the people that God has chosen to set free?"
John answered them: Praise God, you are already free.
How do we know that we are God's children? How do we know that God loves us? You hear it in Sunday School, you hear it in the sermons: God loves you. I tell you, that phrase comes out a little too easily. It is a nice phrase. We just need to take it more seriously.
What do we mean, "God loves us"? How do we even define what love is? This is how the passage we read from John's first letter begins: As Christians, we define love by looking at what Christ did.
FIRST, Jesus made love visible and touchable. Part of the appeal of the circus is that fantasy appears before us in the flesh. When Jesus came into the world, it was love that became a very physical thing. That life which Jesus presented on our behalf is a real, biological, eating, and breathing life. So when we define "love" we have to talk about love acted out in living human bodies.
SECOND, Jesus lived love actively on behalf of other people. Jesus' love was played out in the things he did. When people came to listen to him at on remote hillside, Jesus fed them [John 6:1-13]. A crippled woman came to the same church service as Jesus; he called her over and helped her [Luke 13:10-17]. So when we define "love" we have to talk about love that acts on behalf of real, living people.
FINALLY, Jesus presented his bodily life on behalf of other people. A human life, especially a life lived in love, is a valuable thing, too valuable to be wasted on merely symbolic gestures. But life is also too valuable to be wasted gathering dust in a closet. Jesus gave up his life to benefit us. So when we define "love" we have to talk about love that gives itself completely for others.
How do we Christians answer the question of what love is? We say, "What did Jesus do?" Jesus loved as a living, breathing human being. Jesus loved by helping other people. Jesus loved others enough to give up that living, breathing life for us. That's what love is.
Jesus taught us about love, but Jesus' life defines what love is. When we talk, our words sometimes have an effect. But the fact is that most of our words are little more than warm air.
A story from the circus: One of the daily events at the Circus World Museum this year is the Elephant Encounter. When my dad and I were there, Snuffy the elephant came out to visit with us. Snuffy came with his trainer, George, and George's 7-year-old son, Lou. Snuffy is about 7½ feet tall. Lou is not.
While George was talking to us about elephants, Snuffy was looking for grass to eat. Sometimes the grass looked more plentiful outside the ring and Snuffy would step up on the wooden ring to reach for the food. Then 7-year-old Lou would tell Snuffy to go back. Sometimes Snuffy would go back.
When that didn't work, little Lou would climb up on the ring and push on Snuffy's trunk to get him to go back into the ring. Sometimes Snuffy would go back.
When neither talking nor pushing convinced Snuffy, Lou would run to his father and George would stop talking to us and ask, "Snuffy, where are you going?" Then Snuffy would turn back into the ring and eat the grass there.
Words are good, but action shows the truth. Sometimes elephants or people do what we tell them. Sometimes our words inspire ourselves to do the right thing. Sometimes. Only God's word always turns into action, and Jesus is the Word of God [1 John 1:1].
This is why the passage from 1 John starts with these words:
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us--and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 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? [1 John 3:16-17]
We have "the world's goods", we "get our living from the world". But is God's love living in our lives? There is a sure way to tell: Does God's love show in my actions? If not, well, then God's love doesn't have a home in my heart. God still loves me either way. What you learned in Sunday School is true. But what does that matter, unless I let God's love settle into my heart and live there?
When God's love does show in my actions, you know that love has a home in my heart. In that case, God's love fulfills its purpose in my life. John says it this way:
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth … [1 John 3:18-19a]
How do we know that we are God's children? How do we know that God loves us? If God's action comes out in my actions, then I have God's love in me. My action shows the truth. Living as Jesus taught; living as Jesus lived: This is the way to know that God is living in me.
What we've said about love sets a pretty high standard for our lives. I know that I don't measure up to the demands of this message. How can I stand before God without fear? Doesn't my own conscience condemn me?
Another story: For many years I've treasured a wonderful memory of my dad taking me to the circus museum. It was a great memory, but (as many of you already know) it never happened. Last weekend I took my dad to the Circus World Museum so that he could have some of the same memories that I've been enjoying all these years.
I tell this story to point out that even in the good things in our lives we don't always have our stories straight. So why should we suppose that we know all about our failures, either? We aren't free from human blindness and ignorance. We don't know everything even about ourselves.
But we are free from having to judge ourselves. So don't give up yet. John tells us that awareness of our failures shouldn't discourage us. He says
we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before [God] whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; … [1 John 3:19-21]
Only God can judge us, not our neighbors, not our friends, not even our own conscience. Maybe I don't have the heart to stand up and face God, but "God is greater than our hearts". And therefore, says John, "we have boldness before God".
This is the good news: You are already free and you can stand before God as free members of God's family.
Down in Baraboo, they have an extensive workshop for restoring circus wagons. One of the wagons on exhibit there has been rebuilt, but it isn't repainted and redecorated like the other circus wagons. When I looked at that particular wagon, I said, "That looks like a farm wagon!" A wagon is a wagon, but the circus tries to turn our fantasies into real life. A plain wagon becomes a living fantasy when they add bright paint, pictures, gold leaf, mirrors, and intricate carvings. A wagon is made of wooden boards and wooden wheels. A circus wagon is made of imagination and excitement.
A human being is made of muscles and bone and blood. A Christian is made of faith and love. The circus tries to bring our fantasies to real life, but God is bringing love to life. Consider your life a plain wooden wagon decorated by God with the mirrors of faith in Jesus and the bright colors of good actions. Consider yourself a plain gray elephant decorated by God in a glittering costume and trained by God to perform in a way that brings happiness to children of all ages.
We recognize that God's life is living in us because we believe in God's son Jesus and because we see that God's love is being acted out in our actions. That is the proof that we are part of God's family. And so, as John wrote,
we have boldness before God … because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another …. 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. [1 John 3:21b,22b-24]
Praise God, we are already free! Let's celebrate God's love living in us with Zinzendorf's great song "The Savior's Blood and Righteousness", using the new translation in our hymnal, number 776.
May 14, 2000
[The show is Jorge Barreda's Elephant Encounters.]