I John 3:16-24
“Hearts at Rest”
May 3, 2009 - Fourth Sunday of Easter
My daughter Joanna took the SAT yesterday morning. She studied hard for the past few weeks, taking practice exams and honing her skills so that she would be ready. When she would get nervous about it, Beth and I did all we could to reassure her that she was preparing adequately and that she would do well.
In our text today, John asks if we are prepared for a test of our Christian faith. Standards for college entrance may be high, but the standard John proposes for true Christians is even higher.
Verse 16 sets the standard. It is keyed to Jesus Himself, who “laid down his life for us.” As we read in John’s Gospel this morning, Jesus is the Good Shepherd, laying down His life for His sheep, for you and me. All that we think we know about love is corrected and expanded by what Jesus did. Thinking about love as Christians always takes us back to the Cross and our Savior hanging there in death… for us.
Jesus laying down His life on the Cross is the central event of our faith. John tells us it is also the center of our ethics. It is not just the way in which we find forgiveness and peace with God. It is the model and standard for our own behavior. “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
From the very beginning, Christians have asked whether we can possibly pass this test for love. Most of us would wonder whether we are adequately prepared for such an intense examination of character, of such love for each other. That’s exactly why John in verse 17 offers a way by which we can test our preparation, a practice exam, if you will.
A church father named Bede read the transition from verse 16 to 17 like this, “If you are not yet ready to die for your brother, at least you should be ready to share some of your wealth with him.” Laying down your life sounds heroic, a soldier falling on a grenade to save his buddies, or a lifeguard swimming into a riptide to rescue a child. Most of us have no such opportunity. We may wonder if we have the courage. But verse 17 brings Christian love down to earth and puts it in everyday situations: “If any one of you has material possessions and sees his brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in you?” The exam for love becomes intensely immediate and practical.
I got examined last Friday while I was in Portland for our Conference annual meeting. I had just spent the afternoon in a session focused on how Christians show love to people of different races and economic class. Then I got in my car to head across town to where we would worship together that evening. As I stopped at the light before the freeway on ramp, I was preoccupied with finding my way, with planning last Sunday’s sermon, and with just unwinding after an intense discussion. But I looked up and my heart sank. There beside me was a young woman holding a cardboard sign.
I didn’t want to be distracted right then. I wanted the light to change. I usually try to carry some fast food gift certificates, so I don’t give cash that may be misused, but I was out of those. I wanted to keep my window rolled up. But those words “has no pity,” came to me. The King James Version translates them literally, “shutteth up the bowels of compassion.” To have no pity is to close up yourself, to tighten the sphincter of love and let nothing out. I had to open the window, fish around in my pocket and come up with some change. I could not close myself off and then go sing and say the words of worship.
Verse 18 says, “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” We cannot get away with just the words. We cannot just say the Apostles’ Creed and declare that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried,” and then not draw the practical conclusion for our own behavior. John makes it clear that we only really hold to the truth when we do like Jesus did, when we open up ourselves and give what we have to others.
So I reached out the open window and poured a handful of change into the woman’s hand. As I drove away I felt better, like I hadn’t quite failed that particular test. Verse 19 says, “This is how we know we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence.” That was exactly it. God had been present and I had opened up a little window to Him and my heart could rest.
This is John’s prescription for dealing with those doubts about Christian faith that come to all of us. We worry about our sins, as we read from John last week. We worry about whether we are really sincere in our belief. We worry about whether it’s all true. And John simply tells us this: give to somebody in need and you will set your heart at rest. It’s a basic and fundamental test of true Christian faith. I invite you to give it a try. It works.
It works, but there’s a catch. When you get home after taking an exam, whether it’s the SAT or a test of Christian love, you may start second-guessing yourself. Did I really get that one right? Was there a better answer? Could I have done it differently? Verse 20 starts out, “If our hearts condemn us…” That’s exactly what happens sometimes in tests of Christian love. It happened to me.
As I drove away from the woman by the on-ramp my heart was at rest, but as I looked back I saw her carefully counting what I’d given her. It couldn’t have been more than about 80 or 90 cents. Could I have done better? I had a twenty dollar bill in my wallet. Maybe I should have given her that? Even in a moment of peace about following Christ, my heart started condemning me.
The rest of verse 20 speaks to me and all of us at such times. Our hearts may condemn us, but John wrote, “God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” God knows everything. When we’re trying to show Christian love, God knows all our self-doubts and second-guessing and mixed motives. He knows when we really are closing our hearts and when we are not. And He is greater than all of it.
No matter how loving we are, we cannot justify ourselves by what we do. If being loving and generous was the way to peace with God, Christ would not have had to lay down His life. An example would have been enough. Loving deeds alone won’t set your heart at rest. Our hearts will always condemn us. We’re never quite sure we’ve done the right thing, had the right motives, acted solely and completely out of real love.
That’s why real love keeps coming back to Jesus, keeps returning to the safe keeping of the Good Shepherd. Jesus laid down His life for His sheep. That’s what frees us from the condemnation of our hearts and gives us the confidence before God of which verse 21 speaks. Whatever good we do, whatever love we display starts in His love, starts in His life laid down for us. Jesus is our confidence before God.
Yet John is telling us that if we really trust in Jesus, if we really believe in the Shepherd who died for His sheep, then it will show. Jesus love for us will cause us to love each other. Verse 22 says that it will show up in an amazing kind of life that will “receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him.”
I confess I don’t know completely what that promise about receiving whatever we ask means. It’s the same sort of promise Jesus made in John 15:16 and elsewhere. It seems so clear that we don’t receive whatever we ask of God. How can this promise be true? But I wonder if we might just take it in context here. We receive anything we ask whenever we keep his commands, and here the command is to give to each other in true love.
I’m not doubting the direct, miraculous power of God to give us what we ask of Him. But often, when I hear of a Christian receiving something for which she prayed, it’s because God moved another Christian to provide it. There’s an envelope with money to pay the rent in the mail. There’s a phone call offering a job. There’s food in a bag on the doorstep. There’s a listening ear, an arm of comfort, a hand of help. One of us prays and one of us listens to God and shows love. And anything we ask might be received in just that way. It’s a promise that’s fulfilled by being people who give up ourselves for each other in the way Jesus laid down His life for us. That’s what keeping His commands and pleasing Him is about.
It all boils down to a single, two-part command in verse 23, “to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.” It has to be kept together. Without believing in the Savior who died on the Cross and rose again, we won’t remember what true love is, but without showing true love to each other, we will stop believing in the Savior.
Believe in Jesus Christ. You can’t please God any other way. Do all the good deeds you like and your heart will still condemn you. Peace with God begins not by doing, but by believing and trusting in Jesus. But that peace is completed when love for God carries on over into love for others. It’s then that we become what Jesus meant us to be, people among whom He is present, people in whom His Spirit lives. Verse 24 says, “Those who keep his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: we know it by the Spirit he gave us.”
It’s the Holy Spirit of Jesus that calls us together around this Table to remember how He laid down His life for each one of us and for all of us together. It’s the Holy Spirit who opens our hearts and lives to each other so that in love we become each other’s answers to prayer, so that we truly do receive what we ask of God. It’s the Holy Spirit who creates a loving community of people who don’t just say the words, but who do the deeds of love.
May we come to the Table here this morning in the Holy Spirit Jesus gave us. May we enter into communion with His life laid down for us. And may we enter into communion with each other as we leave this table and respond to the love of Jesus by giving up what we have for each other.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj