As may be the case for a number of Spill the Beans users as well as those who decided to break away from the Gospel for a spell after Easter, some people have been journeying through the first letter of John where we struggle to avoid the fact that God loves each and every one of us as his children.
When the time came for me to preach on 1 John on April 29th, it became clear that it was going to be difficult to escape doing another sermon on… you’ve guessed it! Love…
I wanted desperately to find something new, exciting, and challenging, but alas the text had its way with me — all I could hear was that bloomin’ four letter word — a word that has become so overused, misused, and abused.
You know the one I am talking about . . . love!
I am just as guilty of this… A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from Church of Scotland HQ to tell me that I do not need to do a second Church Law essay. I immediately said out loud – Yes! I love you!!!
It’s very easy to do isn’t it? But it’s nice! It’s great to be passionate about things, to enjoy someone or something, as much as to say that we love them.
There is, however, the risk that if we say something too often or for the sake of it that the shine is rubbed off it and the meaning that is carries begins to disintegrate.
In his introduction to the letters of John, Eugene Peterson writes in The Message:
…the two most difficult things to get straight in life are love and God. More often than not, the mess people make of their lives can be traced to failure or stupidity or meanness in one or both of these areas…
If we want to deal with God the right way, we have to learn to love the right way. If we want to love the right way, we have to deal with God the right way…
God and love cannot be separated…
Still, in an attempt to steer away from using the ‘L’ word too much, I turned my attention to the Gospel reading for that Sunday.
There are some scholars who also believe that 1 John was written to allow people to make sense of John’s Gospel and suggest that 1 John should be read in light of John’s Gospel. These same scholars have reason to believe that this section of 1 John is supposed to explain what Jesus meant when he said that he was the Good Shepherd in John 10. This was news to me as well as I have always gone back to the 23rd Psalm or Ezekiel 34 for my reference so I was keen to see what happens when I used this approach instead.
Before I go any further, I need to make a confession. There is a type of painting that many people use to depict Jesus as the Good Shepherd, which I really don’t like. It’s the kind of painting in which Jesus is shown holding a pure, white lamb against his pure, white, dirt-free clothing. I don’t like these images for one reason and one reason alone – I don’t think that this is what a good shepherd looks like. And as we explore these passages a bit more, you will see what I am getting at.
Look at the first two verses of today’s reading from 1 John as they appear in The Message:
‘This is how we’ve come to understand and experience love: Christ sacrificed his life for us. This is why we ought to live sacrificially for our fellow believers, and not just be out for ourselves. If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears.’
Now look at these verses from John 10:
‘I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd puts the sheep before himself, sacrifices himself if necessary. A hired man is not a real shepherd. The sheep mean nothing to him. He sees a wolf come and runs for it, leaving the sheep to be ravaged and scattered by the wolf. He’s only in it for the money. The sheep don’t matter to him.’
When we love somebody with the love described in 1 John and that of a Good Shepherd, we go to the ends of the earth for them. We will go to places where we wouldn’t normally go. We are prepared to take risks to help them when they are in distress. We are prepared to stand in the way of things that seek to harm those we love.
I’m sorry, but I don’t see how this would be achieved without getting our hands dirty. Going far from home in order to pasture the flock, shepherds would go for days without a bath, or change of clothes, sleeping outside on the ground in the rain and facing the dry, dusty heat. Clearly, far from beautiful, shepherds are dirty, even filthy, and they probably do not smell very nice.
Is this a startling image for Jesus? Jesus as a dirty, filthy, stinking shepherd. This tells me that Jesus is someone who will get his ‘hands dirty’ in order to lead us to life. It tells me that no matter what kind of a mess I have made of my life, Jesus will not hesitate to come and join me on the way in order to lead me through the dirt, the mess, the trouble that I have made of my life.
Jesus truly is a good shepherd. What makes him such a good shepherd is that he has not, does not hesitate to take on the pain, brokenness and mess of our human lives, joining us on our way, so as to lead us to freedom, healing and life.
And that is what this passage in 1 John is telling us to do:
Let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love.
We are being called to love a love of truth and action. A love for the unloved, a love for the marginalised, a love for the poor, a love for the excluded, despised, rejected. A love that will not let go. A love that abides people and abides with people.
It is in loving such love that we keep his commands, we live deeply and surely in him, and he lives in us. And this is how we experience his deep and abiding presence in us; by the Spirit he gave us.
When writing this, I couldn’t not shake these words from my head and so I will close with them, because I feel that they sum things up perfectly.
‘What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise man, I would do my part.
But what I can I give him, I will give my heart.’