Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
1 John 3:11-18
For this is the message
you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one
another. 12We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and
murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own
deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13Do not be astonished,
brothers and sisters, that the world hates you. 14We know that we
have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever
does not love abides in death. 15All who hate a brother or
sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have
eternal life abiding in them. 16We know love by this, that he laid
down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one
another. 17How 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?
18 Little children, let
us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
I want to continue
in a little mini-series that I began last week on 1 John. And I won't
repeat everything from last week, but I do want to share just a brief
summary of some of the conclusions on the background of what we know
about this text that we call the first letter of John.
First of all, the author is anonymous, it never claims to be written by
John, but rather became associated with John in the middle of the second
century. The editors of what we now have as the New Testament are the
ones who gave us that title.
Secondly, that most likely it was written somewhere around the turn of
the century. So about 60 to 70 years after the crucifixion. And as such,
it gives us insight into to the early church as it moved from sort of a
Sunday school class, if you will, or more accurately -- a Sabbath class
-- in the Synagogue, a messianic movement within Judaism, into
Christianity, what we know today as it's own religious tradition.
And third is that the geographical context of this text is the
Mediterranean world of the Roman Empire, and not the Palestinian world
of Jewish Israel. What is significant for us this morning is the way in
which that world, the Roman Empire, dealt with new religious traditions
(of which this is one), or with foreign religious traditions. And there
were basically three ways that the Empire could do this:
One was incorporation. When Rome conquered a foreign country, rather
than disposing of the local deities and installing their own (which was
a frequent way that the ancient world operated) they instead
incorporated (many times) those local deities into the Roman tradition.
So, for instance, if you travel through the Mediterranean world, you can
see today many temples to the Egyptian goddess Isis. For instance, in
Pompeii, there's a beautifully well-preserved temple to Isis in an area
in Italy just a little ways outside of Rome where the Egyptians never
ruled. But here we find this Egyptian God because the Egyptian
merchants, you see, would come to those places. And as a way of creating
harmony and encouraging cooperation and unity across the Empire, they
just simply incorporated those foreign gods into their tradition,
welcomed them into the pantheon of the Roman gods. Of course maintaining
Jupiter, or as we also know as Zeus in the Greek, as the chair of the
divine council of the Gods. You know, the one God over all the other
little Gods. So that was one way of dealing with a foreign tradition.
Another way was toleration without inclusion. And Judaism is the perfect
example of this. There were very few religious traditions that were
accepted as legal and legitimate that were not then including as part of
that pantheon. One of the benefits
of that recognition is that it
allowed Jews to be exempt from military service. Sort of the original
conscientious-objector status, because you could not count on Jews to be
good soldiers because they were not faithful to your God, the God of
Rome, and therefore couldn't be counted on to fight for that tradition.
That kind of privilege extended to a foreign religion was very rare in
the Roman Empire. And you can understand why -- it was not to their
But the third way was to ban it, to make it illegal, and illegal cult.
And we have a famous example from the early second century, when Pliny
the Younger was Governor of a province in Asia Minor (what is today
modern Turkey) and he wrote to the Emperor Trajan in the year 112, about
his investigation of a new cult, whose members "prayed to Jesus as to a
God". And so he investigates this cult and reveals what he finds to the
Emperor, and he says "Under the threat of death, they refuse to pay
homage to the Roman gods and to the statue of the Emperor" [considered
to be one of the gods]. And even though he could not find them guilty of
any other criminal act, he decided to execute them anyway just for their
Now, even though there are some of us who think obstinacy should be
reinstituted as a capital crime for some people :), you know, it still
seems like a pretty harsh standard. So when this elder of the early
Christian community writes this text: "Do not be astonished that the
world hates you", you understand this just isn't a casual dislike for
foreigners. We're talking about some serious hate here, with some power
It is within that context, of a world which views any new religious
tradition with great suspicion, that this message of 1 John is so
striking. Much as Martin Luther King taught nonviolence as the only way
to defeat the violence of oppression and discrimination, so too John
here teaches that love is the only way to overcome this hate and
hostility directed against these followers of Jesus.
You see, you cannot kill hate with a drone, try as we might. Only love
can truly overcome hate.
And so echoing the new commandment given by Jesus in the 15th chapter of
John's Gospel, three times we are told in this short text of 1 John to
love one another. That it's not optional for followers of Jesus -- it is
a command. But how does one command love?
As I've noted before, parents don't love their children because they're
commanded, children don't love parents because they're commanded, you
don't love your spouse because of a command -- you love them because you
love them. It's not about a command, you see, if it's love you don't
have to command it, and if you have to command it, is it really love?
So this elder of the church, quite possibly someone who sat at the feet
of John the Disciple of Jesus and heard him tell those stories, of the
love of Jesus, gives us another incentive to love that I think is quite
remarkable. He says, in essence, this: you want eternal life? Then fill
your life with love.
Now, that's not just the remarkable part, because we hear Jesus say many
similar things. In the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, remember
Jesus tells that story of the judgment day, and dividing the sheep from
the goats. And there's only one question, just one question on the final
exam: have you fed me when I was hungry? Did you clothe me when I was
naked? Did you visit me when I was sick and in prison?
And so too here in this text we are asked: 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 to help? How indeed.
And what I find remarkable in this is that this notion, that the author
speaks of, of eternal life is not about something we achieve after
death. Now, let me repeat that so it can sink in -- I've learned through
advertising the more often you say it, then it must be true, right? Just
listen to all those political ads and then you'll believe whatever they
tell you :)
Eternal life is not about something we achieve after death. Eternal life
is available to you now. In the act of love, in any and every act of
genuine love, you reveal that eternal life that already abides in you.
Did you know that? That you have that now?
John, citing the example that you heard April read for us, of the murder
of Abel by his brother Cain, notes that murderers do not have this
abiding in them. He does not say that they're not going to have it at
some future time, that they'll never inherit it, he says that they do
not have it now.
In contrast, we see that eternal life in Jesus who laid down his life
for us. Jesus, who sacrificed his life, has it. Cain, who sacrificed the
life of his brother, doesn't. The point is that it is one's act of love
that eternal life is manifest. And if love, then, is the evidence of
that eternal life in us, hate is the evidence of its absence.
And so John concludes that hate is no different than murder. That's
pretty strong stuff. Now, the victim of murder may beg to differ :) I
mean, if someone were given a choice: I can hate you for my entire life,
or I can kill you now, which will it be? Hmmm, let me think about that
for a minute. . . . do I want to be hated, or do I want to be dead? It's
not a hard choice, people! I'd take life -- I can live with hate, I'd
get over it. But at least I'll be alive.
So even though John says, spiritually there is no difference between
hate and murder, we have decided as a society that there really is a
difference. But we have also decided, especially in recent years, that
hate in fact is more than spiritually damaging. It carries real
consequences, harmful to the freedom and well-being of others. Now we've
extended it to bullying, right?
Now, opponents of that kind of
legislation that we have created, legislation around hate crimes, say
that hate is a form of speech, that is protected by the First Amendment
-- we may not like it, but it's part of our ethos, of who we are, and
it's important for us to protect freedom of speech in all its forms. And
so, for instance, we cannot prevent the so-called Reverend Phelps and
his small band of believers from Kansas from putting up their signs of
hate at the funerals of U.S. service personnel, as a way of
demonstrating to the nation that we are being punished for our sinful
ways, for allowing the big sin of homosexuality to run rampant. That
that's a form of free speech, we cannot prevent it. So whether one's
hate against gays, or Jews, or Blacks, causes them to harm someone is
irrelevant. If you injure or kill someone, you should be punished the
same regardless. That's how the argument goes.
But that argument fails to acknowledge what we have learned from the
history of genocide. That there is something especially heinous when a
crime is motivated by hate for your religion, or sexual orientation,
your race, or any other defining characteristic. For it is precisely
such hate, when left unchecked and unchallenged, that leads to
holocausts big and small.
And so we have such hate crime legislation. And even as important as
that is in a civil society, it of course will not eradicate hate itself.
That requires a change of heart. And hence John's notion of eternal life
that abides in us, to appeal to that motivation. Because eternal life is
something you can only find within you. And you're not going to get
there through hate, or anger, or bitterness, or fear.
I'm a member in a group called Murder Victim Families for
Reconciliation, and last week I was in Corvallis participating in a
panel on the death penalty. In opposition to it. And on that panel with
me was a woman that I've met before doing this work, by the name of
Abigail, whose daughter was murdered when she was just 19 years old. One
of those tragic stories of someone caught in the wrong place at the
wrong time. An innocent victim. And Abigail has this remarkable story of
a long and painful journey toward healing. And I want to share with you
this morning just a portion of it, as she told it in an ABC online news
show on faith and values. It's hosted by a priest, Father Tom Beck, that
you'll see in the video. So let's watch:
So I want to share with you a part of
that letter that she sent to Mr. Mickey:
"Two months after
her 19th birthday, Catherine left her earthly body and her spirit
transitioned to her next stage of life. The violent way she left
this earth was impossible for me to understand. I was saddened
beyond belief, and felt that I would never be completely happy
again. And indeed, my loss of Catherine became the point of
reference for my entire family. I was very angry with you, and
wanted to see you punished ot the limit of the law. You had done
irreparable damage to my family and my dreams for the future. After
8 long years of grief and anger, I started my journey of life. I was
surprised to find that I could forgive you. This does not mean that
I think you are innocent or that you are blameless for what
happened. What I learned was this: you are a divine child of God.
You are surrounded by God's love even as you sit in your cell. There
is no devil, there is only the goodness of God. The Christ in me
sends blessings to the Christ in you".
Now, I think most probably will find
it difficult how a mother could write that kind of letter. And I'm not
suggesting that to be a true Christian, every person has to follow her
example. But here's the thing I've discovered from my own experience as
well, as well as from getting to know Abigail: she has found eternal
life in the love of God, abiding in her. And it is so powerful, she
wants everyone to know that that life she found in that love is
available to them too. Even to that man who killed her daughter, and of
course, even to each of us.
To know that love, that is so great it overcomes hate, and even death,
is to know the eternal life possible in God available to each and every
one of us. And that we are then called to share, with each and every one
in our life, that love. That possibility of life there for them.
Jesus showed us how. People like Abigail have showed us when. But
there's no time like the present to know that life. To live in that
May we all.