by Lindsey Funtik, Coordinator of Volunteer Ministries, Ashland First United Methodist Church, Ashland, Ohio
For the past five weeks, I have been leading a Bible study in 1 John. It is a book rich in encouragement and light and truth and love, which has earned it its title of my favorite book in Scripture. It played a formative role in my beginning steps of discipleship while in college and, to this day, I never walk away from reading it without being challenged to look more like Jesus in the world. And if there’s anything the world needs, it is a whole lot more of Jesus and people who follow in His healing, gracious, truth-wielding footsteps. I'm doing my best to join their ranks.
One thing that Jesus emphasizes is love. In fact, God the Son's messy, beautiful incarnational experience culminated in His expressing perfect love by serving as a sacrifice on the cross and putting death to death. He broke out of the grave and, in doing so, offered us the option of having our own chains broken. "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one's friends." (John 15:13) God is love, and we are to love the Lord with all our hearts and with all our minds and with all our strengths. Simple as that, right?
And yet, that's not the end of the greatest command. Not only are we to love God, but we are also to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is easy to say and to affirm, but so much harder to put into practice. Sure we want to try to be loving, but people can be difficult and relationships are often hurtful and masks that protect the health and safety those around us are uncomfortable. Love is sometimes very, very hard. There are a million excuses, big and small, that we tell ourselves so that the sacrificial love of Jesus is not truly extended to our neighbors.
But what's the big deal? So long as we aren't causing any lasting damage do we really have to be all lovey dovey with those around us? Whenever I ask myself that question, I return to 1 John 3:15:
"Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him." (NIV)
Woah, strong words, John. Just because I'm not loving toward someone doesn't mean I want them to kick the bucket! But Jesus made the same assertions. Let's make a stark distinction for the sake of argument: we can either love or hate. When we don't love our neighbors, we hate them. I know that our common vernacular makes room for "like" or "tolerate", but we aren't called to simply endure one another, but to love. Anything else is murder.
I was struck anew by this verse when we reached it during Bible study and, like any good little seminarian, I turned to some commentaries. One commentator (Gary M. Burge, The NIV Application Commentary: The Letters of John) made a statement that I think I will remember for the rest of my life. On the topic of lovelessness and murder Burge writes:
"In other words, anyone who hates is willing to deny life to his or her opponent and in one sense has already committed murder…But the reverse is also true: Those who exhibit love, who forgive freely and value their neighbor, bring life, healing, and goodness to others. These are nothing less than divine qualities." (Burge, 161)
If the perfect picture of love is Jesus on the cross, sacrificially giving Himself up so that we might live, then we can confidently assert that to love is to give life. When we show God's love (which is the only true love, from which all of our best expressions stem), there is restoration and encouragement and health and joy. To love is to do our best to instill in others a sense of the thriving God has in mind for us.
Alternatively, to do anything less than loving completely is to be willing to withhold life from others. When we choose not to act out of this love, we essentially decide that the other person is not worthy of life. If God's love puts breath in our lungs, choosing against love is to suffocate our neighbors. We become murderers.
Once again I will say that these are strong words. John does a really good job of setting up stark contrasts in his first letter so that we might understand the dichotomy between the light and the dark. His rhetoric here drives this point home in a way that does not mince words and does not leave room for excuses. Will you love or will you kill? Will you give life or will you withhold it?
These big ideas are all well and good, but we must always ask how we can put our theology into practice. To be honest, I can think of a few people right off the top of my head that I have a hard time loving. Do I desire to have a coffee date with them? By no means. It would probably result in some flipped tables anyway. But can I offer love rather than simmering anger or dangerous resentment or active dislike? Absolutely.
Start with prayer. I have heard it said that it is really hard to hate the people for whom you pray, and I have found that to be true. After all, what could be more loving than to lift your neighbor gently before the throne of God? When you see a political yard sign that makes your blood boil, pray that the person who set it out would experience true joy that day. When you are tempted to replay a frustrating conversation, pray that the person in question would feel a sense of peace and wholeness. When you are met with the people in life that just make you want to scream, pray the love of God over them and experience a piece of the Divine heart who watches us make a million mistakes and loves us anyway.
I have found that, when I offer such prayers, it serves as a balm over wounds and a soft blanket with which to smother fires that would ultimately be destructive. And this is just the first step-- keep going. Share a meal or conversation over a cup of coffee without flipping any tables. Ask them how they are doing and really listen with open ears and a gentle heart that seeks to understand. Reach out to any and all neighbors, no matter what, and I guarantee that the Holy Spirit will not only pour life into the person beside you, but will also refresh the lifeblood which runs through your own veins, by the grace of God.
It is not easy. After all, perfect love was demonstrated by a horrendous execution at the hands of Romans before a deep dive into the darkness we had coming for us (think Gandalf and the Balrog). To love like Jesus is to recognize that it might be a struggle, but that it ultimately breeds life. Push into it, step away from your murder weapons, and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the name of Jesus, to the glory of the Father, love.
Cross-Posted from "Reflections on Faith, Words, and The Holiness of Today"