Sunday, February 26, 2012

Life Signs - #7 A Cross-Shaped Life

The greatest movies are usually about love.  No, I'm not talking about passionate desire and romance - though that stuff definitely has its place. I'm talking about the power of redemptive, self-giving love. Take this year's academy award nominees for example.  In The Descendents, George Clooney plays a father who must stop being the “back up parent” and start being a real father to his two daughters in the wake of a family tragedy. In The Artist, a washed up silent movie star is saved from ruin by the very woman who he helped to make famous. In The Help, a white woman sacrifices her her standing in the community as well as her boyfriend in order to write about the racist treatment of black maids in early 1960's Mississippi. Of course the sacrifice that these housekeepers make in order to speak the truth is even greater. Redemptive love and self-sacrifice is not just a popular movie theme…it’s the most powerful theme in human history.  We’ve been looking at John’s signs of genuine Christian faith in his first letter; and the seventh of these life signs from 1 John 3: 11-24 is a cross-shaped life…because our love for others should reflect the humility and sacrificial love of Christ.

What is the attitude of a cross-shaped life?  11This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.   12 Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother's were righteous.”  

In order to help us see the love of Christ more clearly, John begins by showing us its opposite.  We can’t fully appreciate love, or how much we need love, or how we exist only because of love, until we see how destructive its absence can be. To illustrate the power of hate, John takes us back to the biblical story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4: 1-8.  Here we read about a time when Adam’s two sons, Cain and Abel brought to the LORD an offering.  We read that “the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (5).  Why is this? 

Though we are not told directly, there is one difference between the two offerings.  Cain, who works the soil, brings an offering of the fruit of the ground, but Abel who is a shepherd brings “the firstlings of his flock.”  In other words, it appears that Abel brought the first and most precious gift he had…the firstborn of his flock.  It does not appear that Cain brought the first fruits of his harvest. We know from Deut. 18:4 that God desires the first fruits from his people…the best that they have to give as an offering to him.  Out of jealousy and hatred, then, Cain decides to kill his brother.  Before he does so, however, God asks.  “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?  If you do well, will you [i.e., your gift] not be accepted  And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:6-7). 

This is a key verse because God is reminding us that anger…which leads ultimately to death, is something which can be and must be mastered. We can read the story of Cain  & Abel and easily excuse ourselves by saying, “Well, I have never murdered, so this doesn’t apply to me.”  But God shows Cain that the root of murder is anger; which can and must be mastered.  Jesus says exactly the same thing in Matthew 5: 21-24. Murder begins in the heart, with an attitude of contempt or disrespect.  But…the hopeful side is that (as God told Cain) hatred and anger can be mastered.  Jesus says we can begin to master our anger by practicing reconciliation, repentance, and forgiveness. 

One more insight into this passage which I believe is important.  When John speaks of boiling anger and hatred, he speaks of something of which he had firsthand experience.  John and his brother had anger management issues!  When John saw someone healing in Jesus’ name he tried to stop him because he was not part of Jesus’ band of disciples; and when a Samaritan town refused to welcome Jesus,  they asked Jesus, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" (Mark 9: 38-39; Luke 9:54).  On both occasions Jesus rebuked them for their quick tempers.  It’s no surprise that Jesus nicknamed them, “sons of thunder.” 

John learned from experience that growth is possible; that our personalities are not fixed forever, but can be changed for the better by the grace of God. Some of us have a “fixed” mindset.  We assume that what has been is what will be; that we can’t really change; that others can’t fundamentally change. Someone with a fixed mindset tends not to try new things because of the fear of failure. But someone with a “growth” mindset embraces the possibility of change in themselves and in others, takes risks, and expects to fail, because failure is a part of growth (see Chip & Dan Heath; Switch: How to Change things When Change is Hard).  Changing from an angry person to a forgiving person doesn’t happen overnight.  It takes small steps, it takes practice.  There will be failures, but God has already told us that we can master those parts of ourselves that need to change by his grace, that we can become the children of God that he has told us we are.

The actions of a cross-shaped life.  The attitude which John wants to talk about is not hatred but love, but that “word” then as now needs redefining.   In the Greek speaking world, John knew that the most popular word for love was erosthat is, the erotic love of sensual intoxication, of physical attraction and romance. The least popular word for love in the Greek world was agape, the love which gives (for further reading, see  agapaw, "The Words for Love in Pre-Biblical Greek," G. Kittel, TDNT, Vol. I, p. 35).  It was the word that most closely reflected the Hebrew idea of hesed, of steadfast, committed love; and so when Jesus’ disciples wanted to express this idea of committed, self-giving love in Greek…they used agape.  The love expressed in action; the love that gives, the love that is most like God.  

This is how we know what love (agape) is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us (16)!  The greatest act of self-giving love imaginable is the love that Christ showed us when he laid down his life for us on the cross.  This is the definition of true love; which is why John continues, “and we ought to lay down our lives for one another (16b).”  If hatred reveals itself in the taking of someone else’s life; true love reveals itself in the act of giving of one’s own life for someone else.  Love does not destroy another’s life, love lays down its life so that another may live.  Love is not just a feeling or a sentiment or nice sounding words…love is an event, love is an action.

I heard about a Christian bible school built by Franklin Graham's charity Samaritan's Purse that was actually bombed in Northern Sudan last Friday. It was the first day of school, and the campus was full of students, teachers, and families.  In an interview with Fox News, Graham explained that eight bombs were dropped on the Heiban Bible College near the border with South Sudan. Two school buildings were destroyed in the attack.  It is a miracle that no one was injured. They heard the planes coming and ran from the buildings.  The Sudanese gov’t has bombed hospitals and even human food drops…Christians and Muslims are being attacked.  I thought about the courage of those relief workers and bible school teachers, I thought about their courage and their incredible love for these children.   Pray that the leaders of the Sudan would sit down in a Camp David like meeting and work out a peace agreement.

Now when we read about such examples of selfless love, it’s hard for us in the West to relate to. It’s true, we may never be called upon to risk our lives for another ….But John does not define Christ-like love only as the risking of one’s life for another: it is also the willingness to give of our time and talents, our energy and our possessions for the sake of those in need:  17 If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”

Dr. Scott Kurtzman, chief of surgery at Waterbury Hospital was on his way to deliver an 8am lecture when he witnessed one of the worst crashes in Connecticut history, involving 20 vehicles and killing four people. Thanks to years of emergency room experience he stopped and gave assistance.  He worked his way through the mangled mess of people and metal and called out, “Who needs help?”  90 minutes later, after all 16 victims had been triaged and taken to area hospitals, Dr. Kurtzman climbed into his car and drove on to the medical school where he gave his lecture – two hours late.  This was not the first time this has happened to Dr. Kurtzman.  “A person with my skills simply can’t drive by someone who’s injured.  I refuse to live my life that way.”  Dr. Kurtzman has received the Maimonides Award for his many selfless life-saving efforts.  What skills has God given you that could be used to show the love of God to someone in a practical way?  What if we had that attitude of that doctor, and refused to be a "drive-by" man or woman of God?

We've talked about the attitude and the actions that characterize a cross-shaped life, but the blessings of a cross-shaped life are simply this: 14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love one another. Anyone who does not love remains in death….19 This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence 20 whenever our hearts condemn us.  For God is greater than our hearts and he knows everything.”

Notice that John does not say that we pass from death to life as a reward for our selfless love but rather that our selfless love is the evidence that we have passed from death to life; that we are truly God’s children, and disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ.  When we are loving other people out of a sense of gratitude for what we have received from Him, not simply because we want to be good citizens or outstanding people in the community but because God has been so good to us… we know that we are God’s beloved children.  

Not long before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the congregation at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church: “If any of you are around when I have to meet my day…And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. Every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize; that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards; that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody.”  

Try to love you give someone encouragement this week; as you cook somebody dinner this week; as you help a child with her homework this you open your pocket book this week to help somebody in need; as you put aside hatred or prejudice this week; as you put somebody else's interests before your own this week; as you show somebody the love of Christ in a practical way!  Bottom line, it's easy to love when we're being loved and applauded; like those couples on the red carpet, light bulbs flashing, the crowds cheering and romance is in the air.  Even so, God calls them and us to the love that gives even when the carpet is not red, and the cameras are not flashing; to the sacrificial love that gives when it is not popular or easy.  God calls us to imitate that cross-shaped love, the love that we received through Christ; the love that has brought healing to this world, and is healing it still.  So let's get out there this week and, in the name of the Savior, try to love somebody like he loved us.

King Jesus, we have heard again today the message which we have heard from the beginning: “Love one another!”  Forgive us when we have behaved contrary to that message, allowing death-dealing anger and stubborn unforgiveness to rule over us and bring harm to our relationships.  Thank you for showing us the true meaning of love when you sacrificed your life for us on the cross. We turn now from everything we know is wrong as we pray for the power to love others with that same cross-shaped love.  When we see a brother or sister in need, may we not turn a cold shoulder, but practice love by taking decisive action.  As we walk in love and not just talk about love, may we be assured that we belong to you and that we have crossed over with you from death to life.  Amen!

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