Show Me Love: Love Is an Action Verb

Show Me Love: Love Is an Action Verb

About this sermon series

 I John 3:16-24

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 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 help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him  whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.  All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
Let us pray: Gracious God, help us to love. Not in word or speech, though those are a
preacher’s favorite tools, but in truth and action. May your spirit guide us, Amen.

It should come as no surprise that I love words. Puns, novels, poetry, hymns, translating
words from one language or even one millennium to another. If I am honest, I think 78% of my brain is occupied by song lyrics. Which is how I know this quote from the singer/philosopher Sting: “Poets, priests and politicians have words to thank for their positions.”
And, I wouldn’t do this job if I didn’t believe that words have power. Like when someone
utters the words, “I do.” Or “I’m sorry.” Or “I wonder.” I wouldn’t really know other people
without their words, these letter vessels that carry their sacred stories into my ears. As Abraham Joshua Heschel said, words create worlds.
But love, and in particular, Christian love, has always required more than words. Yes, that
is a song lyric too. From the band Extreme, in 1990, that will now be stuck in my head all day.

Today’s passage from I John calls Christians to love not with words or speech but with
truth and action. On its face, this should be most obvious sermon in the world. A sermon that shouldn’t need to be preached. In fact, the longer I preach with words, the more I contradict the spirit of the message.
This text is part of a longer letter that reminded Christians in the 1 st century that they
couldn’t just say they loved Jesus in words and go around hating other people. They couldn’t just say that they trusted the love of God and then condemn themselves in their hearts. They couldn’t just claim with their words to believe in Jesus and go around not living like Jesus. That should have been obvious then too, but scholars believe that the community was fracturing over beliefs about Jesus, whether he was more of a spiritual being who only seemed human or God incarnate, fully human, in flesh with us. It seems the author of this letter challenged them to get some skin in the game themselves. When they see someone who is in need, the NRSV says “they should not refuse to help” but the real translation is “not close themselves off to feeling that need in their guts.” Love must be embodied.
It’s just that easy and just that hard. David Brooks of the New York Times describes the
landscape of American Christianity in our day as embattled. After decades of scandals, abuse and toxic partisanship, one church leader Brooks interviewed said that conversations among Christians that used to be wide open fields are now mine fields. Another leader with whom he spoke said Christians now pummel, shame and ostracize others over disagreements. Then Brooks quoted the refrain of a beloved hymn, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,” and he wrote, “The world envisioned by that song seems very far away right now. The bitter recriminations have caused some believers to wonder if the whole religion is a crock.” 1


And those who aren’t fighting culture wars might know inner battles all too well; guilt, anxiety, panic, all those condemning voices of the heart that I John described.
For them and for us, the answer to the war of words is the same. Let us love in truth and
action. Let love be embodied like it was in Jesus Christ. That is a central theme throughout the New Testament. The resurrected Jesus told Peter, that disciple who loved words and yet was tripped up by them again and again, “Peter, if you love me, feed my sheep.” The Apostle Paul wrote about love in ways in the cursive words we know from weddings, Love is patient, Love is kind. But he also said less famous words, that love means feeding your enemies and giving them something to drink. The book of James goes so far as saying, “Faith without works is dead.”
Love is a verb. Love needs bodies. Not intentions. Not great memories. Not position
papers. Not sermons. But bodies, active, engaged, deployed. Love needs to be embodied. And I John invites us to curious logic of the cross: We are most alive when we are laying down our lives for others.
Paul Farmer is a Harvard-trained physician who was broken-hearted when he saw
treatable illnesses, like malaria and TB, ravishing the people of Haiti and Peru. He could have made millions of dollars in a practice in the US or taught medicine at Harvard, but he went to Haiti and Peru instead. There, a one-bed clinic became a 100-bed hospital with a school and many volunteers, most of whom he personally recruited. The number of people dying of TB, AIDS, and malaria actually began to decline. When he was asked why he did all of this, he said, “I love these people. I can do no less.”
In seminary, I served as an oncology chaplain at Princeton Medical Center, and Ira was a
bone-thin African American woman who loved Jesus. I will never forget her. Ira was also dying of lung cancer. She shared with me that her daughter was dying of breast cancer, and her brother had just died of pancreatic cancer. She referenced pollution in her neighborhood. The plant. But, where one might have expected to find a woman broken with grief and bitterness, instead, there was a woman in bright pink pajamas who hobbled around the cancer unit visiting other patients.
She would tell people about her love for Jesus, and she would also help them eat, sometimes steadying their shaking arms so they could get that last bite of pudding into their mouths. She would be sure someone heard about it if one of those folks did not receive their chocolate pudding due to some hospital oversight or busyness. At first the nurses humored her and let her do this because she was in fact dying. Then… they let her do this because they saw that she was healing them… healing them all. She fed those sheep in pink pajamas.
Beloved preacher Fred Craddock was the keynote speaker at a conference at Clemson
University. Before his lecture a young woman was going to begin the program with a devotional.
She was a plain, earnest young woman and as she approached the microphone, Craddock could see that she had a yellow legal pad with a lot of writing on it. “Uh oh,” Craddock thought, “we’re here for the night.” She spoke softly and in what he thought was a foreign language, and then another language, and then another one, and on and on it went. One sentence in sixty or seventy languages of the world . . . the one sentence said more perhaps than any other sentence in the world. When she got to German and Spanish and French, he began to recognize it. The last time she spoke it, she spoke it in English. She said, “Mommy, I’m hungry,” and then she sat down.
Her message haunted him, as he left the conference, as he drove to his hotel past the sign that said “All you can eat, $8.99.” He felt the hunger of siblings in his gut, and his soul hungered to serve.
Climate scientist Bill McKibben said he was often asked by people where to move given
our warming planet. North? South? Mountains? Inland? His answer will stay with me forever,

“choose a place with strong social trust. A place where people care for each other. We will need it.”

I have a message on my voicemail in the office that I will never delete. It is a call from
Udemy and Dawn who stayed here at BPC when we hosted the hypothermia shelter. Her voice was raspy, and I confess I assumed she needed some additional assistance. I would have offered it. But she left a message 2 minutes long simply to say that was grateful to have been here. To have a safe place to use to the bathroom. A place to feel warm. Food to eat. She let me know they had gone on to Maryland and were staying in a bank which I assume was another shelter.
But she and Dawn wanted to call two weeks after the fact to tell me that they felt God’s love
here. So, let us love in truth and action. The truth part is that we will never be perfect. We’ll
goof it up. We’ll get sideways with each other, with ourselves, with this earth and with God. But guess what, the action part that matters most is that God claimed us in Christ once and for all, to be loved forever and to be love in this world. We are Christ’s body. And that means there will always be more than enough to share.
Let us love in truth and action. Maybe you go to Kenya with our team, make a meal for
Christ House, give blood, take a grieving neighbor a lasagna, plant a tree, drive someone to
church, tutor, help with Rainbow, work to build a mental health system in our county, befriend your neighbor, keep showing up for meetings, or share your poetry with someone hungry for inspiration. We are most alive when we have skin in the game. We look like Jesus when we love out loud.


They won’t know we are Christians by our flag, they won’t know we are Christians by
our friends, they won’t know we are Christians by our incredible food, or our committees, or our doctrine, or our political party. They’ll only know we are Christians by our love, yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.