Love and religion should go hand in hand. But, as we well know, religion is often used for hate. What does a better ideal of religion look like? For Jesus of Nazareth, religion meant self-sacrificial love. God is love.
This talk was delivered on April 22, 2017 (Earth Day) in Ithaca, NY at the "Believe in Love" Conference. I was invited to speak on the topic of "Love and Religion." You can also read the transcript version of the my "Love and Religion" talk here on the Jesus' Economy Blog.
It is the common thread through every epic story, through each narrative: There are two powers and they are at war. There is good and evil, love and hate, darkness and light.
Think of Star Wars: the dark side and the light side. Think of Lord of the Rings: Sauron versus the Fellowship of the Ring. The same theme is in ancient literature throughout the ancient Near East and Jewish world, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls’ community who envisioned themselves as the “sons of light” who would one day fight Rome, whom they viewed as the darkness. But in this dualism, where everything is polarized, there are a few truths missing.
To see what I mean, let’s venture into 1 John, which uses similar light and dark language, but in a different way.
In 1 John 1:1–4, John tells us that God has come in flesh as Jesus. John says that he is an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry; this makes the letter we’re reading deeply personal.
John then uses darkness and light language, saying that he has heard from Jesus that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Thus anyone who claims to know Jesus must walk in this light, confessing his or her shortcomings. Living in the truth that we are sinful and flawed, and completely dependent on Christ, is key to our relationship with God and with other people (1 John 1:6-10). There is wrong in all of us.
This is the first truth that should confront the dualistic, two powers myth that is so common in culture: light and darkness are not polarized in us humans, but instead we each have both good and evil in us. We are incapable on our own of living in the light without Jesus.
This is where 1 John 2:1-2 (NIV) comes in [the beginning of our focus passage for today]:
My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
This is the second truth: it is Jesus’ “atoning sacrifice for our sins” that makes us right before God. And the invitation to enter into relationship with God, because of what Jesus has done, is available to everyone, to “the whole world.”
But this isn’t a grace to be taken for granted; it is God’s wish that we “will not sin.”
This is the third truth that should confront the common dualistic, two powers myth: God has come into the world to bring light, in Jesus, and that light can change our very lives. It frees us from sin. God wants you to be free from sin.
This is the end of part 1. Part 2 will be published tomorrow, so tune in for the rest.
Every narrative, every act, is a call and response related to faith. Faith in—or for some, faith in nothing at all—is a thread that weaves throughout our lives. Jesus of Nazareth recognized this and questioned the religious status quo; he confronted people who used religion for power and gain.
Jesus was a rabbi whose followers believed he was God incarnate and who sacrificed their own lives to represent his teachings—they refused to back down from his message of love and the claim that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. This is how incredible Jesus was—that he prompted a movement of people dedicated to living sacrificially for the sake of others. In their minds, love had come down as Jesus and changed everything about their lives. They believed that Jesus’ resurrection had given them freedom to live in full relationship with God and to spread his message of love and peace over the sword and hate.
Jesus articulated the incredible power of love. He spoke of how religion can and should be used for bringing love and peace to our world (Matthew 5:9; 22:37–40; compare Matthew 26:52). Because God is love, as Jesus' follower John put it (1 John 4:8).
Religion, though, tends to distort the eternal message of love for power and individual gain. Religion has been wrongly used to justify the Crusades, slavery, segregation, and acts of terror.
Each of us needs to represent, in our actions, a better solution. We need to express our belief in self-sacrificial love.
Jesus is an example of someone who faced oppressive religion and said, “You've heard this ‘hate your enemy’ and ‘get an eye for an eye’ ... but I tell you this: Love your neighbor, including your enemy” (see Matthew 5:38–48).
We can summarize much of Jesus’ message as: Be generous to those who persecute you, condemn you, stand against you. Live sacrificially, for the betterment of the impoverished, marginalized, outsider.
Jesus called the rich, the powerful, and each and every person, to account (see Matthew 5–7; 23). He says to live self-sacrificially for the marginalized and to practice a faith rooted in serving others. Jesus even claims that this type of love is how he will recognize his true followers (see Matthew 25:31–46). Something to ponder there—sacrificial love is how Jesus recognizes those who know him.
In one of Jesus’ last messages to his disciples before his crucifixion, he focuses on serving others. With his carpenter’s hands, he washes the dirty feet of his disciples (see John 13:1–17). This is a living testimony of sacrificial love. He shows them what true love means.
Just prior to his arrest, Jesus says, “love one another just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this: that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12–13 LEB adapted).
These teachings are, in large part, what led to Jesus being crucified. He called those in power to change their ways and they killed him for it. Jesus died for this love and for the full weight of every wrongdoing we commit against our brothers and sisters.
Later, the book of James will summarize this message of love as: “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of God is this: to look after orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27 LEB adapted).
Let us live as people who don't give into the pressure of our world to place ourselves before others—let's not let that nonsense stain our vibrant colors of love. Let's place the refugee, outsider, impoverished, imprisoned, and voiceless before ourselves. Let’s answer the call of love in word and deed (compare the book of James). This should be the narrative of religion woven through our lives, through our existence.
Jesus’ economy is based on self-sacrifice. And his currency is love. This is true religion.
"We have come to know love by this: that he [Christ] laid down his life on behalf of us, and we ought to lay down our lives on behalf of the brothers" (1 John 3:16 LEB).
What does it mean to lay down our lives on behalf of our brothers and sisters? Who are our brothers and sisters? Can 1 John 3:16 actually refer to giving up our lives for someone else ... to the point of death?
One could argue that "the brothers" mentioned in 1 John 3:16 refers only to fellow Christians, since the apostles often refer to their fellow ministers of the gospel as "the brothers" (1 Corinthians 16:11; 2 Corinthians 9:33; 3 John 3; Acts 21:17). You could even quote Jesus in support of this argument:
"Who is my mother and who are my brothers ... For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, my sister, and my mother" (Matthew 12:48-50 NIV).
However, the book of James strongly urges us to show no partiality when it comes to loving others. James goes so far as to say that if we show partiality, we are sinning and are convicted under the law as transgressors (James 2:9).
Christ is the greatest example of impartial love, for he went to the cross for all humankind, the unrighteous and the righteous alike. As the apostle Paul put it:
"But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8 NIV).
We know we are meant to lay down our lives for all humankind, not just Christians or those who practice righteousness. But to what extent are we to go in order to complete this task? Are we really to die for someone else (1 John 3:16)?
To answer this, I will go again to the example of Christ. Christ's sacrifice shows that we are meant to love one another to such an extent that—though it may not be required of us by God—we would be willing to suffer the punishment of death on behalf of another. A love like this changes the world.
Christ once said:
"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and 'Hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven, because he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?" (Matthew 5:43–46 LEB).
Paul elaborated on this point in Romans 12:9–18 (LEB):
"Love must be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; be attached to what is good, being devoted to one another in brotherly love, esteeming one another more highly in honor ... Bless those who persecute, bless and do not curse them. ...Think the same thing toward one another; do not think arrogantly, but associate with the lowly. ... If it is possible on your part, be at peace with all people."
Many of the earliest Christians gave up their lives not just for the God they served, but also for the people they were serving. In the case of many believers, their lives were taken at the hands of evil men and women who hated God. And yet, their sacrifice has become an example of faith to us all (see Hebrews 11:36–38).
God himself requires only one death from every believer: that we die to ourselves and live for Christ.
"For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one died for all; as a result all died. And he died for all, in order that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for the one who died for them and was raised" (2 Corinthians 5:14 LEB).
And in living for Christ, we become an example for all people of his love. Jesus came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
So I urge you, brothers and sisters, to think this day about the life you have to give and to whom you have to give it. And I pray that in giving of our lives together, we can change this world for the better, for sake of the Kingdom of God.