Text: 1 John 3:16-24 (love in action)
In 2007, when I started a Masters of Divinity program, I sent an email to a group of friends telling them that I had adopted a theme song for my time at Emmanuel College. Since God is Love (1 John 4:16), I decided that my song would be Foreigner’s 1984 hit, “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
In the end, though, I don’t think I learned a lot about love in school. To know what love is, we need to experience a full life in family and community.
Happily, I believe that I am learning more about love as a minister than I did as a student in theology school.
Today’s reading from First John is about love. The author writes: “this is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ died for us. And we, too, ought to lay down our lives for our sisters and brothers. If we have more than enough material possessions and see our neighbors in need and yet refuse to help them, how can the love of God be living in us? My children, our love must not be simply words or mere talk — it must be true love, which shows itself in action and truth.”
I like this reading. It reminds me of the catchphrase “Love is a verb, not a noun,” and the song “They will know we are Christians by our love.” And I am pleased to say that Mill Woods United seems to be a church that walks the talk of love.
Mill Woods is made up of people who try to care for their families in love. As a church, we reach out to our neighbours through projects like The Bread Run and the clothing bank and we engage in social justice work through groups like The Greater Edmonton Alliance and Affirm United.
But does our love extend as far as laying our lives down for our brothers and sisters? The author of First John calls us to do so.
I find it easier to grasp this Gospel truth when I think about it in terms of the small self or the ego versus the Big Self of God.
To care for another person, we have to empty our hearts and minds of some of our own stuff. For example, parents have to make room within themselves for the ever-changing reality of their children. It takes enormous work to provide for the needs of newborns, infants, toddlers, children and youth and to make family life, in all its interdependent messiness and glory, possible.
At least, this is what I observe as a non-parent. In the absence of children, I’ve had to use the crucible of being a pastor in a church as an opportunity to grow in love.
From the outside, it seems to me that parenting is a both a joyous calling and a crash course in the truth that trying to save one’s life is pointless. When we give our life for others, we sometimes stumble into a new life beyond the small self, a life of love within the eternal heart of God.
Parenting and ministry are not the only things that show this, of course. All forms of love require self-emptying.
When we listen to another person and respond to their needs, we learn again that the ego is an illusion and that eternal life is found in the community of Love that we call God. The life of the ego with its small agendas and anxieties leads to death. Transcending ourselves in loving relationships and acts of compassion help us to rise to eternal life, which God’s Grace offers to us at any moment.
The same dynamic exists at the level of nations, I believe. For the past few weeks, an unfolding tragedy in Europe has dominated news headlines. Tens of thousands of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa have gathered in Libya to travel to Italy by boat. Last year, more than 150,000 made it across the Mediterranean, with 3,000 drowning in the attempt. This year 1500 refugees have already drowned.
The author of First John wrote “if we have more than enough material possessions and see our neighbors in need and yet refuse to help them, how can the love of God be living in us?” When I read this passage this week, I thought of Europe’s reaction to the refugees fleeing Africa.
Some European officials want to destroy the boats of the smugglers who offer passage to Italy for large sums of money. Others want to put more effort into rescuing people after boats have sunk. Some commentators have gone so far to say that refugees in boats should be executed to discourage others from following.
What is rarely suggested is that Europe open its doors to refugees in Africa and Asia. Why not charter huge cruise ships and ferry people to Italy or Greece until no more people want to come? This would be the loving thing to do, it seems to me. But many people fear this would cause too many problems for Europe.
The hundreds of thousands of refugees who have made the voyage so far are relatively rich, educated and connected. Behind them are millions of Syrians who have fled their country during four years of civil war and who now live in miserable camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Behind them are more desperately poor people in those parts of Africa and Asia that have missed out on the economic growth of recent decades.
Europe is the richest continent in the world. It has more than 700 million people, and its population is growing slowly. Given its wealth and its stable population, Europe could absorb many millions of refugees. Not only would this alleviate terrible suffering, it might help the economy. The work of housing the refugees and providing them with education and medical services could become an engine of prosperity.
But accepting large numbers of refugees is politically unpopular. People fear that refugees from different racial, religious and cultural backgrounds would change Europe. Italy would become less Italian. Germany would become less German. Europe would lose some of its distinctiveness, many fear.
Perhaps that is true. But so what? I don’t see Europe’s status quo as anything to brag about. It was European and North American bombs that destroyed Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011. It was Britain, France, and Italy that colonized North Africa and Eastern Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries and created the current political makeup of those troubled areas. It was Western governments that propped up dictatorships and terror regimes in the region for decades. Western bombs, including Canadian ones, continue to rain down on Iraq and Syria.
Europe and North America bear much of the blame for the humanitarian disasters in Africa and the Middle East. Our governments are willing to spend trillions of dollars in wars that leave thousands of Western soldiers and millions of people in the region dead. Could they not relieve some of the resulting misery by providing a home for the refugees?
The attempt to keep Europe “European” despite its history of colonialism is a foolish one, I think. To worry about the German-ness of Germany or the Britishness of Britain is a narrow nationalism that leads to death. In this age of ever-accelerating change, it is impossible to cling to the past. Europe would be changed it if integrated millions of African and Asian refugees, but Europe is going to change regardless.
Should it descend into xenophobia and racism as it did during the two world wars of the 20th century, or should the European Union strive to become a Human Union, one that is open to anyone who wants to live there regardless of race, language or religion? All people are sacred children of God. All people are our neighbours who deserve our love. Why should our governments not reflect these beautiful truths?
Unfortunately, I do not expect European governments to respond to the refugee crisis in a loving way. Rich countries like ours are willing to spend endless resources to maintain our borders and prepare for war. But we refuse to spend resources in ways that would lead to a world without borders, one in which the wounds caused by centuries of Western conquest, slavery and colonialism might be healed.
Love transforms us, but it is rarely painless. Sometimes the transformations of love can be as painful as crucifixion. Happily, the resurrection that follows is always worth it.
Parenting transforms us. Ministry transforms us. Welcoming refugees transforms us. Will we change towards more fear, hatred, and selfishness? The author of First John says we should choose instead the option of love and help those in need. This will transform us “from glory into glory,” despite all the difficulty and pain involved.
Fearful people and nationalistic governments close themselves off from the wrenching changes demanded by love. But those of us who aspire to God’s eternity are called to risk the foolish path of love, whether as parents, as churches, or as citizens of the world. With the help of God’s Grace, we reach out in love. We listen to our neighbours and act when we see a need. We care for one another, and in doing so we die to old ways of life and rise to a new life within the God who is Love.
This is an Easter life beyond ego or nation. It is one in which we no longer wonder what love is because we are living it, in action and truth.
And so we say again, thanks be to God.