Love in Action
1 John 3:16-24
Belmont UMC—April 26, 2015
Ken Edwards, preaching
“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us.” (1 John 3:16a CEB)
Over the next two weeks we will be focusing on the one thing that is basic to our understanding of our relationship with God: Love. Today will focus on God’s love for us and our response to that love. Next Sunday we will focus on loving one another. It doesn’t get anymore basic than this, but this is the most important thing for us to consider.
Heather Harriss, Richard and Martha Hooper and other staff members are leading our Confirmation Class and preparing them for membership on May 17. It’s a wonderful group of 6th graders and a delight to be with them. In my last appointment the Director of Education and Program and I led those groups. We teach them many things to Confirmands like church history, understanding the Bible, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and the 3 movements of grace, worship and sacraments, but we decided that the most important thing was to teach them that they are loved by God. We would begin many of those classes asking, “What’s the most important thing?” And they would answer, “God love us!” And we ask, “How long has God loved us?” And they would answer, “From the very beginning.”
We have a baptism today. We seem to have lots of baptisms lately, which is a sign of a vital congregation. I told the parents, as I tell everyone, from 6 months to 60 years of age, that baptism is not a celebration of our decision to be baptized, but it is a celebration of God’s decision. God decided to love us from the very beginning of our lives and we can only celebrate it. I recall hearing Bishop Ken Carder saying something like that many years ago and it has stayed with me.
Why talk about God’s love for us? We all know this to be true. We learned this in our preschool years when we sang, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Right? Over the course of my ministry I have met many people who have said to me, “God could never love me.” I’ve met many people who were told, “God could not love you.” Or they were told, “God loves you, but God does not love who you are.”
That is how people feel sometimes but 1 John says that even when our feelings (our hearts) condemn us, God is greater than our feelings and God comes to us to remind us that God loves us.
Jim and Mary (not their real names) had been attending the church I was serving for several months. They were dating. Mary had become a member, but Jim decided to wait. One day they came up to me after worship and Mary showed me her new engagement ring. I congratulated them and we talked about beginning premarital counseling and setting a date for the wedding.
At the end of our second premarital counseling session Jim said, “Pastor Ken, I want to go ahead and join the church, but I’ve never been baptized. I have lots of questions about this.” So the two of us set up some meetings to prepare him for baptism.
The best time for Jim to meet me was when he was finishing up work. Jim had a fencing business. He was very ruddy from being outside all day long and his had huge arms and shoulders from digging post holes and lifted heavy 4 by 4 posts all day long. And he would arrive at church, take off his muddy boots at the side porch, come in my office and go into the rest room off of my office, clean up and put on a clean shirt. He would apologize for being so dirty, but he knew I didn’t mind.
I love those visits with Jim. We talked about the theology of baptism and I told him what I tell everyone, that baptism is a celebration of God’s choice to love us from the very beginning. I told him that the water was a symbol of that love. We talked about a lot of other things as well, but I always had a sense that Jim was holding back something that he wanted to tell me. We met several times and then set a date for his baptism and church membership.
On the Saturday night before his baptism, Jim called me at home. I could tell he was upset and he said, “Pastor Ken, I can’t be baptized tomorrow.” He was crying a bit and I could hear Mary in the background saying, “You need to tell him.”
I said, “Jim, you have prepared for this. What’s wrong?” He didn’t answer so I said, “Can you meet me at the church office and talk with?” He agreed to meet with me in 30 minutes.
I waited for over an hour and worried that he wasn’t coming. Finally, Jim appeared in the doorway, bracing himself with his hands on the door frame. He was reluctant to come in. Finally, he walked into the room, fell on his knees and began to sob. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone cry that hard. I sat down in the floor beside him and put my arm around him and waited. Between sobs he kept saying the oddest thing, “I can’t take the water.”
Finally, he was able to say, “I can’t take the water. You said the water is a symbol of God’s love and I can’t believe that God could possibly love me.”
Then he told me his story. His mother had died when he was in middle school and his father had not handled the grief well. His father began to drink a lot and when he drank he became violent and he would beat Jim and his little brother. Jim told me that after the first beating he ran to a friend’s house to escape and the friend offered him some pills to calm him down. This was the beginning of a long history of drug abuse.
Jim told me that he had been clean for over a year but he also told me the things he had done to get money to buy drugs. It was a pretty ugly story but he let it all out. Before it was over I was crying with him. Finally, he said, “So now you know what an awful person I have been and why God could not possibly love me. I can’t take the water.”
I said, “Jim, God does love you and God has always loved you without condition. I wish someone had come to you when you were in middle school and helped you with this. But I don’t think I’ve met many people who need to receive the water of baptism more than you. And I’m not letting you out of this. Tomorrow you will come to church and kneel at the chancel and I will put the water of God’s love on your head and this will be the beginning of something new.” He said, “I need to think about it.”
The next day I had asked the associate pastor to lead most of the liturgy for the baptism because if Jim showed up, I knew I’d probably be too emotional to read it. And the associate pastor did not know the story behind this baptism.
I watched the crowd as worship started, and did not find Jim or Mary. We said the greeting and the opening prayer, and it was during the first hymn they walked in the sanctuary. Jim looked me, took a deep breath and shrugged. When it came time for his baptism he and Mary walked to the front and both of them were crying.
When he knelt for the baptism, I knelt beside him. By then I was crying a bit, also. I put my arm around him and whispered, “Jim, I know you are struggling to believe that God loves you, but today begins a journey toward believing and I’m here to help you.” I stood and scooped a hefty amount of water out of the font and placed it on his head. Water ran down his face. It was a beautiful moment and I’ll never forget it.
Two things happen when we begin to believe that God truly loves us unconditionally. The first thing is transformation. This reality of this love changes us, sometimes without our being aware of it. We begin to live differently.
I heard a man say that he had lived pretty recklessly during his young adult years but one day he and his wife had their first baby and when he held that little baby in his arms and felt overwhelmed with love, he thought, “You are going to have to pull yourself together and be a better person.” Love has a way of changing us.
The second thing that happens is that we feel compelled to respond. 1 John tells us, “Little children, let’s not love with words or speech, but with action and truth.” (3:18)/The love of God is compelling and we begin to think, “I can’t just leave this on the table. I have to do something with this.” And thus begins a wonderful and adventurous journey of faith.
Today, if you don’t remember anything else, remember this: The most important thing is that God loves you. And God has loved you from the very beginning.