Part of this morning’s worship service was set aside for us to recognize and bless our graduating seniors. I was thinking about the many graduation services I’ve attended and the various messages I could recall from the endless speeches heard at those ceremonies. The one thing that has always interested me is the word “commencement” which means “beginning” – and how each speaker tries to find a new way to inspire the graduates with their perspective on the concept of “beginnings.”
The text we just heard from John’s letter is about beginnings too…The “laying down your life” image may sound like an ending, but the message is clearly about the beginning of true discipleship. It’s about commencing something new; about graduating from our former life and living by Jesus’ example…in a new way. I’m guessing that everybody here has graduated from something…Kindergarten…Sunday school…High school…College…From baby food to solids…At some point in life everybody graduates from something and begins something different – this is “commencement”.
So, what is John trying to tell us here about the beginning of discipleship? I think we need to look first at the people to whom John is writing…Scholars date these letters around the year 100 A.D./C.E. The church is plagued by different points of view and a variety of heresies about who Jesus was and how believers should think about him. The division in the church was causing some people to leave and start their own version of the church. The various conflicts center on whether Jesus was both fully human and fully divine; This led to arguments over what salvation means and the manifestations of it; Further there was disagreement on whether it was necessary to observe the commandments and what it really means to “love one another”…Were they called to love only the believers or to love all people? – The debates raged on and John tried to address these issues in his letters.
Pastor Bill Self offers this insight:
“…the wise old writer continues to help the young believers and their struggling churches with the challenges of their new faith.”
Even 2,000 years later our churches struggle with the challenges of our faith within the context of our culture and how best to live what we believe. We still struggle with the same issues and the same divisions within the church. We still have people who would rather argue than really try to figure out what Jesus was saying. John is also writing to us.
It seems to me that what we need to think about is how our behavior matches the example given us by Jesus Christ…The real test of Christianity that confronts us over and over again is whether our actions will match our professions; whether our feet and our tongues are in alignment.
There are two things in life that are very difficult to get straight in our heads – love and God…I would be willing to bet that the mess we make of our lives can be traced to some failure, misunderstanding, or just plain meanness in one or both of these areas. Eugene Peterson writes: “If we want to deal with God the right way, we have to learn to love the right way. If we want to love the right way, we have to deal with God the right way. God and love can’t be separated.” Amen, brother!
So let’s get back to this idea of the beginnings of discipleship…Jesus laid down his life for us, both to save us and to show us the example of what it means to be his follower…The Christian life is a life laid down for others. Well, what does that mean?
Every time we risk putting the needs of others first we lay down our lives…Whenever we seek to live for the good of another person we lay down our lives…When we take time or make time for another person we lay down our lives…We truly lay down our lives when we allow the love of God to completely transform us and re-orient us toward the needs of others. And John is pretty hard on people who say they have the love of God in their hearts but do not share their material possessions and their spiritual gifts with other people. John writes: “If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear.” Love is so much more than a feeling – it is a way of life – at least it is the way the faithful live. John wants his readers to understand that one cannot truly believe in Jesus Christ without truly, selflessly loving others.
What we hear in this scripture is that faith and love come bound together as a single package that cannot be separated. We have been told that we are saved through faith alone…The thing is – faith is never alone…When God creates saving faith in our hearts, God also plants active love…This faith of ours transforms the believer’s heart into a heart that loves and sacrifices itself. Now all this may sound like an ideal that is impossible for us to attain…How can I be so selfless? How can I put the needs of somebody else in front of mine? I am just a product of my “me” culture and I don’t know any other way than to put my wants first. “It’s not my fault,” we want to say. That attitude leads us to a little bit of guilt, but a whole lot of justification to keep on doing whatever feels good. I hope that we can hear in this text that there is hope for us to be transformed by what God offers. Deep down we know what is right…that’s because God has planted that seed within us. Despite our failures at execution, we really do love God’s people and we really do want to do the right thing…that’s because we feel how much God loves us and we long to pass it on. Even though we get frustrated with our lack of progress, we are constantly filled with the encouragement of God’s grace that reminds us of how we should love and how we should act.
So, why is this message called, “Maybe Later?”? Because we can hear all the good words and accept all the big challenges and then we can walk out of here this morning and simply say, “that makes a lot of sense; I’ll get on that, but maybe later.” Really? Maybe later? The prophetic voice cries out: “When?” If not right now, then WHEN?
Our faith journey is a pretty short one in the grand scheme of things…We don’t have all that much time to do all the things that God has called us to do…Our faith is strengthened by practice more than by feeling or study. Active habits are strengthened by repetition. Practice won’t wait till “later”…we need to start NOW. “Maybe later” just won’t cut it.
We need to understand that obedience to God and spiritual growth seed and feed one another. This is part of the great gift God has given us. We begin our journey of discipleship as soon as we quit putting it off and start listening to God. When it came time for that big commencement celebration in our lives, did anyone of us shout, “Maybe later”? I don’t think so.
If we are truly ready to begin to be disciples of Jesus Christ who transform the world then we had better get started – right now – and put that “Maybe later” stuff out of our vocabulary. In the name of the God who leads us forward into endless beginnings…Amen