1 John 3:16−24
We know love by this, [Jesus] 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 [God] whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and [God] knows everything.
Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from [God] whatever we ask, because we obey [God’s] commandments and do what pleases the Divine Self. And this is [God’s] commandment: that we should believe in the name of [God’s] 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.
This is the first sermon I’ve ever done on a passage from 1st John. And now I know why. I have to admit it was a bit of a challenge. As one commentary noted: “the letters of John afford . . . remarkably few handholds for defining and understanding the specific settings for which they were written and the problems to which they were addressed.” No one knows who wrote 1st John, and unlike Paul’s Epistles, these are not letters written to one of the churches of the day; these Epistles of John do not even appear to be treatises addressing anyone in particular.
What is clear, though, is that “1st John criticizes the behavior of certain Christians. According to the author, some behavior, especially a failure to show love, is undesirable, indeed intolerable, among believers.”
Now, there are some who might want to limit this obligation to love to the community of believers. But we know Jesus had other ideas about that. In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus made it perfectly clear that everyone is deserving of our love – even those we might call enemies. Jesus said:
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for [God] makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Matthew 5:44-47
No one is discardable in God’s Kingdom. No one is to be left behind – to be left out – to be lonely.
Walter Bruggemann is one of our most noted Christian theologians. He recently gave an interview in which he said,
The gospel very much wants us to think in terms of a neighborhood, in terms of being in solidarity with other people, in sharing our resources, and of living out beyond ourselves. The gospel contradicts the dominant values of our system, which encourages self-protection and self-sufficiency at the loss of the common good.
The gospel very much wants us to think of “love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” The gospel wants us to think of love rather than self-protection and self-sufficiency. The gospel wants us, out of a sense of love, to work for the common good. And the real truth is, we don’t do it very well – either individually or collectively as a society.
Last week I participated in Ecumenical Advocacy Days – four jam-packed days of worship and learning and spending time advocating for our causes on Capitol Hill. If you’ve never done one of these, I highly recommend the experience. Although, it was as heartbreaking as it was inspiring.
The theme for this year’s gathering was: Breaking the Chains: Mass Incarceration and Systems of Exploitation. I learned more than I ever wanted to know about our prison system – both state run and for-profit prisons. I learned more than ever I wanted to know about our broken immigration system and the way we imprison refugees whom the system calls “illegal aliens.” I learned more than I ever wanted to know about rates of incarceration in the United States which are the highest among all the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. I learned that “since the 1970s our nation’s prison population has quadrupled to 2.2 million inmates” largely because of the war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing. I learned that nearly half of those in our prisons are black men. I learned that our spending on prisons far outstrips our spending on education. For example, New York State spends approximately $20,000 a year educating a student and $60,000 a year confining a prisoner. If you want to know what we value as a society, follow the money. I learned that as a nation, we would rather punish than provide avenues of rehabilitation, restitution and restoration.
Where’s the love?
Where is the church in all of this? Where are we?
God says: “I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
God says: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
God says: “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
You know, there are things you know, but until someone says them out loud, you didn’t know you knew them. I spent a lot of time in that space during Ecumenical Advocacy Days.
I hadn’t considered the chain of devastation incarceration leaves in its wake. I hadn’t thought much about the vicious cycle. Once a person enters the criminal justice system it is a heroic struggle to get out – not because the person doesn’t want out, but because the system is self-perpetuating.
I hadn’t thought much about the school to prison pipeline – and how our for-profit prisons demand bed quotas. Last year a former juvenile court judge was sent to prison for 28 years for taking kickbacks from private prisons to the tune of $2.2 million. He was sending to prison children who had no business being there.
Did you know that when sent to juvenile detention the state is required to educate the inmates? But then they put them on a GED track so that if they are released before graduation, they are woefully behind and unable to mainstream back into an academic program. I did not know this. This is another way the system is designed to perpetuate itself. A young person who is released from prison doesn’t fit back into the educational system that we have designed. What are they to do?
I also had not thought much about the families of those who are imprisoned and without hope – the economic hardship – the shame – the isolation.
Where is the love?
Where is the church in all of this? Where are we?
Last Monday nearly 600 Advocacy Day participants visited their respective representatives and senators calling on Congress to reform federal criminal justice and immigrant detention policies. It is time to end unfair, unnecessary, costly and racially biased mass incarceration. We advocated for criminal justice and sentencing reform policies that incorporate an end to mandatory minimum sentencing, eliminating the detention bed quota for immigrants and implementing alternatives to immigrant detention.
We supported the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015 which calls for cutting mandatory minimum sentences in half and the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2015 which would give judges discretion over whether or not to impose these mandatory minimum sentences. We encouraged our representatives to support striking the immigration detention quota language that now resides in the appropriations bills and asked them to find a way to completely end family detentions.
This is a start, but I cannot help but wonder what else we can do to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.
When I was at Northminster Presbyterian we participated in the Angel Tree project – a program of Prison Fellowship that reaches out to the children of inmates and their families. It is a way of loving in truth and action. We had a Christmas party for the children and the families, and I can’t help but wonder what life would be like for these families – and for us – if Angel Tree were an all-year-round project – loving in truth and action.
I haven’t even touched on the broken immigration system. There is not time. Suffice to say, this is another area that demands our attention – our pursuit of justice – our working for the common good.
“We know love by this, [Jesus] laid down his life for us.” How will the inmates and their families know love? How will the immigrants know love if we do not set aside our lives for one another doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with the one who calls us to love, “not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
 D. Moody Smith, First, Second, and Third John, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1991), 18–30.
 Isa 42:6-7 NRS
 Isa 58:6-8 NRS