Monday, April 23, 2018

In Truth and Action

The scriptures referred to are 1 John 3:16-24.

In a recent sermon I quoted the saying “When all is said and done, a lot more is said than done.” I first saw this on a poster in the 1970s but I just read a blog post on the Psychology Today website with that as a title. I have always thought of the quote in reference to the numerous committees and meetings one attends as a part of an organization or bureaucracy, where things are discussed exhaustively but they rarely lead to any kind of action, except possibly the issuing of a report. My idea of hell would be an endless series of meetings in which trivial things are painstakingly dissected with nothing concrete to show for it.

But the subtitle to this piece by Dr. Gordon S. Livingston is “A relationship is a collection of promises, explicit and implied.” This is true of a marriage, a friendship, a common interest group (like a church) or even a commercial relationship. Whether those promises exist in a signed contract, in spoken vows or are simply assumed, relationships depend on the acceptance of certain responsibilities. The promises boil down to this: I will treat you well and not harm or betray you and I trust you to do the same.

The post was otherwise kind of all over the place but it did have another good observation: “Any unkept promise ought to be interpreted as a statement of priorities.” And that's true even if the promise goes unfulfilled for what are universally recognized as good reasons. If I didn't fulfill my promise to take you to dinner or to Disney World because someone I love suddenly got ill, that simply means that the life or health of the person in question is more important than the activity postponed. If, however, I stay home to watch the game rather than go to your mother's funeral, well, that means my pleasure is more important to me than supporting you in your grief. Exceptions reveal one's true priorities and principles.

In the honor/shame culture in which the Bible was written, one's word was supposed to be inviolate. We pay lip service to this idea but sadly, we live in a culture where we routinely don't believe certain people. It used to be quite bad for someone in public life to be caught in a lie. They might be fired or forced to resigned or at least censured in some way. Unfortunately, that no longer seems to be the case. None of the tobacco industry CEOs who lied to Congress about their knowledge that smoking causes cancer went to jail. Candidates and government officials lie with impunity. Talk show pundits and radio personalities say outrageously false things and rarely pay in plummeting ratings. So we have whole websites that fact-check things that are said by politicians, talking heads, and the internet and rate them as true, mostly true, half-true, mostly false, false and Pants on Fire! The last rating means a statement is so extremely false that the person could not be merely mistaken but had to know he was lying. I haven't noticed this putting the brakes on persons who say things that, in this information age, are easily tracked down and proven to be false. People who thrive on social media don't even register embarrassment when they contradict what they previously posted.

Even in the Bible we see an acknowledgement that people can say one thing and do another. In our passage from 1 John, it says, “How does God's love abide in someone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” And while people cynically accept that politicians lie, they get outraged when Christians do so. Recently the #MeToo movement brought down David Silverman, president of the organization American Atheists, founded by Madalyn Murray O Hair. Silverman's board terminated him for sexual misconduct and assault. And yet under the Facebook post was a comment that had he been a Catholic priest, he simply would have been moved to another parish. It didn't matter that movie moguls, famous actors, comedians, governors, mayors, senators and representatives, and even atheists have been ensnared in sex scandals. People are more incensed when Christians get caught. They hold us to a higher standard.

And they should. True, we are sinners like everyone else but we should be getting help for that. We should be able to see a situation like this developing in our church and especially in our own life. We should catch it in the early stages and take action. If a prominent person in rehab were routinely binge drinking or doing narcotics or gambling, we would look askance at him. Sinning is a much broader range of behaviors but as it said in our passage from 1 John last week, “Whoever remains in him doesn't continue to sin. Whoever keeps sinning has neither seen him or knows him.” (1 John 3:6) I translated the verb for “sin” as “continues to sin” and “keeps sinning” because the Greek verb tense indicates an ongoing action or habit. Again people in AA are not surprised if someone in the program falls off the wagon. But if they aren't really trying to stay sober, the group may exclude them until the person shows that they mean to get into the spirit of the thing and starts working the 12 steps again.

But notice that in our passage the big contradiction pointed out is when a Christian fails to show compassion in a practical way. If you see someone in need and you can help them out but don't, how can you say that you have God's love in you? 1 John says, “We know love by this, that [Jesus Christ] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for each other.” And though in that time period, you could literally die for being a Christian, he is talking about not dying here but living your life sacrificially for others.

Again the world knows this and every time a wealthy TV evangelist buys a multimillion dollar airplane or gold-plated bathroom fixtures but his church does not do much to help the poor, people get outraged. And sadly, this has led some to think all churches are raking in the money and all preachers are in it for the money. That's like thinking all radio DJs make the kind of money Howard Stern does. Quite frankly, I was going to enter seminary right after college. I became a nurse to pay my way through seminary. And then I realized I was making more money as an LPN—not even an RN but an LPN—than I would as clergy. Plus I was married by then and having kids. So my plan to become ordained went on the back burner for a couple of decades. Today, it turns out, the average pastor/priest actually makes about $5,200 a year more than an LPN, probably because the medical establishment is trying to phase out practical nurses. Still nowhere near a fortune. (Oddly enough the highest average pay for clergy is in Nevada! Is that because of all the sinners repenting or do high rollers tip the Lord well when they hit the jackpot?)

The 3 elements of any religion are belonging, believing and behavior. And every religion has more luck with the first 2 than that last one. Belonging is great. Having a group of like-minded people whom you care about and who in turn care about you is good for you psychologically and physically. In fact, most scientists attribute the undeniable and verifiable health benefits of religion to the social aspects of the phenomenon. Part of the reason they do is that you can quantify attendance. Part of it is that they are loathe to attribute the things they see among active members, like lower blood pressure, better recovery from disease and longer life, to the action of God.

It is harder to measure how much someone actually believes. Sociologists and polling organizations like the Barna Group and the Pew Research Center use studies based on self-reporting. Thus we can know what people say they believe. Gallup found that only about a quarter of Americans believe the Bible is the literal Word of God. However, the majority of Christians (54%) will agree that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. According to Barna, 56% of Americans believe Jesus is God, though that drops with each younger generation. And while 6 in 10 Americans say they have made a personal commitment to Jesus, that percentage is higher among women (68%) than men (56%), is higher among black Americans (80%) and non-white Americans (65%) than whites (60%), and higher in those making less than $100,000 (63-65%) than those making more than 100K (53%).

Behavior is, oddly enough, the hardest thing to quantify. While almost 3 quarters of Americans (73%) claim to be Christians, less than a quarter of Americans (23%) go to church weekly, though just over half (51%) say they go at least once a month. Just over half of Americans have given to their church (54%) in the last year and 22% have given to another non-profit. Overall, 96% of practicing Christians have ever given money to a church or another non-profit whereas only 60% of atheists and agnostics have. 75% of Americans say they have prayed to God in the last week, only a third (34%) have read the Bible outside of church, and about 1 in 6 has volunteered at a non-profit (19%) or at a church (18%).

Now one presumes that some of the money given to a church will go to help the needy, yet it is hard to find any statistics on how many religious programs there are to help the poor. All we can say is, there are a lot. Large churches run soup kitchens, food banks and homeless shelters. While the majority of churches in this country have less than 100 members, even small churches can contribute to things like the local food pantry or to denominational efforts. Every denomination has organizations that help the poor, immigrants, people in developing nations and gives grants and funds to local churches with specialized ministries to the homeless, the hungry, and the disadvantaged. But there doesn't seem to be a clearinghouse for all the data from all the denominations.

However, I did find a disturbing poll taken by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation. In it 46% of all Christians said a person's poverty is generally due to a lack of effort. Only 29% of all non-Christians felt that way. Worse, 53% of white evangelical Protestants blamed poverty on the person's lack of effort. Only 41% attributed poverty to difficult circumstances. I find that incredible considering that evangelicals pride themselves on taking the Bible seriously and the Bible mentions the poor, the needy, the hungry, the sick, the blind, the deaf, the lame, the fatherless, the widow, and the resident alien more than 800 times. (Reality check: how many times does the Bible refer to homosexual activity? 7 times. Which do you hear evangelical preachers talking about more often?)

Sadly, when it comes to helping the poor, many Christians point to 2 Thessalonians 3:10 which says in part, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” But Paul was addressing people in one church who thought Jesus' return was so imminent that they had quit work and were just waiting for the second coming and mooching off others. In no way did Paul, who exhorted Christians to help the poor (Romans 15:26; Galatians 2:10), mean for skepticism to be our default attitude towards the needy. Nor did Jesus. (Matthew 5:42; Luke 14:12-14)

We are saved by God's grace not by works. But works should be the natural outcome of the action of God's grace on our lives. In fact the most famous passage about this reads, in its entirety: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, that no one would boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10) We are not saved by works but we were created to do good works. God intends us to help others. They are a sign that we are in good spiritual health. When you are in bad health you refrain from doing things because they are difficult or impossible. When you are in good health you engage in healthy activities. You should be able to go on a long walk without getting winded. You are able to go out with friends, do things around the house, help out an aged or infirm relative or neighbor without any thought for whether you can. If you can't, there is some health issue you need to correct.

God is love. If we are in good spiritual health, we should be making that love concrete in all we do. And just as you have to be healthy to do exercise, doing exercise in turn keeps you healthy. If you ask me, a lot of the spiritual ill health we see in the church has do with our not doing our spiritual exercise, that is, not doing loving things for others. Somehow we have come to think that spirituality is strictly internal. It is something that takes place in the mind and heart. True, but if it doesn't manifest itself in how you live then it is merely notional. Jesus went off by himself to pray but then he got to his feet and went out and healed the sick and forgave the guilt-ridden and fed the hungry and guided the lost to the truth. He was the most spiritual person ever and yet he didn't shut himself up in a cave or on a mountain top and meditate his life away. He plunged into his mission of bringing good news to others, both with his words and with his works.

Somewhere along the line we have gotten the idea that what I do, standing up and preaching, is the main thing the church should do. And the world has heard our fine words and said, “Put your money where your mouth is. Act like you are following Jesus.” And the world is right. It is simply seconding what James wrote 2000 years ago: “Show me your faith apart from your works and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:18) Show; don't tell. When all is said and done, there's a lot more said than done.

At the jail last week an inmate pointed to the verse where Paul says “If you declare with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9) Which makes it sound as if there is nothing more to being a Christian than believing something and saying so. I pointed out that in those days just saying that could get you killed. Saying you were a Christian in public was a brave and death-defying act. In the year 112 AD, Pliny, governor of a province in what is now Turkey, wrote to the emperor Trajan about what to do with Christians. He said he would give them 3 chances to deny they were Christians, invoke the Roman gods, offer prayer, incense and wine to an image of the emperor, and curse Christ. Those who refused and persisted in their loyalty to Christ, even under torture, he executed, as he did with two slaves who were deaconesses. Trajan wrote back that Pliny had done well.

Yet they were not able to stamp out Christianity. In fact, the bravery with which Christians faced death made more converts. Pagans were especially impressed with the way Christians stayed in cities when plague struck and took care of the dying at the risk of their own lives. They feared neither despots nor disease nor death. They made their lives and their deaths count. What they found worth dying for made life worth living.

If it were illegal to be a Christian here, as it is in certain parts of the world, would there be enough evidence to convict you? Has your life changed sufficiently that the only explanation is that the God who is love, and who was incarnate in Jesus Christ, lives in you? Are you willing to lay down your life and take up your cross for others as Jesus has done for you? Show the world.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

What We Will Be


The scriptures referred to are 1 John 3:1-7.

Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

My son was watching Back to the Future 2 with my granddaughter the other day and seeing as the first half of this 1989 film is set in what was then the future, which is now our past, it was interesting to see what they predicted we would have in 2015: hoverboards, self-drying clothes, flying cars. In fact that was one of the things co-writer and director Robert Zemekis resisted doing at first. Films set in the future always get some things wrong. I was reading an article that wondered why Commander Data, the android in Star Trek: The Next Generation, used his fingers to access the Enterprise's computer. Isn't he a computer himself and don't they have wifi in the future? My laptop and the printer communicate wirelessly. Why can't he?

So that's one thing you can predict about the future: technology will change, in some cases drastically, and new technology will keep getting invented. We can foresee some trends in technology but the specifics elude us. 

Another thing we can predict is that changes in technology will change culture. Look at how smartphones have changed us. Some of those changes are for the better. Whenever there's a disaster, if people have their phones and have a signal, they can check in and let family and friends know they are safe. I had a friend working in New York on 9/11. Back then, it took a whole day to find out she was OK. She had to walk home from Manhattan and get to a landline. 

Another upside to modern technology is that I have access to virtually all the knowledge in the world on my hip. While preparing my sermons, I use my laptop, my Kindle and my phone in addition to my physical library to do research and fact-check.

There are downsides to our technology, though. People will sit together at the dinner table and barely speak because everyone is glued to his or her device. The internet spreads knowledge but also ignorance and lies. And while people have been drunk dialing and saying foolish things to those on the other end since phones were invented, now you can get on Twitter stone cold sober, type something stupid and, in front of the entire world, embarrass yourself or get yourself fired or affect global markets and national security. Technology has so increased the efficiency and range of our weaponry that 60 years ago, for the first time in human history, it actually became possible for one person to start the war that ends all wars--by ending all human life, that is.

Which leads to another prediction you can make: whatever the changes in technology and culture, some people will figure out how to misuse, abuse or exploit them for their own purposes. Because human nature doesn't change. Does it?

While there are a number of books and articles out now that show that things are generally getting better for people materially, the fly in the ointment is human nature. It looks like we can now reduce most, if not all, poverty and unnecessary suffering. But will we? Let's look at the last century. While the sciences were conquering diseases and raising standards of living, millions more people were killed by Stalin, Mao, and the two World Wars than were killed by Genghis Khan, the Taiping Rebellion, the fall of Rome, the Conquest of the Americas and the slave trade in the Middle East and the Atlantic, combined. Yes, technology made that much more bloodshed possible but as Jeff Goldblum's character in the first Jurassic Park movie said, “scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could do that, they didn't stop to think if they should.” Indeed, it appears that among the reasons the Nazis didn't develop an atomic bomb first was the reluctance of German scientists to do so. Others say it was due mostly to disorganization and the fact that Hitler didn't make it a priority. In either case, technology wasn't the deciding factor in the Nazis not getting a nuclear weapon so much as human nature.

Human nature is consistent enough that wisdom which goes back for millennia still applies. I am talking about the Bible, of course. And while there are passages like Jeremiah 13:23, which compares the odds of people changing their evil ways to a leopard changing its spots, the basic thrust of scripture is that people can change. Otherwise why would the same prophet say, “Now reform your ways and your actions and obey the Lord your God. Then the Lord will relent and not bring the disaster he has pronounced against you.” ? (Jeremiah 26:13) The Bible is full of calls for people to repent, to change their minds and hearts, to change their behavior, to turn from sin and turn to God. If we cannot, if we are predestined to stay as we are and keep doing what we are doing, why would God keep appealing to us to change?

The reason people don't change is not that they can't; it's that it is very hard to do. There are a number of factors that hinder us. One factor is genetics. Some people are just predisposed to overreacting to negative things, leading to either angry outbursts or shrinking back in fear. Some people are prone to discomfort or anxiety in the face of change. We can see this in brain scans. They may even have inherited this from grandparents who passed on the genes concerned already switched on or turned way up.

How you were raised is a factor. People will pick up attitudes towards behaviors as well as towards novelty and change from their parents. When raising their kids, folks often ape the parenting they got as kids. Ever hear something your mother would say coming from your own mouth? Adverse childhood experiences like neglect, physical, sexual or even verbal abuse, divorce, having a family member abuse alcohol or drugs or go to prison all raise the risk that a person will suffer from chronic illnesses, mental illness, violent behavior and run-ins with the law well into adulthood.

Where you were raised is a factor. In some communities certain things, like talking back to those in authority, are simply not done. That can make it hard to speak up about abuses you observe on the job or in society. Sexual mores, gender roles, racial stereotypes and attitudes towards outsiders are often things we absorb unconsciously from those around us.

Poverty can be a factor. Growing up never knowing where you next meal is coming from, having to move often because of eviction, and being ridiculed for your worn, ill-fitting and smelly clothes has an impact on children. Stress and malnourishment have an immense effect on the developing brain. What seems logical or just common sense to someone raised in a stable home where food, shelter, clothing and social acceptance were taken for granted are not so obvious to those who lack such things.

The type of religion you were exposed to is a factor. Thinking God is vengeful may make you more conscientious, perhaps, but also more rigid and judgmental. On the other hand, thinking that religion is all about making you feel good about yourself might be comforting but it will make it more difficult to take your flaws seriously and work on them. Thinking that humanity is divided into us, the righteous, versus them, the vile and evil, will affect how you regard those who disagree with you and are different from you.

All of these factors make it hard to change. As does the Backlash Effect. That's the name scientists have given to the fact that trying to correct people's cherished misconceptions makes them double down on their original position. The same part of the brain that registers pain is activated when a deeply held belief is attacked. Essentially we feel that we are being attacked. Correct my understanding of hockey and it won't bother me because I'm not really into sports. Prove me wrong on my politics or my religion or anything I strongly value and I will experience the fight or flight response. That's why it's so hard to change people's minds.

Nevertheless, people do change. All of us change a bit over time or else as adults we would still be exclusively eating spaghettios and chicken fingers and watching My Little Pony rather than Frontline. Some of us do rebel against certain ideas and cultural artifacts we grow up with. More importantly, some people do change their values and lifestyles.

Christopher Picciolini was a troubled and lonely youth who found a family in what was the first Neo-Nazi skinhead organization in the US. When the adult leaders went to prison, Picciolini took over as head of that racist group at age 16! He played in a white supremacist rock band. He started a white power record store in Chicago. But when talking to the people whom he encountered there, including a lot of people he had spent years hating, he found it harder and harder to justify his beliefs. He is a Nazi no more and has co-founded Life After Hate, which helps people leaving extremist movements.

Saul was a zealous Pharisee who hated people perverting Judaism by saying that an executed criminal was really the Messiah. He persecuted these heretics, arrested them and brought them to the Sanhedrin, who stoned some to death. Everything about Saul's heritage, upbringing, and education predisposed him to be against Christianity. And then, on a trip to arrest followers of Jesus in Damascus, the risen Christ appeared to him on the road. Saul changed his mission and changed his name. Paul became an indefatigable missionary for the gospel.

Change, especially radical change, is hard. That's why so few people do. Even if their life is crappy, even if they find themselves in the same bad situations, making the same poor decisions, at least it is familiar to them. And it doesn't take as much work. To make the kind of change we see in Paul you need to change the way you think, speak and act. That requires help. Fortunately God knows that. And he is our helper.

After his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road, Saul is blind. God sends a disciple named Ananias to lay hands on him and he says, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here, has sent me so you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 9:17) Saul regains his sight and is baptized. He also spends several days with the disciples in Damascus. Saul doesn't make his transition to the apostle Paul under his own steam. He has the Holy Spirit and the local church to help him.

With the power of the Spirit and the support of his home church, Paul changes the future of the Jesus movement and of the Roman Empire as well as world history. But Paul changes too. The man who persecuted Christians becomes persecuted for Christ. The man whose zeal leads to the martyrdom of believers himself becomes a martyr. The man called Saul, the name of the first Hebrew king, changed his name to Paul, which means “little” or “humble” in Latin. He goes from a man breathing threats and murder to the man who writes about love more than anyone else in the Bible, just edging out John. He writes a whole chapter on Christian love in 1 Corinthians and people read it out loud almost every time someone gets married. I even heard it at a Jewish wedding!

We know technology changes but the good news is that people can change, too. As Ann Lamott says, God loves us just as we are but he loves us too much to leave us that way. We are not static, doomed to be the same flawed person forever. We can grow. We can be transformed by the power and love of God. The power is his Spirit and the love we experience, at least partly, through his church. The purpose of the Spirit is to make us new creations in Christ. We are to become Christlike. And since Jesus is the very image of God and God is love, we become more like him as we become more loving and more a part of the community of love, the body of Christ.

At the beginning of this sermon I read a verse from our passage in 1 John. And the author is making a point about our future in Christ. He says that we are God's children now but says we do not know what we shall be. Surely we will not become less than God's children in the future so it must be that we will become more. But how?

On the cover of the book Explaining Hitler is a photo of a cute baby. That baby grows up to be the man who started the second World War and was responsible for the death of millions. It's impossible to see that in the face of the infant. Nor can you see in the face of a rather girlish young FDR the man who would face off against Hitler. For that matter I doubt you could see what kind of person they would become simply by watching them sleep and yawn and suckle and crawl. If we can change that much physically in a matter of decades, who can predict how we will grow spiritually over eternity? Will we become an increasingly angry, bitter, hateful, greedy person or will we become a calmer, more forgiving, more compassionate, more generous being? Will we retreat into spiritual darkness or turn to the source of everlasting light?

Though we grow and lose the baby fat, we do tend to retain a family resemblance. You can often see our parents in us. And it says in 1 John, “What we do know I this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” The resemblance will become undeniable. We will definitely be children of our Heavenly Father.

When we are children we can't wait to grow up. We play at being mommies and daddies, pretending to do the things we see our parents do, saying what we hear them say. As Christians we should also desire to grow spiritually into the image of God our Father, and practice doing what we see him do in Jesus and say what he said. As Paul says, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as beloved children, and walk in love, as Christ loved us and give himself up for us...” (Ephesians 5:1-2)

The only constant in this life is change. But change can be for the better or for the worse. If we must change may we become more loving, more faithful, more hopeful, more Christlike people. Change is hard but we have the help of God's Spirit within us and his people around us. And while we may not be able to foresee all the specifics of this transformation, we can see the general trend and more importantly we see our goal: to be the very image of the God who is love, who is revealed in the teachings and in the life, death and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Monday, April 9, 2018

No Darkness At All


The scriptures referred to are Acts 4:32-35 and 1 John 1:1-2:2.

My wife and I love mysteries but they all have the same element of unreality. To surprise us the killer always has to be the least likely suspect. Even if the murder victim is a horrible person and everyone has a motive to kill him, the real culprit is someone we thought was innocent. The perpetrator is almost never someone who has a history of violent behavior or a criminal record as is typical in real life. So their motive has to be disguised. And often it is contrived. We are supposed to believe that a normal person suddenly was moved to wipe out their birdwatching club in increasingly grisly ways because they didn't receive credit for spotting a warbler. It's entertaining but not realistic.

A cop once told me that homicides are rarely mysteries. Half the time the murderer is still there, holding a gun, stunned at what he has done. Contrary to popular thought, most victims know their killers and most killers have a history of violence. When the murderer's identity is a mystery it is because he has no social connection with his victim. That's why serial killers are hard to catch, not because they have higher IQs. (The average serial killer has an IQ that is average.) More often what keeps a case open is a lack of indisputable evidence which would allow a suspect to be charged.

People's actions tend to stay consistent with their character. Even with those who hide their darker side, things leak out. People contemplating violence usually talk about it beforehand. The FBI had been warned that the young man who shot up the Parkland high school had talked of doing just that. While they may have come as a surprise to us, the fact that certain powerful men were sexual predators was an open secret in Hollywood or in whatever industry they operated. Only the most successful of psychopaths can hide their true nature for very long.

What does this have to do with Christianity? Of all people, Christians ought to be consistently good and just in our behavior. Yet we are, like everyone else, sinners. We all think, say and do things which harm our relationships with others, with ourselves and also with God. The difference with Christians is twofold.

First, we acknowledge it. Or we should. As 1 John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Anyone who denies they sin is not a Christian. To come to Jesus you usually have to realize that you are morally flawed and need divine help. Even if you come to Jesus because you simply like what he stands for, the more you get to know him, the stronger should be your recognition that you are not even close to living up to his standards. Self-examination should lead you to the conclusion that, as we frequently say in our confession of sin to God, “...we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves.”

Secondly, Christians have help. 1 John goes on to say, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This says 2 things: that we can be forgiven and that we can be cleansed.

Forgiveness is important to reconciling a broken relationship. It is acceptance of the person; it is not acceptance of the sin. If a spouse strays, and their partner forgives them, that doesn't mean that the adultery was OK. It means that the person betrayed is graciously starting the relationship with their spouse over despite their sin. When God forgives us, he is graciously hitting the reset button on our relationship with him. He is not saying that our sin is acceptable. When Jesus is confronted with a woman grabbed in the act of adultery, a sin Jesus had denounced often, he says to her, after her accusers depart, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” (John 8:11)

But to restart our relationship, we need to be cleansed. The Greek word means “to remove any admixture; to purify.” When your kid comes into the house covered in mud or worse, you don't cast them out of the family but neither do you let them do anything, including hug you, until they have their mucky clothes removed and get a bath. And then you must decide whether to wash or burn their clothes. Afterward it will be as if they never were covered in filth.

This cleansing comes from God. Specifically from God within us, the Holy Spirit. As it says later in 1 John, “The one who keeps God's commands lives in him and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.” (1 John 3:24) To reverse-engineer that: because God gave us his Spirit, we know he lives in us and we in him, and that is manifested by our keeping his commandments. The Spirit enables us to act in ways we normally wouldn't, that is, with unselfish love towards all. As Paul said, “God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5) Or as it says in 1 John, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.” (1 John 4:16) Again as Paul says, all the commandments can be summarized in the command to love and loving others fulfills the law. (Romans 13:8-10)

I am listening to one of The Great Courses on audio, specifically a 48 lecture series called The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. In his lecture on “Being a Poor Roman,” Professor Robert Garland speaks of how throughout history the vast majority of human beings have lived in mass, structural poverty. He says, “But I'd bet my life that it never prompted anyone, and I mean anyone, to devote himself or herself to the service of the poor and oppressed. One thing that the ancient world did not invent was a social conscience.” He also says that women were and are “more likely to be impoverished than men, the elderly than the young, and the disabled and the infirm more than the fit and unimpaired.” Such people could expect no help except what they could beg and the occasional magnanimous gesture from a politician buying votes. Social Darwinism reigned millennia before the term was coined.

This surprises me, because I assume that this classical historian knows about the Jews and the Christians. They did try social reform. Jewish law had special provisions for the poor: edges of cropland were to go unharvested so that the poor could have access to that food (Leviticus 23:22); every 7th year entire fields were to left unworked so the poor could reap them (Exodus 23:10-11); judgments in court were not to be weighted against the poor (Exodus 23:6); debt slaves were to be freed every 7 years (Exodus 21:2-3); the disabled were not to be abused (Leviticus 19:14); widows and fatherless children were not to be oppressed or taken advantage of (Exodus 22:22); those who cannot support themselves, including foreigners, were to be helped (Leviticus 25:35); and resident aliens were to be treated as citizens and even loved as yourself (Leviticus 19:33-34). And as we said, these were enshrined in the written law of Israel. Were these provisions always observed? No, or the prophets would not have brought them up so often.

Nevertheless, these considerations carried over into Christianity. Jesus saw his mission as, in part, to preach good news to the poor (Luke 4:18; Matthew 11:5). Jesus taught that we should be generous to the poor and disabled (Luke 14:13-14). The first Christians took care of widows, a task that led to the creation of deacons. (Acts 6:1-6) Jesus' brother James saw looking after widows and orphans as a manifestation of true religion (James 1:27).

In our passage from Acts we see an early form of communism developing. Because they pooled their resources and distributed them to each person as the need arose, we are told that “there was not a needy person among them.” It says “those who believed were of one heart and soul.” You don't let those you love starve or go without basic necessities.

I was watching an interview of a psychologist on Book TV. Abigail Marsh specializes in studying psychopaths as well as people who are very altruistic; in other words, both ends of the empathy spectrum. And the weird thing is that people who, say, donate a kidney to a stranger who needs one, did not see themselves as heroic. They just saw it as something anyone should do if they have two healthy kidneys and someone else has none. To them what they did was logical and natural.

And this brings us back to my opening point. Just as you would expect a person with a history of violence to act violently, we should expect a Christian, a person who has the Spirit of the God who is love in them, to act lovingly. Of course, no Christian is perfect but if he or she consistently acts in an unloving way, you have to wonder if they are really a Christian. Jesus said that you can recognize what kind of person you are dealing with by their fruit (Matthew 7:16). A person who spews hate, who thinks of ways to harm others, who deliberately says things to hurt them, who does things to cause pain and/or damage to them, is not a person guided by God's Holy Spirit, regardless of what they say they are. After saying that God is love, 1 John says we are to be like Jesus in this world (1 John 4:17) We, as members of the body of Christ, are to be exemplars of God's love.

To put it another way, 1 John says, “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not know what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another...” He is talking about transparency. People hate the light because they don't want their dark deeds uncovered. That's why the very first amendment to the US Constitution is about freedom of speech and of the press. It's about light shining in the darkness, keeping society and the government honest. The same amendment is also about freedom of religion. By not being an arm of the government, we can be a light to the world. Just this week, China, which tightly controls its churches, banned selling Bibles online. 'Cause you can't have people worshiping a guy who was executed by the state for saying things those in power didn't like, can you?

If we want to walk with God, if we want fellowship with him, we need to be open and honest with him. We need to come clean. Relationships are built on trust. Lying violates trust.

Which is why 1 John follows up saying we need to be honest and trustworthy in our relationship with God to saying “...if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another...” If we get get in the habit of being open and honest with God, it should carry over into our relationships with our fellow human beings. In the Ten Commandments we are told not to give false testimony against our neighbor (Exodus 20:16). And lest you think that principle is confined to legal matters, Leviticus says simply, “Do not lie. Do not deceive one another.” (Leviticus 19:11)

Relationships built on lies cannot last. Groups that tolerate deception come apart. Paul says, “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” (Ephesians 4:25) This is not to say we must be brutally honest with everyone we meet. Paul says, “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” (Ephesians 4:15) If we walk in the light we will become like Jesus.

If there is no darkness in Jesus, there should be none in those who follow him. As Paul says, “For you were once darkness, but you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light...” (Ephesians 5:8) Notice he doesn't say you were in darkness; he says you were darkness. We were the thing that hinders the light. But now, as Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14) But Jesus also says, “I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12) We get our light from him.

I was thinking of comparing us to mirrors, reflecting the light of Christ, but then I realized that even mirrors have a dark side—their back. Rather we should be like prisms, translucent, channeling light, breaking it down into the rainbow, into the whole spectrum of God's love. And because light is visual, that means showing, not just speaking. We shine the light when we refuse to be silent about truth or injustice but we also shine it when we put the truth into practice and try to right injustices. People attribute to Francis of Assisi the saying, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary use words.” Though he didn't say that, the fact is that, as someone else put it, “when all is said and done, there's a lot more said than done.” Jesus didn't just preach and teach. He healed people. He fed the hungry. When appropriate, he overturned the tables of crooked moneychangers and drove those thieves out of God's temple. Jesus was not, as they say in Texas, “all hat and no cattle.” He practiced what he preached. And Christians have gotten into trouble whenever they have not practiced what Jesus preached.

We live in a world that loves darkness. Companies don't want us to know if their products harm people. Those in power do not want what they do and say to be scrutinized. We don't want people to know that we are not what we appear to be in public. Even the church harbors darkness at times, not wanting to confront its corporate sins, much less confess them. And when it does that, it obscures the light and drives people further into the darkness.

We are called to be the light of the world by the one who is the light of the world. And as there is no darkness in him, so there should be none in us. Let us walk in the light as children of the light and so draw all people to the brightness of God revealed in the life of Jesus Christ.