Love in Action
My third-grade teacher Mrs. McGinn spent hours drilling us on the importance of grammar and punctuation. She would make us repeat ad nauseam the definitions of different parts of speech, setting them to catchy tunes and requiring us to sing and clap along. I can still hear her voice in my head singing over and over again, “A verb is a word that names an action.” We spent many hours at the chalkboard dissecting sentences, and her red pen on our homework assignments was unforgiving of punctuation errors.
I thought of Mrs. McGinn as I began to examine the Scripture text from 1 John. The NIV translation of verse 16 begins with the words, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” As a good student of grammar, one thing about this verse immediately grabbed my attention: the colon. Although the punctuation mark was not used in the original Greek text, its presence here was significant. The colon screams, “Here it is! I’m about to lay it out for you. Concrete explanation to follow. Pay close attention.”
We know love by this, that 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 in action.
1 John 3:16-18
Love God, love neighbor
1 John 3:16-18
Now, before we look at what follows the colon, it’s important to remember who is writing these words. Some scholars continue to argue that the Apostle John wrote this letter sometime near the end of the first century. John was one of Jesus’ 12 disciples. John spent years walking, talking, eating, sleeping and learning from Jesus. He saw the miracles. He heard the teachings. What’s more, he experienced personally the love of the Jesus. So much so, that his very identity became “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 21:7).
John was there when Jesus was questioned about the greatest commandment. He heard Jesus respond, “The first is, ‘Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31).
By the end of the first century, secondand third-generation believers began to have doubts about what they had been taught. Some believe 1 John was written to reassure Jesus’ followers of the message that they had heard from the beginning. For John that message was love.
As followers of Jesus today, the message remains the same. What does it mean to be a Christian? What is required of us? What is God’s call on our lives? Love God, love neighbor. Fairly simple, right? But what does it really mean to love? The apostle John makes it clear for us.
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16, NIV). The text is remarkably similar to Jesus’ own words as recorded in the Gospel of John 15:13: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In today’s society, love has come to mean “a strong affection,” or “warm attachment, devotion or admiration” (Merriam Webster).
Love in the Christian context, however, goes beyond a warm, fuzzy feeling of affection toward God or toward neighbor. It is not an emotion. It is not a noun. Love in the Christian context is a verb — a word that names an action. For me love is living sacrificially in service to one another, just as Christ did for us.
We have a concrete example in 1 John 3:17, NIV: “If anyone has material possessions and sees their sister or brother in need but has not pity, how can the love of God be in them?” The word pity in this verse, sometimes translated as compassion, is not meant to convey a feeling of superiority or power over those in need. A closer translation from the original Greek is “closes his heart against him.” We are not being asked to feel sorry for one another. Rather, we are being asked to open our hearts to the world’s needs and exercise true justice as we live in right relationship with one another.
The teaching in 1 John makes it as plain to readers today as it was to hearers then: if we do not care for each other’s physical needs, there is no love of God in us. The goal of Christians is to put our faith, hope and love into action for the transformation of the world.
Richard Stearns’ book, The Hole in Our Gospel (Thomas Nelson, 2009), says this: “Yet we are the carriers of the gospel — the good news that was meant to change the world. Belief is not enough. Worship is not enough. Personal morality is not enough. And Christian community is not enough. God has always demanded more. When we committed ourselves to following Christ, we also committed to living our lives in such a way that a watching world would catch a glimpse of God’s character — [God’s] love, justice and mercy — through our words, actions and behavior.”
The world is watching us in ministry and mission as we strive to fulfill the great commandment to love God and love neighbor. What is the message they will receive? “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18).
1. The Apostle John’s personal experience of the love of Jesus was so profound it changed his own identity. In what ways has your life been changed by the love of Christ?
2. Second-and third-generation believers had doubts about what they had been taught. What areas of Christian teaching have you doubted or questioned throughout your faith journey? What role has the Bible played in addressing those questions? What role have other believers played? In what ways, if any, has the questioning process changed your beliefs and actions?
3. What does it mean to lay down your life for your friends? What are some examples of times when you have lived sacrificially in service to others? When have you experienced the love of others through their service to you?
4. What is the difference between “feeling pity” toward the needy and “opening your heart” to their needs? What does it mean to exercise justice? What are some concrete ways to exercise justice in your family? Church? Community? World?
5. In what ways have we loved with our words but stopped short of loving with actions and truth? What does it mean to love “in truth?”
Amy Spaur is a United Methodist Church and Community Worker serving with Justice for Our Neighbors in Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas.