I'd like to see a show of hands. Who here in this room believes him or herself to be a child of God? .. Good.
Now, you would swear that not only do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, but you also completely love God, right? If you can't attest to that statement, lower your hands. Otherwise, keep your hands up.
Now, who here believes that everyone - every single solitary person - with a hand in the air - loves you? I mean really loves you, just the way you are? Be honest. No one will ask you for details about why you think one person or another in this room doesn't love you.
And those of you who still have your hands in the air, you are telling me that you love God and you love everyone who is a child of God. My next question for you is, do you obey God's commandments?
Hmmmm... it seems some hands have gone down. I wonder why that is, given what Scripture has to say to us. We just heard our text:
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God, and every one who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.
(You can put your hands down.)
Let's unpack that Scripture. If you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then you are a child of God. Therefore, if you are God's child, it follows that you would love God - the parent. And if you love God, then the implication is that you must also love God's children.
And loving God's children and obeying God's commandments is then the proof that you love God. It is a circular proof - I don't think my geometry professor would have approved - but it is a proof, nonetheless.
And that means that the children of God love the other children of God, no matter how strange or different or lacking in whatever areas we perceive them to be, doesn't it? Real love does not discriminate with race or age or gender or class or wealth or education or anything else at all.
Martin Marty, an editor of "The Christian Century" and publisher of a newsletter called "Context," tells this true story:
His classmates noted that eight-year-old Stephen's mental retardation was becoming even more manifest. Could they retain their love for him as they came to see his difference?
In April, the Sunday School teacher asked all eight children in his class to hide within an empty Leggs pantyhose container one small object that represented the new life in spring. (You remember those Leggs Eggs, don't you?)
Fearing that Stephen might not have caught on, the teacher had the children place all unlabeled containers on the table so that he could open them. The first had a tiny flower. "What a lovely sign of new life!" The donor could not help but erupt, "I brought that one."
Next came a rock. That must be Stephen's since rocks don't symbolize new life. The teacher agreed. A butterfly flew from the third container and another child bragged that her choice was the best sign of all. The fourth Leggs container was empty.
"It has to be Stephen's," thought the teacher, reaching quickly for the fifth. But, "Please, don't skip mine" Stephen interjected. "But it's empty." "That's right," said Stephen. "The tomb was empty, and that's new life for everyone."
That summer Stephen's condition worsened and he died. At his funeral on his casket mourners found eight Leggs containers, now ALL empty." ( Illustration Sourcebank . Inver Grove Heights, MN: Logos Productions, Inc., #2141.)
Stephen's classmates loved him - despite his problems and differences - because he was a child of God. And as they loved him and accepted him into their midst, they also learned from him.
It was Stephen who best grasped the good news of the gospel. It was Stephen who showed seven other children and their teacher just what Christ's love for us means. And I'm sure that with his problems, Stephen was different - he probably couldn't keep up with the other kids mentally or physically.
He probably didn't fit in because of looks and words and actions. Yet he was a child of God, and so those Sunday School children and their teacher loved him, and looked to see why God had placed them together.
We are not all the same here. We have different looks, different politics, different ways of seeing things, different smells, different behaviors, different ways of expressing ourselves, different mannerisms.. And yet.. As we claim to be children of God, then we are also claiming that we love all the other children of God.
Love them. Not just like them or tolerate them. Actively love them - treat them as human beings, with compassion and concern and interest.
Real interest - not just that feigned politeness that doesn't exist on any level other than the superficial. Children of God really hear one another - really understand one another - really love one another - and would really lay down their lives for one another.
For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.
Second part - love doesn't just mean affection - it also means obedience to God's commandments. And it means more than obedience. You notice that we are told to "keep" God's commandments. We can obey something without integrating its principles into our hearts and lives. I can obey a law and still have complete contempt for it - and may even disobey it if I think I won't get caught.
To "keep" the commandments is something much different. To keep means to cherish the commandments - the will of God. It is to love that which God loves and wants - to make it a part of ourselves - to want God's will with our total being.
What God is after from us here is for us to find it more difficult to disobey or ignore what God wants than to simply do it. To truly walk in God's way would make it actually painful for us to move outside of His will or to disregard His commandments.
The things that God asks of us are not burdensome or painful. They may be difficult, as they often involve denying our baser selves and desires - but the end result is one that keeps us safe and will make us happy and at peace.
I can't imagine anyone not wanting to have such a wonderful relationship with God and therefore with fellow human beings, though I know it happens every day. As children's quarrels, jealousy, vanity disfigure family life and wound parents' hearts, so they injure the unity of the church and wound God's heart.
Within groups in a congregation, between congregations, between denominations, as lovelessness is a denial of the faith and an offense to God, so love is proof of faith and a cause of joy to God.
But surely this ideal should not be confined to the Christian church alone. Is it not also the ideal for all humanity? Love of God becomes real as it is expressed in love for our fellow human beings - and vice versa. ( The Interpreter's Bible Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1957, Vol. XII, pg. 289.)
Loving God allows us to love others better - and loving others allows us to love God better. Still circular logic.. Still the absolute gospel truth. And obviously, not as easy as it sounds, or everyone would always love everyone and we would all be peaceful, happy people living in peaceful, happy neighborhoods, with peaceful, happy jobs, and attending peaceful happy churches.. And that isn't happening. So what is the key to overcoming our lack of love?
We must be born again. I know you've heard that so many times in so many ways. Some theological viewpoints have made being born again into a cult classic. Some churches won't let you be a member of that church unless you are born again - according to their definition.
Some Christian schools insist that the parents and students must be born again Christians. And it seems that there are so many different thoughts on what it means to be born again.
I just want to tell you today that it is very simple. It is not some mystical, magical, hard-to-obtain state of being. It is not a physical process of rebirth. To be born again means very simply to recognize that Jesus Christ was sent to earth, the only begotten Son of God, fully human and fully divine.
His mission was to become a perfect, sinless sacrifice that would satisfy the law regarding payment of sin with a blood sacrifice. This human sacrifice paid for the sins of all other human beings - forever. He gave up His life so that we could have eternal life. And it was a painful and terrifying experience - but He loves us so much that He was willing to do it.
As we comprehend this awesome act of courage and love, we should respond in gratitude and joy - and recognize the unworthiness of our lives and our hearts.
We should realize that we could never approach a holy and perfect God wearing the filthy rags of our human sinful selves. So we need to accept the sacrifice of Christ - accept Him as Lord and Savior and Bridge-builder to the Father - by repenting of our sins.
That is to feel how shameful we have been, to regret it, to confess it to God, and to decide to live a new life, going in the opposite direction that our God-less lives were going. As we take Christ as our Savior and Lord and begin to walk with Him, the old nature is gone - a new heart is given to us - and we are born again.
It's not so complicated, is it? No speaking in tongues is required - no baptism is required - no vows before the church - no requisite attendance at Sunday School or worship. It is between you and your Savior. But you see, the rest of us will know when you have been born again - because it shows on your face and in your actions - and in the changed direction of your life.
It shows when I ask you if you honestly love the people in this room and if you are walking in God's ways and you are able to hold your head and your hand high.
Do understand that temporary slip-ups do not disqualify you. Even though we have new hearts, our old nature will try to overcome us from time to time and we will behave less than honorably.
Our love for others is not perfect because we are not perfect. Only God is - but we will get better and better - we will overcome the sinfulness of this world as we follow Christ to eternity.
For whatever is born of God overcomes the world, and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith.
Be born again - rejoice in and celebrate your faith - overcome the world. Amen.