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The purpose of this letter by John, one of the first followers of Jesus, is to give the benefit of his experience, and what he has seen, to coming generations. As the followers of Jesus spread out though the Ancient Near East, Africa, Asia, and Mediterranean there were those who became believers but didn’t have the first hand experience or the benefit of walking with Jesus personally. Some people used the developing faith as a means to their own ends, others were simply only seeing part of the picture of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. John writes from his experience, and what he has seen, so that we may accept what he knew about Jesus to be true:

Jesus—the Divine Christ! He experienced a life-giving birth and a death-killing death. Not only birth from the womb, but baptismal birth of his ministry and sacrificial death. And all the while the Spirit is confirming the truth, the reality of God’s presence at Jesus’ baptism and crucifixion, bringing those occasions alive for us. A triple testimony: the Spirit, the Baptism, the Crucifixion. And the three in perfect agreement. 1 John 5:6-8 (The Message)

Those who did believe that Jesus was both fully man and fully God, at the time of John’s writing, but sought to influence the direction of Christianity, were not giving the whole picture for people to believe in. In the distance that we experience from the historical life of Christ our modern religions can promote a partial picture of Jesus too. If we turn to the first hand accounts from those who were closest at hand, during Jesus’ life, then we see better what to believe. For John, the picture was clearest, when he thought about Jesus, when he considered how he was born, the miracle of birth by a virgin; how he was baptised by John the Baptist, and the Holy Spirit came on Jesus confirming him as the Son of God; and how he suffered and died as one crucified. This is a powerful testimony to encourage our faith. Not simply the words of John related to us in this letter, but the agreement of these three world transforming points of contact between heaven and earth. When Jesus was born it was the place of God coming to live among us, not in a palace or with political power but in the poorest of circumstances without any man-made influence. When Jesus was baptised it was the beginning of his work to teach all humanity how to love God and love our neighbours. When Jesus died, the horrific and bloody death of crucifixion, he gave up his life so that all humanity could receive saving grace and the undeserved favour of God. These points in Jesus’ life, highlighted by John, give a concensus by the perfect agreement of the three. What those who first followed Jesus said about him and how we believe in him, as God incarnate, Son of God, Saviour of all humanity, is powerfully supported by God’s action in Jesus’ life.

Lord Jesus, when my mind doubts and my heart is weak, because I live in a day far removed from your life on earth, let me be encouraged to see you as you are. When I am tempted to trust in parts of the picture of faith that comfort and sustain me spiritually, challenge me with the fullest picture and let me believe in the perfect testimony your birth, your baptism, and your death for me and all humanity. Amen

Some days it seems like you just can’t win! I think everyone has had days like that, they start badly and then just get worse. What we need is a way to start the day that will empower us for anything the world has to throw at us. John, one of the first followers of Jesus, gives us just that empowering.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. 1 John 5:1-5 (The NIV translation)

Loving God means loving Jesus too! As we love God’s Son this creates a loving bond between us and God equal to the love the Father has for his Son. It isn’t a soft kind of love though, not a fluffy candy floss sickly sweet kind of  love. God’s love for us wants us to follow in the path of life that Jesus shows us in his life. It gives us the greatest opportunity for intimacy of relationship with our loving heavenly Father God, but stretches us to the fullest capacity of our human potential. We don’t get one without the other because our God is holy and perfect in love, there are no half measures with him to get fulness of life. Grace leads the way into his presence but a disciplined life that cherishes the goodness of God’s commands builds us up in the life God has for us.

How do we achieve this balance of grace and goodness? It is quite a simple formula really. As John says, we are to believe in Jesus, love the Father and the Son, and obey the commands of the Father. Rather than seeing the commandments of God as hinderance to our humanity, and our community, we are to see them as empowerment for the fullest of life that God has for us. If we live in the love of the Father then, John says, we have already overcome the world. Things may not be great every day and situations we face may not work out how we hope or imagine, but in the love of God we are empowered by grace and goodness to face the world with confidence of faith and the smile of a heart filled with the assurance of God’s love for us.

Loving Father, thank you for the love that you lavish freely into our lives. Let your grace fill us this day with the knowledge of your love. Let our hearts respond with the desire to grow to the fullness of humanity for which you created us. Let us follow faithfully in Jesus’ way and grow closer to you each day. Amen.

If you think that loving God is not really connected to day to day life read on!

If anyone boasts, “I love God,” and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both. 1 John 4:20-21 (The Message)

John, one of the first followers of Jesus, has taken a real hot potato here and made it cool enough to fully digest. We may be comfortable with loving God in the security of four walls and with people who share a view of faith with us, but does it really mean anything in the way we view others? I despair (no it isn’t too strong a word) when I come into contact with people who share my Christian faith but don’t connect that love for God with the way they see others. I sympathize with this kind of disconnected faith because, much to my shame, I adopted that view once too. It is rarely a conscious thing but promoted by seeing a piece of the jigsaw puzzle of Christian faith as key to completing the picture. What do I mean? Well, loving God comes from a heart the recognizes our need to live harmoniously with our creator. The way laid down by him is in the sacrificial love displayed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We know that we are to love God by following Jesus. What this has become, in many ways, is the demand of conforming to the religious practices laid out in the church to which we may belong. So, we talk about the church we belong to and the styles in which we worship God rather than “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ ; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ ” Luke 10:27 (The NIV translation)

The most important instruction of Jesus to his followers includes loving God completely and loving our neighbor as if they were ourselves. One without the other is like one side of an equation, we don’t get the right total unless we add up both sides. If we don’t love our neighbour as ourselves, says John, we can’t say we really love God, and, if we say we love God it is only fully valid if we love our neighbour. I said before ‘Love is a verb’, a doing word. If part of the jigsaw picture of our world view is made up of active worship toward God then another, equally significant piece, is active love of our neighbour. We may think that we are loving others but unless it is seen through our attitude and actions it is as empty as saying we love God but not actively worshiping him.

God I do love you and I want my love for you to be seen in the love I have for my neighbour. Let the love of Jesus that I know to be real be the source of the love I have. Direct my ways so that the way I love and what I do is a witness to your love for all. Amen.

This letter from John, one of the first followers of Jesus, has dealt with some hard Christian spiritual truth. It has, so far, challenged us in a direct way about our priorities. Do we went to be people who follow the narrow and demanding path of life in which, following Jesus will lead us, or do we want the vain glories of this passing world that is offered by satan’s rule? A tough decision to make, and yet John has good reason to encourage us to choose the former:

God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s. There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love. We, though, are going to love—love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. He loved us first. 1 John 4:17-19 (The Message)

On Saturday night we went to support our friends in Sheffield in their local Pantomime production. It brought back all kinds of memories for me of when I used to be in Pantomimes as a child and youth. One of the favorite songs of many productions went like this, ‘Whenever I feel afraid I hold my head errect, and whistle a happy tune then no-one will suspect, I’m afraid.’ Unless we know that we are safe on our sofa watching a chilling movie, safely fastened into the latest ride at a theme park, or doing extreme sports for ‘fun’, fear isn’t something we relish. Being made afraid by circumstances outside our control or painful decisions that challenge our security rightly unsettle and unnerve us. Yet here, and constantly in the gospels, we are encouraged to see that, if we live in the love of God, we have nothing to fear. In fact, when we experience living in the love of God any fear of judgement, death,  failure, loss of self-identity, or crisis of faith, is driven out by perfect love. The reality of living in a relationship with God that isn’t dependant on our own goodness or power but on Jesus’ sacrificial love for us is empowering. John says, ‘Our standing in the world is identical to Christ’s’. What an assurance of God’s love for us, that he sees us and loves us in exactly the same way he sees and loves his only ‘God-born’ Son. This God, who is perfect love, perfectly loves us as he perfectly loves his son. What an encouragement to make the hard choices and take the narrow way. What more could we want for today, tomorrow, and eternity than to be loved perfectly by God?

God who is perfect love thank you for loving me perfectly. Help me to see in my inner life your love as the key to be free from all fear. Let the love you give through living within my life aid me in the choice to follow you in the narrow path and the hard decisions of life. Amen.

‘Without love, where would we be now?’ goes the old Dooby Brother’s song  I was listening to on the Johnny Walker sounds of the seventies program, on the way home from a snowy Sheffield, yesterday. This is a question answered by John, one of the first followers of Jesus. He goes on to answer perhaps a more pressing question for the Christian though, ‘because of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, what should we do now?’

My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us—perfect love! 1 John 4:11-12 (The Message)

 The impact of God’s love for us in Jesus’ sacrifice is like a spiritual atomic explosion. It has the effect of devastating our world view, that we will in some way live up to God’s perfect law of love if we try hard enough, and puts us in the way of Jesus’ sacrificial love. Meeting God’s perfect standard set in Christ is not an option then and we realize that turning to God, with the desire to change our ways and live for Jesus, is what God requires.

 So, when we have turned to God and expressed our desire to follow Jesus what next? We do have choices to make. Either we can say that our personal faith is enough and rely on the grace of God to support our failure to meet God’s standard, or we can accept that only Jesus meets the standard of God’s perfect love. This means, either we try and struggle to become more like Jesus, or we let God have his way in our lives in order to achieve this. The more we hold onto our own will and expectations of God, the more frustrating the Christian life is. What John says to us is, ‘because we know the love God has for us shown in Jesus’ sacrifice, then we can rely on the presence of God ‘deeply’ in our lives if we love others with that same love.’ Becoming like Jesus takes us to let every part of our lives be filled with the love of God and expressed in love for others. Then, and only then, will the unseen God be seen. He will not be seen in individual’s alone though. No! it is in how the believers love one another and others that God is seen and experienced. As is so often said but sometimes not acted on, ‘Love is a verb’, it is a doing word.

God who is in your very substance perfect love, help us today to be filled with perfect love so that your presence will be known among us. Let the love that you have for all people in Jesus Christ be the love we live in today and so know your presence deeply in our lives. Amen.

If we are to think about love today we may be drawn to think of the love of a parent for their child and vice-versa, a lover for their loved one, a carer looking after a partner or parent. Most of us are capable of loving those closest to us, but what does it mean to love others as we love ourselves or, more importantly, love others as God loves us? John, one of the first followers of Jesus, asks those he loves, his friends, to love as God loves in order to really see how God loves all:

My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can’t know him if you don’t love. This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him. This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God. 1 John 4:7-10 (The Message)

The relationship we experience with those closest to us helps us in the love we feel for them. It is equally important for us to seek a close relationship with God, through our prayers, attitude of heart, discipline of life, in order to fully live in the love of God. Loving this way is a choice we make. If we do not make the choice to love God’s way then the benefits of enjoying the closeness to God that brings cannot be expected. The love of God is best seen in the incarnate life of Jesus Christ and it is our choice whether or not to believe this is the best way to live. Living through Jesus means that we actively choose to adopt the attitude of life he displays in the Bible and actively seek the Holy Spirit in our lives to empower our lives with love. The sacrificial love of God seen in Jesus has created the template for how we are to view love. 1 Corinthians 13, famed for its use as Wedding material (and look out for it being read at Phil Archer’s Funeral on R4 ‘The Archers’ on Tuesday) tells us that godly love ‘makes no record of wrong’. How hard is that? We instinctively hold others to account and, even when they apologize, it is most likely that we forgive but don’t forget. When someone does us wrong it often affects our relationship with them irrevocably, but not God. We have all wronged God, without exception and repeatedly, but, when we choose to love as God loves, he has irradicates both the wrong and the consequence of that wrong restoring the intimate relationship we have, through grace, with him as a child of God.

Heavenly Father, when I look at Jesus help my heart to realize the love you have for me that took him to that place of suffering and death. Let the sacrificial love that flows out to all people through the cross of Christ be the power of God at work in my life. Let me take this example of selfless love and live it out in my life so that I might walk closer with you and be the living example of your love for all people today. Amen.

In this day of media reality shows it is seen as entertainment to weigh up who will stay and who will go. We are asked to judge from our living rooms whether one contestant is genuinely more talented, or more worthy, of remaining in the show. We are part of the culture of voyeuristic entertainment, choosing whether to believe one to be more genuine than another. The Christian, too, is ask to make choices about what to believe and what not to. Whether or not we believe one person’s view of Jesus or another is the most important decision we will make. John, one of the first followers of Jesus, knew that his friends had such a dilemma in their day too.

My dear friends, don’t believe everything you hear. Carefully weigh and examine what people tell you. Not everyone who talks about God comes from God. There are a lot of lying preachers loose in the world. Here’s how you test for the genuine Spirit of God. Everyone who confesses openly his faith in Jesus Christ—the Son of God, who came as an actual flesh-and-blood person—comes from God and belongs to God. And everyone who refuses to confess faith in Jesus has nothing in common with God. This is the spirit of antichrist that you heard was coming. Well, here it is, sooner than we thought! 1 John 4:1-3 (The Message)

We hear so many differing and diverse messages about religion and spirituality today that it is hard to know what is ‘truth’. There is a common expectation that tolerance means only emphasizing shared meaning and moralities while disregarding the unique qualities of anybodies beliefs. I do believe we are to be respectful of others right to believe differently from ourselves, but I do not believe that tolerance requires us to divest our religion of anything disagreeable to others. Keeping our understanding of Jesus from a broad understanding of the Bible’s message means that we will see him in the context of his time and in the purpose of God for our salvation. There were those, in John’s time, who said that Jesus only appeared to be human. This is called Docetism from the greek work, ‘to appear’. There were those who said that Jesus was merely a special human being but was in no way God. This is called Arianism. These misguided beliefs remain in some peoples belief about Jesus today. If we are to have the message of the Bible, the context of Jesus’ life, and the purpose of God for our salvation, in view as we decide who Jesus is then John encourages us to see, ‘Jesus Christ—the Son of God, who came as an actual flesh-and-blood person—comes from God and belongs to God.’ Any preacher, religion, or spirituality that doesn’t say this may be a part of the bigger picture of religious or spiritual belief today, but it isn’t genuinely Christian.

Lord, I confess that Jesus came as both fully god and fully man. I am grateful for your Bible that says how we are to live and believe. Bring your Word to life for me, through the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that I may truly live in step with him who is my salvation. Amen.

So, the search for real love is complete in Christ. What we desire most with all our hearts is freely available in him, but does it stop there? John, one of the first folowers of Jesus, continues his loving letter to his spiritual children in order that they should practice real love.

My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality. It’s also the way to shut down debilitating self-criticism, even when there is something to it. For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves. And friends, once that’s taken care of and we’re no longer accusing or condemning ourselves, we’re bold and free before God! We’re able to stretch our hands out and receive what we asked for because we’re doing what he said, doing what pleases him. Again, this is God’s command: to believe in his personally named Son, Jesus Christ. He told us to love each other, in line with the original command. As we keep his commands, we live deeply and surely in him, and he lives in us. And this is how we experience his deep and abiding presence in us: by the Spirit he gave us. 1 John 3:17-24 (The Message)

When we know we are fully loved in life it is easier to love fully. One of the most difficult things is to maintain a loving relationship. Distractions and temptations come our way and we lose the sense of loving fully. Our ego makes us want something new to excite and stimulate. Yet, if we are fully loved and fully loving we will keep practicing real love. What is real love? It is the sacrificial love of God found in Jesus Christ, it is the example and the action of Jesus in loving all humanity in his life, death, and resurrection. Believing in him creates in us the need to show such love to others as we live each day. We are not to be those who witness our faith in Christ to others by words alone but by our attitude and deeds being like Christ. This is what is meant by being ‘incarnational’ because it is not something we can do by ourselves, through being humanly nice, kind, and good, it is something that needs an extra dimension in our lives. It is formed through that deep and abiding presence of God in us through his Spirit.

Of course there will be many and varied ways of understanding the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, from the energetic and provocative worship of Pentecostals and Charismatics, to the profound and deeply demanding disciplines of the Monastic traditions. What is at the heart of any Spirit filled life, however, is practicing real love. Jesus said that the fulfillment of the Jewish law could be summarized in one sentence, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbour as yourself.’ Practicing real love means loving God, neighbour, and self without prioritizing one to the detriment of any other. So, if we are to love God then it does not mean we do so in four walls on a Sunday but we do so every day by loving our neigbour, and if we are to love our neigbour as an act of worship toward God then we need to love ourselves too in the same way. Neglect of neighbour, or of self for that instance, isn’t going to make us love God fully as he fully loves us and knowing we are fully loved by God should make us more able to love fully.

God who is real and perfect love, thank you for loving me fully, help me to fully love. Amen.

Love is a much used, and much abused, word. We fall in and out of love. We love the latest fashion or fad. We are happy to say we love someone or something when it serves our ego or purpose. Searching for love is a characteristic of human nature and, at its best, our most redeeming quality. ‘How do we understand and experience love?’ is a question most of us will ask sometime in our lives. John, one of the first followers of Jesus, gives us an insight into how God sees our need for love.

For this is the original message we heard: We should love each other. We must not be like Cain, who joined the Evil One and then killed his brother. And why did he kill him? Because he was deep in the practice of evil, while the acts of his brother were righteous. So don’t be surprised, friends, when the world hates you. This has been going on a long time. The way we know we’ve been transferred from death to life is that we love our brothers and sisters. Anyone who doesn’t love is as good as dead. Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know very well that eternal life and murder don’t go together. This is how we’ve come to understand and experience love: Christ sacrificed his life for us. This is why we ought to live sacrificially for our fellow believers, and not just be out for ourselves. 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. 1 John 3:11-17 (The Message)

While the search for love is our most redeeming human quality, hate, and its physical outworking in murder, is our most condemning. The story of Cain and his brother Abel (found in chapter three of Genesis, the first book of the Bible) is a prime example. Jealousy, petty rivalry, and anger are what drove Cain to murder his brother. When called to account by God for Abel’s whereabouts Cain responds, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ The consequence of such a wicked heart was to lose out on God’s good favour, something no-one should relish. Real love, in God’s sight, has no less consequence, however. As the picture of hate is displayed in the story of Cain and Able, the love of God is shown in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. God’s love for all of us took Jesus to sacrifice his life on the cross. He chose to submit to the pain, suffering, and anguish of a tortured death in order that the greatest redeeming quality of human nature could find its home. Our searching after love will only meet its fulfillment if we take the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ as our example. Not until we give all to God, and for God, in the naked helplessness of spiritual submission to the will of God, will we know that we are truly loved. Only when we live the life of selfless love for others, in the image of Christ’s sacrificial love, will be truly loving.

Lord, I want to know your love today and to love you as you want me to, wholly, utterly, completely. So help me to give every part of me into your hands and to be filled with your Holy Spirit that I might do your will. Let the love that you show to me in the sacrifice of my Lord, Jesus Christ, be the example I take in living in sacrificial love for others each day. Amen.

I love the intimacy of letters that come from a loving parent to their children. It is not the sense of distance and unfamiliarity of an acquaintance or the formality of a letter from a colleague. Such letters are loaded with love and concern for the children’s well-being. So it is with John’s letter to his children in Christ. As one of the first followers of Jesus, John wants his ‘children’ in Christ to grow up healthy and be kept from spiritual harm.

Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. 1 John 3:7-9 (The NIV translation)

Born again Christian has become a bi-word for American fundamentalism. It is based on Jesus’ encounter with a man called Nicodemus in John’s Gospel where Jesus says, ‘You should not be surprised at my saying you must be born again.’ John 3:7 (The NIV translation). Rather than a name for a particular brand of Christianity, being ‘born again’ or ‘born of God’ is a spiritual reality that has differing expressions for Christian people. What is common to the experience is a profound sense of the ‘parenting’ of God in our lives. It does not make us perfect children, by any means, but what it does is place an understanding of the rightness of God’s ways in our lives above any other. It is put in very black and white terms here by John and of course there are many different shades of grey in reality. Good people have a sense of right and wrong that, very often, works in conjunction with Christian values and Christians can too easily compromise, misunderstand, or simply choose not to follow, the good guiding of God in our lives.

The difference that exists in the experience of people born of God is that, despite any failure to follow or compromise in life, there is a seed planted that wants to grow. The way it grows is by being nourished in the tender care of God’s presence and guiding spirit. It grows through our beginning to get to grips with the daily discipline of prayer and bible study. It grows through understanding of spirit and mind what it means to live the Christian life and, the most essential part of all, living it out in daily life. It is a seed that grows to be a mature tree that bears fruit and nourishes those around it by letting that fruit be spiritual nourishment to others. Being born of God is a new beginning not an end and it is a seed that will only grow if we tend it in our lives. It will only bear fruit if will seek to live under the radiance of the living God but once that seed is there one thing is sure, it will trouble us to grow!

Lord God, I ask for the seed of new life in Jesus in me to grow. Through my small attentions to its life in me let it grow and bring a greater awareness of you. Let it grow, under the radiance of your light, to bear fruit that others will taste and know your goodness, mercy, love, and power. Let me not neglect it but treat it daily with tender care through prayer and mindful acceptance of your word to guide me. Amen.

February 2010
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