The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, May 3, 2009.  The text for this weeks message is 1 John 3:16-24.
Love is a word that is often thrown around, but rarely understood to the full extent.  As we get deeper into the third chapter of John’s letter, the author starts to paint a clearer picture of what it means to love another person.  The example that he gives us is Jesus.  To really know what love is, we need to look to Jesus, and not just to the versions that we see in modern culture – versions that both over-romanticize love and cheapen it.  We need to learn what it means to love another person.  We can learn that from Jesus and then apply it to how we love those around us.  Jesus’ love for us should lead us to have a similar type of love for others.
It is with much shame that I admit that I have watched the ABC Family show Secret Life of the American Teenager.  Now, originally, my excuse was that I was in youth ministry, but then I came here, and I no longer had an excuse.  So, to put it into perspective, have you ever watched a series of events that were so horrible that you couldn’t keep your eyes off of it?  I had that experience on Tuesday night last week, when Kyle McClellan, a Cardinal pitcher, walked three batters in the bottom of the eigth of a 1-0 game.  Secret Life is a lot like that.  It’s a mess.  I’m not even kidding.  The acting is terrible and the storyline is worse.  You know that it is going to be awful, but you can’t help yourself.
The main character, Amy, is 15 and pregnant.  She got pregnant during summer band camp, and the first season of the show basically traced her life during the course of her pregnancy.  In the course of this season, we meet different teenagers who struggle with what it means to be in love.  In fact, the theme song goes like this, “Falling in love is such an easy thing to do.  Birds can do it; we can do it.  Let’s stop talking. Let’s get to it.  Let’s fall in love.”  And it’s this very upbeat, pop song, which doesn’t fit with the rest of the show.
Now, during her freshman year, she meets a guy (who is not the father of the baby) and starts dating him.  For some reason, they think the answer to all the issues laid out before them is to fall in love and get married.  There is no sense of responsibility, no real grasp of the serious nature of the situation, and it’s like this for all of the characters.  Love is portrayed as some feeling that comes and goes.  It’s cheap, and not worth the time for some of the characters.  
And while I’m picking on this particular show right now, it’s not the only one on television like it.  I’m sure there is a long list of shows that we could go through right now that give a similar portrayal.  My point is not to tell you to stay away from these shows, but to watch them with a discerning eye.  Don’t just accept the “reality” that is laid out before you on television.  Every show on television gives us some kind of misguided perspective on what is important in this world, and how we should approach our relationships with others.  We have a whole generation of people who think love has a way of working itself out in neat half-an-hour segments.  But as we read through Scripture, we find that this isn’t what love is about.
Love is not about mushy feelings for one another, and it’s not an excuse to do whatever you feel like doing in your relationships.  Love for other people begins in our hearts, but it is much more than what’s portrayed on television.  Love is about earnestly caring for other people; putting their needs first, not our own.  Scripture tells us that love is patient and kind.  1 Corinthians 13 is all about the importance and description of love.  When we read Scripture, we find that love is not a feeling.  It is a verb.
It begins with our hearts.  Are our hearts in the right place?  Are we acting out of selfish desire, or out of concern for others?  John gives us the ultimate picture of love in the example set by Jesus Christ.  He says, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us.”  Jesus’ selfless life that was given out of the love that he has for each one of us is the ultimate picture of love.  We read in the garden before he is arrested that Jesus was praying to the Father.  He didn’t want to go through with it.  He knew what awaited him.  But his love for others, and his love for the Father caused him to say, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
And while it may seem extreme, that’s the kind of love that John encourages his readers to have as well.  That’s the kind of love that we need to have for one another.  “We ought to lay down our lives,” he says.  We need to put others ahead of us.  That’s the example that Jesus gives to us, and that’s the example that John puts forth to us as well.  John recognizes that giving one’s life is an extreme case, and so he gives us another example.
Verse 17 says, “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”  Where are our hearts?  If our hearts aren’t in the right place, we close them when we come to people in need.  I’m not suggesting that we give everything away to whoever comes around, but when we have an abundance of resources, what are we doing with them?  It’s a matter of stewardship.
I don’t talk all that much about stewardship, but it is an important part of our faith.  Usually, people complain when they hear pastors talk about money.  It’s a subject that people don’t want to hear about when they come to church.  I try not to talk too much about it, but to avoid it altogether would be irresponsible.  Perhaps we don’t like to talk about it because it is too personal.  But I’ve heard it said that if you want to see what somebody’s priorities are, then look at their checkbook.  Why is it important to talk about stewardship and money?  Because where your heart is determines where your money goes.  Do we have more than we need, but fail to give to those who need it?  I think there are times in all of our lives that we do.  But is it something that happens occasionally, or is it a pattern in our lives?  That’s where it gets a little harder.
As I’ve said before, stewardship is not about money.  Stewardship is about being faithful with what God has given us.  When it comes to money, we (and believe me, I do mean “we”, myself included here) are not always faithful.  When it comes to money, we tend to put our own wants before others’ needs.  We make out our family budgets, and we are certain to include all the bills, gas and groceries, but then we also have those other categories – entertainment, dining out, vacation.  Don’t get me wrong, all of these can be good things.  They are ways that we have fun together as a family.  But what’s missing here?
I read somewhere in the last few months, and I think I’ve shared this before, that Americans live on 110% of their annual salary.  110%.  We live in a nation where people are going deeper and deeper into debt just to keep up their lifestyle.  There are always things that we don’t think about when we make out our budgets, but how many times do we include savings and tithes in our budgets?  How often do we set aside some of our own money in order to help out those in need?  How often do we set aside some of our own time to help those in need?  If we are abiding in God, then the needs of others will be important to us.  Where are our hearts?
John challenges us to not just say that we love others, but to show it by our actions.  When Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment, he says that we are to love God will all our heart, soul, mind and strength; and then he throws another one on top of it.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Love is a verb here.  It’s not just a gooey feeling of deep like.  It is something that is more than just talk and feeling, but action and truth.  Show it.  Live it out.  If our hearts are in the right place, then people will see it in our actions.  Katie put out a quote from the conference where she has been this week.  She said, “Mission is not a part of the church, mission is the purpose of the church.”  While all of this is true for individuals, it is also true for us as a church.  What do people see when they look at us.
Martin Luther, the German theologian, was all about the biblical idea that we are saved by faith, not our works.  The Roman Catholic Church had gotten fairly corrupt by the time Luther was on the scene.  They were selling indulgences, which was basically a way for us to pay a certain amount of money in order to be forgiven.  The money that was collected was sent to Rome, and was used to build St. Peter’s Basilica.  That was one of the Church’s first stabs at a building campaign, and it didn’t go well.  The end result was the Protestant Reformation.  The point is that Luther is a major figure in the history of the Church, but even he didn’t get everything right.
One of Luther’s most despised parts of Scripture was the book of James.  He called it the “Epistle of Straw” because it makes several references to showing your faith by your actions.  Luther took this to mean that James was laying out a salvation by works theology, which contradicted Paul’s salvation by faith theology.  James, of course, is doing no such thing; he is simply saying the same thing that John is saying here.  We show our faith by what we do.  We show where our hearts are by our actions.  When we live out our faith, we can be assured that our hearts are in the right place.  This is a point that John really wants to drive home here.
John recognizes that there are times in our lives when our hearts seem to condemn us.  We carry around a load of guilt and shame.  Sometimes people come to the faith and start doing as much as they can as a way of repenting from their past sins.  They work themselves to the bone.  When our hearts condemn us, it tends to be one of two things.  First, it could be the Holy Spirit convicting us of sin that is still residing in our lives.  And second, it could be that we just haven’t let go of the sins that God has already forgiven.
In the Church, we have a history of doing a very good job of condemning people.  We don’t always have the best track record when it comes to forgiveness.  And it is all the more magnified when we look into our own lives.  I’ve known a lot of people over the years that simply cannot forgive themselves for the things that they’ve done.  They will often use that as an excuse to avoid Christianity altogether.  They believe that God can’t forgive them, so there is no point in asking for forgiveness in the first place.  And we talked about this at Bible study a couple weeks ago, so for those that were there, this will be a bit of a rerun.  But I always want to ask them, “Why are you so special?”  Why is it that God can forgive the rest of the world for all the sins that have been committed, but He can’t forgive you?
Now, I don’t usually say that.  I try to have a little more tact with my words to other people, but I have thought it from time to time to myself.  Maybe some of us here today need to do that as well.  What sins are holding you back?  What are the areas in your life that are so bad that God can’t forgive you?  That’s not an easy conversation to have with yourself, but it is one that needs to take place.  John tells us that God is bigger than our hearts.  He knows who we are, and we are his children, remember?  If God has already forgiven us of our sins, then we need to get past them as well.  We need to stop living in shame and regret and start living in love and forgiveness.  We can live with clean hearts.
And when our hearts are clean, we can go before God with confidence.  We can pray and know that God will listen.  I can’t stand up here today and tell you that God will give you everything you ask for if you are pure of heart and ask in faith.  Because we all know that there are things in this life that just don’t happen, no matter how much we want them to.  But we can pray knowing that God loves us and He hears us and He cares about each one of us.
We will continue to abide in God if we keep his commandments.  And what are those commandments: to believe in Jesus and to love our neighbor.  There is the initial step of putting our faith in Jesus, and then there is the follow-up of living it out by loving our neighbors.  If we keep these two commandments two things will happen.  People will recognize us as disciples of Jesus Christ, and we will continue to abide in God.
So today, we go out into the world, challenged once again by God’s word.  It seems the challenge is the same just about every week, but that just tells me how important it is.  When you leave today, be prepared to follow the example of Jesus.  The love that he has for us is a model for how we need to love others.