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“Love Buoys”

1 John 3:11-18
Bob DeGray
July 26, 2009

Key Sentence

Our love for one another should be radically selfless.


I The example of Cain: radically selfish
II. The example of Jesus: radically selfless


Gail and I had a wonderful time in Atlantic Canada the week before last. We drove through Maine and New Brunswick, then across the Confederation Bridge to Prince Edward Island. After a gorgeous day on the north shore, we went past Charlottetown and took the ferry from Prince Edward Island to Nova Scotia.

The ferry was great. It was a good sized boat, probably held three hundred or more cars; had a passenger deck with two levels. Gail and I stood near the front – excuse me, the bow – and watched the light house diminish behind us and Nova Scotia become clear in front. As we approached the Nova Scotia landing, we rounded a cape and followed a clearly marked channel through a very shallow bay to the dock.

I’m sure most of you know how a channel is marked: there are buoys on either side. One side has green buoys, the other red, and you steer the boat between the buoys. When returning to port, you keep the red markers on your right: sailors say ‘red, right, returning.’ But if you go outside the buoys, especially in this particular bay with this big a boat, you would run a very high risk of running aground. If you stay between the markers, you’re fine.

This illustration obviously has great truth for in the Christian life, and as we pick up our series on the expectations of Scripture for believers, we can see immediately that God’s word identifies and marks the channels down which we must sail if we are to stay on course.

So the ‘do this’ commands of Scripture mark the safe part of the channel, and the ‘do nots’ mark the rocky shallows on either side. ‘Do not have any other gods’ but rather ‘love the Lord your God.’ ‘Do not set your minds on earthly things; set your minds on things above.’ ‘Put to death what is of the sinful nature; put on the fruit of the Spirit.

Even these most basic commands of Scripture need these channel markers. And in thinking about the expectations of the Christian life, few commands are more basic than ‘Love one another’. This morning in 1 John 3:11-18 we’re going to look for some of the channel markers associated with this basic command, and we’re going to see by both negative and positive example that our love for one another should be radically selfless.

Radical selflessness. Dick Willis tells a now famous story of selfless love in a refugee camp:

She was lying on the ground. In her arms she held a baby girl. As I put a cooked sweet potato into her outstretched hand, I wondered if she would live until morning. Her strength was almost gone, but her tired eyes acknowledged my gift. The sweet potato could help so little -- but it was all I had.

Taking a bite she chewed it carefully. Then, placing her mouth over her baby's mouth, she forced the soft warm food into the tiny throat. Although the mother was starving, she used the entire potato to keep her baby alive. Exhausted from her effort, she dropped her head on the ground and closed her eyes. In a few minutes the baby was asleep. I later learned that during the night the mother's heart stopped, but her little girl lived.

But selfless love doesn’t occur only in far off places. Dave Simmons tells the story of going to the mall with his eight year old daughter and five year old son: “As we drove up, we spotted a Peterbilt eighteen-wheeler parked with a big sign on it that said, "Petting Zoo." The kids jumped up in a rush and asked, "Daddy, Daddy. Can we go? Please. Please. Can we go?" "Sure," I said, flipping them both a quarter before walking into Sears. They bolted away.

A few minutes later, I turned around and saw Helen walking along behind me. I was shocked to see she preferred the hardware department to the petting zoo. Recognizing my error, I bent down and asked her what was wrong. She looked at me with those giant brown eyes and said sadly, "Well, Daddy, it cost fifty cents. So, I gave Brandon my quarter."

Then she said the most beautiful thing I ever heard. She repeated the family motto: "Love is Action!" No one loves cuddly furry creatures more than Helen. But she’d learned the truth, and had incorporated it. It had become part of her.

What do you think I did? Not what you might think. I finished my errands and took Helen to the petting zoo. We stood by the fence and watched Brandon petting and feeding the animals. Helen stood with her hands and chin resting on the fence and just watched. I had fifty cents burning a hole in my pocket; I never offered it to Helen, and she never asked for it.

She knew the whole family motto. It's not "Love is Action." It's "Love is Sacrificial Action!" Love always pays a price. Love always costs something. Love is expensive. When you love, benefits accrue to another's account. Love is for you, not for me. Our love for one another should be radically selfless.

I The example of Cain: radically selfish

Let’s read the text, and then break it down into negative and positive examples, the channel markers and the central channel.

1 John3:11-18 This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. 12Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother's were righteous. 13Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you. 14We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. 15Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.

16This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 17If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?18Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.

The message of love is “the message you heard from the beginning.” John could be thinking of an Old Testament teaching, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ But the specific wording ‘love one another’ comes directly from Jesus: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John calls this both an old and a new command.

So ‘love one another’ is clearly the center of the channel, the way God wants us to live. But John immediately turns to point at a channel marker, a buoy that shows you’re straying into danger. Verse 12: “Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother.” You all know the story. In the first generation after the fall this son of Adam is already so consumed by evil that he murders his brother. The Bible implies this isn’t exceptional, but the new normal for sinful, fallen humanity. Only a few generations later a man like Lamech can boast about how easily he commits murder.

Yet I doubt there are any murderers here. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I doubt it. So a channel marker that says ‘do not murder’ isn’t that helpful. So John begins to teach from the example. Verse 12: “And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother's were righteous.”

Ah! There’s an insight! We’re not just trying to avoid murder, but evil actions, evil deeds, evil attitudes, hateful and jealous and bitter. John says that when you are caught up in evil you tend to have a fallen natural antagonism toward those characterized by good. You’ve all seen this: the drunkard who beats his wife; the adulterer who belittles his or her spouse; the co-worker or so-called friend who finds every fault in the life of every Christian.

When we are guilty we tend to lash out. Pause and personalize that: “When I am guilty I tend to lash out.” That’s a buoy, channel marker. ‘When I am guilty I tend to lash out’. Have you seen that pattern operative in yourself. The last time you lashed out, was there some sin of yours you were ashamed of?

John is so confident of this truth he parenthetically applies it to the whole world. Verse 13: “Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you.” Do you see what he’s saying? If you are the righteous and the world is caught up in evil, then like Cain toward Abel, the world will be antagonistic to you. Notice that John uses the word hate. He’s generalizing from murder to hate.

Verse 14: “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers.” Self examination begins with ‘we know that we’ I’m looking within to see if I conform to the positive command or the negative example. John is probably using death and life here not so much to talk about our eternal salvation as our present condition.

We’ve already teased things out of Paul’s writings: Have we put off the things of the sinful nature and put on the new nature? Are we producing the fruit of the sinful nature or the fruit of the Spirit? “The mind set on the flesh,” Paul teaches, “is death. The mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.”

That’s what John is talking about. He says “Anyone who does not love remains in death.” That person isn’t growing in sanctification or Christlikeness, but continues to look like the world at it’s worst and most destructive.

Verse 15 “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.” Again, I don’t think John is talking so much about salvation as about living now the life of eternity. We should examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith, but more than that we must examine ourselves to see if we are living the faith: living toward the future of love and Christlikeness or living toward the past of the evil one’s desires.

Notice John has deliberately generalized from murder to hatred. He uses the most common word for hate, which ranges in force from dislike to murderous enmity. So if we look to Cain’s example we will examine ourselves not just for murder, but for disdain, even for dislike or irritation; for bitterness against others; for outbursts of anger; for words neither gentle nor kind.

Do you see where I’m going with this? The example of Cain shows us that we are not loving one another if we are self focused in our emotional and relational life. If it’s all about me, and if your worth is judged only by how much you may negatively impact me, then I am not and cannot love you.

Let me introduce some very specific self-examination. I’m wondering if you and I permit ourselves to be critical of others, justifying it as discernment, or wise experience, or care in selecting my associates. But friends, being in the body of Christ isn’t like being in a social club. It’s a family. You can choose your friends, but not your brothers and sisters. When we judge those God has put in the family of Christ with us, we are behaving with the selfishness of Cain.

So if we sense that critical spirit toward others, and especially if we know we’ve expressed it, verbally or non-verbally, we’re not loving one another. If by our attitudes we communicate “I’m better than you,” instead of “I’m simply a sinner saved by grace” we are not communicating brotherly love.

But, on the other hand, I wonder if you and I assume others are being critical of us? I’ve seen that in myself. What makes me think some person, who hasn’t said a word, has already judged and found me lacking? How often is that real, versus just my imagination? And why do I imagine it? Some will say low self-esteem, but I say inappropriate self-esteem. Even low self-esteem is focused on me. The Biblical model is to get our eyes off ourselves, off what we think other people are thinking, so we can focus on loving them.

II. The example of Jesus: radically selfless

Neither judging nor feeling judged are Cain’s murderous rage, but they are channel markers of selfishness. The command to love calls for radical selflessness. As John turns from the negative to the positive, he points to the perfect example. Verse 16: “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 our brothers.”

The sacrifice of Jesus is both the example we are to follow in loving others and the reason we can follow it. John says elsewhere in this letter: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

If Jesus were only an example, as some have said, his life would ultimately be discouraging because in ourselves we cannot love as he loved. As fallen and sinful people, like Cain, we will be selfish, we will hate and hurt. It’s only when we give up on ourselves and look to Jesus as the atoning sacrifice for our sins that we can be forgiven and changed and renewed in his image.

As John puts it, we live through him. We can’t lift ourselves by our bootstraps and follow his example, we can only let him live his example through us. Jesus says to his disciples: “In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” He says “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine.”

We bear the fruit of love as he lives in us and through us. We follow his example in his strength. We love him because he first loved us, and because he loves us and we love him and because he loves others, then we love others also.

Following his example means “we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” He’s not just talking about martyrdom, though that was a possibility when this letter was written. But he’s talking about all the ‘laying-down-our-lives’ opportunities we get in daily life with others, in family or church. You’re laying down your life when, out of love for Jesus, you put your own interests aside and serve the interests of others, or of the community as a whole.

Last week a number of adults laid down their live, specifically laid down their vacation time so the youth could enjoy and benefit from ‘Life Action Week’. That’s love. That’s radical selflessness. To this we are called.

In fact, John goes on to make this very practical. Verses 17 and 18: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” This is the love for one another to which we are called. Love for one another is not just saying the words, but meeting the needs of the other person.

Now don’t think words are unimportant. Jesus wants to express his love through us by words and deeds. For example, someone’s in the hospital. Their spouse is caring for them. I can send an e-mail to say ‘we’re praying for you.’ That’s good. But sacrificial love might be better expressed if I cleared my schedule, got in the car and went down and sat for a while, and prayed, and then said the words ‘we care’ made more powerful by action.

So the words ‘I love you’ are important, but must be accompanied by actions and truth. John says we are to meet material needs. He uses a play on words. We ought to ‘lay down our lives.’ And if we have literally ‘the stuff of life, livelihood’ we ought to share with those in need. You know of the needs in our body: to send a couple of kids to school, to help someone move to a new apartment, to help pay for damage to a house, to help with funeral expenses and debts. Real needs, that won’t be met if you and I say “Man I hope that works out” but will be met if we say ‘I love you’ by opening our wallets, and/or by giving some of our valuable time. That’s radical selflessness.

So what’s the expectation on your life and mine? Love for others. We need to discern when we’re being selfish, to see those channel markers placed there by our brother Cain, and we need equally to discern the true needs of others and to lay down our lives to meet those needs.

We cannot do this in our own strength, or from our own nature. But as Jesus lives through us, we can love one another. John writes “God loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sin.” We are transformed only by his love: we gratefully love him; we learn to love one another in practical ways.

This is what the youth practiced last week: loving others. Sherry Early’s e-mail, which many of you read shows this so clearly. She says: I wanted to first of all tell everyone some of the things the young adults in our church were able, by God's grace, to accomplish this past week during LIFE Action Week.

1. We shoveled dirt all week from the infamous "dirt pile" and delivered truckloads to various church members who requested it. There's still a lot of dirt back there, but we think we may have arranged to have the rest of it moved soon.

2. Teams of youth cooked meals, muffins, cookies and other snacks for the elderly, for Bible Club, and others who could use the meal or the encouragement.

3. We painted part of the church (outside the nursery) and tried not to paint each other too much.

4. We made cards for service members in Afghanistan and in the U.S. and cards to share with the men at the Seafarers' Center at the Port of Houston.

5. We wrote in 32 Bibles to be sent to chaplains in Iraq and Afghanistan.

6. We highlighted and marked five boxes of Bibles for use at the Crisis Pregnancy Center.

7. We helped with Backyard Bible Club at the Wales home, and we held our own Bible Club at the Bay Meadow Apartments.

8. We visited nursing homes: Village on the Park, Sommerville, and others. We also visited individual elderly and ill members and helped out with housework and yard work as we could.

9. We ran a Mothers' Day Out for some of the mothers of preschoolers in our church and for one mom whose husband is in Afghanistan.

10. We tried to fill potholes in the parking lot, clean the kitchen, change light bulbs and air conditioning filters and do other odd jobs.

11. We visited the Seafarer's Center at the Port of Houston and helped to organize their library.

She goes on: “We attempted all of these tasks while studying about the Holy Spirit and how He gives us spiritual gifts as a way to minister and glorify God with our work. We worshipped, prayed, studied, encouraged, and learned to be the Body of Christ in an exhausting and Spirit-filled week. There were fifty plus youth attending, and we couldn't have done anything without the help and encouragement of the many adults who gave all or part of their week to enable the youth, to teach them, and to be mentors and leaders.”

Loved by Jesus, loving him, empowered to follow his example, our love for one another becomes radically selfless.