Sermon Text: 1 John 2:3-6
“And by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. Whoever says, ‘I know Him’ but does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the Truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in Him: whoever says he abides in Him ought to walk in the same way in which He walked.”
The Christian faith is all about knowing God. As the Lord Christ prays, “This is eternal Life, that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent” (Jn. 17:3). The great promise of the New Covenant, given by the Prophet Jeremiah, is that “no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sins no more” (Jer. 31:34). The New Testament then shows us that knowing the Lord, knowing God the Father, can only be done through knowing the Son and the Spirit: “Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9) and “when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about me” (Jn. 15:26). Eternal Life is found in knowing God, in knowing Father, Son, and Spirit, our sins and iniquities forgiven and forgotten.
But what does it mean to ‘know’ God? A lot rides on this question: eternal Life, in fact. My profession right now is a teacher of Bible and theology. I talk and write a good deal about who God is, according to the Scriptures, according to the great lights of Church history, according to contemporary thinkers. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean I actually know God. Knowing is more than factual information: anyone who has been married, or has children, or known anyone married, or been a child, knows this. The bare presentation of facts can keep us distant, aloof, from what or who we know. We live in a culture that constantly confuses us here: sound-bytes on news stations are not enough to actually figure out what is going on in Syria, in Iraq, in Ferguson, St. Louis, or anywhere else for that matter. We run the risk of interpreting according to our preconceived notions of how politics work, how religions work, how people work, in the process reducing the complexity of life and fellow human persons. Yet, we long to know and to be known. One of the most frightening passages in the Scriptures concerns this very problem: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but the one who does the will of My Father who is in Heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your Name, and cast out demons in Your Name, and do many mighty works in Your Name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matt. 7:21-23). They knew enough about the Lord Christ and the power of His Name (“for there is no other Name under Heaven given among men by which we must be saved” – Acts 4:12) to use it; but mighty works do not equal knowing God.
In that Gospel passage, along with the passage for today from 1 John, we find the key to knowing God. Who knows the Lord? “The one who does the will of My Father in Heaven” and “whoever keeps His word.” It is worth noting, at the outset, that this is not works-righteousness. The texts say that we know we know God by keeping the commandments, not that we earn grace by doing them. These are passages of assurance, not magical manipulation of the divine. Rather, the commandments are given to us, not to hold us down or “kill our fun,” but to be training in our union with Christ. The goal of human existence, from Adam to today, is to be like God: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure” (1 Jn. 3:2-3). We are to be “partakers of the divine nature” as St Peter says in his second Epistle (1:4), which then leads him to encourage us to “give all diligence, adding to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love” (5-7). The commandments are our path, our road, to Christ-likeness. As St Paul puts it, “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10): even our keeping of the commands, these good works, has been the plan of God all along.
What, though, are the commandments of Christ? The Gospel passage earlier tells us that they are not “mighty deeds” or “exorcisms” or even “prophecy” (although these things are not therefore automatically excluded from the Christian life: they just aren’t the central concern). If the commandments are to lead us to be like God, then we must ascertain what God is like. The Lord has done this abundantly all over the Scriptures, however the definitive understanding of our God comes through our Lord Jesus Christ. He shows us the character of God in both word and deed: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in Heaven. For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:44-45). And “Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). To put it simply, following St John, “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8). The commandment of Christ, that which makes us like God, is to “believe on the Name of Jesus Christ and to love one another: whoever keeps His commandments abides in God, and God in him” (3:23-24). As the greatest commandment has it, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength…You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:30-31). Love is the substance of keeping the commandments: not so that God will love us, but so that we might become what we always were supposed to be.
This much we know. But love is hard. We often don’t know how to love, so how can we keep the commandment? The Scriptures are awash in ways to do just this: they are a precise medical tool-kit to heal our souls and bring them into union with Christ. Many tools are on offer, but I’d like to focus on one that is very close to our experience: work. Many of us work, I’m sure, the standard 40-hour week. Some of us, no doubt, work more. Work controls many of our daylight hours in the weekday and there is always something that needs to be done around the house on the weekends. Can our work bring us into greater Christ-likeness? Can our work enable us to keep the commandment to love God, to love neighbor, to even love our enemies? Let’s see what the Scriptures say.
St Paul in Ephesians 4:28 says, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” In this passage, the Apostle is revealing something vitally important about our work: it isn’t about us. The former thief works, not as a brutal penance, but so that he might love his neighbor. His disordered existence is being set right by this labor; how much more will this be true for us who may not have been thieves, but often feel enslaved by the need for more and more stuff and status and power? In another place St Paul reminds St Timothy, his co-laborer in the Gospel, “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of eternal life” (1 Tim. 6:17-19). Our work, the labor of our hands, whether it be in homemaking, or plumbing, or financial planning, or teaching, or civic leadership, is an opportunity to care for those among us who lack, both in the household of faith and outside of it.
This leads us to Christ’s interaction with the rich ruler. The young man claims he has kept all the commandments from his youth, to which our Lord responds that he should “Sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” St Luke tells us, “when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.” The problem here isn’t that he was rich, for Abraham and Job were both rich without condemnation; the problem was that his riches owned him. He was unable to “love his neighbor” as himself for his god would not allow him. St Basil the Great, a wonderful early theologian of the Church, says this about this passage, explicating Christ’s words of sorrow:
It is evident that you are far from fulfilling the commandment, and that you bear false witness within your own soul that you have loved your neighbor as yourself. For if what you say is true, that you have kept from your youth the commandment of love and have given to everyone the same as to yourself, then how did you come by this abundance of wealth? Care for the needy requires the expenditure of wealth: when all share alike, disbursing their possessions among themselves, they each receive a small portion for their individual needs. Thus, those who love their neighbor as themselves possess nothing more than their neighbor; yet surely, you seem to have great possessions! How else can this be, but that you have preferred your own enjoyment to the consolation of the many? For the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in love.As our Lord says elsewhere, if something causes us to sin, it is better to cut it off and cast it away, and so enter into Life, rather than going to Hell with our whole body intact (Mk. 9:42-50): if our wealth, even that legitimately built up through our labor, causes us to pass by our brothers and sisters, it is better to cast it away than to cling on to it and miss the Kingdom of God.
Elsewhere, St Paul encourages us to “love one another…to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess. 4:9-12) or as he intensifies his speech in the second letter to that Church: “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (2 Thess. 3:10-12). Just as the reward of our labor can help us to love our neighbor in need, so does our work keep us from being a burden on others. Both are forms of loving our neighbors, loving our brothers. There will be times, due to economic circumstances or injury, in which we will need to depend on our brothers and sisters: during those times let us joyfully and cheerfully give to one another, not expecting anything in return. However, the loving generosity of our siblings in the Lord is not an excuse to become a mooch or a free-rider. This would not be showing love to them: rather, to become like Christ, to know Him, to keep His commandments, let us work, and as we work, let us give liberally and generously, encouraging one another in this task of becoming more and more like our Lord together.
We can work in love and for the love of our neighbors, for the necessary care of our families, and for the enjoyment of God’s good creation. But can we go further? Can we work for the love of God? Indeed, we can. It is the next step we must take as we seek to be “transformed by the renewal of our mind” (Rom. 12:2). How, though? We must take a moment to consider what powers are at our disposal during our lives. A human has three faculties: the physical, the mental, and the spiritual. When we work, we most often utilize the physical and mental faculties. The spiritual we retain for worship, whether at home or in church. This seems to set our work apart from our ability to love God “with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength.” Such doesn’t have to be the case, though. St Paul, again, offers us two remedies for the transformation of our work into an area where we can love God fully. First, he says, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). All our existence, from eating and drinking to our labors, can be done to the glory of God: it is a choice of setting these things apart for that glory, offering it to God in each moment as a priest offers his sacrifice. Even our daily work then becomes worship. As St Augustine once said:
Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.Our daily work then becomes not just a sacrifice, but an act of love for the One who first loved us. Second, the Apostle tells us to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16-18). When we work, are we rejoicing in the One who has given us “the power to get wealth, that He may confirm the covenant that he swore to your fathers” (Deut. 8:18)? When we work, are we praying without ceasing? There is such a thing as the heart praying, something deeper than just the mental prayers we often offer up. Have we sought the spiritual disciplines to develop this prayer, this prayer that prays in the Spirit even when our minds and hands are engaged in labor? When we work, are we giving thanks in all circumstances? This one, I think, is very hard. If we are honest, we love to complain about work (and especially about our bosses): the will of God for us is thanksgiving, in all circumstances. St John Chrysostom, one of the most famous preachers of all Church history, ended his life in a bitter exile. He had stood up to the corruption of the queen of the Roman Empire; she sent him to die far away from any influence he might have had. The final words he spoke, before leaving to go to his inevitable death, were “Glory to God for all things.” May God give us the strength to repeat these words in all our circumstances, most of which will not be as weighty and dire as his were.
To know God is to be saved; it is to keep the commandments and have the love of God perfected in us, as the Apostle John told us in his epistle. Our work, that normally mundane part of our lives that we share with all humankind, Christian or non-Christian, is in Christ and through His grace an avenue to know Him more deeply: to love our neighbors through generosity and diligence, to love God through our offering and our thanksgiving. Today is a day of rest, for which we can be thankful; how rest, and the giving of rest to others, can help us to love God is another topic for another day. Tomorrow, though, starts our labors once again, starts us on a path of Christ-likeness for His glory and for the sake of the salvation of the world. Let us go, then, in the strength of the Lord to our given labors, loving Him, loving our neighbors, loving our brothers and sisters, and even loving our enemies; so that through all this love we might become like Him who loved us that while “we were still enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son” (Rom. 5:10). Glory to God.