5 Easter May 2, 2021 St. Michael’s (Zoom) by Suzanne G. Bowles, Ph.D.
Many people consider the apostle Paul difficult to read. His sentences are so complex with lots of clauses. John can be complex, too, and some say he is even more difficult to understand since Paul’s arguments follow logically, one to the next, whereas John’s do not. Today’s epistle is indeed complex. The word “love” is used in so many ways: as a noun and a verb, as something that’s given and something that’s received. This is a complex passage; at least I always find it so. But I want to keep my remarks simple and so I will focus on two verses that say the same thing; verse 10 “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins,” and verse 19 “We love because he first loved us.” But these verses tell us the same thing: that God loved us first before we loved him.” Our love for him is a response to his love for us. It doesn’t work the other way around. I don’t know about you, but I have always found this very comforting and I believe that God means it to be so, and that’s why it’s included here. God is the initiator. We are the responders.
Why is this important? Why do we need to be reminded of it? Given our human limitations and our genuine desire as believers to love God we often put ourselves in the driver’s seat, so to speak. But this sets us up for an impossible task and it’s discouraging. It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to please God in order to earn our own salvation. Trying to please God is not bad in and of itself. We should try to please God, but that is not what earns our salvation. Not at all. The second part of verse 10 says that God “sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” John offers that as the number one proof of God’s love for us. We do not have to earn God’s love; it’s given freely. And we don’t have to keep running on a treadmill of goodness to stay in his good graces. We’d get exhausted and burned out pretty quickly!
One of the best illustrations of this is seen in the story of the two criminals who were crucified with Jesus. These two, also identified as “robbers” or “bandits” are mentioned in all four gospels, but only Luke records their conversation with Jesus. [Luke 23:39-43] One of the robbers taunts Jesus “If you are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” The other one, the “good robber,” “rebuked him, saying ’Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’” Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus says to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
How is this episode relevant to John’s letter? The good robber somehow in that moment recognizes who Jesus is. Notice that in this whole episode the good robber does four interesting things: 1. he tells off his bad robber friend; 2. he acknowledges that Jesus is completely innocent; 3. he acknowledges who Jesus is – he addresses him as “Lord” and acknowledges that Jesus controls a kingdom; 4. He asks to be there with Jesus in this kingdom and Jesus grants his request on the spot. “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Now, here’s the kicker. The good robber is on the verge of death, as is Jesus. Luke suggests that this conversation takes place at the beginning of the three hours, but we don’t know how long the robber has been hanging there. But in any case, he’s not going anywhere. The point is, he has no opportunity to do anything to earn God’s love. He can’t apologize to anybody. He can’t make restitution to anybody. He can’t say, “I’m going to give up robbery and turn my life around.” He’s got no opportunity to do anything – and he knows he’s going to die soon. But there is one thing he can do and he does it. He acknowledges God and asks him in the person of Jesus for mercy. In other words, at that moment of who God is, he responds. He didn’t initiate that moment. God did. The robber, in that moment, knows that God loves him. He calls on Jesus and Jesus assures him – today you will be with me in Paradise. Jesus doesn’t say to him, “Gee, I’m sorry. You’re too late. You should have talked to me a few days ago. Then I could have helped you out.” No! It’s never too late to respond to God’s love. We love because He first loved us. Going back to 1 John, he tells us, “God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God and they abide in God.” The good robber definitely had time for that and he did it.
So, like the good robber we respond to God’s love with love for Him and love for others. It’s a gift freely given. We don’t have to earn it and we don’t have to agonize over whether we’ve done enough. God loved us first and we can never lose that love. Amen.