Text: 1 John 3:16-18
There are two things necessary to attain excellence. First, you must understand what it is you are trying to master. Second, you must practice it until your understanding seeps into every part of your being. To practice that which you do not fully understand will yield only minimal results and much wasted time. To understand something but refuse to practice it means you are wasting an opportunity that you may later regret.
This formula of understanding plus practice is played out everywhere we look. Brilliant artisans, athletes, and academicians demonstrate this truth and we marvel at the outcomes. Even this morning we are the beneficiaries of “understanding plus practice.” To make this lovely music our young singers first had to grasp the notes and rhythms and melodies, and then they practiced what they had learned. What a joy for us that they have done so.
If I was to ask how does one attain excellence in the Christian faith, and applied this simple formula to the question, the first step would be figuring out what it is we must understand. In other words, what is the core of our faith tradition that we must grasp? This is a difficult question. After all, the Bible is a big book with many different teachings, and the Christian Church has been around a long time with many different franchises that don’t all sell the same Christianity. With all this information to sift through, how can we find the essence of our faith?
For centuries people have noted that the overarching theme of Christianity is love. And while I would not quibble with that assessment, I also wonder what good it does to know that. Without defining what it means when we say love is the heart of our faith, then it remains an unadorned fact not unlike the fact tomorrow is Monday. And knowing that tomorrow is Monday really doesn’t do much to impact my life.
Fortunately, we have read a text this morning from 1 John 3 that defines this love that Christians are quick to name but slow to grasp. These simple words are the gospel in a nutshell.
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us-and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
Did you catch the introduction to this statement? “We know love by this…” It couldn’t be more clearly laid out for us. Love in a Christian context means laying down our lives for others by sharing what we have with those in need. Such generous love is rooted in Christ’s self-giving. If we want to excel as
followers of Jesus’ teaching, we must first understand this definition of love.
But understanding that Christian love is about sacrifice and generosity does us little good if we are not willing to practice it. And the writer of 1 John so wants us to practice that the tone of the writer shifts and we are called little children: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” There is a tender urgency in this admonition. I can almost hear the writer’s voice getting softer, the way we do when we want people to really listen. And the gentle message serves to remind us of what we already know. Christian love is not that which we speak of in sanctuaries, but that which we do in the world. Little children, practice love by living truthfully and generously.
To make great music or art or potato salad one must first understand and then practice. To make a world that is pleasing to God, we must understand that love is generous and focused on the needs of that world. And if we keep practicing such love, we will attain a soulful excellence.