Let Us Agape One Another

On this day where we honor Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy, I’ve been thinking about the vast library of his words, and how little of it we actually know and celebrate. Most conservatives shy away from the majority of his teachings and activism, which were blatantly a social gospel. He taught constantly about caring for the least of the members of our nation, in ways that make conservatives afraid that Dr. King was a socialist. So today, over 50 years later, he has become something of a token, having little real value for many of us aside from an annual vacation day, and in some nebulous way representing the Black culture in America.

But I think he had a lot to say that should be heard. For example, consider these quotes from Dr. King:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

“We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers and sisters.”

“Those who are not looking for happiness are the most likely to find it, because those who are searching forget that the surest way to be happy is to seek happiness for others.”

The Gospel of Knowing and the Gospel of Abiding

I was struck today by I John 4:7-8 and 15-16. It says: “7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” … “15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”

Recently our small group was talking about God’s grace for the world, how He surely must graciously provide for those who haven’t yet heard the Gospel, how God would surely not condemn them over something they haven’t been given yet. It’s an appealing idea, even though it makes me rather uncomfortable given the implicit training I had growing up about the absolute and total need for Jesus for us to go to heaven.

But what I saw today makes me think it’s even deeper than I ever saw.

I’d never noticed this before, even though I know this passage well: EVERYONE who loves is born of God and knows God. That “everyone” is unqualified, and absolute. The greek word “pas” means “all, the whole, every kind of, each part of a totality.” Everyone, period. It doesn’t say “every believer.”

It’s not until verse 15 when John goes further to include Jesus in the passage, and at THAT point the language changes from being born of God and knowing God, to abiding in God. It’s deeper – so we should of course wish to share the news about Jesus with everyone, so that they can move beyond KNOWING God to ABIDING in Him. And that abiding is temporal, not just eternal, because this passage is talking about living people, not those who have died.

In some sense, the salvation that comes from confessing that Jesus is the Son of God is salvation from not having a resting place, a place of abiding, in times of crisis and trouble. It’s not just salvation from eternal separation from God.

Relax…

But in the meantime, we can rest in the assurance of verse 7 that God has provided a way to know Himself just by any human expressing agape love to another human; the phrase in verse 7 is saying “everyone who agapes.” There’s no guilt to be found in not having carried the Gospel to some faraway place, believing that “I didn’t tell them about Jesus so they’re going to hell and I’m personally responsible.” Some do have the privilege of introducing many others in faraway places to Christ so they can abide in God and He in them. But for those tasked more locally, we can reject the condemnation and guilt that’s frequently poured out over a failure to do missions.

I can see a certain pushback against what I’ve said here, because it might be said “but you’re excusing us from spreading the Gospel.” No, I’m not. If anything, a proper reading of 1 John 4 should give us a great imperative to spread the good news of Jesus providing a place of abiding, of peace, of rest, of retreat in the midst of trouble, not just from some future salvation.

Consider, in fact, how often you may have heard some variation on this theme: “Now, folks, salvation isn’t going to mean your life here on earth is easy! No, it’s not; there will be trouble; it’s right there in the Bible that in this life we will have trouble.” Then the preacher goes on to rhapsodize about eternal rewards.

More than Fire Insurance

So when you see the Gospel of Jesus only as fire insurance, and you see “salvation” primarily as a matter of eternal reward, it’s probably too easy to ignore those hurting people who live right next door to us, or in the run-down corner of town, or in the tent in the woods in the chill of winter – because our energies are all wrapped up in reaching the lost pygmies of Africa instead of our neighbors.

Rather than that, note that whoever agapes is born of God and knows God. Agape is a very practical love. You don’t agape some person on the other side of the globe with your monthly missions donation. You agape the person standing right in front of you, serving them soup on a cold day, or driving them to a doctor’s appointment, or helping them carry groceries up three flights of stairs.

Think about this quote from Dr. King: “With patient and firm determination we will press on until every valley of despair is exalted to new peaks of hope, until every mountain of pride and irrationality is made low by the leveling process of humility and compassion; until the rough places of injustice are transformed into a smooth plane of equality of opportunity; and until the crooked places of prejudice are transformed by the straightening process of bright-eyed wisdom.

Work Out Your Salvation

Immediately before Paul told the Philippians in Chapter 2 verse 12 to continue to work out their salvation, he said this to them: “1 Therefore if you have any encouragement in Christ, if any comfort from His love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being united in spirit and purpose. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty pride, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves. 4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Paul then tells them about Jesus’ humility and servant-hood, and only THEN he tells them to work out their salvation.

So today, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I’m struck by two things: first, a peace that God has the entire world in His hands, even those who haven’t heard about Jesus yet, and second, a renewed determination that showing agape to my immediate neighbors ought to be a primary focus.

So we will work out our salvation when we begin to agape those around us. For by so doing, we set the example for them to begin showing agape too, and thus to know God. THEN we can introduce them to Jesus so that they have a place to abide.

Thanks for your time today. Go find a way to agape your neighbors. We’ll talk again soon.

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