- Zachary Helton
"Genuine Faith," by Zachary Helton
1 John 3:16-24
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ died for us. And we, too, ought to lay down our lives for our sisters and brothers. If you have more than enough material possessions and see your neighbors in need yet close your hearts to them, how can the love of God be living in you? My children, our love must not be simply words or mere talk—it must be true love, which shows itself in action and truth. This, then, is how we’ll know we belong to the truth; this is how we’ll be confident in God’s presence, even if our consciences condemn us. We know that God is greater than our consciences and that God knows everything. And if our consciences do not condemn us, my friends, then we have confidence before God, and we will receive whatever we ask from God’s hand—because we keep the commandments and do what is pleasing in God’s sight. The commandments are these: that we believe in the name of God’s Own, Jesus Christ, and that we love one another as we were told to do. Those who keep these commandments live in God and God lives in them. We know that God lives in us by the Spirit given to us. This is one of our sacred texts, Thanks be to God.
In 1739, the colonies that would become the United States were facing an infuriating dilemma. For nearly fifty years, rather than trading in gold or silver or services, they had been trading in “notes,” or “bills,” pieces of paper pledging that they were backed by a certain amount of actual value: dollar bills, five dollar bills, etc. This practice had been working well, or as well as to be expected, until counterfeiters began the work of slowly undermining the whole system as they got better and better at writing up fake bills. It became a very real question: how does one distinguish between a piece of paper worth five dollars and a piece of paper worth the price of a piece paper? Well, as you might’ve guessed, as this is a story about American history, onto the scene walks Benjamin Franklin with a solution. He uses his Philadelphia printing firm to start to produce colonial bills, not just on regular paper, but with nature prints – unique raised patterns cast from leaves. Suddenly, authenticity becomes more difficult to fake. The problem, of course, did not go away entirely. This was the beginning of a struggle that would continue to evolve; the latest and most interesting innovation, which you’re probably thinking of right now, came in the mid-90’s with the introduction of the watermark. Hold a bill up to the light, and the light will quickly tell you if what you’re looking at is genuine, or a counterfeit, empty of any real value. The author of our text this morning, writing to us from the first century, was facing a similar struggle, though not with notes or bills, but people.
The church in the first century was increasingly confused. At the time our author is writing this letter, the Jesus event, whatever that was, had sent shockwaves across their corner of the world and now people are competing to answer the question: What was that all about? Was this man a Son of God, the Son of God? Was he a revolutionary? A teacher? Did God actually bring him back from the dead, or did something else happen? Those who follow him, who are they? What do they do? What did it all mean? And to answer that question, there was no shortage of prophets and profiteers, teachers and troublemakers vying for the peoples’ minds, allegiances and pocketbooks. What, the people begin asking, is genuine, and what is counterfeit? In this way we find that we are not so different from this first century community, deeply suspicious that much of what currently passes for Christianity may be, at its core, a well-decorated counterfeit.
So, it is into this concern and these questions that our author writes: You want to know what is genuine? I’ll tell you. This is how we know what love is, that Jesus the Christ died for us, and we too, if we follow him, are to lay down our lives for our neighbors. When the voices are too many and the counterfeits too colorful, let this be your bedrock: Let your lives bear the cruciform shape of Jesus, who loved his neighbors so deeply that it cost him his life. Hold us up to the light, and this is what reveals the truth: The only true test of faith is how we are opening ourselves to embody God’s love.
But this doesn’t seem to be enough for the author. After all, even self-sacrificial love can be spun to mean many different things, few of which are healthy, so they get more specific. Genuine faith, they write, must bear the fruit of justice and lovingkindness.
“If you have more than enough material possessions and see your neighbors in need,” the author writes “then share! My children, our love must not be simply words or mere talk, full of hot air and no substance – it must be true love, which shows itself in action and truth.” This is the litmus test they give their congregation, surrounded by Christian counterfeits.
This makes me think about something my brother said once. We text regularly, but the primarily language of our conversations is shared tweets, memes, and TikToks (and if you don’t know what a TikTok is, that’s fine, you’re probably better off for it and I’m sorry I mentioned it). Most of his texts are funny, often political, but then, a few months ago, he sent me a screenshot of a long thread of tweets that struck a deep chord in him. Reading through it, it found that same resonance in me. Though the actual message is now lost in several months of conversation, I can’t forget the gist of it. It was from a young man who had apparently left his home church, a decision which left him at odds with his parents and some friends. Frustrated, he took to Twitter, and he typed something like this: “You keep saying young people are leaving church because something’s wrong with us. You say we don’t listen or don’t pay attention, but that’s just not true. The truth is we are leaving because we do listen. We are leaving because we do pay attention, and do you know what we see? We see people who care everything about words and rhetoric and culture wars and power and nothing at all about living the kind of life that Jesus taught us to live. We see people who care everything for some vague tribal identity and nothing for the poor, nothing about racism or economic inequity or political corruption, none of the things that got Jesus killed. So don’t tell us we’re leaving because we’re not paying attention. Don’t tell us we’re leaving because something is wrong with us.”
I imagine many of us, if we’ve been drawn to a community like this, have experienced something similar, something of a Christianity empty of Christ. “Our love must not be simply words or talk,” the author of this epistle writes, “- it must be true love, showing itself in action and truth.” In a world of counterfeits with a church on every block, genuine faith must bear the fruit of justice and lovingkindness.
However, with respect to the author of this epistle, while what they say is true, there is a problem. As self-righteously as we may want to repeat their words, to throw them at others, at false and counterfeit Christians… how many of us have “closed our hearts” to people in need ten or twelve times already this morning? The author seems to think that the solution is to shame us into a different kind of behavior, to have us “check our conscience in God’s presence,” but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from years of bad religion, it’s that shame suffocates any genuine love and peace that could give birth to the kind of love this author so desires. It’s a self-defeating approach. With shame, we wind up closing ourselves rather than opening to embody God’s love.
The author writes, “If you have more than enough material possessions and see your neighbors in need, yet close your heart to them, how can you say the love of God is living in you?” You are a liar, they accuse, plain and simple, and you should be ashamed! “Works of justice,” they write, “are how you’ll achieve confident in the presence of God.”
Parker Palmer, a brilliant Quaker author, writes that he lived much of his early life enslaved to this kind of shame-justice thinking. He didn’t want to do things like work in a food pantry or give his material possessions away to strangers, but, according to epistles like 1 John, part of proving your faith genuine was “faking it in the service of high values.” He writes, “I had heroes at the time who seemed to be doing exactly that. This exhortation meant living a life like that of Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks or Mahatma Gandhi or Dorothy Day, a life of high purpose! So,” Palmer writes, “I lined up the loftiest ideals I could find and set out to achieve them.” Then he admits, “The results were rarely admirable, often laughable, and sometimes grotesque.” Burnout, not joy, is at the end of the road of shame-based justice.
I feel Palmer’s pain, especially in this moment when the social injustice of our world has been thrown into such harsh relief. I feel the shame of living in disappointment with myself for not doing better, for not doingmore, for not loving the poor enough or being antiracist enough, and then, of course, I feel better, for a minute, by projecting my insecurities on what they aren’t doing, the specks in their eyes, the emptiness of counterfeitChristians… and all the while, nothing gets better.
With shame, we wind up closing ourselves rather than opening ourselves to embody God’s love.
So then, what is the alternative? In a world of counterfeits, are we to continue to call out those who do not bear the fruit of justice? Are we to continue to shame ourselves into caring and action? I don’t think so. As dualistically as we’ve been taught to think, I think there may be another way. I think genuine faith should not be a matter of judgment or shame, but of continuing to open ourselves to God’s love, and allowing that to bear fruit.
With respect to our author’s question: “If you don’t act with justice, how can you say the love of God is living in you?” I wonder if a better question to ask would be, “If you aren’t acting with justice and loving-kindness, then what is blocking the light of God’s love in you? What are you afraid of, and what can you do about it?”
Once, there was a woman who desperately wanted to grow flowers, but week after week, her small, raised bed yielded nothing at all. She knew next to nothing about gardening, so she would sit out by her plot, lamenting and feeling shame, as though by sheer force of will she could cause the seeds to blossom. One day, a kindhearted neighbor saw her and took pity. “Have you tried removing the weeds?” her neighbor asked one day, for the bed was full of weeds blocking the sun and stealing any nutrients the flowers might’ve needed. The would-be gardener removed the weeds, but still nothing grew. “Have you tried removing the rocks?” the neighbor asked, for under the weeds, the bed was filled with large stones. She spent the afternoon removing the rocks and breaking up the hard soil, but still, nothing grew. “Have you tried feeding it compost?” the neighbor asked, “and watering it each morning?” As obvious as this seemed, the woman had not. She began to do this and almost at once the seeds began to respond. What was one bleak and lifeless terrain soon blossomed into the most beautiful rainbow of flowers she had ever seen.
As foolish as we might regard this gardener, are we really so different? After all, you can’t simply grit your teeth and be more kind, or hunker down and be more just or less racist or better at caring for others, but it must be a question of self-examination, of compassionate and understanding self-inquiry and practice. What if we asked ourselves what steals our attention and chokes out the life in us? What if we asked ourselves what nourishes the seeds of joy and peace in us? For it is the joyful person who can most easily share what they have. What are we afraid of that keeps us from abandoning our entire selves to this process? Then, not by any shame or guilt, but by mindfulness we would find the way opening, the light shining, and the fruits of God’s Spirit growing naturally from the soil of our truest selves.
Genuine faith should not be a matter of judgment or shame, but of continuing to open ourselves to God’s love.
So, in a world where the word “Christian” is regarded with as much skepticism as a counterfeit bill, when too many voices and too many hands do too much damage in the name of Christ, how can we know the truth? How do we tell the counterfeits from the genuine articles, whether we’re talking about ourselves or others? When we hold one up to the light, as we get a feel for its texture, what is it that lets us know that this is something that leads to life and freedom, and not shame and fear? I believe the only true test of faith is how we are opening ourselves to embody God’s love. Then, dying to ourselves and watering the seeds of the Spirit in us, the Kingdom will grow in us like sprouts from soil, spread like yeast through dough, until at last, naturally and with joy, we bear the fruits of justice and loving-kindness in this world.
“The commandments are these,” the author of first John writes. “That we believe in the name of God’s Own, Jesus Christ, and that we love one another as we were shown how to do. Those who live by these commandments live in God and God lives in them. We know that God lives in us by the Spirit of Love given to us.”
People of God, the Spirit of Love does live in you. Uncover it, and let it shine.