John asks a tough question: “how can the love of God abide in us, if we have in our hands the things someone else needs to survive, and we don’t offer what we have to help them” (I John 3:17). The context of John’s question is a call for Christians to help other Christians. This verse follows his command, “we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (v16). Obviously, he is writing to people adjacent to people experiencing persecution. In the first three centuries of the church, the sharp focus of physical persecution (imprisonments and executions) was always surrounded by a broader circle of people losing their jobs and homes because of social prejudice, and these sufferers are surrounded in turn by people like you and I who are doing okay, but not sacrificing to help. Could such a thing happen today?
John’s question goes hand in hand with the way another John, John the Baptist described the kingdom of heaven, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3:11). Jesus said many similar things and he intentionally broadened this command to say that we must even share our coats with our enemies (Luke 6:29). Jesus calls us to be compassionate on both Christians and strangers, and never permitted the kind of circle drawing that we see in today’s church. Many congregations have a rule that they won’t directly help someone who not a member, or at least, a Christian. How can we abide with God and hold onto such narrow minded behavior?
The whole book of 1 John rotates around this concept of shaping our behavior so that we live out of our relationship with God. The word “abide” (NRSV/KJV) is translated in various ways by different bibles to speak of the kingdom of God as state of being. We are either lined up with God’s ways or living outside of them. The truth is that we can fall away, both as congregations and individuals without knowing it. We only abide in God, when we love those around us, and are willing to sacrifice on their behalf.
Today, racism and sexism grips both our country and our churches. We watch, without any remorse, our neighbors being economically persecuted. Families of color see their children incarcerated, or worse, for no other reason than being black in the wrong place. We have two coats, and yet we build walls and reduce the access of poor and/or rural families to healthcare. It is easy for us to water down the challenge that Jesus and the two Johns make, that we abide in God by committing ourselves to real acts of compassion.