“When is Enough Enough”
Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
1 John 3: 16-24
April 22, 2018
“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?” – 1 John 3:17i
We’ve been set-up. I mean, really, John. Look at the verse right before the one that is serving as our text. 1 John 16 says “…we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” Well, maybe we should but we don’t. Clearly, we are hypocrites and I can’t tell you how often I have heard how those outside the church are turned off by our hypocrisy. We’ve been set-up.
And then there are the words of our text: 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? Again, we get it, right? And to be honest, we actually do help. I can list a number of efforts this church does to meet the needs of those who are in need. But it begs a question — when is enough enough?
I can tell you. Never. Enough is never enough. Don’t believe me? Then I ask you to remember how the woman with an alabaster jar of very expensive ointment is received when she pours it over the head of Jesus while He sat at table. It’s in Matthew 26:6f.f.
8 But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? 9 For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”
Now before we over spiritualize the text and say that Jesus meant the poor in spirit, let’s take Him at His word. What He said is what He said and remember this: it is not meant as a statement of fairness it is a statement of fact. It may not be as God would like it, but this side of heaven, there will always be those who are poor and if that is true and 1 John 3:17 is true, then what we give from our surplus goods to help the poor of this world will never be enough to meet the need. We are in a classic double bind. If we agree with our Lord and say Jesus Himself said the poor will always be with us and thus we cannot possible meet the demand of meeting the needs of the poor, we end up rejecting one passage of scripture in favor of another. And let me suggest that human nature being what it is, we will choose the option that lets us off the hook – a dangerous tradeoff at best.
How can we fashion a faithful response to such a difficult situation? And in the event that you are wondering, “What has this got to do with me?” I suggest you ask how you deal with the inevitability of having to live with your guilt. That is the connection. If we can formulate even a partial answer to the dilemma of being called to assist the poor who will always need more, we may find a way to fashion a response to the guilt each of us lives with as husbands, wives, mother, children and citizens of the world.
Let’s first admit that we are guilty. I’d be a fool to think that I can stand guiltless before the judgment seat of God. The reality is that there is no purely good dead. No matter what I do, sin abides. This is for two reasons.
First, sin is a condition. It is woven into my very nature. Even when I am gracious and helpful to others, it is done with less than pure motives. It makes me feel good about me. And when I intentionally do harmful things to others it is almost always motivated out a sense that they don’t appreciate how very special I am. In short, it’s all about me and that is the very core of sin. It is placing myself in the center of the universe when that place rightfully belongs to God. Sin is a condition.
Second, sin is a consequence of finitude. I’ve talked about this before, but the limits of the time in which I live and the physical space I occupy naturally limits my knowledge and perspective. I cannot foresee the eventual outcome of any action I take. I apologize if I have used this example before, but suppose you ramp our sidewalks. That’s good. It let’s folks in wheelchairs broaden their independence. But if you are blind, using a cane to find where the curb ends and the intersection begins, you may view this good to be bad. Sin is a consequence of our finitude because we cannot foresee all the contingencies of our actions.
So whether our sin is born out of our condition or is a result of the consequence of our finitude, one thing is sure – we come before the judgment seat of God bringing with us the reality of our guilt.
If our first task was to have a realistic view of our own guilt, our second task is far more joyous. We have to affirm that in Christ Jesus our sins are forgiven. The joy of this affirmation cannot be understated. Why? We have already said that we cannot escape either the consequence of our finitude or the condition of our sin. Sin is, therefore, inevitable and if that were the end of it, there would be no hope. Paul captured the weight of his own fallen nature when he wrote:
15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me…19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do...21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand….24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Romans 7)
And then in a joyous affirmation, Paul answers his own question:
25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
How does Jesus deliver Paul? The same way Jesus delivers us. Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, takes on the consequence of our sin. God dies for us so we don’t have to. Yes, we are guilty, but we are not condemned.
Now let me be clear. God will not be mocked. If I think I can continue in my volitional sin and think God doesn’t care because God’s grace has me covered, I deceive myself. God is not a fool and expects repentance once my sin is known. To justify my sin by saying I cannot help it, is at best partially true. The sin that I willfully commit is not washed away by love. I have said it before and I will say it again, a God of love without being a God of judgment is a God of indifference.
So if what I have said this morning is true, then how are we to live with our inevitable guilt. I can only do the good that I can see. Since any action is partial in its virtue, we must seek to maximize what we know in the moment to be good. Thus Augustine get’s it right. It may sound oversimplistic – “Love God, and do as you please.” In the end, however, it is all that we can do.
So if we are to answer our original question, when is enough enough, the answer is “never.” But the good news is this, we are never bereft of the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Se we are called to live with our guilt, using it when possible to form more perfect lives, always knowing that we are loved despite our imperfection. Thanks be to God. We, through Christ, are delivered from this body of death. Let us pray….
i 1 John 3:16-24
16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 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?
18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.