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On Giving and Receiving (Sermon, Sept. 6th)

And he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. Now by this, we may be sure that we know him if we obey his commandments. - 1 John 2:2-3

I once had a friend in seminary. Let's call him Lewis. Lewis is not the typical seminarian. What I mean by this is that Lewis is a little rough around the edges. Lewis is a military man, a devotee of MMA (mixed martial arts). Lewis likes to spend time in pubs and bars. In fact, he used to own one. He's also passionate about God's love. So much so, that he has been known on occasion to proclaim it with colorful expletives attached. God’s love is ******* amazing!

Generally, I find Lewis endearing. He's the type of person, I believe, that can reach an entirely different population of people than who the present Church strives to call. One evening, he and I decided to try a Japanese whiskey. Needless to say, our conversation gravitated toward the problems of our times and, specifically, laments about our time in seminary.

He recounted a conversation he had in a class. Not surprisingly, he had managed to ruffle a few feathers. Me being me, I proceeded to tell him how his presentation was problematic. To be fair, I probably had an issue with content, but I pick my battles. I proceeded to explain to him, “IF you had approached the topic in this way, you might have been better received.” He shrugged me off, made me be quiet, looked me square in the eyes, and very intensely said, "You know the real problem, Matt? God loves everyone! That means GOD LOVES EVEN ME! AND IT ANNOYS AND FRUSTRATES EVERYONE WHO KNOWS ME!!!"

He said this in triumph. Truthfully, I don't know that this was the actual problem people had with him, but I did believe him about something more central. Lewis, with an almost reckless abandon, believes deeply that God loves even him.

John says, and he (Jesus) is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

I've found it easy to say that God loves the whole world, that God's atoning sacrifice in Jesus is for all people, in every place, and every time. There is enough emotional distance in that concept. What I've not always found it easy to say is what Lewis so defiantly implied to me: Not just for the whole world but also for me. Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for MY sins. It almost sounds presumptuous, maybe even selfish. Who am I to lay claim to such a gift? As the old saying goes, “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” and I think that’s probably true; what I’ve also found is that it is so much harder to receive than it is to give. Why?!

To be clear, this response is not exhaustive. For all of us, receiving may be difficult for a variety of reasons. Perhaps, a common reason is this: when we receive, we are often moved to acknowledge the giver's existence. As we grow old, many of us grow more suspicious of people when they gift us things. What do they really want from this transaction? What is their real motivation? Somewhere along the way, we lose our childlike fascination not for giving but for receiving.

My children are still at that age in which there is no shame in asking for gifts. In fact, they often tell me way ahead of time what they would like to receive. When I can remove myself from the impulse to remind my children, you shouldn’t expect gifts… that’s not the point of gifts, I realize and remember that I'm the jaded one. You see, they are often so moved by the gifts they receive that they are eager to give gifts themselves. They desire to share the swelling within them with others. Ultimately, I believe they are motivated in these ways because they believe that gifts are given in love; that is, they still know how to receive well.

When we can genuinely receive, amid all our realized shortcomings, failures, bad experiences, sins, we may begin to see Jesus' atoning sacrifice, Jesus' gift can only be motivated by love. And we are moved to recognize the existence of that deep goodness. The God who laid down His life, without expectation, without assumption, without the guarantee of reciprocated love, simply, so that we may know him. As John says, Now, by this, we may be sure that we know him if we obey his commandments. A love induced obedience seems to be what God is after.

Perhaps, the more accessible thought is the ultimate model of gifting and receiving that is set before us. Is it easy to give without guarantee or expectation? Is it easy to display love toward the stranger, the enemy, the other political party, the other? The amazing element of giving and receiving in love, is that it is incarnational. At any moment, in any place, the love of Christ can be embodied in a gift. That gift can be a small compassionate gesture, a listening ear, an encouraging word. We exemplify our knowing Christ by the way we treat one another.

Again, to know Christ is to know that God loves the whole world; God even loves you. And in the words of my friend Lewis, that means God’s love is Amazing (w/o the expletive). May this gift move you to love one another well.

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