Passive Faith and Active Love
Trinity Two Sermon| Rev. Rolf Preus| June 21, 2009| 1 John 3:13-18
Do not marvel, my brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.
I’d like to begin this morning with a short lesson in English, specifically about active and passive verbs. Now if you were expecting a sermon, not a lesson in grammar, let me assure you that this lesson relates directly to you as a Christian. It’s not that you have to know your grammar in order to be a Christian. But you do need to know the difference between trusting in yourself and trusting in God. And that is where our lesson comes in.
An active verb is when someone does something. John throws the ball. The word “throws” is an active verb. It refers to what John actively did. A passive verb is when something is done to someone. John was hit by the ball. “Was hit” is a passive verb. It refers to what was done to John. He was hit. John did not do anything. Something was done to him.
A verb can be active or passive. Let’s consider how to apply this English lesson to two of the most important words in our Christian vocabulary: faith and love. Which is active and which is passive?
Most people think that faith is active. When you talk about believing in God or believing in the gospel people will try to make faith an activity that we do. When we confess the biblical teaching that we are justified and saved by faith alone, people insist on turning faith into a work. Faith is defined as making a decision to give your life over to Jesus and to submit to his will for you. That’s an activity. That’s doing. Yet faith, insofar as it is faith, isn’t doing. It is receiving. It is being done to. It is purely passive.
“By this we know love, because he laid down His life for us.” Here the word “know” is used as a synonym for faith. We know God’s love. We know it not by doing anything, but by God doing something for us. He laid down His life for us. That’s what he did. We receive this love by believing it, not by doing something. Faith looks to Jesus lifted up on the cross. Faith eats the Bread of Life. Faith drinks the water of salvation. Faith receives. It doesn’t give. It receives. It isn’t active. It is passive.
Love is active. Most people think that it is passive. They think that love is an emotion. They think that if we express a feeling called love this is love. After all, isn’t love something that is in our hearts? You can’t see love, can you?
But you can see love! You can see love because love is an activity. It is faith that you cannot see. Faith is seen only by God. Love is quite apparent to everyone with eyes to see. Consider Cain. He hated Abel. How do you know? Can you look inside of Cain’s heart? You don’t have to. He murdered his brother. By doing what hate does Cain showed that there was no love living in him. If you hate your brother you are a murderer. The hatred within is the source of every sin that is seen. Hatred boils up into actions that hurt the neighbor. Lies, thefts, sexual sins, broken vows, deceptions, violence, and every other outward act that hurts your brothers and sisters has the same bitter root and that root is the hatred within you.
Our text includes the well known Bible verse, “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” These are strong words. They frighten us into denying the bitter root of hatred within. We say we don’t hate. We say we love. Yes, we love everyone. We learn to say that we love everyone because we know that we should love everyone. But what should be is not always what is.
How can you say you have loved when you see your brother in need and you do nothing to help him? His reputation is attacked and you say not a word because you’re afraid of your own. He is in need of your material assistance but you don’t want to do without what you want so you let him do without what he needs. But inside you say you feel something for him. There is something passive within you. You say that it is the love that you owe to your brother. But what does your brother care what is in you? What good does that kind of love do? So you feel for him? What do you do for him?
I’ll never forget the last sermon I ever heard my father preach. It was up at the Lake in August of 1995. He preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan. I remember him saying how he thought for sure that the priest and the Levite prayed for the man lying on the side of the road as they were crossing over to the other side. They prayed and they felt. They felt his pain, for sure. But they did nothing to help him. They had no love.
We say we don’t hate our brothers even when we do because we are afraid of facing the truth. But true love is never a matter of mere words. Love is never a passive feeling. Love is always action. Love does. St. John says, “My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.” Talk is cheap. Let’s see your love by what you do. I’d like to, I’m going to, I’ll think about it – it is all nothing until there is action.
Faith doesn’t do. It trusts in the doing of another. Love does. When we are talking about our faith we are not talking about our actions or works. In fact, we are talking about not working at all. St. Paul says it so clearly in Romans 4:4-5, “Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.”
As long as we Christians confess the truth that God forgives unworthy sinners for the sake of Jesus’ suffering and death the world will hate us. The world doesn’t hate us because we do good things. The world doesn’t hate us because we believe in love or practice love. The world hates us because we say that what the world treasures and worships is worthless.
We Christians do not show proper respect to the gods of this world. The world is like the older son in the parable of the prodigal son. He is scandalized by his father’s love and forgiveness so liberally lavished upon the undeserving son. The world wants to be recognized for its great achievements. The world wants us to say that its version of love is just fine, when its version of love is self-centered, weak, and based on human pride. The Christian version of love is that it cannot be recognized apart from the crucifixion of Jesus. The Christian says that love cannot be known except as the God-man lays down his life for us. Then, when we receive that love by faith – by faith, not by doing, not by loving, but simply by believing that it is true and that it is for us – this passive reception of God’s love through faith flows into active loving of one another.
St. John writes, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love the brethren.” (1 John 3:14) Why do we love one another? It is because we have passed from death to life. What does passing from death to life mean? It means we love one another. It means we are born from above. It means we have the Holy Spirit living inside of us.
St. John also says, “By this we know love, because he laid down his life for us.” (1 John 3:16) We know love when we know Jesus died for us. We know God. We know life. We know love. This knowing is faith. It isn’t a going out and getting. It is a staying put and receiving of what God comes to us to give. The fact that this faith is passive, that is, that it doesn’t do, but rather receives, does not mean that it is an empty or lifeless thing. By no means! This is a living faith. How can it not be living when it receives life from God? How can this faith be dead when it is joined the Word of Life who gave his life up for us all? Who is it who gave up his life for us? Listen to the opening words of this Epistle of St. John:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life – the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us – that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly your fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3)
Faith just takes this in. The eternal Son of the eternal Father comes into this world. He is seen. He speaks the words of life. He is the Word of life. He is eternal life. He came from the Father and has always been at the Father’s side. He went to the cross to suffer for sinful humanity. There on Calvary all the hatred within every human heart was reckoned to him who was eternal pure and holy love. Within the Person of Jesus and within the full view of God and man the love of God and the hatred of the world fought in mortal combat. Love won. And there we won, dear Christians. There the hatred within us is purged and forgiven. There is the love that does in the face of our refusal to do. There is the love of God that covers and blots out the hatred deep inside of us that was evident in every sin we have ever committed.
Here we are, eating and drinking at the great supper to which we have been invited. This is the feast of love. The words of love of Christ’s gospel and the body and blood of Love incarnate are given to us. We passively receive through faith the love that God here provides. Then we actively love one another. The love of God for us and to us is what our Christian faith is all about. The love of God through us to others is what our Christian lives are all about. Only when we view faith as passive receiving will we be empowered by God to active loving. When we admit that our love has failed in action, God humbles us to receive his love in passive faith. Amen