To Live in the Light

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 17, 2024

Let’s look at the last verse in this morning’s reading from 1 John 2. It shows us something about the translation we have in our pews that I talked about when we first got the New Living Translation. And that is about the philosophy behind it. It’s less a word-for-word translation and more of a thought-for-thought translation. If you look at the old Authorized Version, verse 10 begins this way: He that loveth his brother abideth in the light. Some modern translations expand this by saying brother or sister—and this sounds good to me.

But there’s a very good reason for the NLT’s decision to translate this in the way it does. It’s because modern readers don’t necessarily have the same understanding as ancient readers. And so they felt the need to make it clear in this letter, because John was making a more exclusive statement than we might. Anyone who loves a fellow believer, he said, is living in the light and does not cause others to stumble.

When John first wrote this sentence, he used the word αδελφον (accusative form of αδελφος) which means brother. Perhaps you recognize this word in the name of the city of Philadelphia, which we call the City of Brotherly Love. John intended this word to refer, not to just anybody, but to a brother (or sister) in Christ. That’s the way the early church understood it, and that’s the way it has been understood throughout much of church history. In fact, there are still some factions of Christianity that refer to fellow believers as sisters and brothers, in such a way as to exclude non-believers.

But a lot of Christians these days might not read this the way John intended. And I think most of us would be among them. We might read about brothers and sisters in the Bible and think not just of the people we go to church with or those who might share our religion. We might envision all our neighbors. All our fellow human beings might be our brothers and sisters. And so our translation makes it clear that John wasn’t really saying this.

But let’s remember this: When John was telling Christians to love fellow believers, he was talking to a tiny, persecuted group of people—people who depended on each other to stay alive. How they might have ministered to non-Christians is unclear. It’s not even clear if it was possible for them to minister as a church to non-Christians. So there’s nothing wrong with remembering what John meant when he referred to brothers.

But there’s also nothing wrong with those of us who expand upon that meaning. If we understand brothers and sisters to mean fellow human beings, we haven’t gone outside the bounds of the Christian faith. Not only did Jesus cross borders, but he seems at times to have erased the lines that separated his religion from other religions. Here are a couple of famous examples:

In Luke 17 (vv 11-19), Jesus heals ten lepers, but only one goes back and thanks Jesus. And the one who thanked Jesus for healing him was a Samaritan. Jesus calls him a foreigner and tells him it was his faith that healed him.

And there’s a story in both Matthew (15:21-28) and Mark (7:24-30) where Jesus finds himself in what is now Lebanon. There he encounters a woman who’s called Syrophoenician. We’re not told her religion, but we are told she’s not Jewish. She wants Jesus to heal her daughter and he tries to put her off. Perhaps it’s not time to reveal himself to people in that part of the world yet. Or perhaps he simply wants to show her that persistence pays off. But Jesus does set her daughter free and he tells the woman how great her faith is.

But even greater than either of these real-life examples is a parable that Jesus told. It contains no supernatural miracle, just a lesson for all people of every age. It’s a story we call the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), and Jesus tells it after somebody is reminded of the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). When Moses gave that commandment, he was specifically referring to a fellow Israelite. But when asked, “Who is my neighbor?” that’s not the answer Jesus gives. He tells a story of how an Israelite is attacked on the road, and is ignored by his own people. But when a foreigner—a Samaritan—comes upon him, he saves his life. So the answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” is specifically not just a person of your own religion, but a simply a fellow human being who needs you.

And so when we read that anyone who loves a fellow believer is living in the light and does not cause others to stumble, it’s not only okay to expand this to refer to a fellow human being, but it’s probably what Jesus would do.

I think religion, at its best, goes beyond faith. It gives us a framework for dialogue. It helps us ask questions and listen for each other’s answers. And Jesus set an example by answering the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Today, we can be true to our religion by asking, “Who is my brother?” and “Who is my sister?” or even just “Who’s a member of my family?” Jesus himself asked these questions (Matt 12:48-49), and used the answer to expand our definition of family. Our own definition of family is put to the test when we see someone—anyone—in need. Do we lift them up or trip them up? Do we help them to rise or cause them to stumble?

To minister to a fellow human being, to lift them up, to help them: That is, perhaps, the very definition of living in the light. I hope it’s something all of us practice when we see somebody in need. But sometimes the people we see are on the internet or on TV. They live in a different country, or even on a different continent. But twenty centuries after Jesus said what he did, after John wrote what he wrote, we can not only find out about what people far away need, but we can do something about it.

It's a dark feeling to know that people far away are suffering, that disaster has struck and we can’t reach out a hand a lift someone from the rubble, or organize a meal to feed them, or put out the word and furnish a room or a house where they can be safe and dry. Those are things that we do here. But we can’t do them there.

Except we can. And we do. And that’s because we’re not just spiritual; we’re also religious. We belong to this horrible thing called organized religion, and to us that means that when people need us, we’re there. It may happen throughout the year, but especially on a particular Sunday in March, we receive an offering that in one of our churches is called One Great Hour of Sharing and in the other is called Week of Compassion. None of the money we give goes to salaries. None of it goes to mailing costs or advertising. None of it is used for administration. All those things are needed, but that money comes from elsewhere. All the money received in this offering goes to help people. Those people are sometimes fellow Christians, but much of the time they’re not. They may be in another state in the United States, or they may be on another continent. The help we provide can be whatever they need, and it might arrive tomorrow or next February. But it’s our way of living in the light of God and sharing that light with brothers and sisters—whether they be a fellow Christian or just a fellow human being—anywhere and everywhere in the world.

I’m sure Jesus was okay with the fact that, for a little while, living in the light meant loving other Christians. But when the church became rich and powerful, that was not enough. To live in the light meant helping those outside the faith. And today, when news travels across the world in an instant, it means not only reaching beyond our religion, but across borders and oceans, to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor? Who is my family?”
©2024 Sam Greening