Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.
Dear friends in Christ Jesus:
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the legendary character, Sherlock Holmes, was a big fan of practical jokes. One of the greatest pranks that he ever pulled was perhaps also the simplest and easiest to perform. Being a famous man himself, he had many rich and powerful friends. He picked out twelve well-respected and seemingly virtuous men to receive an anonymous telegram. The message was short and to the point: “Fly at once; all is discovered.” There were no other details shared and all twelve men received the exact same message. How did they respond to this news? Each one, within twenty-four hours, left the country. All of them felt that something in their past was so terrible or incriminating or shameful that their only recourse was to run away.
That’s the thing about skeleton’s in the closet; they never really go away. All of us, I am sure, have moments from our past that we would much like to forget. We would like to banish them from our memory and never think of them again. These sins of our youth and our rebellious ways may look like nothing in the eyes of the world. Or they might appear heinous and horrible if our friends and neighbors ever caught wind of them. But what really causes our hearts to sink and our stomachs to churn is knowing what God thinks of such things. That’s why guilt can come crashing down upon us with such force at times. We can’t believe what we did. We shudder to think of what God would say about it. And knowing such wickedness resides within us, it can cause us to think, “Do I really belong to Jesus? Does he really dwell within my heart?”
If you were to ponder the first verse of our text for any length of time, it could easily lead to a thought like that. “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” Everyone knows that actions speak louder than words. Everyone agrees that it’s not enough just to say “I love you.” It must be followed up by deeds if it is to be believed. So you start to think of all the many times you’ve told your spouse you loved them, and how many times you turned around and did them wrong. You think of how many times you tried to teach your kids to be loving and kind to others, but then turned around and treated them harshly. You think of how many times you confessed your love for God, and how many more you turned your back on him.
And then John has to go and say this about love in action: “This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence.” Really? This is how we are to determine if we belong to the Truth, that is to the Lord? Whether or not we have truly displayed love in action? How are we ever to find rest in this? How are we ever going to quiet our conscience? I can’t even count the number of times that I haven’t loved as I should. And that little voice inside us begs the question, “Does Jesus truly live in me?”
Ah, but thankfully John does not end there. “Whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” Yes, God knows how little you have loved. But he also knows how much he has loved. God loves you even more than you love yourself. And he has showed that love not with mere words, but with action. When you and I were still sinners, Christ died for us. When you and I were dead in our transgressions, God made us alive in Christ. When you and I were destined for an eternity in hell, reaping what our sins had sowed, he rose from the grave guaranteeing us a life that never ends in a place where love reigns supreme. This is what his love has done to give us rest in his presence.
Think how awesome this forgiveness is. But, sometimes we let ourselves wallow in that guilt. We hear the Lord say to us that we are forgiven, but we don’t want to forgive ourselves. We hold on to that guilt and beat ourselves up again and again. Look at what John tells us. Basically he says, “Whenever our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts.” God is greater than our hearts. What he thinks of us matters far more than what we think of ourselves. And he loves us and forgives us. He’s removed our sins from us as far as east is from the west. Get rid of that guilt. Cherish your forgiveness in the Lord. Let go of your sin and guilt. God has.
Yes, God knows us well. He knows that our efforts to love as God wants are going to fall flat day after day, some days more than others. There will be times when we will even want to sin. There will be occasions when the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. There will be instances when we will be thoroughly disgusted with ourselves for committing the same sin for the millionth time. God knows this is going to happen. And he knows that this can so easily bring about a load of guilt that tears us apart, that would cause us to question whether we really belong to the Lord. So he gives us a little more, a little extra, that our hearts may rest secure. He grants us the gift of our baptisms to assure us that our lack of love for him has been washed away. He gives us the privilege of partaking in his Supper, where the body and blood of his Son, shed on the cross, now given to us, cleanses us of our failures to love our neighbor. He puts his grace in tangible forms that we can taste and see, touch and smell, so that we know: I am forgiven, and I still belong to Jesus.
Now with our hearts at peace we can keep going in what John writes to us, “Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God” Yes, being forgiven, we have full confidence that we are redeemed and he will not condemn us. Keep going John, “and receive from him anything we ask” Yes, of course God will answer our prayers because by grace he considers us his children. Keep going John, “because we obey his commands and do what pleases him.” Whoa, whoa, wait a minute, John. What are you saying? Is God only going to answer my prayers if I’ve been good enough? Is he only going to listen to my requests if I have followed enough of his commands? That’s not going to work. I am forever messing up. I’m never good enough. Do I still need to do something else so that all will be good between me and the Father? Do I need to earn God’s love, protection and help in prayer?
Keep reading, John says, “And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.” “It all works together,” John tells us, “It all goes hand-in-hand.”
See, we look at ourselves in the mirror and hope to find something that proves that Christ is living in us, that we are right with God, that we are indeed forgiven. But there are no tongues of fire on our heads, there are no halos hovering above. There is only the Spirit who cannot be seen. But he is there, within our hearts. How do we know? Because we believe. This primary command of God, to believe in Jesus, to have faith in Christ, isn’t something we could conjure up on our own. By nature we reject God, refuse his promises and ignore his truth. But the Spirit comes to us through the Word and changes us. The Spirit comes and sets up shop right in our hearts, causing us to believe. All Christians have the Spirit because all Christians have faith. And faith alone saves.
However, faith is never alone. The Spirit will not allow it to be alone. So faith brings to us also the desire to fulfill all the commands of God. Because we have faith, we want to love one another. When we show love in action, it proves that we have faith. Yet, we don’t strive to love one another just to prove that we have faith. We live to love because Christ has redeemed us. It’s all uniquely and intricately tied together.
How would you describe something like this? I don’t know...perhaps like a vine with branches that bear much fruit? Remember what Jesus said in our Gospel reading, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit.” This is what will happen. Christ will reside in you through his Word and you will bear much fruit of love. The fruit of love that flows from your faith will forever testify that Jesus is in your heart.
So live with this confidence. If your heart wishes to condemn you, God is Greater than Your Heart. Christ has taken away your sins by his death on the cross. He declares you not guilty. When your actions are lacking in love, God is Greater than Your Heart. Christ is within you to bring forth more. And when the harvest comes, rejoice in what Jesus has done for you and how wonderful that God is Greater than Your Heart. He will graciously bring you home, no matter what your heart may say. Amen.