Ante Up

Scripture:  1 John 3:16-24

I remember being at a clergy gathering a few years ago.  It is common at these things to put people together and attempt to get people to know one another better.   So in telling about myself, I mentioned how much I enjoy gaming.   This immediately caused a raised eyebrow, because this person associated the word gaming with gambling and immediately thought I was talking about card games like poker.   Many of you know, that is not what I was referring to, but instead I was talking about the growing hobby of designer board and card games.  I personally have no interest whatsoever in gambling, so poker is not a game I play.  However, I do like games and I have a fairly big interest in ludology, or the study of games.   So even though there is zero chance I will ever sit down with a pile of chips at a poker table, there are elements of the game that I appreciate.   I find it fascinating how poker is a game of probability and observation.   The best poker players know the math of the game and the probability of a winning hand backwards and forwards.  This is combined with the meta-game of being able to observe and analyze the patterns and habits to use those to their advantage.   One of the fascinating things at the game is how tied gambling is to it, because when the wager is removed the game breaks down.

  In the mid 2000’s, when televised Texas Hold’em was at its height  of popularity I did get a poker video game that could be played online against other people.   I thought this would be a way to play the game but avoid the actual gambling part.   However, it did not work.   Since there was no real money, there was no real risk, which means on pretty much every hand someone would go all in.   If they lost, they just left to rejoin a different game with another pile of fake chips.  It took all of the strategy, skill, and tension out of the game.   I find it interesting that what makes poker work as a game, is that you have to pay to play.   A lot of the skill to playing poker is knowing when to ante up, and be invested in the hand.   In the end, I think this is why poker has endured as a game.  It goes deeper than just the appeal of winning money.  Poker is a game that requires the players to be literally invested in.   It is being invested in the game that keeps people at the table, and I think there is a faith lesson in that for us.  I think it is the message that we find in this morning’s scripture.  Faith is not meant to be a passive activity, it is meant to be actively invested in.   This morning’s scripture is a challenge, it is our turn and we have to answer the question:  Are you going to ante up? 

I really appreciate the letter that we call 1 John.   It is full of so much profound encouragement and wisdom.   One of the elements that really makes this letter especially profound is the source.   1 John is not written by an armchair theologian or a consultant with very little field experience.    Church tradition holds that 1 John was written by John the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus and the author of the gospel of John.  When we remember that when reading 1 John becomes fascinating because we get to see the way that the apostle John took the teachings of Jesus to heart, lived them out, and passed on what he had learned.  For instance in the gospel of John, Jesus is recorded saying “Greater love has no one than this:  to lay down one’s life for one’s friend.”   Then in this morning’s scripture that lesson is passed on in verse 16: “This is how we know what love is:  Jesus Christ laid down his lie for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”   Biblical scholars believe that 1 John and this morning’s scripture was written as a circular letter.  The idea is that the letter would be passed around to multiple churches and shared with many.  This letter was also written late in John’s life, so in an era before mass communication, a letter of this nature would have been the most effective way for John to pass on the wisdom he gained from a life time of following Jesus.  

So what is it that John felt was most important to pass on?  We see it plainly stated in this morning’s scripture.   Verse 23 defines what he understands to be God’s primary command: “and this is his command:  to believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and to love one another as he commanded us.”   One of the interesting points that the entirety of 1 John makes, and that we see reinforced by this morning’s scripture is how connected these two concepts are.    The major case that the entire letter of 1 John is trying to make is that one of the key ways that our belief in Jesus Christ can be seen in how we love one another.   We see that case being made in this morning’s scripture.   Right after John states that Jesus laid down his life for us, so we should lay down our lives for one another he backs this up by pointing out this is not a rhetorical statement.   He puts out there in practical terms in verse 17:  If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them how can the love of God be in that person?”   

We see John’s point here.   The sacrificial love that Jesus showed in laying down his life on the cross, is the same love we can show by sacrificially giving to meet the needs of one another.   John does not mince words, if someone is not willing to do that, then they cannot say God’s love is in them, which means they do not truly believe in the son.    We cannot simply say we love God, for that to be more than empty words we have to be able to show it.   One of the primary ways we show a love for God is how we love on another.  Or as John puts it in verse 18, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”

 Our faith, to be a faith that holds and does not fold, has to be one that we back up with and in truth.   This means our faith cannot just be one of theory and hypotheticals, it cannot be one that exist mostly on paper.   Faith requires us to ante up.    It requires us to be actively invested in it.    Faith is not an activity where we contently sit on the sidelines, it requires us to have some skin in the game.   Faith is not meant to be something we do cautiously and just stick our toe into.    Faith is something we go all in on.    This means we have to be willing to take a risk.   We have to risk our time, our resources, and especially our comfort zones.   While faith will always feel like a risk, the good news of this morning’s scripture friends is that faith is also a sure bet.   Because we have an unmistakable assurance.   It is an assurance backed up by the collective experience of Christian tradition, it is an assurance found throughout the scripture and plainly stated here in verse 24: “The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him and he in them.”

            So if God’s command is to believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and to love one another- for it is by our love for one another we display our belief in the Son, the question that leaves us with is how do we do that?  In pondering that question, there are two considerations that rise to the top.  First, when John writes about our brothers and sisters and loving one another, we have to define who exactly he is referring to here.   John is being a lot more specific than all of humanity here.   God is indeed the creator of all, but only those who belief in Jesus the Son are part of the family of God and are therefore brothers and sisters in Christ.   The one another that we are supposed to love is the church.   John is consistent with the message found in much of the New Testament that the church is to be the incubator of God’s love.   All who have been saved by grace have radically experienced the love of God, and we are to share that love with one another as a testimony to the world of God’s love truly looks like.   The sacrificial, Jesus like love that John writes about that we are supposed to show our brothers and sisters in Christ is how we are supposed to love one another- those of us gathered here and now.  

            In order for us to love one another as Christ commanded, then two things have to happen.   First, we have to ante up and be invested in one another.   For us to truly love one another we have to take the time to get to know one another.   That is something that most of us are good at, to a point.   In the book Get Their Name, Bob Farr, Doug Anderson, and Kay Kotan write that people have an average of eight close relationships in the church.  The analogy they use is a lego block with eight spots that can connect to other blocks and once those spots are full people tend to stick close to just those eight.  The command recited in this morning’s scripture is not to love eight other people, it is to love one another.  We can do better at expanding who we care for to more than eight.   Our goal should be to grow in the love of God and our love for one another, so that we always have one more open spot so that we always have space to include someone else in who we love.  

            Again the love we are to have for one another is more than just words we are to love in action and in truth.  When our brothers and sisters in Christ are in need, we meet that need.  When they are hurt, we tend to it.   When the world falls apart and breaks on them, we help pick up the pieces.   We care for one another with the same kind of “I will be there for you, no matter what” love that Jesus showed us.  

            So the first thing that needs to happen for us to love one another is that we have to take time to know others, but the second thing that has to happen is that we have to allow ourselves to be known.   The truth of it is, for some of us that is actually the harder of the two things to do.  In the book Lifestories Mark Hall, lead singer of Casting Crowns, writes about the meaning of origins of the band’s songs.  Here is what he wrote about the song “Stain Glassed Masquerade, “I often tell my students we are happy plastic people, so I wrote a song about it.  Stained Glass Masquerade describes my struggle with image manufacturing. . . I sketched a mental picture of a strong Christian. . . and at church I strived to be that person.  If there was anything in my life that didn’t fit the mental picture, I had to bury it.”   He goes on to explain that this struggle is what led him to write the chorus of the song which states “So I tuck it all away, like everything is OK; if I make them all believe it, Maybe I’ll believe it too.  So with a painted grin, I play the part again; So maybe they will see me the way that I see them.”

            In order to allow others to love us, we have to allow them to see us for who we are, imperfections and all.   If all we ever show our brothers and sisters in Christ is a shallow representation of who we really are, then they will never be able to truly love us because we do not let them.   Love goes both ways.  We have to ante up and give the time and effort to invest in one another, but we have to also ante up and put ourselves on the table and allow other people to care for and nurture us.  

            As followers of Jesus Christ, we know what love is because Jesus gave us the ultimate example of love when he laid down his life for us.   That is a depth of love that honestly takes us a lifetime to explore, but scriptures like this morning make it clear that as we learn just how deep the Father’s love for us, we are to put that love into practice.   We are to let the love of God flow out of us and perfect in how we love one another.   Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us love one another.   Let us not love with words or speech but in actions and in truth.   May we, may this congregation and this church, be a living example to the world around us how marvelous and joyful is the love of God made known through Jesus Christ his son.