Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, Ga., on July 12, 2009.
1 John 4: 16-21.
God in His essential Being is Charity; God so loved that He gave; therefore to dwell in Charity means giving in our turn, a movement of unconditioned generosity which shall be the expression of love. The human soul cuts rather a ridiculous figure, clutching its own bit of luggage, its private treasures, its position, its personality, its rights, over against the holy self-giving of Absolute Love manifest in the flesh.
Evelyn Underhill in The School of Charity
This is Week Three of a four-week sermon series that I have called The DNA of God. The idea has come about because in our culture, particularly on the crime shows on television, there is a fascination with DNA and how it defines the genetic uniqueness of an individual. Also, there are so many companies and organizations that advertise and communicate their message where they have tried to say that the essential nature of who we are is in our DNA. I mentioned before Sony and high definition. They have tried to make a cute logo that has HD and DNA together in it to say that is part of who they are.
As we have been looking at what I have called The DNA of God, we recognize that truly God does not have DNA. I hope you know that. But what we know is that there are essential characteristics of God. There are things that are so basic to who God is, how God acts within us, and how God is in the universe that we would describe these things as the essential characteristics that, as an analogy, are part of God’s DNA. If we carry that idea a little further and think about the essential uniqueness that is passed on from one generation to another in DNA, we think about how the essential character of God is stamped upon God’s children. How does the image of God reside in each of us?
I have had several people offer different lists of what they thought would be in the DNA of God. The limiting factor for me in the four weeks has been, What is passed on to us? What did it mean in the Creation story when God said, Let us make man in our image, male and female? What does it mean to say, We are created in the image of God.
We all know that experience of looking at a little girl and saying, I see your father’s eyes, or observing a boy and saying, I see your mother’s mind in you. I see how these things have been passed on. What characteristics should someone see when they look at the children of God?
For lack of a better word, I have called the sermon this week, Charity. What on earth do we think of when we think of charity? Most of the time, it is really not very good. Think of an old western movie where some destitute pioneer family is down on their luck and somebody offers them food. The pioneer always says, We don’t take no charity. It is sort of pity wrapped up with a bow.
Sometimes we think about stars on some game show. They are not trying to win money for themselves. They are trying to win money for their favorite charity.
What is a charity? Sometimes we think of a charity as an organization where people don’t really work for a living. People just give them money. We also know that these are organizations that do good work. Most of us are familiar with the word charity in these different ways.
Most of us have probably heard 1 Corinthians 13 at sometime from the King James version of the Bible: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity . . .” Throughout the entire chapter, the translators of the King James have used the word charity to try to wrap two things together, two things that when we think about God cannot be separated, and they are love and giving. It is not God’s love if it is not giving.
The passage that we read from 1 John 4:16-21 contains that essential message—God is love. If we follow through the passage, one of the things that John is saying to the early church is, and this love is evident in the children of God. This is how we know that we are God’s children in that God loved first and we love as well.
But if we want to add other passages, we begin to get the idea of how love and giving are woven together into one experience. God so loved the world that he gave his only son. The DNA of God is this giving love and you cannot separate one from the other.
In preparing this sermon and trying to think about what is the basic essence of God’s character that is in us, there is no way to think about my deepest convictions about God without saying things that I have said before. Typically, we come to the time of year in the fall where we think about what we call stewardship in giving to the church and trying to talk to people about giving. Instead of hearing a message about what God’s love is in us, we think about giving to the church. I hope you notice that there are no pledge cards today. There is no talk about sacrificial giving. This is not about writing a check to the church. This is about the character of God. The truth is you can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving. Think about it for a moment.
Our society has just about ruined the two best holidays for giving—Christmas and Valentine’s Day. But you can give without loving. It can be a list that you have to check off that you feel obligated to buy for—everybody at work, in your neighborhood, etc. It really is not an act of love anymore; it is an act of obligation.
At Valentine’s Day, instead of it becoming an act of trying to uniquely express your love to someone that you care about, it becomes an opportunity to fail miserably by not living up to somebody’s expectations. We can just check off a list that we gave a gift because it is a holiday where we are supposed to give. In that regard, society has just about ruined the great joy of giving. But you cannot love without giving. If you think about the person or the people that you care about most, the people that you love above all other people, have any of these people ever received a gift from you? Of course, they have. You cannot love without giving. Even in the most depressed financial situations, even in the most impoverished places in the world, people who love each other find a way to give things to each other. It may be small, it may be a trinket, but it is something that people have to give.
Recently, I read a story about a journalist in Central America in the 1980’s and the great poverty being experienced by people who were being displaced by different civil wars. He told of a story in which a little girl was hiding in a compound where there were some foreign journalists. Someone ate a banana and threw the banana peel on the ground. The little girl ran out, scooped up the peel, and ran back under a bush. It was observed that a little boy, probably her brother, was sitting under the bush and she tore the banana peel into one-third and two-thirds. She kept the one-third and gave her brother the two-thirds. Not much to eat, but even in that, she was giving a gift because she loved her brother.
This is where the story of the widow’s mite comes from. It is not giving out of abundance, but it is giving out of poverty. Even in the most desperate circumstances, when people love one another and when people love God, they give. It is not an obligation but it is an expression of love. It is part of the image of God that is stamped on us. God so loved the world that he gave. . . . God’s love is demonstrated in us in that there is a desire for us to give. It is there. Sometimes it does not express itself as we would hope it would, but it is in God’s DNA. It has been imparted to each of us.
Some of the things of God that give us the most blessing, the things that touch our hearts most deeply, are God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness, and God’s grace. Aren’t all of these expressions of God giving himself to us?
At Christmastime when we talk about presents, we say that the greatest present, the greatest gift, is Jesus Christ, God coming to us in the flesh, giving himself. All of this is wrapped up in the word charity, the giving and the love that go together.
What is the lesson? What is it other than to think that God expresses himself in an old-fashioned word called charity? Here are a couple of things. When we think about being closer to God and the hunger that exists in us at times, what do we do so that we can feel closer to God? We are never more God-like than when we give. When we give on certain occasions, this is one of the reasons why we feel so blessed. It is a reflection of God’s own heart being demonstrated in us, and we experience it as blessing.
If you give to be blessed, it rarely works because that is not a gift out of love. That is giving without love. But when love expresses itself in giving and we wonder why that feels so good, it is a reflection of God’s love being poured through us and how can we not receive some of that ourselves?
The next thing is that what we really want from God is simply God. If God were to express himself in us, it results in giving. Think about all the things we pray for and ask for from God. What we really want is God’s help.
We hear sermons and Bible studies about things we asked for and didn’t get. Which of us ever prayed, God, make me more giving, and didn’t get what we prayed for and, in that, felt closer to God?
Finally, there is something to be said through this old-fashioned word charity. Charity is understood in the beautiful King James image as what it truly means to love and give of ourselves. Perhaps it has been a while since you read it, but let me read to you the love chapter, the charity chapter, out of 1 Corinthians 13: “Through I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth.”
Let’s skip to the end of the chapter and substitute the word giving. “And now abideth faith, hope, and giving, these three; but the greatest of these is giving.”
It is because we are never more Christlike, we are never more like the one who made us, than when our hearts truly and genuinely give out of love. May God grant us generous hearts so that in the world there might be a people that others could look at and say, I see God in them.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.