(a sermon for October 1, 2017, the 17th Sunday After Pentecost, based on 1 John 3:11, 16-24)
“For this is the message you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.”
Ultimately, that’s what it all boils down to around here, friends: LOVE. It’s love, personified in Jesus Christ, that brings us into relationship with God; it’s love that forges that connection of kindred hearts that makes us more than friends in this place, more than community, but also a spiritual family; indeed, it’s love that gathers and binds us together as the Church of Jesus Christ. Indeed; however else we might choose to name, describe, categorize, or even disseminate its relevance for today’s world, at its very core remains this impenetrable truth that the church is all about love!
And I’m here to tell you this morning that I am grateful for the presence of that church in my life! But I also have to be honest: there are times for me when the church can be easily compared to the young man who wrote the following letter to the love of his life: “Dear Mary,” he wrote, “dear, sweet Mary… I would swim the deepest river for you. I would climb the highest mountains! I would walk over burning coals to be at your side. All my love and my devotion… XOXOXO, Jack.
“P.S. I’ll be over Sunday if it doesn’t rain!”
It’s one thing, you see, to say “I love you,” quite another to actually mean it; to let that affirmation move our very lives. In the end simply elaborating on the depth of our devotion is insufficient. Words of devotion, while beautiful and often very welcome, are empty of meaning – and can even be offensive – when they are not accompanied by action!
And so it is with the church. The fact is, in this place we have an abundance of good words with which to talk about love, and we’re not afraid to use them: in songs and stories, in “poems, prayers and promises” we regularly tell out our devotion to God, as well as the depth of our affection for those around us. There’s no question that where love is concerned, we in the church are very good at talking the talk! The question is, does our “walk lives up to the talk;” or where love is concerned does there exist a “disconnect” between what we say and what we do?
That’s not an easy question; but I think it’s a good one for us “church folk” to ask ourselves from time to time! After all, it’s pretty easy for us to come together on a Sunday morning and say “good things” about God, and faith, and love; the fact is, we do it every week, and it’s tempting to let ourselves float along on the warmth of that sentiment. But there’s also a danger, in that when those sentiments of love and faith fail to find any real expression, our lives end up carrying little or no resemblance to the virtues we proclaim.
And that’s not who we’re called to be, friends. We are a people gathered by Christ and led by the Holy Spirit to be the church, called to be a distinctively Christian community, and to live as the embodiment of God’s kingdom in this place and time. And so both individually and collectively, it seems to me that this requires so much more from us than mere lip service! Indeed, what our calling demands, as this morning’s reading from 1 John puts forth, is that we “love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action;” a love epitomized by Jesus who “laid down his life for us.”
The purpose of the church, you see, is for us to live out God’s intent for his creation and to love as God loves; but in order for that to happen, we have to do more than “just talk about love;” we have to “practice real love,” (The Message) building a deeper relationship with God and with God’s people as we do so; without that at the center, the work that we do is empty and without any real meaning. Whether we’re talking how we worship, the ways we do fellowship or outreach, or even something as deceptively simple as putting on a great bean suppah… ultimately, the test of our life together as a church, the end verdict as to whether we sink or swim as God’s people, will always come down to our willingness and ability to truly and actively love one another as we have been loved. As Leonard Sweet has aptly observed, “Love is the foundation of the Christian church, the cement that glues together the church community. Nothing else can come before this love. Nothing else is possible without this love.” We would do well to always remember that.
It’s no accident that over thirty times in the New Testament we are told, in one manner or another, to “love one another.” This has its source in the “new” commandment that Jesus gave to his disciples and to us: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12) – this is the place we start when it comes to being the church – but then what we find out as we go through scripture is that there are a great many “one anothers” that apply to the Christian life.
For instance, just in Romans alone, we’re told to “be devoted to one another (12:10),” to “live in harmony with one another (12:16),” to “accept one another (15:7),” and “instruct one another (15:14).” Elsewhere in the epistles there are admonitions that we are to bear with one another (Col. 3:13), forgive one another (Eph. 4:32), encourage one another (1 Thess. 5:11) and build one another up (5:11). As believers, we are to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds,” (Hebrews 10:24) and to “offer hospitality to one another without grumbling (1 Peter 4:9);” that is, to welcome one another not because we have to, but because we have the joyful opportunity. We’re even urged, on a couple of different occasions in the Epistles, to “greet one another with a holy kiss (2 Cor. 13:12);” and to this, I can only say, bring on the hugs!
And there’s more; but do you see the thread that runs through all these admonitions? This isn’t about love as a warm and fuzzy sentiment; we’re talking about behavior here, about action rooted in faith. It’s about the church’s commitment to live together as a community, united in the truth of God’s love; and it’s about our commitment, yours and mine, to live our lives first and foremost as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Moreover, what we see in this is that a life lived in the Christian faith is never meant to be one lived in isolation. Whereas the prevailing culture of these days seems to promote that which would separate us each from the other – be it by gender or race or economics or politics – the church is supposed to be radically different than that. To put a finer point on it, if we are to truly live out our faith as it is to be lived out, that is, “to obey [God’s] commandments and do what pleases him… that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us;” then there never can be any room for the kind of division that fuels hatred and bigotry such as we’ve seen so much on display as of late. To quote Leonard Sweet again, to follow Jesus and to actively love others – all others – these are inseparable parts of a life of faith. “Those who purposefully sow discord in the community, whose actions are carried out without the primary concern of emulating Christ’s love, can’t be genuine disciples. 1 John,” Sweet goes on to say, “insists that to confess Christ is to love. Love is the one litmus test of faith.”
Make no mistake: what we’re talking about here are not spiritual truths in the abstract; this is quite simply the meat and potatoes of the Christian life! What we have in this text is practical advice for being an authentically loving Christian, both inside and outside the church. And that’s the challenge, isn’t it; for us, each and all, to keep it real as persons and as a people of faith. But if that’s going to happen, friends, it just seems to me that it’s always going to rest on how we deal with “the one anothers!”
Tony Campolo, the renowned pastor, preacher and sociologist, writes that when he was young he thought that a true Christian could be easily defined as “somebody who believed in God, who believed in the doctrines of the Apostles Creed, [and] who believed in the Bible.” But whereas all that continued to be true, what Campolo eventually discovered was there was more to being a Christian than simply believing: it means going beyond faith as an intellectual exercise, and actually having a relationship with God; it means letting God invade you and possess you, and your surrendering to a presence of stillness and quietude in your life. But, writes Campolo, “when the Spirit of God invades you there’s [also] a consequence you don’t anticipate… you find yourself becoming sensitive to Jesus […] in other people. People become sacramental… [and they become] the kind of vehicles through whom Jesus comes to us, so that when we look into their eyes we have this eerie awareness that Jesus is staring back at us. That’s what it means to be a Christian: to be filled with God and to be sensitive to Jesus, waiting to be loved in needy people.”
I’ve said it before from this pulpit, and it bears repeating: as a pastor it never ceases to amaze me the kind of diversity that’s to be found in your average congregation! I mean, we’ve got it all in the church: older people and younger people, liberals and conservatives, evangelicals and progressives, people on the first steps of their journeys of faith and those who have been “on the way” their whole lives. We have members who are very demonstrative about their faith, others who keep what they believe fairly private; and then there are folks who can be fairly and accurately described as “salt of the earth,” annnd… others who are, well, just kind of spicy! But it’s all good: as they say, it takes all kinds to make a world, and that’s particularly true of the church; and it’s what makes what we do here an incredible joy… even if sometimes it creates a challenge or two!
But I have to wonder, friends, what would happen to us as Christians – what would happen to us as a church – if we were intentional about looking at one another with a different set of eyes? I wonder how it would be if we began to look in one another’s eyes to see if we can find the face of Jesus? And then, if we could do the same as we looked into the eyes of someone outside of this sanctuary… in the eyes of a friend, a neighbor… a stranger, even? I wonder how much of a difference that could make in our life together; I wonder how our perceptions would change or how we might be moved for the sake of God’s kingdom in this place; I wonder what the church could become in these days… all because we started to perceive the presence of Jesus Christ right here among us.
And the thing is, it’s not an improbable or unreasonable proposition; it’s all there in that message we’ve heard from the beginning, that “that we should love one another.” The question is whether you and I are willing make it real.
Something to think about today as we come seeking this presence on this World Communion Sunday.
Thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry