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“And They’ll Know We Are Christians…”

(a sermon for May 19, 2019, the Fifth Sunday of Easter, based on John 13:31-35)

I first read about this a number of years ago, and apparently these days it’s a growing trend: several medical schools across the country are actually adding to its curriculum classes in something called “Medical Improv.”

What we’re talking about here are, in fact, acting classes in which medical students are taught theater arts and the skills necessary to improvise a scene; all this so that these new doctors might learn to  choose their words and gestures deliberately and have their interactions with patients become more empathetic, compassionate and thoughtful.  And furthermore, this according to an article in USA Today, “as accomplished actors, physicians who find themselves too swamped, stressed-out and suspicious to really feel any compassion for their patients can at least act like they care.”

Now, lest you think I’m simply picking on the medical profession, this article goes on to suggest that similar courses of study could easily be developed for all sorts of helping professions (I don’t know about you, but I can think of lot of occupations where this might apply!); jobs where the stress level is such that often the people in those occupations begin to distance themselves emotionally from the people they’re caring for, so often to the detriment of the care receiver.  In all seriousness, the hope is that by taking acting lessons these caregivers will be taught to respond as if they are emotionally connected to the people they’re helping; even if the best they can do at first is to simply to go through the motions.  Is it a case of, “Fake it till you make it?”  Maybe; but the idea is that perhaps, eventually, they’ll come to realize what they’ve been missing and genuinely feel the compassion and care that up till then they’ve only been acting out!

Actually, when you think about it, it’s not all that bad an idea; and I dare say it speaks to an issue far deeper than distracted physicians and grumpy tech support specialists!  The fact is, we are living in a world in which the predominant culture has become so busy, so fast-paced, so focused in the quest for achievement and yet so utterly impersonal in the effort that things like simple human compassion and care risks becoming displaced by the overwhelming nature of life and the drive to get things done!  Moreover, we often make decisions and set priorities – as persons and as a people – without any real concept of how our actions will affect others; we have let our differences of opinion not only divide us but weaponized us;  we have allowed the miracle of technology to become a poor substitute for true communication and as an excuse for not actually talking – or more to the point, listening – to one another; and we have sought to give our families the best of everything but in the process have neglected to teach them about the things in life that truly matter: honesty; integrity; respect for others, especially those who are different from us or with whom we disagree; and a clear sense of right and wrong.  In short, ours is a world where love is not always the operative choice; and make no mistake, what with all its own squabbles and divisions the church is not wholly immune to this, either.  Truly, what Jonathan Swift said back in 1711 sadly often still holds true today: “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but no enough to make us love one another.”

Understand, friends, that I say all this not to sound overly morose on a Sunday morning, but to suggest to you this morning that this idea of learning how to be “acting out the love” might well be in order, in the fervent hope that such love will take root in the darkest places of our lives so that it might grow and become genuine.  Indeed, given all that it’s up against in these times, the chance of true love prevailing might well seem unlikely; but then, that’s always been the nature of love, isn’t it: something good and positive and life-changing bursting forth in the face of the unknown. As someone has aptly said, “Genuine love always leaps before it looks.”

And friends, I think that this is what Jesus was talking about when he said to his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

It’s interesting to note that even though in the church we are very much still in the midst of our Eastertide celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, our text for this morning takes us back to that fateful night of betrayal and desertion, what we know as Maundy Thursday. So at this point in the passion story, Jesus has already spoken about the certainty of his death, he’s already foretold Judas’ betrayal and in an act of humble servitude he’s washed the disciples feet. The crucifixion is less than 24 hours away now, so in everything that Jesus says from here on out there’s this palpable sense of closure; particular in what he has to say to the ones who have been closest to him along the journey, his disciples.  And that’s understandable; after all, he’d been together with this group of twelve for nearly three years, and they would be the ones who would need to carry on after he was gone.  So not only were these essentially words of farewell, but as John relates the story it’s Jesus sharing just a few last words to them that could somehow communicate the wholeness of God’s plan. This goes on for a couple of chapters in John and is often referred to by Biblical scholars as the “Farewell Discourses,” but what’s interesting is that it begins with something very basic: that they should love one another!

Now, at least as they first heard it, this would have been a word very familiar to the disciples’ ears.  Even though Jesus referred to it as a “new” commandment, as faithful Jews the disciples already knew that the law came down to loving God and loving neighbor; as another teacher of Jesus’ time, Rabbi Hillel, had observed, “the rest was commentary.” So of course, Jesus; we should love one another.

But here’s the thing; Jesus wasn’t finished.  Jesus goes on to say, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  And that was something altogether different. By adding this, Jesus was putting his disciples on notice that words of love alone won’t do the job; neither will simply and mindlessly adhering to some loose guidelines of fair play.  No… you are to love one another as I have loved you.  You’re to love with your whole heart; you’re to love with a firm commitment that translates to the way life is actually lived; you’re to love with action that is self-giving and self-sacrificial; you’re to love in ways that demonstrate healing and forgiveness and the utter willingness to offer up your own life if by doing so love will be demonstrated.

You are to love and to live… just like Jesus did.

And, friends… it still applies.  In fact, I would say to you that these four little verses in John’s gospel, almost incidental in their placement amidst the larger story of that fateful night, pretty much says everything we need to know about who we are as Christians and as the church.

What we need to remember from this text is that Jesus did not offer up these words as a casual suggestion, nor even as a credo attached to church membership; this was and is a true commandment for those who would follow Jesus.  As his disciples, we are expected to love one another as Jesus has loved us; truly, we are known as Jesus’ disciples by our love.  It’s not that we won’t fail in the endeavor; indeed, we have failed and we will again (as a cartoonist by the name of Jim Wetzstein has opined, it’s a “good thing that Jesus didn’t say, ‘I’ll love you the way you love one another.’ Because, man, then we’d be in trouble!”), but Jesus is clear that we can’t give up on the effort! What you and I do out of love, whatever we seek to do out of love – even when it falls short of the mark – ends up speaking volumes to the world about the one who has loved us, about Jesus Christ; our love brings Jesus Christ to a disconnected world.  Because love does not happen in a vacuum; just as we understand that a child cannot learn to be kind without having experienced kindness, the love of Jesus Christ is something that needs to be passed on from person to person, life to life, heart to heart.

But by the same token, in order to show this love of Jesus it follows that we need to have received it as our own.  And that’s why it’s crucial, especially in this world and life that has become increasingly disconnected from the kind of genuine love that finds its expression in true faith, that you and I be about the business of actively seeking out the kind of life that puts Christ at the center of it!  Do you remember the old story about the man who over the course of several years, worked to carve an elephant out of a big boulder in his front yard?  The neighbors kept asking him not only how he could possibly create something like that out of something as immovable and unchangeable as a rock, but also how he could keep at it for so long; and his answer was, “Well, I just chipped away at everything in that boulder that didn’t look like an elephant; and once that was gone, there it was!”

Well, likewise in a world where we’re literally surrounded and bombarded by that which would seek to pull us away from love and keep us from Christ’s presence in our lives, we need to keep chipping away at anything that doesn’t look like Jesus.  We need to get rid of the anger, and the hatred, and the prejudice and the envy that’ll fester in our hearts given the slightest opportunity; we need to let go of the old hurts, the past regrets and the lingering guilt that holds us back and keeps us from moving ahead with life; and we need to do away with anything in our lives that doesn’t look or feel like love. Because it’s only in doing that we can truly receive the love that Jesus has to give us, and thus be able to share it with the world.

“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  What an incredible thing it is to be known by our love; how wonderful to be recognized by all those around us as Christ’s true disciples because of our love.  And what a joy to belong to a community of faithful followers – the church itself – that is girded on such love. Love, you see, has the effect of transforming everything we do: in love, our children are instilled with a sense of well-being that they carry throughout the whole of their own lives and bring as a legacy to their own children and grandchildren; in love a spirit of true unity and acceptance grows where once there was division and exile; in love comes the awareness that every word, every deed, every decision made has the power to hurt or to heal, but that doesn’t matter because healing is the first and only priority.  In love, you and I are made true disciples of Jesus; can you imagine what could be done for Jesus’ sake? Can you envision what the world and our lives could be by God’s grace and by our love?

Well, I’m here to tell you this morning that it begins with… acting it out.  As I said before, it begins by loving and living… just like Jesus did.

What a shame that something as defining as faith we so often do by rote; how sad to find ourselves merely going through the motions.  The Christian life – our Christian life – is never meant to be anything less than our embracing of the whole power and wonder of life and living!  How horrible it would be to wake up in the morning and not say that “this is the day the Lord has made,” and not rejoice and be glad in it?  What a tragedy it would be for us not to seize that day for the sake of the Lord in loving one another as Jesus has loved us.

Friends, they will know we are Christians by our love.

Let us make sure that we show them who we are… by our love.

Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2019 in Church, Discipleship, Easter, Jesus, Love, Sermon

 

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Wouldn’t It Be Nice

blessed quietness 2(a sermon for April 24, 2016, the 5th Sunday of Easter, based on Revelation 21:1-6 and John 13:31-35)

One of my favorite songs from one of my favorite groups, the Beach Boys, has to be Brian Wilson’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”  It came out originally just about 50 years ago – if you can believe that! – in 1966, but it’s a song that still holds up even after all these years; it’s bright and fresh and leaves you feeling good.  Which is interesting, because in many ways this song is typical of most of the popular music that came out in that era: you know, boy loves girl devotedly, girl loves boy forever, but boy and girl are tragically torn apart by circumstance; in this case, they’re just too young.  But in this particular song, there’s something different, something almost theological about the lyrics:              

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older,
And we didn’t have to wait so long?
And wouldn’t it be nice if we could live together
In the kind of world where we belong?”
– “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” written by Brian Wilson and Tony Asher

Here’s a song that’s just chock-full of a profound sense of longing; that feeling of knowing that there’s something wonderful right there before you, but you can’t quite grasp it; and maybe, “if you think and wish and hope and pray, it might come true.”  And unless I miss my guess, there are many of us in this room who have known that feeling at one time or another in our lives.

I remember this very well in the years after I graduated from high school; I mean, I knew that I was no longer a child, and that I was supposed to be at least close to adulthood, but it didn’t feel like I was there quite yet.  It was more this feeling of being caught between two worlds; knowing I couldn’t go back to being a kid (and not really wanting to), but continually reaching out to the adult world, only to fall just a little bit short in my grasp! Of course, eventually I embraced and was embraced by the adult world; but right then, there was this aching inside of me for what I knew was coming, but which wasn’t real just yet.

My sense is that most of us can tell similar stories; because the fact is, longing is very much a part of what it means to be human; and furthermore, longing is very much a part of the Christian life!  Now, at first that might sound kind of strange, but stay with here: in faith, you see, we are a people who live between the now and the not yet.  On the one hand, by the power of God in Jesus Christ and guidance of the Spirit, we have been redeemed, restored and empowered for the living of these days; and that means this day, right here and right now.  You and I are pilgrims on an on-going journey of faith; we walk the way of this life in the company of God!  In fact, at the very heart of it all, that’s why we’re all here this morning; everything about our worship, our songs and prayers and proclamation, serves to give thanks and praise for that continuing presence in and through our lives!.

But that having been said, we are also a people who live unto a vision as yet unfulfilled; we are the people of a promise that is within us but which still stands before us.  Jesus spoke of this dichotomy often to his disciples: that “the kingdom of God is among (or within) you,” (Luke 17:21), yet at the same time you “know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13) when it will come in its fullness.

We also see this in John’s vision of a new heaven and earth in our reading this morning from the Book of Revelation; a vision of the time after the End, the culmination of all things, the achievement of God’s final goal. Understand that this is the promise not of reformation, nor of a change from what already exists in the world, but rather the assurance of a completely new creation where God will live with humanity in a relationship of concern and comfort.  In this new creation, we’re told, “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more,” for God will have made “all things new.” It will be a “holy city” of believers gathered around the very presence of God; because all the barriers that have ever existed between God and humanity will have been destroyed forever.

Now, obviously this vision is “not yet.” We know all too well that in this world, pain, suffering and death not only exist but seems to thrive.  On any given day, the news is filled with painful reminders of how far from ever living in unity with one another, much less living in unity with God; story after story of violence, abuse, hate-mongering and purposeful divisiveness. Even in the church, the one place where you might hope to find some concrete examples of God’s dwelling with humanity, so often our own disunity, not to mention our inherent human weakness puts us at cross purposes with the vision, and we end up building more barriers than we tear down!

At times the vision seems beyond our grasp; and yet, friends, it’s right there before us!  We feel it, for in the risen Christ we’ve experienced it; and in faith we know it’s true!  We worship in sure anticipation of its coming, and we affirm it in our prayer:  “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Even given the state of the world around us, as Christians we live unto the promise that it will not always be this way.  We dwell in this place between the now and the not yet, affirming what we have seen of the holy city of God in the person of Jesus Christ; and we long for that glorious moment when the promise will be fulfilled and our God will make all things new.

Of course, understanding, that our longing encompasses more than just our sighs; it involves the whole of our lives.

Our gospel reading this morning comes at a moment just prior to the events of the crucifixion.  Essentially, these are words of farewell: Jesus knew that this would be his last opportunity to speak with his disciples, and so at this point he gives them a special word: “I give you a new commandment,” he tells them, “that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.”

In one respect, there was nothing new about that that teaching. After all, the law and the prophets taught about love toward others, and Jesus himself had already said the essence of the law was to love God and to love one’s neighbor.  But this time, it was different; this time, Jesus was speaking of love with a deeper dimension: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”   Jesus was challenging his disciples to love in a way that’s not mitigated by law, or merely in keeping with what’s required but rather to care for each other with a love that is self-sacrificial, to give of themselves wholly in love; which was precisely the kind of love that Jesus was giving; the kind of love that he was about to demonstrate on the cross.

“In the same way I loved you, you love one another.” (The Message) In a way more so than any of the others, this was the commandment that would bind his disciples together as a community of faith. And it continues to be the commandment that shapes our very purpose as the church of Jesus Christ; it is what gives us the hope that we can transcend even our own human propensity to fall into the old habits of divisiveness and in fact build one another up! Love one another: with this new commandment, Jesus calls us to a new way of life.  In Christ, we are bound together in a new unity; his death and resurrection draws all of us together as one community founded on his blood and built on the very example of his love.

And the thing is, if Christ is indeed our glimpse of the reality of God’s promised kingdom – a foretaste of God’s new creation – then as we love one another after the manner of Christ, then we are living the reality of that promise.  Our longing for the vision to come becomes pro-active; we live as though it has already come to be; in the midst of the old, you see, we are living in the new! It’s what the theologian Robert Macafee Brown was talking about when he described the Christian community as “People of Coming Attractions.”  We are the people who confidently and joyously live our lives now in the way that it’s going to be!

To be sure, this is a high ideal; both personally and for us as the church?  I mean, the very idea of modeling ourselves and our lives after the manner of “the holy city, the new Jerusalem!”  To live life in such a way that casts away judgment, worry and concern in favor of the same comfort, healing and wholeness that Jesus shared and embodied among the people; to love one another – and that means all the “one anothers,” not just those with whom we’re comfortable – as Jesus Christ loved us; to embrace all of creation as brand new, and worthy of every bit of care that God has bestowed upon it! Think of it; think of us actually living as though God were dwelling among us!

That’s not as flip an assertion at it may sound – for indeed, sometimes in this “now but not yet” world, so often we govern ourselves as though God were little more than an absentee landlord; in that we we put God at a distance from the reality of our lives as persons and as a people.  Theologically, we confess otherwise; but that’s not how we live.

I was struck that in the original Greek, that passage that refers to God dwelling with humanity actually translates as God tenting with humanity, which means that God and God’s people will share the same tent and the same ground.  Historically, that hearkens back to the nomadic tradition of Israel and of a wandering people making camp in a promised land.  But for me, when I hear the word “tenting,” I think of camping trips I’ve made with family or friends, when all of us dwelt huddled together in one tent!  Trust me, friends, when you are sharing the same tent and the same ground with a bunch of people – and it’s cold, and it’s raining, and the tent’s starting to leak – your relationship suddenly becomes very close! You know your tentmates, and your tentmates know you; and so your behavior adjusts accordingly!

Well, when we live in that knowledge that God is “tenting” with us in every aspect of our lives, our behavior is bound to change!  It becomes a relationship so close that it spills over into every aspect of our lives as persons, as a people, and yes, as the church.  It affects how we deal with each other; our relationship with God changes every other relationship in our lives.  And it moves this whole business of “loving one another” from theory to practice; to care for others not out of obligation, nor some misguided sense of what’s fair, deserved or – God help us – whatever happens to be politically and socially correct this week. Tenting with God, you see, means loving as Christ loves us, and as God’s kingdom demands!

I know… it’s not easy for us to live that way; but then, it never has been.  I think that’s why Jesus called his disciples “little children,”   because when it comes to love, we are all just like children who are yearning for so much more but always just seem to fall short of the mark. But that doesn’t mean we don’t keep on yearning, and trying… because here’s the thing: sometimes, by God’s grace and leading, we get it right; and eventually, as we keep working at it, we’ll know love – true love – in all its fullness.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could wake up, in the morning when the day is new?” Wouldn’t it be nice if “peace on earth” was the reality for our lives together?  Wouldn’t it be nice for justice and love to prevail in all things, with the hungry being fed with good things?  Wouldn’t it be nice for mourning and crying and pain to be gone forever?  Wouldn’t it be nice? Oh, yes, it would; and the day will come when all of God’s promises will be fulfilled for a new heaven and new earth. Not yet, but someday, soon and very soon… but in the meantime, let us truly live unto that promise; loving one another and living out the reality of a new creation that is even now fashioned by the one who is “the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.”

And truly, for all these promises fulfilled, let our thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on April 24, 2016 in Easter, Jesus, Life, Love, Music, Sermon

 

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