Saturday, May 26, 2012

...And Nothing's Been The Same!

I quote from's article, "How the Holy SpiritMoves Today . . . in 100 Words or Less," and mention the ministries of several friends and people I admire: Jay Bakker and Vince Anderson of Revolution NYC, Phil and Stephanie Shepherd of The Eucatastrophe, Aaron Reddin of The One, Inc., Hugh Hollowell of Love Wins Ministries, Terry Ramone Smith and Rebecca Cranford Smith of The Van Atlanta. I wholeheartedly both endorse their ministries, and encourage you to support them. Yes, as a matter of fact, I do mean all of them...

Romans 8:22-27
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
"When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.
"I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, 'Where are you going?' But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.
"I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you."

Acts 2:1-21
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be,God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

This is the Word of the Lord.

I need to mention at the outset (because there’s no real way to include this at the end) that I’ll be closing with a meditation, a poem by Callid Keefe-Perry, co-convener of the Emergent Cohort in Rochester, NY.

For the Jewish people in the first century AD, The Feast of Pentecost was, in part, a commemoration of the day that Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments – the day that the Hebrews ceased being escaped slaves, following a pillar of cloud and flame, and became a cohesive people, dedicated to the worship of the one true and living God, guided by stringent communal and sacerdotal laws.

On that day when Moses came down from the mountain, nothing would ever be the same. From that moment the Hebrew people would go on to found a great nation, respected and feared for its valiant warriors and famous for its wise kings.

But by the first century AD, those glorious days gone. Judea was nothing more than a minor province of the Roman Empire, buckling under the weight of corrupt rulers, smothering under the burden of outrageous taxes. The great things God had done were legends, stories, memories, written in great scrolls that the priests read from, that the scribes debated over, that the children learned to read. They were holy scrolls, yes, the very Words of God… but when viewed in the harsh, biting reality of dusty, malnourished, thirsty, conquered and subservient Judea, they were just words.

Still and yet, the Jewish people stubbornly refused to give up hope. One could not be Jewish and not have hope. God had promised a Messiah, one who would re-establish David’s throne and return Israel to its former glory. The day would come when, once again, the yoke would be broken, and the glory of God would return to God’s people.

As the years rolled by, a person would pop up over there, claiming to be the Messiah, would gather up a band of followers, would end up getting himself killed, and the followers would scatter. Another would pop up over here, claim the same thing, gathering his own followers and meeting the same fate. Then the process would repeat itself. Theudas was one name, and Judas the Galilean another, according to Gamaleil, a teacher quoted in the Book of Acts.

There had been another one recently, another fellow from Galilee; he had shown real promise, some said, but in the end he had died just like the rest of them. And through it all, Judea stubbornly clung to the memory of its past glory, stubbornly went on with life, stubbornly went on with the feast of Pentecost, packing pilgrims into Jerusalem from all across the globe to once again remember the day that Moses came down the mountain with the tablets of stone.

None of them really had a clue what was going on in that little two-story house right over there.

Not quite two months ago, you see, in the big room on the second floor, the people who had followed that most recent claimant to the title of Messiah, the Galilean fellow, the one who had gotten crucified, had seen, spoken with, and touched that Galilean. Seen, spoken with, and touched him… because he had risen from the dead! And not more than ten days ago, they had watched as that same crucified-and-risen Galilean ascended into the clouds to sit at the right hand of God.

And even now, if you listened real hard, you could begin to hear a noise – the sound of rushing wind.

Many centuries before, the Hebrew people, the former slave nation, gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, and watched as God descended from Heaven, with smoke thunder, fire and the sound of a trumpet. Moses climbed the mountain and disappeared into the smoke, and received the Law of God.

When the Law was delivered, Moses came down from the mountain, and while it wouldn’t be an entirely accurate statement, it could be inferred that, as the smoke and fire lifted from the mountaintop, God went back up to heaven. ‘Way up there somewhere… and as the years passed, God seemed to become ever more distant, ever farther removed, more and more out of reach, except through the rituals, sacrifices, and instruments of worship.

But on that Pentecost day, in the upper room in that house in Jerusalem, God came down, with the sound of a rushing, mighty wind, with tongues of flame and a message in all languages for all people, and through the indwelling Holy Spirit, God stayed. And nothing would ever be the same.

Peter’s message, shorter than any I have ever heard or preached, started a firestorm that, to this day, burns unabated. Three thousand that first day responded to God’s grace; in the months and years that followed, God continued to move in directions that no one could anticipate, and at a speed that very nearly left the Apostles in the dust. People who would never have been allowed in the Temple courts came joyfully into relationship with their Creator: eunuchs and slaves and women and Samaritans and even Gentiles!

And God still moves today. God in the Holy Spirit has not at any point gone back to heaven, up there, in the distance, removed and remote, no. The Holy Spirit is still active, still moving in directions no one can anticipate, and at a speed that leaves us breathless in its wake. Maybe the noise isn’t like the wind, and perhaps we don’t see many tongues of fire, but the Spirit still falls today.

The Holy Spirit falls across the globe, in countries where being a Christian will still get you imprisoned and killed, as well as in our own country, where in many areas it seems you can find a church on every corner. The Holy Spirit falls in cathedrals, and it falls in storefront churches. The Holy Spirit falls in suburban America and in the tent cities of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

God’s Spirit moves in traditional denominational circles, and in new and growing fellowships outside of traditional church models and boundaries. Places like Pete’s Candy Store, a bar in Brooklyn, where Jay Bakker and Vince Anderson’s “Revolution New York City” meets every Sunday afternoon. God’s Spirit still inspires and supports people like Phil and Stephanie Shepherd, who reach out to the marginalized and forgotten through their church, “The Eucatastrophe,” in Fort Worth, Texas, and Hugh Hollowell’s “Love Wins” ministry in Raleigh, North Carolina. The Spirit moves and restores and heals in places like Little Rock, Arkansas, where Aaron Reddin heads a ministry called “The One,” operating a fleet of vans which deliver food and clothing and hope to Little Rock’s homeless population. The Spirit moves in Atlanta, Georgia, where Terry Ramone Smith and his wife Rebecca work to address the issues of homelessness with their own offshoot of Aaron’s ministry, “The Van Atlanta.”

The Holy Spirit still moves, still falls, still empowers, in ways we cannot recognize… but move and fall and empower it does.

The website challenged a variety of theologians, speakers, and writers to tell, in 100 words or less, how the Holy Spirit moves today. Their responses were both interesting and challenging. For example, Sam Hamilton-Poore, Adjunct Professor at San Francisco Theological Seminary, wrote, “Closer to us than our own breath and breathing, the Risen Christ fills us with his own Spirit – quietly, intimately. With this breath, this power, we then go about the everyday, unspectacular, grubby work of forgiveness. Breathe, forgive; breathe, forgive; breathe, forgive. Although we often long for the dazzling or spectacular, we live in a time, a world, in need of people who breathe in, regularly, the quiet power and grace of Christ's Spirit – and people who, likewise, breathe out, regularly, the power and grace of forgiveness. Our world – so spectacularly broken and burning – needs people for whom reconciliation is as normal and natural as breathing.”

Author and speaker Brian McLaren wrote, “On the grass-roots level, there are tens of thousands of Christians who aren't waiting for denominational leaders to fix things. They're just getting on with it. They're doing it, living it, making it real in their lives, in their neighborhoods, through small groups and mission trips and so on. When you have leaders at the top working for needed change, and people at the grass roots doing the same, and when you're confident that the Holy Spirit is behind it all, eventually the tide will turn and a new day will come.”

God is still here, the Holy Spirit still active, alive, vibrant. All you and I have to do, on this Day of Pentecost and beyond, is listen for the sound, look for the flame, and act when the Spirit moves…

Join me in this closing Pentecost meditation:

“My God is in the next room,
cooking unseen feasts
and humming;
moments of ache before rain
when the whole June cloud
is ready to burst through
though no drop has yet fallen;
dandelion blades that insist
adamantly they must reside directly
in the middle of your neighbor's
blacktopped suburban driveway;
sights of the shadow of a bird flitting
by the sill near the bed of an aging Grace,
who can no longer move but counts herself
lucky because at least she can still see.
This is my God:
expectant and grinning
wild and near.”

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Silent Apostle

Inspiration for this sermon comes from David Kalas of I am quoting Bruce Laverman from his post on Evangelism Connections.

The audio from this sermon:

Check this out on Chirbit

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus — for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.”
So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us — one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

1 John 5:9-13
If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

John 17:6-19
“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

When I was preparing for today’s message, I came across a quote about our Gospel reading from Bruce Laverman: “Here Christ is praying not just for the Apostles Peter, James, and John.  But He is praying also for Jerome, Augustine and Bernard.  He is interceding to the Father for St. Francis, John Hus, and John Wycliffe.  He brings Calvin and Zwingli, Wesley and Whitefield before His Father, as well as Graham and Peale and Martin Luther King, as well as John XXIII, and Bishop Leslie Newbigin.  Here Christ is praying for you and for me, and for all his disciples who would follow Him into the lost and broken world of the 21st Century so loved by Him.”

There is a lot of truth in that statement. Think of all the stories we’ve heard, all our lives, about the great people who helped shape Christianity. Think about people who, because of their faith in the risen Christ, changed the world. If there are names he mentioned that we don’t know, there are other names we can use to replace them: Mother Teresa, Corrie ten Boom, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, John Knox, Karl Barth… not to mention the people alive today who, when you say the word “Christian,” spring immediately to mind.

It’s easy for me to imagine Jesus praying that prayer to include those men and women who personified the courage and conviction of faith in the risen Christ, who so often suffered ridicule, persecution, imprisonment, and even death for the things they believed.

Reverend Laverman’s last sentence, “…here Christ is praying for you and me, and for all his disciples…” is harder for me to imagine for myself. I can’t mentally place myself in the same league as Augustine or Calvin or ten Boom or Bonhoeffer or King.

That’s why I really enjoy our reading this morning from the Book of Acts.

The reading from Acts takes place in that time just after Jesus has ascended to Heaven. The disciples return to Jerusalem, and spend their time together in the Upper Room, along with the women and Jesus’ brothers, all praying.

At some point, Peter stands up and declares that someone has to take Judas’ place among the Apostles. I don’t know why Peter was so dead-set on filling the vacancy right then; it wasn’t like they were overworked, or falling behind on whatever it was that Peter thought they were supposed to be doing. Perhaps he thought that by filling the spot they could erase the memory of the evil that Judas had done. Most likely Peter was just being pre-Pentecost Peter: headstrong, opinionated, rushing into things half-cocked.

Our reading skips a pretty important part, the twentieth verse, where Peter uses Scripture to make his case – “For,” said Peter, “it is written in the Book of Psalms: ‘May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,’ and, ‘May another take his place of leadership.’”

Perhaps that alone was Peter’s motivation: making sure that the Scriptures were honored.

Whatever the case, nominations were made, then they prayed for God to choose one – Joseph called Barsabbas or Matthias. They did the Biblical equivalent of flipping a coin, yes, but this was done with the firm belief that God determined the result, which, when it was all said and done, was Matthias.

And that is the first and last time we ever hear anything about Matthias in the Scriptures.

Imagine that – brought in to the inner circle, rubbing shoulders with the biggest names in Christianity, Simon Peter and John and James and Andrew and Matthew and even Thomas, and we never hear another peep about the guy!

Volumes have been written about Apostles – even Paul, who wasn’t anywhere near them when the Resurrection or the Ascension happened, but who went on to wrote most of the New Testament. Their individual biographies may be sketchy, but they are the most famous people in Christianity. These are the guys who get churches and schools and hospitals and cities and millions and millions of people named after them. But not Matthias.

Now, he didn’t just take his membership plaque and go home. There are several theories and conflicting traditions about what all he did before his death, though many of the ancient sources can’t even agree on what his name was.

While the third-century historian, Hippolytus of Rome, claims Matthias died in Jerusalem of old age, another tradition has Matthias being stoned, and then beheaded, in Jerusalem. Yet another tradition holds that Matthias began preaching in Jerusalem, then going on an evangelistic mission to the barbarians and cannibals in what we know today as the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, where he was crucified around 80AD.

But none of that is certain, because Matthias wasn’t one of the big names.

You know, if we all sat around for awhile and thought about it, we could probably come up with a pretty lengthy list of famous, influential Christians throughout history. Depending on the particular theological branch, we might include everyone from Harry Emerson Fosdick to Smith Wigglesworth to Bishop Fulton Sheen to Gustavo Gutierrez and Andre Trocme, and we could go on and on. The list could be hundreds of names long, encompassing two millennia, but it would represent only a tiny fraction of all the men and women and children who have placed their faith in the risen Christ.

And not only is that OK, that’s actually the preferable place to be, even if you’re like me, where the most dangerous place in the world to stand is between me and an audience.

For most human beings, when asked about the people and events that have influenced their lives, their beliefs, their minds and their spiritual journeys the most, the names and faces that come to mind are not the big names. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that, in the context of the greater portion of humanity, it’s the people of Christianity who don’t have TV shows or write books or give great sermons who truly change lives.

Oh, sure, we could argue that Peter and Paul and John and James were, and are, responsible for changing untold billions of lives, and it isn’t that they were the exception to the rule; rather, they weren’t all that well-known in their lifetimes, outside of their own circles of influence. Only as Christianity continued to grow, and their writings were circulated among the churches, did they become household names. Like many well-known Christians who came after them – Corrie ten Boom, Mother Teresa, Saint Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, their reputations grew not because they had good PR and marketing, but because they served God faithfully, even in the face of adversity.

While Peter’s sermon on Pentecost resulted in thousands came to believe in Christ, this serves, for most Christians, as the exception rather than the rule. The most effective example for most of us is Peter, stepping out of his comfort zone to visit Cornelius and bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. The most effective example is Phillip with the eunuch. The most effective example is Paul, reaching out to small groups of people in the cities he visited, establishing communities of worship that grew and thrived long after he had moved on.

You see, while words spoken to tends and hundreds and thousands are all well and good, the greatest good is done not within the context of the pulpit, but within the context of relationship.

We never know if Matthias preached a sermon. But we know that Matthias had been with the disciples since the beginning. He had seen the healings and the exorcisms; he’d taken part in the feeding of the five thousand. He had watched Lazarus come out of the tomb. He had witnessed the risen Christ, standing right there in that very room, and had watched the sky until his neck was sore as Jesus Christ ascended to heaven.

He was there the whole time, but we never see his name mentioned in the Gospels. He doesn’t pipe up and ask Jesus to clarify a parable, or step out on the water with Peter, or raise a ruckus when the woman breaks open the alabaster jar; he isn’t listed as one of those who fell asleep in Gethsemane when Jesus prayed, or ran away when the Temple guard marched in.

Yet he had been there. Quietly, actively, faithfully… and chosen by God.

Over the millennia, Saint Matthias has become the patron saint of alcoholism, carpenters, smallpox, tailors, and the cities of Gary, Indiana as well as Great Falls and Billings, Montana. And I want to add one more patronage to the list: I want to suggest to you that Matthias is the patron saint of the vast majority of Christians: the not-famous ones.

Matthias is the patron saint of our parents’ good advice, of long talks over coffee, of mutually shared hopes and dreams and prayers. Henri Nouwen wrote, “The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing… not healing, not curing… that is a friend who cares.” Matthias is the patron saint of friends who care. Matthias is the patron saint of relationships.

Matthias is the patron saint of doing the right thing even when no one is looking, of giving up lunch to feed a hungry person, of speaking up for the rights of someone who can’t thank you, even though it’s unpopular, of giving someone you barely know a ride, even though it’s inconvenient. Matthias is the patron saint of faith in action, one-on one.

Though he was chosen by God after the rest of the Apostles, this silent Apostle, Matthias, was no less chosen by God than Abraham, or David, or Peter or John.

And you and I are no less chosen by God to join in fellowship, in worship, in relationship, and in service

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Have I Mentioned that Love Wins?

I'm indebted to the writing of Mark Sandlin of Vandalia Presbyterian Church for helping me articulate the beginning of this sermon. Statistical information is taken from a video presentation by David Kinnaman of the Barna Group.

Oh, and the thing about quoting Hugh Hollowell rather than Rob Bell when I say "Love Wins?" Hugh said it first.

Here's the audio from the sermon.

Check this out on Chirbit

Acts 10:44-48
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

1 John 5:1-6
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.

John 15:9-17
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

There are times I look around me at the Church Universal and wonder: At what point did the wheels come off the bus?

We Christians excel at many things: Worship, helping others, weddings, funerals, praying… but what many Christians, both individually and as groups, seem to be best at is the art of missing the point completely.

We have used the Bible to support, promote and act upon some pretty un-Christian things over the millennia: slavery, holocaust, segregation, subjugation of women, apartheid, the Spanish Inquisition, domestic violence, all sorts of exploitation, and the list could go on and on.

In every case, Christians assert their confident conviction that they are adhering to the will of God, quoting (or to be precise, misquoting and prooftexting) Scriptures in order to bolster their arguments. And in every case, over time, as we become more skilled at translating the original languages and more adept at contextualizing passages of Scripture, cooler heads prevail and we discover that the Bible in general and Saint Paul specifically weren’t condoning slavery, did not in fact support the subjugation of women, but in fact promoted integration within the church and, by extension, society, and the list could go on and on.

We discover, every time, and much to our surprise, that (to quote my friend and Mennonite pastor Hugh Hollowell) “Love wins.”

And then we forget, because some other issue comes up, some other political group co-opts the name of God to support their agenda, and the vicious cycle starts all over again.

It’s really no surprise, when you think of it, that a study by the Barna Group, an Evangelical research firm, showed that a staggering majority of people outside the Church use some very harsh words to describe Christians: “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “insensitive to others,” “too involved in politics,” they say that “present-day Christianity is no longer like Jesus intended,” and the list could go on and on.

Now, understand that the Barna Group, as an Evangelical firm, is speaking specifically about Evangelical Christians. As Presbyterians, we fall under the heading of “Mainline Protestants,” or what the Barna Group labels “other Christians.”

So we can say with some justification that we’re not like the people described in that Barna survey. Our denomination and our church welcomes all kinds of people, inviting participation at all levels regardless of who they are or what they look like!

But asking someone who does not embrace Christianity to understand the nuances of doctrinal and theological differences between Catholic and Protestant and Mainline and Evangelical and Fundamentalist is like expecting someone who is not a Muslim to understand the difference between Shia and Suni, or someone that does not golf to know when to use a five iron and when to use a nine iron.

Further, our protests are drowned out by the loudest Christian voices – voices which, in the name of God, push legislators to pass laws to “make people act right,” voices that (in the name of Jesus) fight anti-bullying programs in schools, voices that speak hate and exclusion and judgment and condemnation from the television screen, the radio speaker, the web browser and the pulpit, and the list could go on and on.

Well, then, how do we, as compassionate, caring, nonjudgmental, mainline Protestant Christians, go about shifting this paradigm, changing the perception of people on the outside, helping them understand that not all of us are like the loudest voices?

Do we buy up billboards? Maybe set up a FaceBook page? Radio and television ads? Hire a PR firm to do an image makeover?

Most of those things – perhaps even the PR firm idea – have already been done. Besides, and I’ve said this before: if by talking more often, talking to more people, and talking louder, we could bring people into relationship with Jesus Christ, everyone would by now already be in relationship with Jesus Christ.

So how do we do it? How do we overcome the negative perceptions of Christianity (and, by extension, Christ) to help bring people into the Kingdom of God? How do we win the battle for the hearts and minds and souls of the human race?

Love wins.

In our Gospel reading today (as well as, I dare say, the vast majority of the Gospel of John), when Jesus speaks of “love” he uses a very specific word – in Greek, it’s the word “agape.” The concept behind agape is a love that is completely outwardly focused, that provides hospitality, caring, compassion, support, assistance, all without any thought to what it gets in return.

And on the very night of his betrayal, mere hours from his arrest, trial and crucifixion, Jesus makes it clear that agape is the kind of love that is not afraid to go to extremes: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Love wins.

When Jesus calls the disciples (and, by extension, all who follow Him) his friends, it isn’t simply a term of endearment. Friendship in first-century Judea was a serious matter. To be considered a friend was to be in a position of honor. Being a friend meant being treated as kin with all the attendant privileges and obligations. To be a friend meant to look out for the welfare of the other, to put the other's needs on an equal footing with one's own.

Friendship implied reciprocity as well -- to consider someone a friend meant counting on that person to return that level of concern and care. When Jesus calls the disciples “friends,” he isn’t adding them on FaceBook, or saying “hi, how are the kids” as he passes in the hallway. He has shared with them what the Father has revealed to him, and he has given them the task of going out and sharing this revelation with the world. He is speaking to them on the last night before he is to lay down his life for them, and he is letting them know that he expects no less from them in return.

What’s more, by elevating them from the role of “servant” to the role of “friend,” Jesus is eliminating the most divisive element in the community of the disciples at that point, and (can I be honest?) at any point in the Church’s history.

From time to time in the Gospels we read about the disciples arguing over who was to be first in the Kingdom of Heaven – who would get the thrones closest to Jesus, for example. That was a very familiar concept in their time, and it’s just as common today. Go to a big banquet, and all the important people are sitting at the dais. In a boardroom, they’re seated nearest the CEO. As far as the religious community is concerned, the biggest churches with the flashiest programs and the slickest television programs generally get the most attention.

But we are chosen by Christ to be so much more than that. I would contend that churches and individuals who are driven to be the biggest and best and wealthiest and most prominent are stuck in “servant” mode.

And lest you think I am saying that being a servant is a bad thing (because serving is so much a part of living in agape), let me explain my context.

The way Jesus is using the word “servant” here is most like how we would use the word “employee.” As an employee in a company, you engage in healthy competition at best: striving to be the best compared to everyone around you. At worst, you survive by not being the worst in the company as compared to “this guy” or “that guy.” Neither healthy competition, nor bare survival, have any place in the Kingdom of Heaven.

We aren’t chosen to be a crowd of backbiters and infighters, jostling to get the seat nearest the Throne of God. We aren’t called into relationship so we can count ourselves relatively righteous as compared to that Samaritan over there. We’re called to be washing feet. We’re chosen to be welcoming the Samaritan, and the eunuch, and the Gentile into the joyous fellowship of the Kingdom on equal footing with the rest of us!

We are chosen by Christ to forever proclaim that love wins!

The question hanging in the air is, of course, “How?” How do we love like this? How do we show the truth of Christian love to a world that’s been jaded, that’s been shocked by hypocrisy, that’s been hurt by religious insensitivity, that’s been enraged by political posturing?

The answer is neither quick nor easy.

Love wins, yes, but love does not win by making statements or by winning arguments or by shouting down the opposition. Love wins by doing the things that Jesus did.

Hear the Word of God, from the Epistle to the Philippians: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!”

When Jesus speaks in our Gospel reading of laying down one’s life for one’s friends, the most immediate and accurate association we make with that statement is Jesus’ death on the cross. But there is more than one way to lay down one’s life.

Turn just two chapters back from our Gospel reading to the thirteenth chapter of John, and you’ll see the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, present at and active in the creation of the universe and all that is in it, the Emmanuel, God-With-Us, stripping down to put on a servant’s loincloth and washing the disciples’ dirty feet… and doing it as an example for us. He laid aside propriety and office and reputation, taking on the lowest and least honorable of jobs, because, as we just heard from the Epsitle to the Philippians, that’s what he had been doing all along.

And examples abound within our own lifetimes of men and women who have laid down their lives. Mother Teresa laid down her life for the poor of Calcutta, India. Archbishop Oscar Romero laid down his life for the poor of El Salvador.

We lay down our life when we risk others’ good opinion of us by standing up for the oppressed. We lay down our life when we endure ridicule and hatred for speaking truth to power. We lay down our life when feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger and visiting the sick and imprisoned becomes more important than paying the cable bill. We lay down our life when listening to a hurting acquaintance is more important than getting to bed on time.

In the Epistle of First John, we read, “We love because he first loved us.” Through the love of God, instructed through the communication of prayer, empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit, we who did not choose, but were chosen by Christ, are called not to do everything, but to do the next thing. Mother Teresa once said, “If you can’t feed a hundred hungry people, feed just one.” And that is the key. We can all do one thing at a time. Look, we are not in this world, or in this fellowship with Christ, as independent contractors. We are a body, spread far and wide across the globe.

And if each of us do what we can, when we can, to the fullest extent that we can…

…then love wins.