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.

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