Together: Week Four - "Loving Together"
The sermon this week is centered around the fourth of our Five Things: Love. And the question that we are going to be asking is a simple one, but one that carries with it some series implications as to how we live our lives both as individuals and as a community of faith.
Are We Loving God, Loving People and Loving the World?
Jesus said this:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)Let me tell you a little bit about John, the guy who wrote The Gospel According To John. John was one of the "Sons of Thunder," what some scholars believe is a reference to his father whose name was Zebedee. It's been offered that perhaps Zebedee had a freakishly notorious temper, hence the nickname.
I have no idea if that is true or not, but it sounds cool.
What we do know from John's account is that he was a fisherman, and probably had a pretty good business with his family. He and his brother James just walked away from the whole thing, though, when Jesus came to them and told them to leave their nets and follow him.
In fact, they pretty much left Zebedee sitting there mending nets and just took off with Jesus.
I bet that really ticked Zebedee off---especially if he really did have a bad temper.
John was known as the Beloved Disciple. He even called himself "The disciple whom Jesus loved," which seems a little presumptuous, doesn't it? Does this mean that he didn't love the other guys? I wonder if John was needled by the other disciples and called the Aramaic version of "brown noser," behind his back. There was one moment when Peter seems to be overly concerned about John, and even asks Jesus in the event that he exits stage left what is to become of him. I think he asked that out of meanness.
Here's the thing, though, John was the disciple that Jesus entrusted the care of his mother to when he was dying on the cross. You don't do that if you don't really love the guy your asking.
The passage I quoted is very interesting. Jesus uses the word entole when he declares that it is a command. Entole stresses the authority of what is commanded, which makes sense considering that what Jesus is commanding his disciples to do is something that they should have been doing already.
When Jesus says that he is giving a "new" command, he's not really ploughing new ground by telling the disciples to love one another. Leviticus 19:18 exhorts the Hebrew people to love their neighbors as themselves.
What's new about this is how Jesus qualifies it at the end. "...As I have loved you."
So how did Jesus love his disciples?
"There is no greater love than this," Jesus told them once, "that a man would lay down his life for his friends." Then he said, "And you are my friends."
Jesus loved his disciples with the kind of love that prompted him to choose them from the crowd, serve them like a servant and die for them like a Savior.
St. Jerome the great church historian and the man who translated the Bible into Latin, which is pretty much like inventing the wheel when it comes to theological moments of progress, wrote about some of the legends told about John when he was an old man.
Jerome said that John would totter into the assembly of the faithful and would invariably say, "My little children, love one another." His disciples asked him once, "Master, why do you always say that?" He replied, "It is the Lord's command. If this alone be done, it is enough."
Clement, one of the ancient church fathers, wrote about another instance in John's life where John told a pagan man, who was not a Christian that if the man was condemned to die, he (John) would gladly give his own life to save him---such was his devotion to Jesus. He said to the man, "...for your life, I will give my own."
Tertullian, another of the ancient church fathers wrote of the early Christians that after being inspired by these and other stories from the lives of the apostles who walked with Christ that they began to live their own lives in the same manner. A plague struck a town near Rome and Christians were the only ones who would go there to care for the sick and the dying. Some of these Christians contracted the plague and died as well. Their love for God, for people and the world overwhelmed those who encountered them. Tertullian wrote that the pagans said of the Christians, "See...how they love one another!"
Historian E.R. Dodds wrote that love was the "major cause" of the spread of Christianity in the first century. These stories and the stories of the martyrs who died for their faith and for one another sparked a movement that would spread across the known world in a little over two centuries.
Their example should cause us to ask of ourselves:
Are We Loving God, Loving People, Loving the World?
Things have changed a bit since those initial heady days of early Christianity. Our fervor has cooled just a tad. The Christians of the first century were spurred on by a spirit fueled by love. These days, Christianity seems to be focused on anything else but love. At least that's how it seems to most nonChristians.
What about the next Christians---the next generation of Believers? Will there be any?
The Barna Group conducted some research in 2009 and polled non Christians about their feelings regarding Christians and Christianity. They discovered that:
91% describe Christians as antihomosexual
87% describe Christians as judgemental
85% describe Christians as hypocritical
72% describe Christians as out of touch with reality
70% describe Christians as insensitive to others
Seriously. Are we really who we say we are?
The miracle of the success of the early church is hard to ignore. They worshipped and shared the gospel in hostile environments where they were often persecuted for their faith. They had no buildings for worship, gathering instead in homes and sometimes even in caves or, in the case of many Christians in Rome, beneath the city in tombs. They had no scriptural canon--no Bible--to speak of. There was the Hebrew scriptures and perhaps some letters from the occasional apostle, but nothing compiled, bound and sitting on the pulpit of their gathering place or in their homes. All hey had were the words of Jesus that had been passed down to them and their own lives.
And the love that was foundation of all they lived and believed was more than enough to spark a movement that changed the world.
So what can we do to recapture the kind of love that creates a movement? What kind of love can actually get us off of our butts and moving?
I think there's three things that can guide us, and they are found in the question that we posed at the beginning of all of this: Love God, Love People & Love The World.
First, we need to Love God. For people who aren't Christians, or who might be struggling with their faith, this one might hang them up a bit. It's one thing to believe in God, but to love God? Man, that's a little weird to even say for some people. Here's something I've discovered about relationships. You have to work at them. Both people in the relationship have to sacrifice something in order for the relationship to work. Sometimes they have to sacrifice a lot of somethings.
Here's an example: If I don't do what is necessary to be connected emotionally, spiritually and physically with my wife, she will begin to wonder what sort of commitment that I have with her. When I am not doing my part to be connected to my wife, she feels it intensely. As a guy I have a tendency to just sort of think that everything is fine even if it's not, and even if I do realize that it's not fine, I am so adverse to admitting my part in why it's not fine that I simply keep claiming that everything is fine.
I am sure that there are no other guys who do this. That was sarcasm.
What I have to do in order to restore the connectedness of our relationship is to do my part to focus on being emotionally, spiritually and physically connected with Merideth. It might mean some sacrifice. I may not get to do exactly what I want. I may not get to talk about me (my favorite subject) every second of the day. I might have to---wait for it---listen to her.
Here's the thing. God has sacrificed to keep your relationship with Him connected. Jesus who was God in the flesh came to take on the sins of the world, to be tortured and executed on our behalf, and to rise again defeating sin and death for good.
Maybe the only sacrifice that you need to make is saying "yes," to him and following Jesus. Or maybe it's just turning over those big decisions that you have to make to God.
What is keeping you from living the life that God means for you? What are you holding back?
Second, I think we need to Love People. Lots of Christians say that they love other people, and some even affirm the idea that they love people as they love themselves. But it's only an idea until you do something. Up until you actually do something that indicates that you love people, it's meaningless to say it. Once you do something that shows that you do indeed love others as you love yourself, than it's an action. Love is a verb, people.
And here's something for all the Christians who might be tuning in... It begins in your own church family. What was it that Jesus said to his disciples? "Everyone will know that you are my followers by the way you treat your brothers and sisters, by the way you love one another."
I have a question. How can Christians say that they love people, but then act like they despise, hold in low esteem, can't stand to be around, don't even want to be in the same room with people who are supposed to be their brothers and sisters in Christ?
Don't worry. That lands on me, too. Christians, how willing are you to lay down your needs, your desires, wants, preferences, etc. for the sake of unity in your own church? If most of us answer honestly, we would have to say---"not very willing at all."
I read this story about some British soldiers who were in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in World War II. The camp commander was a sadistic, cruel man. One day an officer counted the shovels the prisoners had been using to work and declared that one was missing. The men were lined up and told that unless the offender came forward the entire group would be executed. Finally one man stepped forward and said, "I took it." The man was beaten to death in front of the other men. Later it was discovered that none of the shovels were missing after all. The man had simply laid down his life for his friends.
Doesn't really sound like church all that much does it? None of us are ever really asked to lay down our very lives for our fellow believers, but we are often asked to give up something that we want so that someone else can draw closer to Christ.
Finally, we should Love the World. There's this verse in the Bible that most people have memorized. In fact if you look in the end zone at most football games, there will be some dude waving a sign with the reference to this verse on it. Of course I am talking about John 3:16. The verse begins like this: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son..."
How did God love the world? He SO loved it. He SO loved it that he gave his Son, that God became one of us, took on human form, embraced frailty, humbled himself, and loved us enough to die for us, and then was raised from the dead so that we don't have to fear what comes next after we die.
That's a lot of SO.
So... How do we show that kind of SO to the world, too? I think we can start by declaring that the Resurrection is real. Resurrection, the promise of new life, is happening all around us, but we don't often see it. And we can participate in the resurrection of this world and of the people in it if we are willing.
That's why we should practice "Random Acts of Resurrection." What would that look like, you might be wondering? It could be as simple as paying for the meal of the person behind you in the drive through. Or leaving a roll of quarters on the counter of the laundromat. Cleaning up a mess that someone made in a booth at the fast food joint you frequent.
Or it could be more challenging like stopping to help someone who is need on the side of the road. Cleaning your city streets, and sidewalks on a Saturday morning. Grilling hamburgers and hot dogs at an inner city park and then giving them away for free.
This week we'll have some little cards available for anyone who wants to practice some random acts of resurrection. We put "random act of kindness" on the card so when people leave them, the person who received the random act of resurrection won't get freaked out by our Christian-y way of describing it.
But it is resurrection that we are proving when we do things like this... you know that right?
Are you up for it?
What will people say of us? Will they say like they said of the early Christians, "See...how they love one another." "See... how they love the God they serve." "See... how they love others as themselves." "See....how they SO love the world."