The Way Of The Cross - Wk. 2: Connect
This week I'll be continuing the sermon series "The Way of The Cross: Following Christ On the Lenten Path."
Each week we'll be exploring one of the core values of our church as a Lenten practice, a spiritual discipline that we can take up --both as individuals and as a community.
The story is told about a small, country church where the pastor called a special meeting of the congregation to approve the purchase of a brand new chandelier. After some discussion pro and con, an old farmer stood up and said, "Buying a new chandelier may seem like a good idea to you, but I’m against it for three reasons. First of all, it’s too expensive and we can’t afford one. Second, there isn’t anybody around here who knows how to play one. And third, what we really need in this church is a new light fixture."
Sometimes in our life together as a Jesus-following community we find ourselves in disagreement with one another, but if we dig just a bit deeper below the differences--we discover that we've lost sight of what we ought to be focused on to begin with...
Our conversations about our differences need to begin with how we are connected. If we are to be truly connected as a congregation, if we are to practice CONNECT as a spiritual discipline, we need to remember this one thing:
We CONNECT by building bridges of LOVE that withstand the weight of our differences.
Hear the words of the Apostle Paul writing to the first century church in Rome--words that seem so relevant and real to us all these centuries later.
9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
This is the outline for how to be a true community of Christ. It's pretty challenging, isn't it? Does this look like the kind of church you'd like to attend? I know I would.
But I have to ask myself, "Where did Paul get this? Where did he come up with all of this talk of sacrificial love and mutual forbearance, of harmony, unity and peace? All of those things are nice--but what made Paul so adamant about them? Because almost all of his writings were focused on this kind of thing.
He got this from Jesus himself.
“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)
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?
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.
John the Beloved Disciple, who is widely believed to be the author of the Gospel of John, included long conversations that Jesus had with his followers, including prayers that they be connected, united and love one another. John embodied this kind of love.
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."
It was the example of followers of Jesus like John that inspired subsequent generations of Christians to live selflessly for one another and for the world.
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.
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 anti-homosexual
87% describe Christians as judgmental
85% describe Christians as hypocritical
72% describe Christians as out of touch with reality
70% describe Christians as insensitive to others
Most of us Christian-types find this a little disconcerting considering we don't like to hear that we aren't absolutely nailing it.
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. All they had were the words of Jesus that had been passed down to them.
And those words CONNECTED them, drew them together and enveloped them in love.
So what can we do to recapture the kind of connection that creates a movement like that?
We get back to basics. We rediscover the love that Jesus wanted us to share and to show. We find ways to be CONNECTED through this love.
I think we need to ask ourselves three very important questions that can help us truly CONNECT by building bridges of Love that withstand our differences.
First, we need to Love God.
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: 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. 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 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, 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? Whatever that might be for you, maybe it's time to surrender it and simply pursue your relationship with God with all the love you can muster.
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. 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."
Unity does not mean conformity. If all of us looked, sounded, acted and believed alike---that would be a pretty boring church, wouldn't it? So, are we willing to value unity over conformity? Are we willing to have tough conversations and hang on to each other when we don't agree?
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.
These three questions--Are we loving God, Loving Each Other & Loving the World? When we can say yes to them all--then we are starting to figure out what it means to CONNECT.
We CONNECT by building bridges of LOVE that withstand the weight of our differences.It's time to take action--to add this to our journey through Lent. I want each of us to ask ourselves--"What do I need to do to say yes to all of these questions?"
Maybe it might mean dedicating a significant part of your day to prayer, devotion and worship.
Maybe it might mean finding that person in your church who you know you disagree with and then inviting them to lunch to talk about what you have in common.
Maybe it might mean finding ways to live out the Resurrection every day by SO loving the world through random acts of kindness to your neighbors, welcoming the stranger, giving of your time, talent and treasure to show you mean what you say when you say you are a Jesus-follower.
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."