Saturday, May 5, 2012

Sunday's Sermon

1 John 4:7-21

7Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. 13By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

14And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

17Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19We love because he first loved us. 20Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

            I grew up in a large family. There were five of us children. We fought all the time.
I think the biggest fights were over who got to sit by the window or in the front seat. Of course, since I was the oldest, I thought I should always sit up front or by the window. My siblings for some strange reason disagreed. We’d head out to the car and the shouting would begin. “Front” or “window” would be called out.  And then the arguments would begin over who said it first. The next most frequent fight was over whose turn it was to do the most dreaded tasks in cleaning up the kitchen after supper. And we’d squabble among ourselves over what TV program to watch (when our parents weren’t around).
            The church doesn’t seem to be all that different. In fact, I think it’s much the same. Congregations fight and aruge over the most unconsequential things: the color of the carpet, the rearranging of furniture, the pictures in the parlor, whether the service should be contemporary or traditional. The denomination has been fighting among ourselves for at least 20 years. In fact, if you look at all the Presbyterian denominations in this country, all, with the exception of the Cumberlands, left the main denomination over doctrinal disagreements. And, it seems it has always been that way.
            Marcus Borg tells another story about church division. It comes from the late 1800's in North Carolina shortly after the Civil War. A small town businessman from a remote community in the mountains of North Carolina went to one of the larger cities--I think it was Raleigh--and there for the first time in his life, he saw an ice-making machine. Now, machines that could make artificial ice were a recent invention; he thought this was wonderful because it meant you could have ice all summer long. So he returned to his small community in the mountains of North Carolina--he happened to be a Baptist--and told his Baptist church about this great new invention. Within a month the church had split into ice and no-ice Baptists. The theological issue in this case being is it a violation of the natural order established by God to make ice out of season. If God had wanted us to have ice in the summertime, God would have raised the freezing temperature of water seems to have been the argument.
            Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth reflects his concerns about their disagreements with each other and with him. Less is known about the circumstances of the writing of the letters we attribute to John, but they also seem to reflect disagreements or fears about false teachings.  All of this calls into question Tertullian’s quote “Look at those Christians, how they love one another.”
            I want to clarify that I don’t think the fact that we disagree with each other means that we don’t love each other. We can disagree and treat each other with love and respect. But most of the time when we disagree with each other, our disagreement seems to move quickly from the object of our disagreement to a personal dislike. It’s the way we disagree with each other that says we don’t love each other. We say hurtful things about those we disagree with. We refuse to talk with them or to be in the same room with them. We don’t treat each other with dignity and respect. We cast them out of our fellowship. We set up a new denomination. We call them names.
            Loving one another is difficult. I read somewhere, “It’s easy to love your neighbor in the abstract; it’s difficult in traffic.” It’s easy to love someone far away—in Africa or Mexico, say where we don’t have to interact with them. We can imagine their plight and then their gratitude for our meager generosity. It’s a lot harder to love those we are in contact with on a day to day basis. The boss who wants us to work harder and harder and yet seems to ignore our efforts. The child who forgets our birthday and all we gave up to rear her. The next door neightbor whose cows are constantly getting through the unrepaired fence and tramples our garden. Loving someone next door, in the same house, in the same family, day after day is really hard.  Loving our brother and sister who we have seen is hard. It’s so much easier to love God whom we can’t see.
            I think the writer of this letter understands this. The writer tells us that God loves us first and that because God loves us, we can love each other. In fact, it is only becasue God loves us first that we are able to love one another. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegard told this story:
A prince wanted to find a maiden suitable to be his queen. One day while running an errand in the local village for his father, he passed through a poor section. As he glanced out the windows of the carriage, his eyes fell upon a beautiful peasant maiden. During the ensuing days he often passed by the young lady and soon fell in love.
But he had a problem. How would he seek her hand? He could order her to marry him. But even a prince wants his bride to marry him freely and voluntarily and not through coercion. He could put on his most splendid uniform and drive up to her front door in a carriage drawn by six horses. But if he did this he would never be certain that the maiden loved him or was simply overwhelmed with all of the splendor.
The prince came up with another solution. He would give up his kingly robe. He moved, into the village, entering not with a crown but in the garb of a peasant. He lived among the people, shared their interests and concerns, and talked their language. In time the maiden grew to love him, because of who he was and because he loved her first.
The writer of the letter tells us that God has loved us first and sent his Son so that we might live through him. It is Jesus’ example that shows us what love looks like. It is Jesus who shows us how we should love one another. Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, healed the sick. Jesus also ate with the Pharisees. He spent time with the rich. He didn’t shun those who disagreed with him. He treated them with respect. He sat with the outcasts, the lepers. On the cross, he asked God to forgive those who tortured and killed him.
Love is not easy. But it is possible. My sisters and I don’t fight over who gets to sit in the front seat anymore because it’s just not relevant. We don’t agree on politics or religion. We tend to ignore each other’s FaceBook political and religious posts (except those sisters who agree with each other). We love each other, though. We will support each other. Our love has matured. That is a better translation for the word teleos that the English translates as perfect. It is mature love that we fcan ollow Jesus’ example to grow into. Mature love that loves our brother and sister. Well, even so, loving them in traffic is still hard for me.