For the next few weeks we are going to talk about love. There are many discussions of Christian love out there. People have written whole books on the topic of Christian love. At the same time, Christian morality and ethics are often summed up simply by Jesus’ own summary, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself,” or by his new commandment, “Love one another.” Centuries of theology and some great writing have been cast aside (unfortunately) by three words in the first letter of John, “God is love.”
As I have said before saying something like “God is love” is like pointing to a facet on the diamond that is the nature of God. It is one experience of God but it is not the limit of God. God is love and God is peace and God is justice and God is judgement and God is mercy. All of those are valid statements. If I only dwell on one of those aspects I can easily turn God into an idol that is not actually the God we are supposed to worship. Sometimes we can get so focused on the love of God that we forget that there is more to the story than divine warm fuzzies. If we only say, “God loves you” but never figure out how to answer the “So what?” question, we are missing the point.
But love is certainly important and an idea that shows up again and again throughout the scriptures. So what does love have to do with being disciples? Simply, growing in faith and growing in depth should mean growing in love: growing in love for God, growing in love for one another, growing in love for the world. If one aspect of God is love, then as we grow closer to God, that love will overflow upon us. God’s love for us becomes our love for others.
A couple of weeks ago at the worship conference I attended we heard a presentation by a minister named Mark Charles. He is an ordained, Dutch reformed minister who also is Navajo on his mother’s side and does ministry with Native American groups. He started by reminding us of a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. who said that 11:00 on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. But rather than decrying that continued reality, Mark said that for Native Americans this is good news. Most of their religious history has been about being assimilated; losing their culture. It has been the church saying, “Stop beating your drums; stop chanting your songs; stop dancing in prayer and sit quietly in your pew.”
So he said that if you have a diverse community and are serious about diversity, rather than trying to please everybody, let people express their worship honestly. Let the Native American people plan a service with drums and dance that goes on for a couple of hours. Let the Anglo-people do a service with organ music and hymns. Let the young people do a service with guitars and drums. You may prefer one service over another. You may be uncomfortable with the length of service or the sounds. Sometimes authentic worship should be challenging. It is okay if we are not always comfortable; not always getting what we like. Most of the biblical stories about approaching holiness are not stories of smiling people meeting the God who loves them but frightened people freaking out at approaching a God who is beyond them, too wonderful for them. So authentic worship may not always be comfortable, but if we say we truly love one another, we can tolerate it for one another and maybe we can get beyond toleration and celebrate with one another.
The apostle Paul was dealing with this from early on in the life of the church, the conflict between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. The Jewish Christians who were, for the most part, the first Christians, were saying, “You all need to become like us. You need to adopt our law, our practices, our traditions because that is what being Christian is about.” As the book of Acts presents the story, this was not an easy transition as many of the original 12 disciples saw Jesus expanding the story of Judaism, but it was still seen as an unbroken, Jewish story.
As I mentioned last week, somewhat awkwardly, much of this discussion for Paul seems to have been around circumcision, but it leads to an important moment at the end of the letter to the Galatians that we heard today. Paul writes, “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” The Christian story is about people being transformed through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is about people having the way opened for them to encounter the living God, so Jesus calls himself both the good shepherd of the sheep but also the gate for the sheep: the way, the truth and the life.
In the gospel reading, Jesus sends out his disciples to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God has come near, this gospel promise, this transformative love has come near. Some people are going to hear it and rejoice. Some people are going to send it away. I have always found it interesting that there is not more to this message. They share the headline and the people respond. It’s not, “The kingdom of God has come near so read your Bible.” Or “The kingdom of God has come near so go to church.” Or “the kingdom of God has come near so make a donation.” Jesus sends them out to let people know that the kingdom of God is near and see what happens; see how they respond.
We tend to get caught up in the responses. We tend to say that if people love God they should go to church or read the Bible or make a donation because those are what we have been taught. Those are all great responses to the good news but again they are aspects of a multi-faceted reality. We tend to get focused on what love should look like (and often those responses seem to be tied to preserving the institution). But we need to celebrate all the ways that people respond to this good news, all the ways that people respond in love when they are touched by the love of God. We need to celebrate when hungry people are fed and when offenses are forgiven and when gratitude is expressed. We need to celebrate when God is praised in many and various ways. We need to celebrate simple moments of kindness as part of the walk of being disciples.
Our job as church continues to be telling the world that the kingdom of God has come near, responding to that loving promise and celebrating all the responses we see. So I will give you an assignment. This week here is what I would like you to try to do. At the end of day, I want you to take inventory of the moments during the week when you were kind, when you expressed God’s love through an act of love for others. It doesn’t have to be big. But just pay attention. At the same time, pay attention to the moments when you could have been kinder, more loving. Don’t dwell on it and get bummed out, but notice and learn (because we are disciples, student; we are learning).
Next week, as part of our worship we are going to both ritually confess our failure to love but also celebrate our responses to love. And if on either of those you say, “I have nothing to confess” or “I have nothing to celebrate” you probably aren’t paying attention.
God is love and love is part of our response to God whether in worship or prayer or service or even in a simple kind word and an authentic smile. May the love of God touch you deeply; may the love of God go through you to the world.