Because Grammy requested it, yesterday’s sermon:
As Russ mentioned last Sunday, our back-to-back preaching Sundays turned out to be a mini sermon series on discipleship and the church. So for this week, explore with me the role of the church in 1 John 3:16-24. Listen now for the word of God:
We know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
And this is God’s commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that God abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
As many of you heard last Sunday, Russ and I recently watched the documentary, Religulous by Bill Maher. Once you get passed all of the easy shots at Christians, he does make some good points – some good observations about the way some Christians do things that give us a bad name. My favorite line of the film occurs after he is challenging a group of men gathered at the Trucker’s Chapel at a truck stop. As he leaves them, he says, “thanks for being Christ-like, and not just Christian.” That is quite a distinction he makes – Christian and Christ-like.
When I looked at the whole life of Christ, including his death, and I try to figure out the one thing that flows through all of it and ask: what does it mean to be Christ-like, the one thing I find that flows through every action, parable, miracle, teaching, and healing is love.
Now that I’m a parent, I understand love in a different way. Piglet is starting to say a lot of words and phrases. One of my favorite to hear is when she says, “I love you” – of course it sounds like “Lo lu”, but we know what she means. Until recently, she would only say it when prompted, but one day last week, she ran over to me, hugged me, and said “lo lu” – I’m still not positive that she knows what those words mean. But that’s our job as parents, to teach her what love means. As she is trying to put meaning to all kinds of words, this is one that is much harder because love is a rather abstract concept. Words like cat, dog, milk, up, more – those are easy to identify the word with an object or action. But how does a toddler know what love is? We can tell her that we love all day long, but she won’t know what it means without actions to accompany it.
Our scripture reading puts it this way: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. One of my favorite hymns is They will know we are Christians by our love. One of the verses goes like this: We will work with each other, we will work side by side And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love. I remember singing this song on a bus on a mission trip to Honduras, giving the song new meaning. As we worked, played, and worshipped side by side with our brothers and sisters there, I believe they knew of our love for God and them through our actions. There was a language barrier, so we couldn’t express all that we felt in words, but we didn’t have to – our being there, being with them, being part of the church in Honduras – embodied love, God’s love.
So Russ asked the question last week, “Why are we the Church?” As he prepared for his sermon, he asked this question of lots of folks – our family and friends, some of you, even strangers. But he didn’t ask me. But now I get to have my say. So what is the point? What is the church? Is it this building? Is it us? While I think what we are doing now – worship – is important in the Christian life, it’s not what it’s all about. Church doesn’t just happen here on Sunday mornings. This is roughly one hour out of 168 hours in your week. So what happens those other 167 are what the Christian life is really about – when you leave this place and take part in your day to day activities – work, school, sports, volunteering, being with your friends and family – how are you the church in those instances?
I went to a conference in Columbia in March. One of the presentations was on shifts in the future of Christian Education. One shift was from focusing on being disciples to being apostles. The idea being the term disciples denotes lots of prayer and study, while the term apostle denotes being sent out. He wasn’t saying that discipleship is bad, but that the connotation that the word has taken has lost some of its original meaning, so he uses the word apostle because the word itself means – one sent out on a mission. We are not called just to be together as the body of Christ here to worship, pray, fellowship, and study. We are also sent out of this place – to be the body of Christ out in the world. Church doesn’t just happen here – it happens out there.
The leader of this workshop told the story of an associate pastor of a large church in Texas who is rarely in the church building on Sunday mornings. He spends his Sunday mornings at a Habitat for Humanity site. Each week, a group of young adults gathers for a morning devotion and prayer before beginning their work on the house. The group started with people from the church, but it has grown to include many who have never set foot in a church building. But these people are this pastor’s congregation – the same crowd gathers every week, and it’s growing. The pastor spends his time checking in with folks – doing pastoral care, learning prayer needs, or offering counsel as nails are hammered and wood is cut.
This is definitely church “outside of the box” but it makes so much sense. How many stories do we hear of Jesus in a temple vs. how many stories we hear of Jesus meeting people where they are – in their homes, at the well, on the beach? Jesus makes time for people. Jesus ignores conventional stereotypes and builds relationships with unlikely people. Jesus touches people who are considered to be unclean. Jesus feeds the hungry. Jesus heals the sick. Jesus gives hope to the hopeless. Jesus loves unconditionally all those who come in contact with him.
But as much as we try to be Christ-like, we are certainly not Jesus, and all these things that we are called to do as he did them may be difficult at times. I do understand that out there – outside these walls, you are in a declining group. People like Bill Maher think that Christianity is ridiculous, which makes our job harder, but it also makes it all the more necessary. And standing against injustice for the good of people the way that Jesus did is risky. It’s not always safe. It’s not always popular. It’s not always convenient. It’s not always easy.
But Pslam 23, which was read earlier, assures us that God is with us – guiding us along our journey – even when the path may be scary, even when we walk through the darkest valley, we fear no evil. The last line of the Psalm – and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever – gives me the most comfort. It doesn’t mean that you will remain here in the church, which many call God’s house, because home is where the heart is. I know it’s a cliché, but as someone who has moved a lot, I know it to be true. If God is in our hearts, then we are not with God just in this place. This last verse of the Psalm affirms that you will abide with God forever – that God is always with you and you are always with God. As the children so keenly noted earlier – God is everywhere, so shouldn’t we be? We should be out there, being Christ-like, loving others as Christ loved us, not just saying that we are Christians, saying that we believe. John puts this very clearly in our scripture reading this morning saying: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” If God is truly in our hearts, and we truly believe what we say we believe, then we have to be moved to action. God’s love compels us to meet the needs of the world.
I heard a commercial on the radio last week for the United Methodist Church. I grew up changing denominations every time my family moved, so I experienced God and church in a variety of good ways. And those experiences taught me that we have a lot to learn from each other. We are not in competition; we all have the same goal – we have been given the same commission – we have the same mission – to love God and to love our neighbor. This commercial for the Methodist church showed me a new way to think about church. They actually have a website called rethinkchurch.org, and the headline on the homepage reads “What if church were a verb?” I really like this way of thinking, or rethinking as they would put it. What we believe is important, as is saying what we believe, because that is what inspires and informs our actions. People will know what we believe by what we do – by the way we…church.
They have another website called 10thousanddoors, its headline asks, “What if church weren’t a building, but a thousand doors?” The point is that church isn’t about the one door that we walk in and out of on Sundays, but the many opportunities to be church out in the world – the many possibilities to serve God and to love people. And how us getting out into the world provides opportunities for others to get to know God. There are many people who don’t go to church, who may not know God’s love, and the idea of going to church is farthest from their mind. But if they meet Christians in their day to day lives who are living the gospel and meeting the needs of the world, then it may open a door for them that otherwise wouldn’t be there. I found the 10thousanddoors promotional video online, and I wanted to share it with you, because let’s face it, everything sounds better when James Earl Jones says it…or at least I think it sounds like him, you decide…
There was a lot of chanting in the background, I don’t what all the words were because it was in several different languages, but I did hear the phrase “Te amo” repeated several times, which is Spanish for “I love you”. Even as the makers of this video encourage us to rethink the church and make more of an effort to be out in the world, they put love in the background…as the underlying reason for what they are calling people to do. We are motivated by love, our love for God and our love for neighbor and empowered by love, God’s love for us.
As much as I like to see you on Sunday mornings, I want you to get out! Be the church out in the world. Don’t just believe the gospel, live the gospel. Use all 168 hours in your week to serve God and love your neighbors. Show that God’s love abides in you. Being a Christian within these walls is easy. But being Christ-like out there is the challenge we have before us.
As you come to the table this morning, remember how Christ showed his love for us – the ultimate sacrifice that he made. Let the bread and the wine nourish you for the journey and for the work of being Christ-like, to remind you that God is with you, as your shepherd to guide you. Amen.
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