“iDisciple – Part 4”
[WHAT FOLLOWS IS THE FULL PRINTED TEXT OF TODAY’S SERMON. TO LISTEN TO AN AUDIO RECORDING, CLICK THE LITTLE BLACK ARROW ABOVE THE WORD “WHAT.”]
Often, especially around Christmastime, my parents like to treat us to a little get away. A few hours from where they live in Southern Ontario, just across the Michigan state border, is a charming little town called Frankenmuth.
It’s known for having the world’s largest Christmas store. It also has many shops and restaurants all with a German flavor. It’s lovely.
But on the way to Michigan’s “Little Bavaria,” we drive through a large city called Flint. Flint regularly makes it on the United State’s list of most violent cities.
It used to be a major manufacturing town, boasting a GM plant. Today, unemployment is a problem. The drinking water is undrinkable. And crime is out of control.
Last Christmas, sitting in our hotel room, watching the local news, I listened to a reporter interviewing an old man, a grandfather, who was obviously still in intense grief over the shooting death of his teenaged grandson. He’d been shot in a robbery of a neighborhood grocery store.
“Do you want revenge on those who did this?” asked the reporter. The old man looked astonished by the question. “No, that’s not possible,” said the grandfather.
“I suppose we don’t yet know who did this,” said the reporter. “No,” said the grandfather. But, it’s not that. We are Christians. Even so, we have to find a way love.”
Sometimes Jesus makes hints, suggestions. He tells a little story, “The kingdom of God is like a man who has two sons, and one of the sons says…”. But not today. Today Jesus is perfectly clear - he commands.
Sometimes the words of Jesus are obtuse, difficult to fully understand. Some of Jesus’ words need contextualization and explanation. You need someone like me, who has studied the original languages and knows something of the culture at the time to offer some insights. But here, we don’t need that. Here he simply commands.
Sometimes knowing the Christian thing to do, in a given situation, is hard. Life can be complicated; Christian ethics may suggest a number of possible responses. But, here Jesus simply, without nuance, commands us to “love one another.”
And to be a Christian - a disciple - someone who is baptized, means that there are some things that are not optional. A person who is a member of the volunteer fire department must answer their pager – it’s not optional. A member of the Boy Scouts cannot be someone who refuses to build a campfire. A nurse cannot be someone who gets squeamish around a little blood. It goes with the territory.
Likewise, a disciple of Jesus is someone who, in every situation, tries to respond to other people as Jesus responded. There may be certain responses, which in the world’s eyes, “Make sense,” or which can simply be justified because “everyone else is doing it.” But Christians are those who have signed on, have publicly committed themselves to obeying Jesus. And Jesus has commanded us to love.
And so, today we conclude our four-week series called iDisciple. Throughout this series we have heard that someone who is a disciple, is someone who learns to love in the particular way of Jesus Christ.
I have made the disclaimer that this will not come easily. There is nothing “natural” or “second nature” about this particular kind of love. This is a love, that only God, by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in you, can teach. It’s going to take time – maybe a lifetime, maybe longer, for this kind of love to become instinctual.
But here’s the thing – we don’t simply sit back and wait for the Holy Spirit to complete this work in us. It’s not a sufficient excuse to say, “I’m still waiting for my transformation, so…”
In essence, Jesus says, “Fake it ‘till you make it.” In the fullness of time, I will transform your heart – you will become patient, and kind. He will ensure that you are not boastful arrogant or rude. He will help you to bear all things, believe all things and to hope all things – so that your love – like his love – will endure.
But in the meantime – it’s a command. You’ve got your orders.
I’m not sure about you, but when I was a child my mother taught me that “if you are nice to others, they will be nice to you.” That’s called utilitarianism. You do certain things and certain things will be done for you. That’s a certain ethical point of view.
Disciples are not utilitarians. Because we simply don’t know if when we love people they will love us back. We don’t know whether our actions of love will have a ripple effect, and before we know it, everyone is loving everyone just the same. We don’t know if the “butterfly effect” applies.
We only know, in today’s scripture, as well as so many other places in the New Testament, that this is clearly, unquestionably, without any wiggle room, what Jesus commands of you.
Not that it’s always easy to know exactly what “love one another means.” Sometimes our love leads to a kind of “tough love.” Sometimes our love needs to be tolerance and empathy. Sometimes our love needs to be more assertive, putting ourselves on the line.
But what is clear is that hate, violence, revenge and other means through which the world gets what it wants are simply not options for us.
John Dominic Crossan, a popular scholar who has attempted to reframe Jesus using the Historical Critical Method, and who was a member of the questionable “Historical Jesus Seminars,” once imaged a conversation between himself and Jesus.
“I’ve read your book, Dominic,” Jesus begins, “and it’s quite good. So, you’re now ready to live by my vision and join me in my program?”
“I don’t think I have the courage Jesus, but, I did describe it quite well, didn’t I, and the critical methodology was quite good, wasn’t it?”
“Thank you, Dominic, for not falsifying the message to suit your own incapacity. That at least is something.”
“Is it enough, Jesus?” Crossan asks.
“No Dominic, it is not,” Jesus says.
It has become fashionable in academic circles, in the last fifty years, to attempt to deconstruct Jesus; to peel back the layers on the sacred texts, as if it were an onion, layered with clearly defined cultural assumptions.
It’s become popular to debate whether Jesus’ social instructions are really appropriate for today or if we should come up with our own improved version. It’s fashionable to debate whether the historical details of Jesus’ life are all that historical and to challenge the perceived patriarchy within the ancient texts.
But one thing that cannot be parsed or peeled or challenged, without doing violence to the very essence of what it means to follow Jesus. Christians, no matter what stripe, are commanded, first and foremost, in every and all situations, to love.
Tim Keller recalls his wife reading aloud a New York Times editorial that was offering up the popular viewpoint that fundamentalist religions are the cause of much violence in the world. His wife said, “Well, that’s ridiculous – it depends on what the fundamental is. No one is accusing the Amish of being too violent!”
Keller says, “If your fundamental is a man dying on the cross for his enemies, if the very heart of your self-image and your religion is a man praying for his enemies as he died for them, sacrificing for them, loving them - if that sinks into your heart of hearts, it's going to produce the kind of life that the early Christians produced. The most inclusive possible life out of the most exclusive possible claim.”
This is our fundamental. And so long as we desire to be His disciples, our marching orders are very clear.
Will Willimon recalls one late afternoon, on his way out of the church, “I was chagrined to see, coming towards the church down the walkway, a rather forlorn looking man with a small bag, obviously a wanderer, a vagabond, a drifter, obviously coming toward the church seeking a handout.
This is what you get for having a church situated near a busy highway. These drifters drift through about twice a week, seeking a tank of gas for their trip, a meal, a gift – preferably in cash – for their journey to who knows where.
There’s always a story to tell, but in the end, it is always the same – can you spare about $25.00.
I sighed, as I watched the man approaching. It had been a long day. I had to get back for an evening meeting and was anxious to get home to get a bite to eat. I would meet him at the door, head him off, give him the only cash I had – a mere $15 as I recall – and then send him, and me, on our way.
“What can I do for you?” I asked with some annoyance in my voice. “I wondered if you might be able to help a fella’ on the way South,” he said. “I was headed down to…”
“Yes, yes,” I said. “Well, I’m in a bit of a rush. So, here is all I have. A five and ten. That’s all I’ve got.”
The man took the money as I offered it. Looked at it. And without a word, he sullenly turned and headed back down the street.
Then he stopped and turned toward me as I locked the church door. “I guess you think I’m supposed to thank you, to be grateful.” “Well,” I said, “now that you mention it, a little gratitude wouldn’t hurt…”
“Well, I’m not going to thank you. You want to know why?” “Why?” I asked.
“Because, you’re a Christian. You don’t help me because you want to. You have to help me because he (thrusting his finger up into the air) told you to help me!” And then he left.
I stood there, stunned, angry. The nerve of these people!
On my drive home it finally hit me. He was absolutely right.