Sunday, May 17, 2015

"Commanded To Love". A sermon preached at Littlefield Presbyterian Church on May 10, 2015. Texts: Acts 10:44-48; John 15:9-17

I recently came across some notes I’d taken from a book a group of us read together in the park some years ago--— Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace?   
There’s a story in the book that continues to trouble me.   Yancey retells a story told by a friend of his who works with the down-and-out in Chicago.
            A prostitute came to him in "wretched straits"--  homeless, sick, addicted to drugs,  unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter.  Yancy's friend said, "I could hardly bear hearing her sordid story....   I had no idea what to say to this woman.
            He said, “At last I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help.  I will never forget the look of pure, naive shock that crossed her face.  "Church!"  she cried.  "Why would I ever go there?  I was already feeling terrible about myself.  They'd just make me feel worse."
            What struck Yancey about that story, he says, is that—according to the gospels-- people much like this prostitute came to Jesus--  not away from him.  The worse a person felt about herself, the more likely she saw Jesus as a refuge. 
            So he asks:  Has the church lost that gift?  Evidently the down-and-out, who flocked to Jesus when he lived on earth, no longer feel welcome among his followers.  What has happened?--  he wonders.
            I've found myself pondering the questions Philip Yancey was asking,   as he to pondered the meaning of grace.
            Yancey quotes author Stephen Brown's observation that a veterinarian can learn a lot about a dog owner he has never met just by observing the dog.  He goes on to ask an important question:  "What does the world learn about God-- by watching us-- his followers?[1]
            I could really resonate with Yancey  when he observes how--  like fine wine poured into a jug of water--  "Jesus' wondrous message of grace gets diluted in the vessel of the church."[2]    I think he’s right.   Jesus' gospel of grace has been diluted and distorted by the church     
You've probably heard me say it before:  "Everything we do is witness.  Some of our witness is very positive...   and some of it is very negative witness."
A lot of people have been turned off by people who call themselves Christians…  and some have been wounded by the church.  For some time I’ve been saying that I think the wrestling with the tension between LAW and LOVE in the church is a sign that we may be on the verge of a new kind of Reformation.   I believe that we need to recover a sense of urgency to focus on Jesus’ Great Commandment:  the commandment to love.  When he was asked what was the most important commandment, Jesus said, “Love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.”
 It sounds simple enough.  But it isn’t easy to LIVE the great commandment.  God’s ways are not our ways. 
In the book of Acts, we have an account of how the early church worked through a crisis.  Who is included in God’s salvation plan?  In chapter ten, Luke tells how the Roman centurion Cornelius, who was seeking God, had a vision in which an angel of God told him to send for Simon Peter… and how Peter had a vision that challenged his ideas about what it means to be a person of faith.
While Peter was still trying to figure out what to make of the vision he had seen of the assortment of unclean animals on a sheet   and the command to not call profane anything that God has made clean, he was led to the house of Cornelius.  There he preaches the gospel  of Jesus Christ, and proclaims  that he now understands that “God shows no partiality.”  In other words, God intends to include people that—left to its own devices—the church wouldn’t include.  That’s the context of the story we heard this morning from Acts.
            The circumcised believers had just witnessed the Holy Spirit falling upon on all who had heard Peter's sermon.  But how could this be?--  they wondered.  The Holy Spirit is being poured out even on the Gentiles?  
            We need to remember that Jesus and his first followers were Jews.  As a faithful Jew, Peter had taken the regulations in the Jewish purity codes for granted and observed them all his life.            But then he has a series of experiences that challenge his understanding. 
            Peter says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit,  just as we have?   So he orders them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and he stays with them for awhile.  
            It would have seemed very clear to some people in the early church what God required of them.  For many centuries, their religious tradition had taught them that to be a “holy” people means to be separate...   and to have very clear, distinct boundaries between their community and those outside the community. 
            And yet, in this story in Acts, we hear how the church was learning from the Holy Spirit and actually changing its policies.  The early church in Judea begins to realize that they’re going to be in relationship with people they’ve always avoided--  and that the church should minister to them.[3]
            There were still a lot of legalists who kept insisting that the Gentiles had to be circumcised    and observe the Jewish purity laws in order to be followers of the Way.    But God had a new vision for the church.
            So--  what might this story be saying to us today?  What do we see in God’s vision for the church in our time?
            I think we need to be asking questions about how God might be at work in the midst of the struggle.   How do we discern God’s will for the church--  in this time...  in this context?   Can we be open to the leading of the Spirit further into the truth--  even if it means we’ll have to change our minds about some things?
            Like our ancestors in the faith before us, we need to figure out what God’s will is for us in our time.        
"Abide in my love,"  Jesus says.  "This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command you...."

            Could it be that-- in order to be Jesus' friends-- we need to be willing to sacrifice some of the things we've always believed?
            As we seek God’s will for us, we need to study and faithfully interpret the scriptures.  We need to learn how to talk with one another about difficult issues.  We need to create a community of  welcome  and peace and safety where people feel safe to come...  and safe enough to let you know who they are.   We need to be a community where we can all feel safe in sharing our hurts and doubts and struggles and fears...  a community where we can learn and heal and grow together...   a place where people will know we’re Christians by our love.
            We won’t always hear a clear answer that we like--  an answer we’re all going to agree on.   A group of human beings isn’t going to always agree on everything.   So, as we hear God saying, “What God has made clean, do not call profane,”    can we be open to whatever new growing edges God gives us in our life of faith?  Can we find ways to live together in love--  even when we disagree with one another about some things?   Can we love one another even when we disagree with one another about human sexuality… or the church kitchen… or any number of things?  
            As the story unfolds in the New Testament, it tells how the church discovered that God had  “broken down the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles”[4]  and founded a Realm that would cancel exclusionary distinctions between “male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free”[5]...    and brought them all together in one Body of Christ.[6]
            These are not easy times for the church.  But I'm convinced that God is up to something.

            God's love and grace are truly amazing!    So how do we love one another, as Christ has commanded us?  How do we connect with people who are seeking God?  How do we share the good news of God's amazing grace with the people who most need to hear it?
            As we seek to prayerfully discern a clearer vision of what God has planned for us, we can approach the future as a real Pentecost kind of adventure.      
            We need to be praying for answers to questions like "Who needs to hear the gospel of grace and love?"    Who among us?  Who outside these walls?  "What gifts do we have to offer someone who is seeking God?"   "What can we do to reach out to them… and to minister to them?"  Are we prepared to love anyone to whom the Spirit leads us?     
            I think that--  if we are serious about living as friends of Jesus and being part of the Church of Love--   we will find ways to connect with people who need to be reassured that they are welcome and loved.   We will find ways to minister to them  and with them.  
            If we are serious about being friends of Jesus, we will do what he commands us.  We have been chosen to go and bear fruit--  the fruit of love...  fruit that will last.
            The good news is that Jesus says these things to us so that his joy may be in us and that our joy may be complete!
            Thanks be to God!

The Rev. Fran Hayes
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
May 10, 2015



[1]Philip Yancey, "What's So Amazing About Grace?   (Zondervan, 1997), p. 14.
[2]Yancey, p. 29.
[3]Acts 11:21-26
[4]Ephesians 2:14-15.
[5]Galatians 3:28
[6]Ephesians 3:4-6; 4:1-16.

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