The following is a sermon I preached last year, and I really need these reminders for myself again...
I have a confession to make. I am a dirty, rotten sinner. I am a failure, I mess-up, I make mistakes; I am not talented, or smart, or funny, or charming. I’m a loser, and a sinner. And for some reason, as a Christian, I, and I suspect many of you, have this need to wear a mask and pretend to be perfect and flawless, and charming and wonderful, and pretend to not be a sinner. When we get in community, sure we love each other, but we have a really hard time being genuine. And that is the exact opposite of how it should be, which is why I want to start off by telling you all that I am a sinner.
If things were the way they should be, I would get a confession booth up here, and invite each one of you in, and I would confess to you that I am a sinner, and I would apologize for all the times that I pretended to be perfect, and all the times I was filled with pride, and all the times I withheld grace, and all the times I didn’t reach out in love, and all the times I unintentionally hurt someone, and for all the times I was apathetic. This confession idea was played out on a college campus by the Christian author Donald Miller and some of his friends, and it started a revival on one of the US campuses most known for partying. And that can be the kind of almost miraculous thing that can happen when Christian people love in a radical way, and remember that church is not for the perfect, righteous, healthy people, but rather for the sinners, and the sick and the broken.
So far, this probably doesn’t sound like your usual sermon, and I think I have the luxury of stepping on toes tonight because I get to go back to school in a week. But what I want you to do tonight is just think, and listen to what God might be saying to you tonight. Because that’s what God has been making me do lately—think. And think a lot. Not just because I have college classes to think about, but because God has been revolutionizing my thinking. And I’ve been challenged to look at the way the Christian church was meant to be.
I’ll tell you how that came about: it started with a paper in my Academic Writing class about social justice, which led me to ask some questions. Then I started reading a book that made me say wow over and over again. I then did a study of the book of Acts, which made me look at what the church was actually supposed to look like. Then I did a huge research paper about what Christians should be doing in today’s world for justice for all people. And I think it’s safe to say that God blew my mind with the new things I was thinking.
First of all, Christianity, or what we know as Christianity now, did not begin as a new alternative religion. The early disciples weren’t called Christians; they were “Followers of the Way.” The Way is the alternative lifestyle that Christ proclaimed. I don’t know if you know this, but Jesus was a pretty big rebel. A lot of his sermons have the phrase, “You have heard it said…” fill in the blank, “but I tell you…” He came to tell them that their practice of religion wasn’t actually correct, and that he offered another way. A Way that pledged allegiance to the Kingdom of God over any earthly kingdom; a Way that offered grace over judgment; a Way that didn’t need special organizations to take care of disadvantaged people because it required its followers to take care of one another; and a Way that’s only law was love, mandating the love of God and the love of all other people.
So that is the Christianity that existed at the inception of the church. But look what we have now: a community where people don’t feel free to admit sin and failure, and feel like they have to be perfect to walk through the doors. And that is only one problem.
So far, I guess this has been a downer. But I want to offer something that isn’t all that new, innovative, or insightful, but I truly believe it to be the answer. So far this year, I have only made one resolution, and it is this: to love people recklessly. We need love. Radical love! Gracious love! Patient love! Perfect love! The kind of love that could get you persecuted and nailed to a tree! The kind of love that sets the captives free, feeds the hungry, cares for orphans and widows, reaches out to the hurting and lost, broken, scared, and confused; the kind of love that compels us to reach out to the margins to show the great grace of Jesus Christ.
Mother Teresa had radical love for people. She loved others so much that her feet were deformed. While working with lepers in Calcutta, the volunteers received only enough donated shoes for each of them to have one pair. She dug through the shoes to find the worst pair, and took them for herself, and after years of doing that, her feet became deformed. That is what the Golden Rule really looks like in action.
H.F. Reynolds, the founder of the Church of the Nazarene said, “We are debtors to every man to give the Gospel in the same measure we have received it.” I believe that to be 100% true. Because of the great love and amazing grace of our Heavenly Father, we are so greatly indebted to his sacrifice that we must share the Gospel in as great a way as we have received it. And we must give away love so recklessly that it cannot be ignored.
Now let’s open our Bibles to 1 John chapter 3, verses 11 through 24.
Maybe the Beatles said “All you need is love” but it looks like the Apostle John said it first. John commands us to love one another. In verse 16, he tells us that we know what love is because Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. He also uses some pretty strong language when he talks about love, and be aware that this is not romantic love at all. He says that, ”Anyone who does not love remains in death.” Because we love, we have passed over from death to life! That’s good news, amen?
John also says in verse 17, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” Did you catch that? If we really have the love of God in us, we will love our brothers and sisters so much that we will take care of them when they are in need. This would have been a good verse to include in my research paper on social justice and Christianity. You see, I believe that it is our responsibility as Followers of Christ to take care of people who are in need. Jesus’ ministry was not to the prominent or righteous people but to the people who had no status: the ignored, the oppressed, and the poor. He healed the disabled beggars, he called for equality, and he cared about children. When he spoke, he spoke to the “nobodies” and the “somebodies” about justice. Something I found interesting was that one of the Beatitudes we are familiar with can be translated differently from the usual verse we hear. Matthew 5:6 could also say, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled.” You see, God has placed a hunger in me not just to be more like him, but also for justice for his people, and I think that is something that all Christians are called to.
I’ve been talking about love, but the author of an article I read has a different take on all this love/justice business. Vincent Genovesi said, “Unless Christians first walk the path of justice, however, any talk of love is idle chatter. If love helps people to thrive, justice allows them first to survive. Justice is the bare minimum of love. It guarantees that people have what they deserve…simply because they are human beings.”
We need to love recklessly, the kind of reckless love that allows us to give sacrificially, like Mother Theresa, to people who have needs that are within our means to meet. Because, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has not pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?”
John also challenges us in verse 18, “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with action and in truth.” I started out a sermon awhile ago talking about the song “Don’t Get Comfortable.” As Christians in the world today, it is so easy for us to get comfortable. We sit in our cozy little pews each Sunday, listen to the sermon, sing the songs, and our faith probably drives a lot of our decisions during the week, but does it challenge us to be reckless? We have to act out our love. Talking about it isn’t good enough. Preaching about it isn’t good enough. Unless we actually love in a way that cannot be ignored, that cannot be rationalized away, that cannot be of human origin, all the church talk is idle, and we are too comfortable.
Comfortable Christianity, just for the record, is not what Christ intended for Followers of the Way. The Way was actually an alternative lifestyle, not one that looked surprisingly like the lifestyles of people who do not claim Christ. The Way requires action. The early church, as you can read about in Acts, actually lived all together. They sold all their possessions and gave to the poor. They met their own needs, and also the needs of others. They weren’t comfortable—they were persecuted. They preached the Gospel to anyone and everyone who would listen. They put themselves out there, and they sacrificed. And look what happened. It started a movement that grew into one of the largest religions in the world, even 2000 years later.
One of the very first sermons I ever preached was titled “Religion versus Christianity.” One of my main points was that religion is a belief system, and therefore affects your mind, what you think, value, and believe. But Christianity is a way of life. So it affects how we live, how we think, how we act, our attitudes, the way we spend our time and money, every aspect of our lifestyles. We shouldn’t have to pretend to be perfect to feel worthy of the church. We shouldn’t be okay with ignoring the needs of people around us. Our faith, this faith we call Christianity, should be an alternative lifestyle, and a different way of living. And it actually has an easy starting point: love. When we embrace love as a radical, transformational way, and maybe give love in the same measure we have received it, our lives couldn’t help but be different.
So many Christians find a need to defend their religion. Many often find it hard to explain their beliefs or prove that what they believe is right. But there should be no need to offer proof for Christianity with our words; the proof should be in our actions. We show that we are Christ’s followers in how we love one another. If you’d like, open your Bible to John 13. In verses 34 and 35, Jesus tells his disciples, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." And our Savior is saying the same thing to us right now: as Christ’s followers, we have to love one another and everyone else because of the amazing love Christ has given to us, and the world will know that we are Christians by our love. That should put a load of pressure on us. Think about the verse in 1 Corinthians: “We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” Every minute of everyday, as Christians, we are Christ’s ambassadors. So when people look at us, they should see people who want to overwhelm the world with love. That is how Christ will make his appeal.
Since we are talking about love tonight, it seems appropriate to bring up the chapter in the Bible called the Love Chapter. 1 Corinthians 13 is a Scripture passage that we associate with weddings, but when Paul wrote those words, he had no intention of describing romantic love. What he wrote about was the powerful love of Christ lived out by Christian brothers and sisters.
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
That is the kind of love that we are supposed to give lavishly to our neighbor. If the world, and by the world I mean people who are not Christians, saw Christians love with that kind of holy love instead of hypocritical, judgmental, exclusionary people, the world might actually want to join us and have that kind of love too.
I want to also emphasize that this love is not just for the world, but also for our brothers and sisters in Christ. Colossians 3:12-14 says “Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” Why would anyone want to be a part of a church that is always beating each other up? Instead, we need to have grace with one another, and share our reckless love with even the other Christians around us. Once again, love is the greatest virtue. Love conquers all; we’ve heard that said, right? Love is above everything else; it binds us together in unity. Love can make a huge difference in the world, but it will start within the church.
I don’t know how many young people there are in the service tonight, but I want to direct something to you. I know I’m young, and I really don’t have any wisdom to offer at all, but I think there is exciting news for us. I really, sincerely believe that it will be our generation that changes the church. I hear all the time young people talking about how frustrated they are with the church, and they usually have really good reason to be. They have a friend, or parent, or other loved one who was hurt by someone in the church, or scorned by the church for some mistake made, or belittled by someone in the church, or left alone when the church should have been a place of welcome and comfort. Maybe you even have those stories. Or I hear young people complain about the apathy that is so prevalent in the church, and they can’t stand it and they want action from God’s people. Or they feel like the church is so caught up in rules and tradition that they forget to love people and have relationships first with God and then with others.
But here is the good news once again: we can be the generation that welcomes everyone, the generation that turns no one away, the generation that loves and takes care of people, the generation of action, the generation that will not allow apathy to have even a foot in the door, the generation that will have rules take the background as love and grace rule all. As Ronald Sider said, “Christians should be the vanguard. The world will change if Christians obey the One we worship” Even though it wasn’t a Christian who said it, we have to be the change we want to see in the world, and while this extends to believers old and young alike, I think it will be our generation that becomes the vanguard and that brings the change. So let that encourage you. Even though it may feel like it sometimes, we are not alone in our walk, and we don’t have to be apathetic. When we choose to care and love, who knows, it could start a revolution. Don’t just take my word for it. Shane Claiborne, a noted Christian author, said in his book, The Irresistible Revolution,
“I believe we are amid a great awakening in the slumbering body of Christ. I once heard somebody call us the Lazarus generation, for we are a generation rising up from the apathetic deadness of this world, a church that is awakening from her slumber. There’s a beautiful verse in which Jesus scolds his listeners for having grown numb and cold, for having forgotten how to laugh and cry and feel. He says ‘To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others “We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we played a dirge for you, and you did not mourn.”’ (Matthew 11:16-17) A new day is dawning. We are playing the flute and folks from Wall Street to the ghetto are beginning to dance.”
Christ called us to be like a city on a hill, shining for our light to be seen. But let’s not just be another church of smiling, plastic people under a shiny, plastic steeple. Let’s allow ourselves to be the Church of the sinners, the dropouts, the losers, the uncool, the broken, the failures, and the fools. When we are humbled, we can love people recklessly, because there is no room for pride to hold us back from loving others in a remarkable, changing, miraculous kind of way.