Grace & Fairview United Methodist Churches
May 13, 2012
John 15: 9-17 (CEB)
“As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. 12This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because everything I heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16You didn’t choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you could go and produce fruit and so that your fruit could last. As a result, whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give you. 17I give you these commandments so that you can love each other.
I’m going to do something this morning that I never thought I would do as a preacher. In fact, I’m going to break one of my cardinal rules of preaching, which is, don’t preach about politics! Now, the truth of the matter is, if I really did preach about politics, I could get myself and this church in a bit of trouble. So before you get too concerned, be assured that I have no intentions of preaching partisan politics in an election year. But I do want to point to the great political divide we see in this country, and how it is indicative of an ever-widening rift in our society, even among Christians. Let me to explain what I mean.
Several months ago, Ken and I were looking back at the electoral maps from past presidential elections. We went all the way back into the 60s and then began working our way up to the present day. We were fascinated to notice that in the 60s and 70s, the electoral map was always decidedly monochrome. That is, with just a few exceptions, the entire country tended to throw their electoral votes towards the same person, the person, of course, who ended up winning the election in that particular year. As we moved into the 80s and 90s, though, Ken and I noticed that trend began to change. With each progressive election, the country divided more and more, until we got to where we are now, with a pretty equal divide between “red and blue states.”
Now, the sad thing is, that I don’t even have to tell you about my brief historical research for you to know how divided we are these days. We saw a fine example of it this summer as our government was nearly paralyzed by this partisan division, unable to reach any sort of agreement and move forward with a budget and spending plan for our country. And the unfortunate truth is that these same sorts of growing divisions are evident everywhere, not just in politics. Parents are fighting over little league games. Cities are sparring about zoning matters. And even at the United Methodist General Conference that ended just over a week ago, there was great division on nearly every matter. No, I’m not exaggerating; I really do mean that the Church was greatly divided on almost every issue that was presented to the body.
In a synopsis of the 2012 UMC General Conference, one Bishop said, “Some aspects of this General Conference were unique to this session. In the past, there has been some degree of corporate optimism, as well as a spirit of cooperation among the body. This year, however, the combined assembly of delegates was often described as cantankerous, snarly, and flat-lined. There was an unusual air of unease every time we gathered. You could feel it.” The Bishop went on to say, “if we are going to ever reach a point of moving this denomination into God’s preferred future, if we are ever going to find a way to make our church relevant for the 21st Century, we must find a way to respect one another more deeply and cooperate with one another more significantly. This conference should remind us that the church cannot change without all parties, or at least most of them, finding a way to compromise, cooperate, and respect one another. That applies to liberals & conservatives, Central Conferences & US Jurisidictions, the young & the old.” Even among Christians, there seems to be a general mistrust. We are paralyzed by fear, so we digress to name-calling and finger-pointing. The result is that very little is done to further our mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
Which brings us to this morning’s text; a continuation of Jesus’ words we heard last week about remaining in the vine so that we might bear fruit and thus bring glory to God. Today, Christ explains to his disciples what exactly it looks like to abide in his presence; and so begins a beautiful passage about love and charity, friendship and community. Jesus explains to his followers that just as a branch cannot bear fruit by itself, his disciples cannot love one another, much less bring others to faith, apart from the abiding love of Christ. As Jesus speaks here about love, the word he uses is agape. Agape love is love given freely, love offered without condition; it is sometimes translated as “charity” rather than “love,” but there is such a stigma around charity these days, that the more appropriate reference is love.
Such agape love is first and foremost interested in the good of the other person. It never attempts to possess or dominate another. In fact, so great is this love for others that it follows the very pattern Christ modeled for us – care and concern for others, even to the point that we will lay aside our very lives for our friends. Now, it is rare in this day and age that we have to love all the way to death, Christians are not persecuted now they way they were in the years immediately following Jesus’ death and resurrection. But I do think there is an important message for us even today, and that is that we must be willing to set aside our agendas in order to work in unity as the body of Christ; that we love others enough that we are willing to lay down our own beliefs in order to love our friends.
At a time when life seems to be scattering more and more, we know what it means to have friends. And here, as Christ is speaking to his disciples, he knows that he is about to leave them, so he is proclaiming to them a new relationship. At the very time when those disciples are feeling the least secure and will soon abandon him, Christ calls them his friends, bringing them to a new level of discipleship, and even community, as he calls us to emulate him, the pure embodiment of love. So what does it mean for us today to be Christ’s friends? It means that we live as a community, united in Christ’s love. We show solidarity in suffering, we share our spiritual gifts for mutual up-building; we confront conflict not with hostility but with reconciliation. We don’t focus on our differences, but rather celebrate our unity as friends in the body of Christ.
For some reason, as in politics, we seem to have decided it is more important to stake out our various positions than to seek the unity to which Christ calls us. We live as if we were sent into the world to compete with one another, or to dispute with one another, or even to quarrel with one another. Jesus did not choose us to live a life reflective of the world; Christ did not call us to bring the division of the world into our churches. Rather, we are to represent Christ in the world. Jesus chose us, first to come in to him and then to go out to the world. And that must be the daily pattern and rhythm of our lives. The friends of Christ, Christians, are called to a commitment of solidarity toward unity as we witness in a broken and divided world. We are to live in such a way that we show what is meant by loving one another. We are not sent out to argue people into Christianity, nor to threaten them into it, but to attract them into it through our love; so to live that its fruits may be so wonderful that others will desire them for themselves.
Yet, when Christian communities around the world focus more on our differences than what unites us, we are not reflecting the love of Christ, we are not bearing fruit, we are turning people away from Christ rather than bringing them into his loving presence. And the frustrating thing is that we always argue with “God on our side!” It’s been a major problem ever since Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century! We argue about what color the carpet should be or what kind of worship service we should have. We argue about whether or not children should be in worship and who’s going to bring chicken casserole to the potluck. We argue about what sins are the worst and who is worthy of being called “leader.” And while we’re busy arguing, the world looks at us and wonders what’s so great about God because Christ’s church is just as ineffective as every other institution in the world. And the truth of the matter is, that’s because you can’t legislate for love. But God, through Jesus, can command love, calling it out of his disciples, his followers, his friends.
When we are divided, love must prevail. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said it this way: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things charity.” There’s that word again, charity, agape, unconditional love in all things. Wesley went on to say, “As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we [Methodists] think and let think. So that whatsoever they are, whether right or wrong, they are no distinguishing marks of a Methodist.” What are the distinguishing marks of the Methodist movement today? Or the Christian church around the world? Are we known for our unified work as the body or Christ, or are we known for other reasons? There are times when, before Christians can have any effective work in the world, it is essential for the church to unite its life as a community of agape, ensuring that all members experience the love and affirmation that Christ extends to his friends. If we are divided as the world is divided, we are useless; fruit-bearing is not possible.
For us living in a culture that celebrates self-autonomy and choice, that values “standing your ground” above all else, Christ’s words in this passage call us back to an awareness of God’s initiative in seeking us out, gathering us into a community, and sending us into the world. As friends of Christ, we are called, unified, and sent; in that order! We are sent to strengthen friendships, communities of solidarity, to affirm diversity, to promote healthy relationships in families and communities, and to embrace strangers and friends, neighbors and enemies alike. Jesus has come to claim us as his friends, to give us freedom and joy. He has come so that we will bear fruit that will last, whether in terms of a single life changed because we loved somebody as Jesus loved us, or in terms of a single decision that we had to make or task we had to perform, through which, the world became a different and better place. Love makes both the lover and the beloved more like Jesus.
My friends, I want to be more like Jesus, I think we all do. I’m tired of the “one-upmanship.” I’m tired of the fighting and division. I’m tired of having to try and defend a church that looks less and less like the body of Christ and more and more like the divided world around us. We have an opportunity to be something far, far greater than any other human institution because we are not a human institution, we are the friends of Christ; his very body. So let’s do what Christ did; let’s celebrate diversity, let’s stand united, let’s love unconditionally. I pray that we will someday soon move away from our current tendencies so that we followers of Christ can move forward as a united body and continue to address the needs of a divided and hurting world. We have a tremendous opportunity. Don’t miss it. Don’t miss it!