The text for today’s sermon is taken from 1 John 4:7-21.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
A man named Aristides once described the followers of Jesus to the Roman emperor in this way: “They love one another. They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them. If they have something, they give it freely to the man who has nothing; if they see a stranger, they take him home, and are happy, as though he were a real bother.” (Jim Wallis, The Call to Conversion, p.14)
This sounds a lot like the song I learned in my youth, “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love.” And while that may have been true years ago…things have changed! Most of us hide our Christian faith. We want to blend in; we don’t want to stand out from the crowd. We don’t want to offend anyone or be ridiculed for what we do out of love of God and neighbor. And heaven forbid that some unscrupulous character takes us for a fool and swindles us out of our hard earned cash.
So rather than openly loving, that is serving and caring about those who are neither family nor friends, we personalize our faith. We personalize it to the point of what we do doesn’t match up with what we say we believe. And that has left us with a younger generation that prays less, gives poorly, worships irregularly, and runs the other direction if asked to give of themselves in service to God, church and neighbor. It has left the church that is based in God’s love, love starved.
It isn’t that God’s love has changed…it hasn’t. “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.” This hasn’t changed. What has changed is our willingness to show that caring, sacrificial love to others by reaching out to the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the needy in our midst. So, the love made alive in our relationship with Christ has suffered. We have suffered. The church has suffered. And our neighbors have suffered because of it.
If you doubt that this is happening, let me ask you, when was the last time that you or any of us stopped and gave freely to the peddler on the street corner, holding a sign proclaiming hunger? On Friday, I drove right past a young man whom I would guess to be in his 20’s. He was holding a sign, which contained the words, “traveling” and “hungry.” Looking at him with his backpack, I did what most re-blooded Americans would do. I gave him a glance of dismay and never stopped and asked what I might do to help.
When was the last time that you or any of us welcomed a stranger into our homes? We teach our children to be wary of those whom they do not know. We live behind locked doors. We have peep holes to look before opening. We do background checks on those looking for employment. Out of fear, we keep the stranger at bay. And yet, every person we call friend was at one time a stranger. Every member of the extended family was at one time a stranger. And everyone who is part of this congregation was at one time a stranger.
When was the last time that you or any of us made a special effort to help the widows and the orphans of this world? We may throw a few bucks at charitable organizations that provide for the basic needs of the most needy of all people. We may support the work of the Christian Children’s Fund, the Disaster Relief Fund, even LSS programs, but we don’t get our hands dirty with face to face contact. In fact, those who have lost their “married” status, through death or divorce, often find that the couple relationships with couples that had been so important to them fall apart. So the hurting become the lonely. And fear and insensitivity keep the needy at bay.
When was the last time that any of us went out of our way to help an unrelated member of this community? We read of stories of those who go into burning buildings to extract would-be victims. We hear about those who go the extra mile. We proclaim them heroes. But when was the last time any of us prayed daily by name for our members in need and for those around us? When was the last time any of us did the simplest of things to serve our neighbor?
Boy, have things changed. I dare say that if Aristides lived today that he would not make the same statement about the followers of Jesus. I dare say that he would find little difference between those who say that they follow Jesus and those who proclaim to have no faith at all. It isn’t that that the faith has changed. It hasn’t. We still proclaim the abiding love of God, even if it doesn’t shine through us to others. We know, ‘if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” This hasn’t changed. And neither has love of God changed. God loves us just as much today as he loved us when Jesus was sent into world to save people like us. God’s love hasn’t changed. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” This hasn’t changed. What has changed is us and how we live out our faith in the world today. We have allowed fear and judgment, pride and wealth, personal success and busy schedules, to get in the way of loving others as Christ has loved us. We have become insensitive to the cries of the needy and have narrowed our neighbors to include family and few close friends.
But God does not intend for His love to stop when it comes to us. He wants his love to move out of us and into the lives of those around us. To love as we have been loved “is not a matter of trying harder – or creating a new program – or launching a new Bible study. To love like this is a matter of abiding in Christ – of staying connected to him – of living with him in such an intimate relationship that our desires are so in tuned with his that whatever we ask will be done for us.” (quoted from posted sermon “The True Vine” – 1st United Methodist Church, Pflugerville, TX)
We cannot live a life of love apart from Christ any more than limbs torn off the tree trunk can live. Every branch draws its life from the vine. And so it is with us. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. We receive our sustenance and life from him and out of his love for us and the world. May we abide in his love and may that love quiet our fears and help us to see the face of Christ in our neighbors. May Jesus example of love poured out for us on the cross become the mantle of our existence.
With the love of Christ in our hearts, the words of Aristides and the lyrics of the song of my youth can become a reality, and the world can know we are Christians by the love of God that we show to others. May this be so, and may the peace of God which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.