Love, One Size Fits All

Sermon – Sunday, April 28, 2013
Zion Lutheran Church, Hoople, ND
John 13:31-35

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples…”

How would someone know that we are a Christian? We don’t walk around with a sign on us, although maybe we might wear a cross. But even someone who is not a Christian may wear a cross because they think it a nice piece of jewelry. You can’t always tell by our clothing because most Christians dress like everyone else, unless perhaps your denomination is one that wears special clothes like Mennonites or Hutterites in which case it is very easy to identify them. It’s nearly impossible to tell if someone is a Christian just by looking at them. Most Christians don’t have a tattoo on their body that says, “I’m a Christian.” Actually, a lot of Christians often judge people who have a lot of tattoos, or who smoke, or drink, or listen to “weird” music, or…..fill in the blank. Maybe that’s it. Perhaps we can identify a Christian by their judgementalism.

It’s certainly how many people see Christians. One of my co-workers many years ago said he was an atheist, but I’m not really sure that was true. I think he just ran into too many Christians who rubbed him the wrong way. We used to get into some very great theological discussion at lunch and I learned a lot about what being a Christian means from him as odd as that sounds. You see, Bob, used to say that one of the things he noticed about “church people” as he called them, was that they would make negative comments about people who didn’t go to church rather than try to understand why they weren’t there. He thought “church people” often had a click going of who was “in” and who was “out” and you felt really uncomfortable if you were “out.” And Bob used to say many Christians he met were so negative all the time. He used to say, “If Christians really believed Jesus rose from the dead they would be happy all the time.” He had a good point.

With that kind of spectacular, earth-shattering news, why would we ever be in the depths of despair? Why would we ever doubt that God is walking with us right here and now if Jesus is alive? Yes, Bob brought up some really good points. And he made me wonder, do people know I am a Christian?

I’ve said it before, but one of my favorite phrases is from St. Francis of Assisi who said, “Preach the Gospel and when necessary use words.” St. Francis was saying what Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” So how do we tell if a person is a Christian? By their great love. Not an ordinary I love you when you love me back, or I love you if I am going to get something out of you, but I love you because you are a child of God, whether you know it or not. If there’s one thing Jesus talked about more than anything else it is love.

I spoke with a pastor recently who said he has received criticism from a member of his congregation because he talks about love all the time and loving all people. Isn’t that what Jesus talked about all the time? Isn’t that what Jesus said was the most important of all the commandments. He said, “I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. “ Just as I have loved you…..that’s not an easy kind of love that Jesus is talking about here. Jesus loved us so much that He was willing to die for us if that is what it took to bring us back to a right relationship with God. Wow, is Jesus asking us to die for one another? Jesus is commanding us to be followers of Him who loved people – all people – in a self-sacrificing way. He’s commanding us to stand up for justice.

Jesus never loved people out of what He was going to get back. He washed the feet of Judas even though He knew Judas would betray or hand Him over to the authorities. Jesus forgave the adulterous woman when others were ready to stone her. Love, for Jesus, was not putting Himself above others, but becoming a servant – not of others – but God’s servant. Jesus was a servant doing God’s will and loving people no matter what the cost.

One of the confirmation students asked why God loves us even when we do bad things. That’s a great question to ponder. Why? Why does God love us even when we continue to sin? Because God loves us and wants us to have a great relationship with God forever. And so God loves, and loves, and loves, and doesn’t stop even if we don’t deserve it. And we don’t. None of us deserve that kind of amazing love, but God doesn’t discriminate. God’s love is a one size fits all kind of love.

That is the kind of love we are commanded to express to all people. This reminds me of the movie The Sister Hood of the Traveling Pants, based on a series of books with the same title. The story journeys through the lives of 4 young women as they grow up. One day as they are in a thrift store they find some jeans that somehow amazingly fit every one of them- from the skinniest to the more full-figured. And whenever one of these friends is going through a tough time – no matter where they are – they send these pants in the mail to them. These pants are more than just an article of clothing. What makes these pants special is love – a love that sees beyond their size or ethnicity or distance or mistakes that they make. This bond, this sisterhood, is based on love that has no limits or boundaries. Over time, the pants need patching. Over time don’t we all need patching? God wants to work through us to accomplish the patching that needs to go on in the world. And the world certainly needs a lot of patching. In fact there’s so much that we hardly know where to begin. We begin where we are.

Right here in the Red River Valley, the floods are beginning and maybe we can help sandbag. People right here in this congregation are having real struggles in their lives – and you may not know it – but we can be there for them – to listen, to encourage, to pray, to love them. There are members who haven’t come to worship with us on Sunday mornings for a long time – maybe years – pick up the phone and call them or send them a note and say we really miss you at worship. Or perhaps you know someone who has no church family at all and you could invite them to come and see what it is that means so much to you. We need to keep our eyes open to the needs of people around us and take action. That’s what love does; love takes action. It doesn’t just wait for someone else to make the first move. Love is an active, vibrant, living energy that is anything but stagnant. Love is transformative. It changes lives.

Jesus commands us to participate in this transformative kind of love. He commands us to change lives by letting God’s love flow through us. This is how people will know we are His disciples, by the way we love one another. Amen.

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Unlocking the Doors

Sermon – Sunday, April, 7, 2013
Zion Lutheran Church, Hoople, ND
John 20:19-31

 

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Those were the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt in his first inaugural address during the Great Depression – a time in our country when people were afraid for their very survival. Jobs and food were scarce. People didn’t know if they were going to make it. They were afraid and fear was rampant. The new President of the United States in his speech was trying to dispel that fear because fear was the real enemy.

Those words may have been uttered at the beginning of the 20th century, but they could have easily been spoken during thousands of years ago and the disciples certainly could have benefitting from hearing them. They were scared. These close disciples of Jesus had just seen Him put to death and they were afraid they were going to be next. So they locked themselves up in a closed room and stayed there, hidden and frightened. It was a normal reaction to a horrific event. Last week we celebrated the resurrection yet on that first Easter morning instead of singing Alleluias, the disciples were silent and hiding behind closed doors, until…..

A knock startled them all. “Do we answer it?” they must have whispered to themselves. “What if it’s the Roman soldiers? We have to remain silent.” But the knock didn’t sound like that from a soldier. No, it was lighter. And then a series of knocks, perhaps like a code to indicate it was one of the women. Hesitantly, they opened the door. Mary was there to tell them that she had seen Jesus. He is risen, just like He said. But the disciples were afraid and so they remained hidden and locked away.

Later that night however, the disciples were startled again only this time it was not a knock at the door. This time this resurrected Jesus was standing in the room! He didn’t knock at the door. The door was still locked. How did he get in there? They must have been terrified! So to calm them Jesus said, “Peace be with you.” And then He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” This is the gospel writer John’s version of Pentecost. Jesus came to the disciples despite locked doors and breathed into them the Holy Spirit. He unlocked the doors of their hearts and told them by forgiving to unlock the hearts of others.

But Thomas was not there that evening and I’ve always wondered, where was he? Why wasn’t he with the others? Did he go out to get food? Did he need some fresh air? Was he trying to listen to the conversations in town and find out if anyone else saw Jesus? Or maybe he was trying to see if he too, like Mary, would see Jesus? We don’t know, but what we do know is that when he came back, the disciples were still in the house, and so Thomas didn’t believe them when they said they saw Jesus. Why would he believe them? They were still hiding in the house behind locked doors.

But a week later Jesus went to them again, because he didn’t want Thomas to be left out. He showed Thomas His scars, just like He had shown the disciples a week before. Thomas was not the only one who needed to see; he was just like the other disciples and Jesus had a mission for all of them. Jesus didn’t want them hiding behind locked doors any longer. He had given them the power of the Holy Spirit. A power that was stronger than fear. So why were they still behind the locked doors?

Why are we? We may not literally lock ourselves behind closed doors – although some do – but there are a variety of ways we lock ourselves in because of fear. The media is filled with images of fear and we live in a state of constant worry over what may happen. What if our country goes to war? What if the crime comes to our town? What if we lose our jobs? We fear the unknown and so we don’t venture out to new places, or meet new people, or try new things. Yes, fear strikes us all and fear seems to lurk everywhere.

And sometimes in an effort not to hurt someone’s feelings we fear telling them the truth and our silence only escalates the fear and makes matters worse. We fear telling our partners what is troubling us and soon our marriage starts to break down. We fear losing our friends and so we don’t tell them what we really think or feel and our relationship becomes only an illusion and we become bitter. We fear losing control and so we try to control everything and everyone. We fear change and new ideas. We fear losing what we hold dear and so we cling so tightly to them that our hands are closed to the new blessings that await us that we cannot yet see. Fear not only hurts us as individuals, but it hurts everyone around us. Fear paralyzes us and keeps us behind locked doors.

Yet there are no locks big enough to keep out Jesus. Jesus comes to us, as He came to the disciples through those locked doors, despite those locked doors. And He breathes on us that same Holy Spirit that He breathed on the disciples. The Spirit’s power enables us to do things which we cannot do on our own. It enables us to forgive others and to unlock them and us from the bondage of guilt and shame. It works through us to transform us, to be all God created us to be. St. Paul says in 2 Tim. 1:7 “For God did not give us a Spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control.”

So if this Spirit removes our fear, then why were the disciples still behind locked doors? Why are we, who have received the Spirit, still locking ourselves behind closed doors of fear? As human beings it’s easy to forget and that’s why we come to worship each week – to be reminded of who and whose we are. And we receive the sacrament of Holy Communion as often as possible, because in this sacrament we receive the gifts of forgiveness and grace. We receive the resurrected Christ who truly died and was raised from the dead so that we might have life – a life of peace and grace, not conflict and fear. In this sacrament, we too, can see and feel and experience the resurrected Christ, just like the disciples did thousands of years ago for we too are Christ’s disciples.

And we have been given God’s Holy Spirit to help unlock all doors. We have been given God’s Holy Spirit to unlock the doors of our churches to all kinds of people, not those just like us. And we are to spread the news of the resurrection to all people through our words and our actions no matter where we are. We have been given God’s Holy Spirit to dispel fear through love. My favorite character, Yoda, in the movie Star Wars said, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” There is too much suffering in this world. There is too much suffering within our own churches. I pray we as the Body of Christ will not add to this suffering, but be sources of peace – God’s peace – which unlocks all doors. Amen.