A sermon on 1 John 5:1-6
"I just don't think anyone can call themselves Christian and vote Republican." That's what she said to me as her husband nodded slowly while shifting his weight uneasily as he stood behind her in their kitchen. There are two things you're never supposed to bring up over dinner, but that wasn't slowing her down. I was new in that church, and this couple had been incredibly kind in inviting Jennifer and me over to their house. Dinner smelled amazing as it cooked in the oven, and everything was beautiful until our host - that church's lay leader, by the way - put that landmine on the ground and dared us to walk. Actually, that's not quite true. She wasn't daring us to do anything, it honestly never occurred to her that we might think differently. She was no more looking for an answer than was my host at another home, 4 years later. Once again we were new in town. Once again, some of the kindest most generous people we knew had invited us over for supper. And, as we were sitting at the table, the man across from me - also a lay leader, curiously enough - mentioned how relieved he had been by a recent election that had dealt the Democrats a crushing defeat. "God's in his heaven/All's right with the world," he said as he prepared to say a blessing over the meal.
Gordon-Conwell Seminary reports that there are more than 39,000 Christian denominations in the world. Most of these recognize the validity of other denominations, but still... It seems like there is an awful lot of disagreement over what constitutes "a real Christian." Do all 'real' Christians vote a certain way; worship a certain way, behave a certain way? How am I supposed to know who "the real Christians" are?
Today, the apostle gives us a pretty succinct definition of how we can identify a "real Christian": 'Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born from God." In the verses leading up to this passage we read today, the apostle has been urging his church to love each other - in chapter 4 he writes: There is no fear in love, the person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love." The verse immediately before what we read today says "this commandment is from God, those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also." The obvious follow-up question is to look for a loophole - well then: who counts as my brother and sister? And in today's reading we have the immediate answer: Everyone who believe that Jesus is the Christ has been born from God." Everyone who believes this has a place at the family reunion.
Frankly, I wish God had higher standards. It's all well and good for us to read "whoever loves the parent loves the child born to the parent" but I've met some of my friends' kids. It's all well and good for the apostle to say "These commands are not difficult," but he wasn't trying to love people in an era of 24 hour news and social media.
As it is, there are all kinds of folks out there saying all kinds of dumb things in the name of Jesus and it makes me want to say "I know Christ; Jesus Christ is a friend of mine, and you folk are nothing like Jesus Christ." There are folk who, it seems to me, have painted a thin veneer of Jesus over their own desires, or their own hate, or their profit motive and called it "Christianity." Some of my friends in the medical profession start pulling their hair out because patients come in spouting all kinds pseudo science and self-diagnoses and I just want to laugh - "You have no idea what's coming." The more authority our culture gives to science, the more people will try and turn any idea into "science." Trust me. I know. Christianity had a lot of cultural authority for a very long time and in that time people have found ways to make "christianity" mean just about anything. And so it leaves us searching for adjectives that will allow us to prune a few branches off the family tree - we are evangelical Christians, progressive Chistians, mainline Christians. Whatever we are, we aren't like those Christians. We begin to define ourselves, not by who we are, or who we are becoming - we define ourselves by who we are not. We might even spend more time reading and talking about what we hate than what we love, and we turn it into a strange sort of piety when we pray: "Thank you God, that I'm not like them..." It can be exhausting - it seems there's some new bestselling heresy to disavow every week, but we must remain vigilant, lest we get mistaken for "one of those": those people we fear, those people we fear being associated with.
Is it any wonder that Jesus felt the need, so often when he showed up, to begin by saying "Do not fear." Do not fear guilt by association. Do not fear that the one true gospel rests upon you and your vigilance. Do not fear that anyone or anything might make Jesus any less the Lord. God let me fear nothing except for the things that keep your love from reigning in my heart. This is God's answer to our fears and our worries and our anxious search for loopholes - "this is how we know we love the children of God, we love God and keeps God's commandments." Quit worrying about who you are not, and focus on the one who made you who you are. Is Jesus Lord? Then we must accept the strange rule of Love. Love is God’s rule because it is God’s commandment. Love is God’s rule because it is God’s power as well. Will God's will win the day someday, or not? if so, what is there for us but to be faithful and attentive to that.
A preacher once told me about one of his church members who had to fly a lot for business. "I've turned it into a spiritual exercise" said the parishioner. "I sit in the terminal and I look at each person and I think to myself - what is it in that person that God loves so much? I keep asking that until I get to someone for whom I can't answer the question, someone who doesn't inspire the least bit of love in me. And when I find that person, I find the limit of my own love for God - and I begin to pray."
Whatever it takes, our first duty as church is to love one another - to love our brothers and sisters and to give a generous defintion of who those brothers and sisters may be: anyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born into this family. That's one reason why this church accepts anyone who loves God to our family table. It's why we accept the baptism of anyone who received the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
As we speak of family things on this mother’s day, I can’t help thinking Julia Ward Howe, who was the first national figure to call for a day of motherhood. After the Civil War, she announced.
Again, in the sight of the Christian world, have the skill and power of two great nations exhausted themselves in mutual murder. Despite the assumptions of physical force, the mother has a sacred and commanding word to say to the sons who owe their life to her suffering.
In a world that assumes force and coercion are all powerful, thank God for those mothers who have spoken sacred and commanding words of love, that bind families together without force and intimidation. Because if love can rule families, it can rule us. It was Pope Benedict who taught that the family is a “little Church,” it is a place where we get focused, attentive practice in loving others, so that we can then practice that same kind of love for our “brothers and sisters in the church.” We are bound by God to discover a family resemblance in anyone who bears the name of Christ, because they bear the image of God.
Of course, every person bears the image of God, not just Christians. Maybe this is what the apostle meant when he said that the command to love our brothers and sisters isn't really that difficult - maybe he meant that it would be easy in comparison to loving our enemies. Because we are commanded to do that, too. We’d better start practicing now. If we're ever going to be any good at loving our enemies, we’d better start with each other.