25 March 2017

Life together

We live in a divided, broken world. Who would have thought that hatred between red and blue, conservative and liberal, race against race, religion against religion would become so strong, so vengeful? The election was nearly six months ago yet the political polarization remains the same. Republicans play hardball with Democrats. Christians issue violence against Muslims. White nationalists defile immigrants and people of color. And they drag the ignorant with them on a crusade of hate against each other. I know you know. We see it in the threads of Facebook, or the sensationalized debates on cable news. You can’t even go through the day without a CNN alert telling you the world is about to end. This heightened atmosphere of polarization seems to be our new normal.

But we are not broken and divided in public life alone; we too are broken in the church. The things we thought would staple our seams together are falling apart. Endless debates and committees attempt to solve our issues, yet we suffer the same division as the world. Cultural differences pit North Americans and Europeans against South Americans, Asians, and Africans. We struggle to resolve issues that separate us from women’s ordination, to racial segregation, to traditions, to music and culture. And while this happens, young adults and youth bleed out of the church. 

Even amongst ourselves in our congregation, we divide. We come from places at the opposite ends of the interstate. We cling to certain circles, we separate ourselves among cliques and friends, temperament, personality, even popularity. 

Who would have thought that my generation would never see peace in our time again?Who would have thought the height of modern reality would not be unity, but division? That the future would bring hate, not love? That our era would bring separation, not togetherness? Perhaps we should not be so surprised. Scripture seems to aptly describe our world. The words of Jesus in Matthew 24 — “You will hear wars and rumors of wars…Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…Many will be offended, they will betray one another, and will hate one another…And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold.” 

Beyond the talk of prophecies and beasts and images, there is this prophetic insight we should not overlook: polarization, division, and hate will characterize our world. People will war against each other, they will hate one another, and the love of many will grow cold. 

If there was one value missing from the public discourse, I would say it is love itself. Why have Christians spoken evil against Muslims? The love of many has grown cold. Why is racism now a  normal part of society? The love of many has grown cold. Why can the right not work with the left? The love of many has grown cold. Why do we disrespect each other, why can we not find solutions together, why can we not listen to the other side? The love of many has grown cold. Why do we find it hard to live together in this church community? The love of many has grown cold.

So what do we do now? Can we find healing for our bitterness? Can we find wholeness for our separation? Can we stop this bleeding?

Can our church address this issue?  Is there any way that the church can find an answer to the great division? 

Perhaps not by finding the answer, but by being the answer. Can we the church be the one fixture of unity in a world of division? Should not the church be the one place in the world where anyone can belong? Is it possible that the church can be a place where Democrats and Republicans show compassion to each other? Can the church be a place where young and old carry each others burdens? 

Can the church be a place where whites and blacks worship the same God? Can’t we be an anomaly, can’t we be unique and different and stand out in this way? That someone could walk into a church and ask, How on earth did all these different people end up in the same place? 

Can’t the church be the one place on earth where the love of many doesn’t grow cold? Can’t we be a better community?

Can’t we build a life together?

At the end of his life on earth, Jesus provided this one ultimatum for his disciples: “I give you a new commandment: Love one another. As I loved you, so are you to love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” John 13:34-35. 

The great evidence that we Christ’s, the one demonstrable proof to the world that we are Christians is found in the love we have for one another. We are given an opportunity to prove that it is possible that love can overcome hate, that people of such great differences and diversity can live together and love together. Which is why in his prayer before the crucifixion, he pleads to the Father, “I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one--as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me,” John 17:21. He calls us to love one another, to be in unity as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in unity.

We can love one another. Because, “if God thus loved us, dear friends, we in turn are bound to love one another,” (1 John 4:11). We are bound to to a life together. We can find unity despite our differences. We can be the people Jesus calls us to be.  We the church can build a life together, or perish alone and apart. But if we build a life together, we prove that God is true and love will win, someday.

The question left for us right now is this: How can we build a life together? That is what we will answer today in the span of a few broad but practical ideals. 

Let’s start with this: You cannot give what you do not have. You cannot do what you don’t know how to do. If we are to build a life together, we cannot do it unless we know how to love. We cannot love unless we have known and felt love. 

Jesus calls us to “love one another as I have loved you.” Which introduces my first point: We must know how he has loved us first before we try to love another. We cannot love each other in the way he loved unless we truly know his own love for us. For us who have heard the Gospel and encountered truth in God, we cannot build a life together unless we have understood the Gospel and believed the Gospel. We cannot build a life together unless we have experienced how great is the love of the Jesus whom we encountered. 1 John 4:20 — “If a man says, ‘I love God’, while hating his brother, he is a liar. If he does not love the brother whom he has seen, it cannot be that he loves God whom he has not seen.” Unless we have known and felt that God is love, how can we love our brother? Unless we have a relationship with God, how can we establish wholly loving relationships with each other? 

What if I don’t know the Gospel, or what if I don’t have a good relationship with God? If you can admit that, then I’d say you are in a good place to start. Because according to the great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “the goal of all Christian community [is that we] meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.” Together we teach each other the Gospel, we impart present truth to one another. 

To continue with Pastor Bonhoeffer: 
“God has put this Word into the mouth of men in order that it may be communicated to other men. When a person is struck by the Word, he speaks it to others. God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged…He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation.” 
Let us bring the message of the Gospel to each other, so that we may know and feel the love of God. We ought to study the Word together more. Show up to Sabbath School. Revive our small groups. Join the youth in their Bible studies. Because as we deliver the Gospel to each other, we believe the Gospel, we experience God’s love for us, and we learn how to love another person. 

Some of you know that James and I were at Andrews together for a year. And we were classmates in a course that has seemingly changed our lives. I remember this one assignment from Dr. Jeroncic, and I’ll never forget it because I learned so many things from that one paper. He told us to take it easy, relax, (strangely I remember these details) make a cup of tea, sit down in front of a white board, draw out some ideas, and “Based on your reading and the discussion in the class write a 3-page long essay, double spaced and typed, on how do you understand the Trinity. What does the term man to you, and how does it influence (affect) your world view of God, the world and the human being?” 

So I dug out my essay from my archives, and I found my earliest ideas that changed how I encountered God as the Trinity: 
“Why does God need to be three persons, rather than two, or one, or how about four? Yet if God was one person, we would be wrong in saying that “God is love.” Prior to the creation of anything, God would not be able to love in solitude. Were God alone when he was “ancient of days”, love would not be possible.” To say “God is love” means also that God loves within himself, as if it were his nature to love in his being. God can’t say he is love if he’s by himself because that’s not love, that’s selfishness. But God as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can love within himself because he is community.“To see God as a community of being shows how the church should likewise reflect the Trinity – a united community, equal in itself. This tells us much about how we should relate to each other and how we relate to God. The love shared within the Godhead is unconditional and flows freely. If the most important thing to the Christian’s worldview,  if our prime reality is God Himself, and God Himself is Trinity, then the essence of our reality and our universe is community.”
If you can follow along — far into the reaches of pre history before the universe existed, there was God. And God was still love because he was the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and they were in this eternal circle of love and community. Out of their love they wanted to create a universe to love. We his creation take part in that love, and we are invited to love and be a part of their community. This is why God commanded Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, that the love they shared might be born in new creation. As we grow our families, we expand the circles of love that find their source in God in his circle of love in the Trinity. Which leads to my second point.

We can start practicing loving another person within our own families. Because in your family you are a reflection of the love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In your family circle, you experience love in its most primitive form. As a husband or wife, you learn how to honor your love as a promise. As a child you rely on the love of a parent, and as a parent you are indebted to give love to your child. As children, we grow and learn to love in return. So in this cycle that Paul describes: Ephesians 5:22 and 25 — “Wives, respect your husbands as to the Lord. Husbands, love your wives as Christ also loved the church,” Ephesians 6:1-4 — “Children, obey your parents. Fathers, do not goad your children to resentment, but teach them…” We learn to figure out the dynamic of living as a family. Then we become teenagers and everything changes. 

Yet that is how the struggle of love works. We learn how to love even when it’s hard, we struggle to show affection when we are coldhearted; our hearts break in the necessity of discipline, or in the confines of free will.

I would be untruthful if I said that love is freely flowing in my household, if I said that we are living in harmony, and we are peaceful together. Like any family, we struggle together, we have strifes. We’re still figuring out how to show love better. I mean, you want some examples? Look, my brother and I don’t have the best relationship and often I feel I can’t do much about it.  Or our family had heightened tensions after the election, like many other minority families making sense out of what the next administration could do to us. Sometimes you find resolutions right away, many times you don’t and you have to figure out something along the way. But I don’t know, you move on. Sometimes healing takes time, and building a life together takes patience. You do what you can and keep going. I’m telling you this because I want my honesty to be mean something. Building a life together isn’t easy; it’s hard, it takes time, we have to make sacrifices but in the refinery we become who God wants us to be. And if we can build a life together, we can prove that God is true and love will win. 

We have to start somewhere, and by starting with our families, we practice. We prepare ourselves to love truly in wider circles. By knowing God’s love, we can love another. By loving in our families and homes, we can love our neighbors, our friends, our colleagues, our communities. 

My next point is this: as our circles of love expand wider and wider, we must tear down the walls that separate us from other people, different people. And in their place, build bridges. Paul exhorts us in Galatians 3:26-28 — "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” There are a couple ways that theologians look at this verse, but here are some general things we can learn. In Paul’s day in the Greco-Roman society as in ours in 21st century America, there are labels we put on ourselves. Jew or Greek, black or white, slave or free, upper class or working class. But Paul wants to make sure we understand: we are sons and daughters of God through faith in Jesus, and in baptism in Christ, our barriers are destroyed. We may still be Jew or Greek, Democrat or Republican, Beyonce or Adele, but that which divides us should divide us no longer. 

As Pastor Bonhoeffer wrote, “Christ opened up the way to God and to our brother.” Where there was once ego, partisanship, racism, prejudice, indifference, or reservation, Christ broke through so that we could come to him and we could come to our brother or sister. There should be nothing that keeps us from loving someone different from us. There should be nothing keeping us from loving each other in our own church fully, wholly, and deeply. If we are in Christ, there is nothing that separates us from the love of God or our love for each other. We can’t let our stubborn prejudices or our reservations keep us from building a life together.

I was a sophomore when my grandmother passed away. I had made the goal to complete college with her presence, but that could not come to be. I remember spending a week at her home in Himamaylan with my mother, my aunts and my uncle, going through our tradition of the wake. Different groups of people who had known her in life would come to honor her, and I remember they characterized her similarly. She was strict, a disciplinarian, one with high standards. I understood. I had seen glimpses of her character too. Yet they also said she had a generous heart, and her discipline made her community better. I thought to myself that in life one could be angry at a person for their wrath, yet in absence fondly realize the goodness in a person’s heart. One could fear, or resent someone because one doesn’t understand what’s truly inside someone else.

So it is with people with whom we disagree. For example, the elders and elderly of our church. We may not understand why they want us to do this or stop that, to be something else or be somewhere, why in bearing policy they inquire and require much out of us. But in their old school heritage, they are asking us to be better. Which is why in my eulogy for my grandmother I said this: “I know there are many of you who thought she was too strict, too hard, too disciplining. But she wanted us to be better people. She saw what we could be, and wanted us to build a better future for ourselves.” Sometimes we set up these walls that block out and ignore what they say. But our elderly in their hearts see standards that we ought to see for ourselves, and I believe they want to teach us how we can get there, even if in the most trivial ways. If we disagree, we are free to dialogue and work out a solution, trying to understand the best intentions of each other.” We have to tear down the walls we’ve set up in our stubbornness and reach across to understand and talk it through. Is this not how a community of young and old works? Or how any community can solve its problems?

Again, Paul exhorts us, 1 Corinthians 1:10 — “I appeal with you my brothers in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: agree among yourselves and avoid divisions; be firmly joined in unity of mind and thought.” (Is it just me or does unity seem to be a serious problem for the Early Church?)

Because if we tear down the walls the separate us, we shouldn’t see someone entirely foreign or vastly different from us. We should be able to see ourselves. We should be able to see the image of God in each other. And likewise give each other our due respect, dignity, love, and friendship.

My penultimate point is this: In a life together, we should love deeply, wholly, and sacredly. We do this in many ways, but I want to point out these modes: worship, forgiveness, friendship. In his inaugural address, the president of the United States quoted Scripture (Psalm 133) in this way: “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. The Bible tells us, ‘How good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity.’” In response I would say this: No Mr President. When you open your heart to Christ, there is no room for prejudice. Only then can you get God’s people to dwell together in unity. “Christ is all and in all,” Colossians 3:11. 

Christ is the reason we come to church, we come out of our love for Him. Remember that when we worship together, we experience unity in his presence. We are, as Paul writes, “the body of Christ and individually members of it,” 1 Corinthians 12:27. Because the point of church, of coming together at 11 A.M. on a Saturday morning isn’t the social gathering or the country club we socially construct. We come to owe God what is due him, through our songs, our tithe, our lessons. We come with offerings of ourselves and what we have, and we come to hear Jesus speak to us in return. Can we allow our worship to be meaningful, to be sacred to God yet relevant to our souls? 

Moreover, can we the members of the body of Christ be united in our solidarity? Again Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:25-26, “its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” Would it be alright if we came to church as we are inside, hurting and broken within?  Can we, overwhelmed with the weight of our sins, find encouragement from one another? Have you come to the end of yourself? Then come to the altar with your brother, bring your sorrows and trade them for joy. 

Can we in our brokenness find forgiveness in one another? I mean, how many verses are there in the New Testament alone that talk about forgiveness? 
Matthew 6:24-15 — “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Luke 17:3-4 — “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” Ephesians 4:32 — “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” James 5:16 — “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”

“But if a man says, ‘I love God’, while hating his brother, he is a liar. If he does not love the brother whom he has seen, it cannot be that he loves God whom he has not seen,” 1 John 4:20. How can we say we love God if we cannot forgive our trespasses against each other? Can we let go of our burdens of hypocrisy and spurious condemnation, and forgive each other as God in Christ forgave us? Can we see our brother or sister in our fellow member, and raise the level of our commitment to each other because we are bound together in Christ?

Can we be better friends? Can we forge stronger friendships with each other, friends who are not acquaintances, but friends as Jesus has called us his own friends? Friendship is one of the great gifts of humanity, and from it we can learn and experience love so powerful and spiritually uplifting. It witnesses to the divine origin of love, comforts us as broken beings, and brings joy to a shared life together. As the ancient theologian Augustine wrote, “friendship is genuine when you bind fast together people who cleave to [God] through the [love] poured abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.” For in our bound unity, we find glimpses of the divine in the sacred bond amongst ourselves as friends.

In his parting words, “I give you a new commandment: Love one another. As I loved you, so are you to love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” (John 13:34-35) Jesus gives us an opportunity to prove that it is possible that love can overcome all. That in our deep, whole, sacred love, we can make a beautiful life together. 

Let me close with this example. In youth culture, there is this concept known as the friendzone. It is when a boy is very good friends with a girl, but she will not enter a romantic relationship with him, or vice versa. And this can happen for a number of reasons, but from what most portrayals from popular culture seem to indicate, the girl will say, “I’m afraid to fall in love with him because I’m afraid of getting my heart broken!” And if the narrative goes right, someone wise and mature will say to the girl, “But that’s what love is. It’s vulnerable and fragile and delicate. It can break and many times it does. So you piece your heart together, and you fall in love again.” 

Can’t we make the sacrifice to be vulnerable, to be open, to be forgiving in our life together? Can’t we love with a real, deep, full and whole love? There may be brokenness, but here we are together to piece our broken hearts together and love again. What would life be unless we have the free will that leaves us vulnerable to suffering, but as C.S. Lewis insists, still "makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having"? 

Can’t we build a life together

Can’t we transcend the polarization, or the bitter opposing divisions of our reality?

Doesn’t the ultimatum we face come down to whether we can live a life together, or perish alone and apart as in the world? But if we build a life together, we prove that God is true and love will win.

Can’t we experience God’s love and in turn learn to love another? And can’t we grow our circles of love in this world, so far that we break downs walls and find unity in Christ? Can’t we love deeply, wholly, and sacredly? Can’t we come together as the body of Christ and worship meaningfully, forgive generously, and befriend affectionately? Can't we fall in love again?

Can’t we build a life together?

If the great test of our faith in Jesus, “they will know you are my disciples if you have love for another,” then isn’t that our task now? To build a life together? 

Amen.

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