Saturday, May 26, 2012

What a Bit of Breath Can Do

Ezekiel 37:1-14
The Day of Pentecost
May 27, 2012
William G. Carter

“Mortal, can these bones live?”

            It was a sunny summer day, early June, as I recall. I was up in the hills a bit north of here. As I roared along the winding country road, I came upon a little church. The Holy Spirit said, “Stop!” so I stopped.
            There was no parking lot. Just a gravel driveway about ten feet long. The white paint was peeling. Eight large stained glass windows had been removed and replaced by three-quarter inch plywood. A gap existed above most of the window openings, and as I stood there, a sparrow flew out. A two-by-four was nailed across the front doors, and a small tree had sprung up a foot away from the front right corner of the sanctuary.
            The Spirit said, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I didn’t have an answer.
            Grass had grown up through the gravel, and I walked over to the cemetery adjacent to the church. Limestone gravestones marked the dead, and rainwater had erased some of the names. The stone wall surrounding was covered in moss, and Bull Thistles had deeply invaded the plots. The dead Christians beneath my feet were going to stay that way. They were six feet deep in neglect.
            The Spirit said, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I didn’t know what to say.
            The question was asked in Biology class: “How do you know something is alive?” There are lots of answers. Medical people might say you are alive as long as your brain functions. I beg to differ; I’ve seen people who seem perfectly alive but their brains had long ceased to function. Some of them appear on Reality TV.
Others would declare life depends on circulatory function. If there is blood in your veins and your heart is pumping, you are alive. But sadly, most of us can name someone who was perfectly alive but they had no heart.
            The best answer may come from the book of Psalms. In the Psalm we hear today, structured as a seven-fold celebration of life abounding, the poet says to God, “When you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your (breath), they are created.”
            This is true of plants, who must breathe to live. It is certainly true of people, who cease to live when they cease to breathe. I think it’s also true of churches. Sometimes they run out of breath.
            I walked around that little country chapel. Once upon a time, children were baptized there. Teenagers had their faith confirmed in that spot. There was a season when a preacher sang out the Good News, and then grace was revealed in broken bread and poured-out wine. It was never a large congregation, but once it had been alive.
            What brings a church alive? Breath. Not hot air, but breath. The Psalmist is right: when God sends God’s own breath, we are brought alive. The old Hebrew word “ruach” can be translated “breath,” or “wind,” or “Spirit.” And when God gives it, everybody knows. Everybody breathes.
            That’s what happened on the very first Pentecost. A huddle of weary disciples were hiding out in a locked room. It sounds like the same upper room where Jesus had served them the Last Supper. Suddenly they heard a noise, a really big noise. When Luke tells the story, he can’t quite describe it. “It was like a wind from heaven,” he says, “like the rush of a violent wind.” It filled the entire house, not just their lungs, but the whole house. And it spilled out into the street, because it was never meant as a private possession.
            God blew the Holy Wind and filled the lungs of the church. Simon Peter and the others exhaled the Gospel. Pentecost became a public event, intended for the benefit of all. It happened because of the breath of God.
            The Spirit said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” As I walked around a dead country chapel, two more sparrows flitted out of a window. A snake slithered in the grass. Then I came upon the electrical box on the side of the building. Somebody had cut the wires. There would be no more Power from Headquarters.
            It was a stark reminder of what happens to Christian people when they do not breathe the Breath of God, when they do not celebrate their life as a gift, when the living faith of people is reduced to mere obligation, when their Gospel mission to the world is reduced to mere building maintenance. God send the electrician to cut them off – because there is no Breath within them.
            All of this is commentary on the strange vision of Ezekiel. God drops the prophet into a valley full of bones. Old dry bones. Disconnected bones. Starched white bones. There is no life in that bone yard, until God tells the prophet to preach. “Preach to those withered, white, dry and disconnected bones,” says the Lord. “Tell them to listen to the Word that I am exhaling. Tell them that I am going to breathe on them. Tell them that I alone am the One who will give them life. Tell them that I alone am the One who will connect them, embody them, and cause them to dance.”
            Remember what happens? Ezekiel preaches these words. The toe bone is connected to the foot bone, the foot bone is connected to the ankle bone. The ankle bone is connected to the leg bone. Oh, hear the Word of the Lord!
            God speaks in Breath. Breath brings us alive. When we are alive, we are connected, embodied, and we keep moving.  There is life from God, for the glory of God. And everybody knows it.
            God says, “Mortal, the address of that bone yard is Israel. The name of that bone yard is the Church.” Wherever people lose their hope, they are living in the Valley of Old Dry Bones.
            Can these bones live? Absolutely, when the Spirit of the Lord, when the Wind of the Lord, when the Breath of the Lord comes upon them.
            This Pentecost, we baptize little Dylan. We splash his head with water and claim him in the name of the Trinity. But listen for something else: we pray for the Holy Spirit of God to stay with him, to teach him faith and to direct his life. If baptism is only a splash of water, we might as well stay home in the tub. But it was declared of Jesus himself that he would baptize us with Holy Spirit – and with fire! In baptism, we welcome God’s Holy Presence into our lives. The water washes us, the Spirit fills us. Baptized bones will live!
            This Pentecost, we ordain and install elders and deacons in our Presbyterian Church. These are the orders of our ministry by which we declare the truth about God and serve with the compassion of Jesus. They are so much more than mere officers of an organization. They are servants of Christ. They need his wisdom to do their work. They require his love to make their decisions. They need his mercy to lead the work. So we ask them questions about their faith, we pray for the Spirit to come – to come upon them -- so that the Breath of God would take flesh in their lives.
            This Pentecost, we pray for our graduates. They have written all the papers and passed all the exams. They have been in the posture of learning. Now we call on them to take on the mantle of service. Education is always in the service to the public good. Otherwise we fill our heads with useless facts and waste time and tuition. Those who learn are called by Christ to make a difference in the world. So we pray for our graduates, that God would breathe on them, that the Holy Spirit would fill each of them with a passion for the truth and set before them the opportunities to work for Christ’s justice.
            This Pentecost, we come together in this one place. All of us are disciples of Jesus, or at least curious about what that might mean. Maybe we are tired old bones, all of the hope starched out of us. Maybe we are bored, and need something to challenge us. Maybe we are frustrated at the ways that the world tries to squeeze all the faith out of us, and we really want God to become real to us once again. Or maybe we know very clearly what we are called to do, but we lack the courage or the ability to do it.
This is the day for us. This is our Pentecost day. God’s question comes to each of us: Mortal, can these bones live? Look around the room – can these bones live?
The best way to respond is the same way Ezekiel responds, “O Lord God, you know.”
Great God of heaven, you know what can bring us completely alive. Send your Spirit upon us, Lord. Let the Holy Wind of God blow upon every person here. Breathe, O breathe, your loving Spirit. Fall afresh on us.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Oh No, Not Another New Song!
Psalm 98
John Bell Weekend
May 20, 2012

I must compliment so many of you for being polite to our guest. It’s not every day that we have a world-known composer in our midst. We welcome him. We are glad for the gift of his music, and delighted we have a chance to sing it, even though almost all of it is new.

All of us encounter the new song. We hear it and wonder if it is going to catch on. The song sounds for us on the radio, the first time. The tune might be catchy, we can’t quite make out the words. It may have an insistent rhythm, even if it leaves the person next to us quite cold.

As I retrieved my older daughter from the university on Friday, we sped home on Interstate 80. She was driving, and our rule is whoever sits behind the wheel shall determine the soundtrack for the trip. I didn’t know that some of those radio stations even existed. There she was, singing along to songs that I had never heard. When there was a lull in the action and we could not find a station that intersected with her tastes, I decided to pop in a couple of CDs that I had recently acquired. She feigned interest briefly, even to the point of benign neglect, and tolerated three songs that she had never heard before and probably never needs to hear again.

Oh, no, not another new song!

Church people know the sentiment, even though they are among the very few people in the world who sing all the time. In fact, in the treasure chest of old sermon illustrations, you can find copies of correspondence from people who complained about the new songs in church that they were forced to sing. They took the time to write to a pastor, organist, or choir director about something that they didn’t want to sing. One letter said:

"I am no music scholar, but I feel I know appropriate church music when I hear it.  Last Sunday's new hymn - if you can call it that - sounded like a sentimental love ballad one would expect to hear crooned in a saloon.  If you insist on exposing us to rubbish like this - in God's house! - don't be surprised if many of the faithful look for a new place to worship.  The hymns we grew up with are all we need."

This letter was written in 1863 and the song that concerned the author was the hymn "Just as I Am". Another letter inquired:

"What is wrong with the inspiring hymns with which we grew up? When I go to church, it is to worship God, not to be distracted with learning a new hymn.  Last Sunday's was particularly unnerving.  The tune was un-singable and the new harmonies were quite distorting."

This letter was written in 1890 and about the hymn "What A Friend We Have in Jesus".

            Let’s not forget that, once upon a time, every song was new. Let’s not forget that new songs are composed every day by thousands of the world’s composers. And let’s forget the advice of hymn writer Brian Wren, who suggests that the best way to deal with outdated lyrics and antiquated sentiments is by creating new songs that state our ancient faith in Christ in a fresh, new way. “O sing to the Lord a new song.”

            Even so, there are many reasons why we don’t want to sing a new song. Can you help me name a few? Here’s one reason: we don’t know it, so we don’t want to sing it. Here’s another reason: we don’t like it, at least not yet. We haven’t heard the disc jockey play it four thousand times and tell us that it’s a good song.

Or here’s another reason: we aren’t so sure about doing anything new. That would push us beyond the boundary of the familiar. Perhaps we want to stick with what we know. Kind of like what the letter to the Hebrews says of old father Abraham and good mother Sarah – they set out not knowing where they were going (11:8). What kind of journey is that? Even if they had a map, God said, “I’ll show you when you get there.” The new song leads us on a new journey, to the place where we have to trust, the place where have to keep hoping, and keep hoping. As anybody who has taken that journey knows, the trip itself can change us.

Many of you know my friend, the saxophonist Al Hamme. Years ago, when he was a young man, he found himself in a city where the great saxophonist John Coltrane was playing. He went to the club, paid his cover charge, sat down front, right by the bandstand. The pianist that night was a fill-in, Bobby Timmons from Philadelphia. Bobby was a great musician, but he hadn’t been keeping up with Coltrane’s musical explorations. As John began to soar in a duet with his drummer, Bobby leaned off the bandstand, caught Al’s eye, nodded and said, “What (are) they doing?” It wasn’t obvious. The music was new, it was difficult. Bobby was signaling he couldn’t keep up.

I suppose if you’re bored, you could chase after all things new and the mysterious. Our part of the world revels in the new gadget, the improved dishwasher soap, the latest Top Ten tune. With our shortened attention spans, we latch like Velcro to the hot television show, the latest diet expert, or the brand new celebrity who graces the cover of People Magazine before we ever actually learned the names of the last dozen hottest celebrities. We live in a disposable society, where songs, like people, are heavily marketed, quickly used up, and dismissed.

That’s not the case with Psalm 98. Some scholars say the text is over 2500 years old. It’s been around a while. Somewhere along the line, we lost the original tune, so every generation has to make a new song out of this old set of words. That’s what faith does, as you know. We take the ancient words we inherited, and we spin some new gold out of that old straw. Faith is always one generation away from extinction, unless we take something old and, from it, we claim it as our own.

And this one truth is inescapable: the invitation to sing, to inhale God’s Spirit and exhale our song, is the invitation to welcome God’s Holy Breath into our bloodstreams and then to put it back into the air for others to hear. Singing our faith is our embodied faith. It is active participation, not passive observance.

I wish this were so all the time. When we have guests here, who visit a worship service and stand to watch while the rest of us sing, I often daydream about stopping the music and becoming rather direct. “Excuse me – let’s pause this song. It’s in the Blue book, people. Please pick it up, open to the page, take a deep breath, and make a holy sound.” Someday I might just do that – not because I want to be rude, but because I have come to the conviction that, until we sing, we cannot completely believe. Until we desire our faith to be processed through our lungs, it’s impossible to completely claim the faith.

I say this, because I’ve seen what happens when people sing about God. They are lifted above their distress. They are brought into the presence of a Judge who sees everything clearly and who works to correct every injustice. They are liberated from the prejudice and arrogance of this age, and welcomed by a God who really does love everybody. I’ve seen grumps and malcontents and the serious complainers strangely renewed when they start to sing praises. And I’ve seen how a good tune takes the broken-hearted seriously, and refuses to let them stay broken.

If we sing the new song, it can change us. Not merely by taking us to uncharted territory, but returning us to territory we know all too well. Psalm 98 does not have any difficult words to look up. There are no new concepts. This is the text for the most published Christmas carol of all time, “Joy to the World.” It’s hardly a new song for any of us, yet, it makes us new every time we sing it. Remember what the Psalm sings? God is coming because God remembers us. God is doing amazing things and “heaven and nature sing.” God rules the world, “with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glory of his righteousness and wonders of God’s love.” So we make the joyful noise, just like the roaring floods and the singing hills.

And if that’s not enough, there’s the text from the fifth chapter of Revelation. The door to heaven swings open from the other side, and what everybody hears is an everlasting song. Christ is praised as the One who is worthy to receive the seven-fold, perfect affirmation: power, riches, wisdom and might, honor, glory, and blessing. In the presence of God and of the Lamb, everybody is singing. That’s the ultimate reality of the universe, God’s new song. So we might as well tune up for it here.

I’ve been chewing on what we should do about this. Rather than finish the sermon with more words, let’s practice the very thing that our texts are preaching. If our composer and friend would come forward, we ask him to lead us in singing a new song, all the glory of God.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Believing and Belonging

1 John 5:1-8
Easter 6
May 13, 2012
William G. Carter

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 

            If we continue after Easter to explore the Easter life, we need to talk about believing and belonging. Believing and Belonging. Those who believe belong, those who belong believe. At least, I thought that was the connection. These days we aren’t so sure.

            Like a lot of you, I grew up in the church. There were twenty-one seventh graders in my seventh-grade Sunday School class. It was the high water mark of the Baby Boom. But I don’t know how many of them still go to church. I’m going to guess five, maybe six. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think so.

Confirmation was a big day for us. In seventh grade, in 1973, confirmation was a big deal. Confirmation was the ceremony when seventh graders joined the church and left the church on the same day. Maybe their parents cut a deal: if you endure confirmation to the end, we will let you decide from now on if you are going to go.

Some resist joining a church because a church seems like just another organization. And they won’t have it. They want nothing to do with organizations. Organizations have dues to pay, gatherings to attend, and structures to maintain. If that’s all it is, they don’t want to have any part of an organization.

My generation has its own issues. If you grew up in the ‘60’s, you learned to question organizations and talk back to power. If you grew up in the ‘70’s, you saw how corrupt Nixon’s White House was, and it signaled that any pre-existing institution was also probably corrupt. It’s not unique to my bunch. If you grew up in the ‘80’s, you saw those old TV preachers were greedy and sinful. If you grew up in the ‘90’s, you discovered some of the dark corners of the Roman Catholic church.

The curious thing about the Christian faith is we don’t believe in an organization. We believe in Christ. Through Christ, we belong to everybody else who believes in Christ. That’s how he set up everything. “When we love God and his commandments, we love the children of God.”

When we say, “I believe,” we find ourselves in a larger family. That’s what 1st John is working with, in a way. John is a church leader who writes this letter and says, “We are the ones who have seen, we are the ones who have heard, we are the ones who testify.” If it’s the case that not everybody has seen or heard, or that not everybody was there around the circle, there is a living center to it all that keeps everybody pulled in.

We have heard the past couple of weeks about the character of that community. It is the character of love. Tertullian was a church leader who lived in Carthage about 180 years after Jesus. He was also one of the crankiest figures in church history. Yet he reported what the non-Christians around him in North Africa said about their Christian neighbors: “See how they love one another!”[1] He was particularly talking about how the Christians cared for the poor and the outcast. 

Practical love was the mark of the church from the beginning, in the name of Jesus, about whom it was said, “He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.” (Isaiah 42:3).  “When we love God,” said John, “we love the children of God.” There is a constant magnetic quality about that love that pulls people toward it.

The sad news we hear these days from the young adults is that when they hear the word “Christian,” the very last thing they think is “love.” It’s not only the flap about gay and lesbians being allowed to marry, it’s the general judgmental attitude acquainted with the word “Christian.”

One of the twenty-something’s went to a church that a lot of her friends were raving about. It seemed exciting – they had strobe lights and a fog machine. She sniffed it out immediately and said, “They downplay their bigotry as a marketing ploy. It was clear they would treat me as second-class because I was a woman, kind of the same way that people who were slave-owners never thought they were racist.” Her decision was to never go to another church ever again. She gave them one chance and they blew it.

This attitude is in the air. There was a recent article in The Christian Century about the reluctance of young adults to join churches, to actually sign up and become members. One of the interesting facts is that Americans have not always been big church members. Historians think that in the year 1800, only one American in six belonged to a church. By the 1850’s, due to the revival movement and its individual commitments to Christ, the number was one in three. Fifty years ago, church membership climbed to over eighty percent – but it’s been declining ever since.

On May 3, the Scranton Times-Tribune ran a front-page article about church membership in our region. It was fascinating, if only because the headline was wrong. The headline said “Evangelical population growing, Catholic population flat.” The editor really should have read their own article. The evangelicals are growing, mostly in the Assembly of God churches. The Roman Catholics are shrinking, and the Methodists are shrinking worst of all. But what the headline missed is that the biggest growth section in our region is in the people who have no religion at all. They claim no affiliation. They don’t belong anywhere – and once they did.[2]

Statistics like these have been making the rounds nationally for twenty years, but we live in an area where things seem to happen ten years later. If you saw the March 12 issue of Time Magazine, it featured a cover story on the “Ten Ideas That Are Changing Your Life.” Number one: Living alone is the new norm. Number two: information is kept in a cloud. Number three: carbon emissions are the air.

Then there was number four: “The Rise of the Nones.” That’s N-O-N-E-S, as in, none of them go to church, none of them declare a religious affiliation, none of them profess a religious belief, none of them much care for anything religious at all.

Do you know anybody like this? Let’s ask for a show of hands: how many of you know somebody like that? How many of you know somebody like that in your extended family? (I’ll stop there.)

Now, there may be any number of reasons for this. Let’s list a handful:

·         Maybe they hooked up with the church when the kids were young, and now that the kids are older, the incentive is gone.
·         Maybe it’s because we are now an attention deficit nation, and nobody wants to sit still for an hour, or because people are entertained everywhere else and they want to be entertained in church, too.
·         Maybe it’s because many people don’t read books, and the Bible is a book.
·         Maybe it’s because our nation has lost its innocence, in so many ways, and with that loss, cyncism creeps in.
·         Maybe the preachers are uninspiring. Or the church members are too petty.
·         Maybe it’s because there is no current consensus on moral values, and it was a lot easier when we all pretty much agreed on the same things.
·         Maybe people got out of the routine of going to church and discovered they liked it.
·         Maybe it’s the fact (and I’ve given some thought to this) that many Baby-Boomers are burying their parents, and now they don’t have to feel guilty about sleeping in on Sundays, and don’t have to justify themselves to mom and dad who always went to church.
·         Maybe it’s because people travel more, or vacation more, or move around more, and nobody has any roots anywhere, so why put down roots in a congregation?
·         Or when you get right down to it, maybe it’s because people just don’t think they need God very much. They get along fine on their own. They can define their lives, their work, their relationships, whatever, as if God has little to do with any of that.

All of these are observations that the historian Diana Butler Bass has been making. She’s been studying the people who describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” There are a lot of them. Some of them are in churches, some are not. If we pay attention to them, she says, they reveal signs of a possible spiritual renaissance.

      Diana writes about this in a new book called Christianity After Religion. I’m reading it now, and I invite you to read it too.  If you do, maybe we can talk some more about it in the next couple of months. Anyway, I want to tell you what she says, all as a commentary on our scripture text. Diana says this:

Three deceptively simple questions are at the heart of a spiritually vibrant Christianity--questions of believing, behaving, and belonging. Religion always entails the "3B's" of believing, behaving, and belonging. Over the centuries, Christianity has engaged the 3B's in different ways, with different interrogators and emphases. For the last 300 years or so, the questions were asked as follows:

1)  What do I believe? (What does my church say I should think about God?)
2)  How should I behave? (What are the rules my church asks me to follow?)
3)  Who am I? (What does it mean to be a faithful church member?)

But the questions have changed. Contemporary people care less about what to believe than how they might believe; less about rules for behavior than in what they should do with their lives; and less about church membership than in whose company they find themselves. The questions have become:

1)  How do I believe? (How do I understand faith that seems to conflict with science and pluralism?)
2)  What should I do? (How do my actions make a difference in the world?)
3)  Whose am I? (How do my relationships shape my self-understanding?)

            Diana says, “The foci of religion have not changed -- believing, behaving, and belonging still matter. But the ways in which people engage each area have undergone a revolution.”[3]

            If I might dare to boil it down, what a lot of people are looking for is an authentic faith. They don’t want anything fake. They don’t want anything plastic. They don’t want to check their brains and hearts at the door. They want to be around people who are seeking to understand the Holy Mystery at work in all of life, people who actually do love one another, people who doing the hard work of living a life that matters.

            And I guess that reminds me of my mom. She married when she was almost 21. She birthed a couple of kids, lost a couple of infants, and decided that she always wanted a house full of love. My brother and younger sister were adopted, and always treated equally. She raised the kids while Dad was off earning money. She made sacrifices for us. She had high expectations of us. One of those expectations was that we would love Jesus, and that we needed to know how much he loved us. So every week it was church, Sunday School, fellowship, and mission.

When the four of us started to grow and spread our wings, she decided that the house needed more kids, so she and Dad started taking in exchange students. They were from all over the place – Ecuador, Sweden, Germany, Japan. And then, she taught us it wasn’t Thanksgiving Dinner unless we invited people to the table who had nowhere else to go. So she found some widows, all of them widows of Presbyterian ministers, and she invited them to the table. She still does that.

            Where did I learn how to love like Jesus loves? From my mom. She was recently elected again as an elder to her church. I said, “Why do you let them do that?” She was assigned to chair the Christian Education committee – and she had never ever been to a meeting of that committee ever before, and she’s chairing the committee. I said, “Why are you doing that?” And she said, “We have to teach people however we can that Jesus loves them, beginning with the little ones.” And when her town was flooded by the Susquehanna last September, she was one of the first to say, “We need to invite the rescue workers to sleep on our church pews, and to welcome the Red Cross to use our church’s hall to hand out food, water, and blankets.

That’s my mother. God loves her, and she loves the people that God loves.

            Did you write down the questions that Diana Butler Bass says that the spiritual people are asking? I have some working answers:

How do I believe? My mother believes with her heart, her soul, her mind, and her strength.

What should I do?  My mom says, “I welcome everybody to my table, especially those who have nobody else.” She adds, “We teach people that Jesus loves them, beginning with the little ones.”

Whose am I? My mother belongs to God, and she belongs to all the people who belong to God. And when I think of her, it makes all the difference.

In fact, when I think of my mother, I know how to live a holy life in the world. Because when you get right to it, all of us want to be in the presence of people who are in the presence of God.[4] It would always be nice to have more church members, but what I really want is to be in the presence of people who are in the presence of God. How about you?

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Love, and Other Attachments

1 John 4:7-24
Easter 5
May 5, 2012
William G. Carter

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 

            Unknown to many of you, the last couple of sermons have featured a special word. An expansive vocabulary word. Two weeks ago, the word was physicality. I was talking about the resurrection in light of Earth Day, and trying to make the point that Jesus was raised in the body. Easter was more than a spiritual concern; it was a physical matter. Easter had physicality. That was the vocabulary word for the day.

            Last week, in a sermon structured as before-after-in-between, we considered the baptized life. We are the children of God who are becoming like Jesus Christ. This is the essence of the Easter Life. To describe the journey, the preacher used another ten cent word. Remember what it was? Intentionality. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says this is a philosopher’s word. I felt pretty good about that; my bachelor’s degree was in philosophy. I called my parents to report they had not wasted that tuition money after all. The word was intentionality, meaning the quality of being intentional. It has to do with “sticking at it.”   

            Since I continue on a roll, I decided I need to come up with a word for today. It couldn’t be just any word, it had to be a good word. A significant word! We need a word for this little sermon series on the Easter Life. In fact, it would be good to have a word with physicality and intentionality. I think I have the word. It is an enormous word and a specific word. Some would say this is the most important word of all. Got a pencil? Ready to write this down?

            The word for today is love.

            I hope you saw that coming. Twenty-nine times in fifteen verses, almost twice in each verse, the preacher John speaks of love. He uses the word more than Paul does in 1 Corinthians 13. Over there, Paul says love “nine” times in thirteen verses. So this is the real Love Chapter of the Bible.

            John speaks of the church as “the Beloved.” I don’t think Paul hardly ever talks that way. Paul looks at the church and addresses us as “saints.” Literally “the Holy Ones.” We are holy, not because of our behavior or our abstinence, but holy because of what God is doing in us through Jesus Christ. Paul sends a letter and addresses it to the “Holy Ones” in a certain town.

            By contrast, John calls the church “Beloved,” the Beloved of God. It is love that convenes us. It is love that purifies us. It is love that sends Jesus Christ into the world. It is love that sets the agenda for the children of God. All of that is compressed in these three paragraphs that come from what was probably an early sermon.

 The word for today is love.

            An old tradition says this letter was written by John, the disciple of Jesus, near the end of the first century, perhaps 95 AD. If that’s true, he was greatly advanced in years. He had weathered persecution, adversity, and the ravages of age. Apparently the old man didn't say very much near the end of his life. Faithful church members carried him to worship services. Most Sundays, he sat quietly among the people.

On occasion, however, one of the leaders would turn to him and say, "Brother John, do you have any word from the Lord?" The same thing always happened. The old saint would slowly climb to his feet. He would stare down the congregation. In a few words he would summarize the Gospel of the church. He said, “Love one another as the Lord has loved you." After that he sat down. What else is there to say?

            You know the word for today. You know it's a big word, an enormous word, a many-splendored word. Think of all its shades of meaning. Some of us love ice cream, meaning we want to consume it and take it in. Others of us love baseball, meaning that the sport gives us a great deal of pleasure. Some of us love our friends, pointing to a special bond between people with similar interests and outlooks. Others of us fall in love, signifying a gravitational pull by the spirit of attraction. For some, love is an emotion that sweeps over the soul like a raging brush fire. For others, love is primarily a commitment; I think, for instance, of the sixty-three-year-old son who drives every night to the nursing home to spoon-feed his mother. 

            Love is a big word with a wide embrace. It encompasses all of these things: the consuming of another, the source of pleasure, an interpersonal bond, a magnetic attraction, a burning emotion, and a long-term commitment. Love means all these things, hopes for all these things, believes in all of these things.

            But to hear John sing about it, we realize we only scratch the surface. It's true that he uses the word "love" over and over. Yet did you notice? He also can't stop talking about God. He mentions the word "God" twenty-two times in our text. If you add the five references to Jesus and the Spirit, that makes twenty-seven times. Add up the pronouns, it’s even more. Apparently John cannot talk about love without talking about God.

            The writer makes at least three connections. First, God is the source of love: "Love is from God." Love is not a cloud that floats in the air. Rather, it is a seed that is given to be planted and nurtured. It is a divine gift to us. This kind of love comes down from heaven above to us below. We never asked for it. We do not deserve it. Yet God gives it.

             Second, God is the essence of love: "God is love." Notice the writer doesn't say, "Love is God."  Otherwise we would think that every good feeling is something holy; and that simply isn't true. No, the writer says, "God is love."  That is, "all God's activity is loving activity."[1] If there is anything we need to know about God, it is that God is been inclined in our favor. Our Maker created us in joy. In Christ we are redeemed in delight. Everything God has ever done for the world has been for the world's best interest. That's how God is, and it defines the word: acting in the best interest of your Beloved.

            Third, none of us can love truly unless God is at work in our lives. Or to put it positively, if we love one another, it is because "God lives in us." The point is God doesn't waste gifts. If God plants the seed within us, he wants us to nurture it and harvest its fruit. If God gives us the capacity to love, he wants us to use it or risk losing it. Why? Because God wants to complete what he has given us.

            That's what the writer of 1 John has to say about the subject of love. He can't talk about love without also talking about God.  But what does he mean by that word love? He never defines it. He only points to the Almighty. "Look to God," he says, "and then you will know what love is." So if we want to know love in its purest, highest form, we have to know what God is like.

            I had a revelation in a seminary classroom. Some of us enrolled in a class called, “The Philosophy of Love.” Oh, we were such romantics, back in our twenties. Certainly a class like that would be fun and insightful. And it might be a great way to meet women!

            Well, that was Princeton. “The Philosophy of Love” was the most unromantic experience of my life. Our professor's first name was Diogenes, and he was tough! There was an impossible amount of reading. The demands were high. The assignments were rigorous. One week we had to read and report on a dense two-volume work by a Swedish theologian. The next week, we were told to read three Harlequin romance novels to report on what was "wrong" about them. Then he assigned us to see a romantic comedy that was out in the movie theaters, and demanded from us a critical review of how that movie differed from the Christian conception of love.

            The class was a head trip, or so we thought. We grumbled about the professor. "He has a lot to say about love," we said, "but he sure doesn't show any love toward us." We were wrong, but we didn't know it.

            One day, the bell rang. As we took our seats, he stormed in. He said, "It has come to my attention that there are books in the library that I assigned you to read, and nobody in this class has signed them out yet. I may be wrong about that, so I am going to give you a pop quiz. Take out a piece of paper and answer the following questions on that reading." He asked three questions. Most of us left the sheet blank. He failed the whole class on that quiz.

            The students would not let that go without a protest. "You aren't being fair," we said. "You gave everybody an F, even though most of us have been keeping up with all of our other course work."  "No," he replied, "I'm being perfectly fair. Everybody got an F." 

            "But Prof," someone said, "I've done extra credit for you. Doesn't that count for something?"  "I admire you for it," he replied, "but I show no favorites." 

Someone else complained, "Yeah, but this is a class on love. Giving us a pop quiz wasn't very nice." He said, "Since when did love have anything to do with being nice? Love has to do with giving respect, with caring for others without preference or prejudice."

            Then he said, "Love is not an emotion that comes out of a faucet; it is a way of the heart. Love is not a gushy feeling with a lot of smooching; it is an act toward others with complete fairness. Love preserves each person's inestimable value.  So you have two choices. You can complain about my little pop test. Or you can stop to think that I gave you that test as an act of deep respect."

"You see,” he said, “I love you, and I will do whatever it takes to make you the best students I can."

            I have never forgotten that, because it offers a glimpse of what it means for God to love the world. God's love is not a gushy feeling, but an eternal concern for our welfare. God loves us enough to give us the freedom to fail, yet God will never fails on us or lets us go. God treats everybody fairly, sending the spring rain on the just and the unjust. Yet God cherishes every one of us with infinite value and worth. God stands apart from us, distinct and untangled. Yet God chooses again and again to enter our lives, to act in our best interest, to forgive and to free, to renew and restore.  As a great mystic of the church once put it, "Love consists not in feeling great things, but in having (both) great detachment and in suffering for the beloved."  (St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mt. Carmel)

            We gather around this Table to celebrate such love. We have seen it in the One who offered his body to be broken, his blood to be spilled. We know it in his resurrection, as Christ comes to make this a joyful feast. Around the Table we hear the Spirit remind us once again: "This is my commandment: to love one another as I have loved you."

            Tell me something: is that too much to ask?

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Raymond Brown, The Gospel of John – Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday), p. 515.