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Sermon – May 9, 2010: By This

Sermon for Sunday, May 9, 2010 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

By This

Psalm 148, Acts of the Apostles 11: 1-18; John 13: 31-35

This was told to me as a true story by someone I trust, so I’ll tell it. Back some

years, when racism was reinforced by the local culture of large areas of the United States, a

Protestant church down south had decided to challenge itself to exceptional effort in its

international mission support. It committed itself to funding a school in Africa, and was

enthusiastic in its promotion of the project. A man who had been an outstanding student of

the school had an opportunity to visit America, and the church began to prepare to

welcome him and celebrate the school and its influence with him. You know where this story

is going–the people on the U. S. side of things had different information and expectations

about timing and arrangements than the African had, so that he arrived weeks before

anyone knew to look for him, and found the church, and went in on a Sunday morning to join

in the worship. This was in an era when persons with African ancestry weren’t welcome in

that church, and so the people who greeted him explained that he would be happier

attending a different church service.

See, in the abstract, this man was a brother in Christ who was being elevated, by

their efforts and their Christian sharing, to a deeper understanding of the world and richer

opportunities in it. Face to face, however, he looked like people to whom they felt obliged

to condescend, and the inspiring notion of foreign good deeds ran afoul of the unnoticed

routine of a daily life which ran counter to the principles of Christ.

Well, whether that story is exactly accurate–and it can’t be, since I’m relating it from

memory, anyway, but the gist is right–I’ll tell you something I am sure is true. I know it is

true that every church which sends money to support a missionary somewhere else trusts

the person on that end to put the money to good use for God’s purposes. That missionsupporting

church feels good about its contribution, and all its thinking about the people in

that mission field comes from what it knows about God. They accept that all those unseen

and unknown strangers are persons of value who are being blessed by a closer

acquaintance with the gospel being made real to them through preaching or the witness

implicit in medical care or teaching or development efforts. In other words, there is a concern

for the well being of the stranger far away, and acceptance of the need to ask oneself to

make an effort to benefit that person, though no benefit to self could be expected in return.

Nobody from abroad has to show up to reveal that those principles don’t hold within

the little church itself. This person isn’t on good terms with that person because of a tactless

comment overheard at a church dinner; that person has an uncomfortable relationship with

this other person due to a difference which surfaced in a business meeting. That one’s

decision hurt this one’s feelings, the effort of those two to mend fences didn’t entirely

succeed. This nephew is estranged from his aunt about some family squabble that never

got settled, this sibling resents that sibling’s apparently favored status.

Not that any of it has to be a big deal. We live, all our lives, with petty annoyances

and small criticisms. The passage of time alone suffices to mend ruptured relationships well

enough that people may at first be civil and eventually be cheerful together again. My

point is, however, that the imagined beneficiary of our Christian charity a thousand miles

away never challenges us the way the person does who sits with us in the sanctuary, and

the measure of self-sacrifice which we make contributing to the relief of faceless victims of

floods and earthquakes is not half so demanding as our efforts to be patient, helpful, and

nonjudgmental with regard to the needier people whom God has introduced into the pattern

of our everyday lives.

In John’s gospel Jesus addresses a problem his disciples will have with his

transformation from a human leader looking them in the eye into an eternal leader

experienced through the spirit. All the sense of companionship and ordinary sympathy and

ongoing human engagement which Jesus of Nazareth has been providing will remain

available in a spiritualized form after resurrection, but the disciples will go on living in the

world of flesh-and-blood. For flesh-and-blood partners on the pilgrimage of life, for visibly

responsive companionship to signal interest and understanding, to offer encouragement

and usefully to question, they will henceforth have each other. In the absence of each

disciple being upheld and affected by the love of a Jesus able to put an arm around them,

they now will put their arms around each other.

Jesus commands them to love one another. We don’t usually regard love as

something able to be commanded, or something we can provide on demand. That’s why

this solution Jesus offers to his going away from his disciples often strikes us as a problem

rather than as a benefit. We, who at least some of the time don’t do a good job of loving

the people we really do love, the people who really do mean the most to us–find it

daunting to believe that we are required to love people whose claim on us consists entirely

in also having committed themselves to Christ.

And that’s not like fine print, like suddenly we’re going to say “Oh, yes, anyone who

really is committed to Christ–who’s all about self-sacrifice and service and love and

forgiveness and all that I’m willing to love”, and point out that the ordinary, everyday fellow

believers we may know don’t fully qualify, so we can continue to respond to them exactly

as our everyday instincts instruct. No; we are to extend the same benefit of the doubt

about their status of discipleship that Christ, in his mercy and incarnational insight, gives us.

That person who prays by my side, Christ requires me to love. That may not be reflected

in my emotional reactions. I may not be smitten with the person. My actions, however,

must show that I value that other person and intend by God’s help to do them as much

good as possible, including demonstrating that interest in their well-being by paying kind

attention to them.

I began all this suggesting it was easier to love people we don’t habitually see and

whom we may not know than to love those near at hand because I wanted to anticipate the

objection that God wants us to love all persons equally. Reminding ourselves that the

apostle, for example, said that insofar as it was within our power we were to do good to all,

and especially to those of the household of faith–in other words, loving everyone but

especially making sure to love our fellow believers–might seem to undermine the duty to

love all persons. I think this merely acknowledges that, as it is more demanding to love

those in church with us than those more distant, we must make the greater effort. We would

do well to have as benign and devoutly-inspired attitude toward our fellow worshiper as we

have toward the anonymous recipient of our overseas mission dollars.

Jesus’ command to us disciples to love our fellow disciples, and by the powerful

testimony of managing to love the people we live with, to demonstrate our discipleship to

Christ, may seem to run counter to the aim of universal benevolence. That’s why it’s useful

to have this teaching joined to the psalm and to the episode from the book of Acts, both of

which have to do with extending to the world the call to worship God.

The psalm celebrates how every creature, from an angel to a plant, shares in the

universal adoration of its maker. Somewhere below the category of natural phenomena

and vegetation we learn that foreign kings and foreigners also give praise to God, and that’s

a reminder that there is an element of willfulness and wrong-headedness possible with

human beings of which the rest of Creation is innocent. Even with that, we get to everyone

in the psalm. Everyone comes around to acknowledge the authority of God.

The incident from Acts combines the themes of the whole world’s belonging to God

and the requirement that disciples take shared experience as a compelling motive to stand

by other persons, no matter who they are, who trust in the gospel. The apostle Peter,

contrary to his instincts and expectations, eventually is coerced by God’s leading into

making disciples of a household of non Jews. “Gentiles” is the category of “everyone else”

in the world, when it comes to a relationship with God. So it’s not just surprising that it’s

whatever tribe and language represented by Cornelius, the Roman officer and the origins

of his retainers and slaves and relatives by marriage–who have been admitted to Christian

discipleship. They represent the whole world, potentially.

Why do the other apostles accept what Peter has done? It’s not because of the

authority of Peter. It’s because the household of Cornelius gives every sign of having

come to belief the same way the Jewish Christians did. “So God has made the promise of

new life available even to Gentiles!” they say, and because these people now are, in fact,

their fellow disciples, they are forced to accept them. On one level, the Bible’s belief is that

all creatures do, in fact, share in the worship of the One True God. On another level, our faith

believes that, because God does love everyone, and desires to give fullness of life to all,

we need to share discipleship with others. Once people believe, then we must count on

God’s spirit and our own humility and perfectibility to help us to love them most of all,

because Christ requires us, who live with them in this world, to be there for them.

 

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