Matthew 28; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 23:50-24:12; John 20-21; 1 Corinthians 15
On Facebook this morning a friend and a pastor in Virginia noted that he had finished his sermon. Then wondered if his church wanted to know him that well! He thought about that for a while, then commented on his own post, do I want my church to know me that well! Now that’s an introduction to a sermon!
On this last Sunday of our series on the core stories of Scripture, a quick review of the core affirmations of those core stories might be in order: God calls—God calls whether it’s Abram and Sarai listening, Moses, Joshua, David, or any of the kings to follow David, the prophets, Jesus, or us. God calls—whether anyone’s listening or not. And God calls for anyone listening to be as God is. And then God works to reveal and clarify who God is. So God calls for people to join God in working to free those from suffering at the hands of others. God proclaims good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind (Isaiah 58:6, 61:1-2; Luke 4:18). God calls us into a story that looks forward with hope in faith and love, and God promises to be with us in the midst of it all. And even in the midst of the story going horribly astray, God promises, with us, to work with us to restore hope, to sustain faith and to manifest love.
As we’ve said the last couple of weeks, Jesus comes into this line-up of stories bringing nothing substantively different, nothing radically new—bringing more of the fullness of truth—more clarity into the being of God, but not a different truth—not a different being. That is true in Jesus’ living, his dying and in resurrection truth—because not only do I believe resurrection to be truth—the cornerstone of the primal narrative of God, in deed, but, as we said last week, I also believe it to be truth we know before we ever get to Jesus—never brought into such focus for us before, but integral to who God has always been in relation to and with God’s people.
Now when it comes to the specifics of resurrection, there’s plenty we don’t know. We are, after all, stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Corinthians 4:1). How did resurrection happen? How does it happen? We don’t know. What exactly happened? And what continues to? We don’t know. How do we know about it? Well, there are several stories in the gospels and lots of differences in those stories. They don’t match up. Some testimony in the epistles. Paul experienced resurrection.
Well haven’t we all? Isn’t our knowledge of resurrection integral to our faith? Isn’t that what justifies our faith? This we know. Now are we talking about Jesus (crucified resurrected)? Or about us? Are we talking doctrinal affirmation? Or experiential lived affirmation? Resurrection as event, or as lifestyle? Resurrection life—all of the above?
Yes, there’s plenty we don’t know. But we believe God is integral to the resurrection truth we do know. And here’s what we do know. Here’s what we know about resurrection life. Resurrection life is life lived in hope that the way things have been and the way things are doesn’t have to be the way things will be. But resurrection life is not optimistic; it’s more real than that, and it’s not unrealistic because it’s what we as the people of God have experienced to be true. This we know. It is the consistency of God. Resurrection life is the assurance of a life lived without fear because love casts out fear, and resurrection life is life lived in the belief that love will prevail.
So here’s a question, if we’re serious about love—if we’re serious about love at the heart of our faith—if we’re serious about love as the essential being of God … well, then let’s play the “what if” game. What if you came across something like this: We are a community of faith invested in, committed to and connected through the absolute priority (and prioritizing) of love. Our identity is unashamedly Scripture-based and through Jesus God-centered. But we are united in our shared belief that practically speaking, love is the closest we get—the closest we can get to the transcendent, holy Other (1 John 4:7-8). And as far from God as the closest we can get is, love is never a matter of falling short of God, for in love, even our own so very human experience of it, we believe, the fullness of God is pleased to dwell (Colossians 1:19).
Mind you, it’s the best of what we know love can be that we’re talking about here (1 John 3:18), not a cheap and easy self-love that’s mainly about what we like and that with which we’re comfortable, but a challenging self-less love—the oft uncomfortable kind of love demanding the best of who we can be—demanding a commitment to ever incorporating more loving in our living … and in such a way that someone from the outside looking in would say, “My how they live out their love—in their relationships with each other and within their larger communities.”
I remember the time Marsha told me how her sister, visiting with us one Sunday, commented, “You are so loved here.” And Marsha responded, brilliantly I thought, “If you were here, you would be too!”
I know. When thinking of love as the ultimate ideal, cynicism is easy enough to come by. But have you ever seen that man with the shaved head and the dark shades—or the mirrored ones, the unshaven jaw, the earring studs on parts of the face you really wouldn’t think anyone would want stuck with holes, in those shorts that go down below the knee, the steel-toed work boots high topped black leather. Did I mention the tattoos? You ever see such an absolutely scary person walk by you to gently rub sunscreen on his daughter’s face?
Back in 1985 Sting sang, “We share the same biology regardless of ideology. What might save us, me, and you is if the Russians love their children too.” (Sting, “Russians,” The Dream of the Blue Turtles, A&M, 1985) And you can stand outside the doors of Rodgers Forge Elementary School right down the street and see parents from Japan and China, Africa and Italy, Eastern Europe, England, Russia and India, all listening to their children tell about their day, celebrating the work the child can’t wait to get home to share—proudly pulling it out of his or her backpack and displaying it right there in front of the school. If so many of us can start with love of the beloved other, then can’t we hold out hope for love of every other?
Because love does start with one individual, but it’s not love if it stays individual. And the trajectory of love arcs out to the most intimate circle of that individual—but then arcs further out—looking always beyond the immediacy of self. For love is always bigger than our experience of it—always including more than those we love so easily. To seek to confine love—to limit it—undoes it. Within the Christian tradition we even speak of the uncontained, wildly dancing love generated in God’s communion with self that arcs out into creating, into redeeming, and into sustaining.
It’s what we learn in our love for children. Love sacrifices now for then—our now for their then—not their then for our now. In fact, such love sacrifices us for them (never them for us). Love makes the hard decisions required to have a better tomorrow than a more comfortable today. Love is sometimes confrontive, but not ugly and never mean. Messy, but not ultimately destructive. Profoundly sad at times, but never arrogant or self-righteous. Apparently foolish at times, but so intentionally the implementing of God’s teachings and expectations. If not—if love’s not the above, it’s just part of the clanking noise of the consistent ever-falling-short attempt to justify a focus on self (1 Corinthians 13).
Therefore, we say, if this priority of love sounds like you … if this prioritizing of loving intrigues you—interests you … if this commitment to incarnate love sounds like something you might want to explore, then we want you to know that nothing else matters. Not even a faith you do or don’t claim, not your status in the world, not your political persuasion, not your sexual orientation, not your marital status, not your age, not your educational background, your economic demographic, your ethnicity, your theology.
Nothing else matters precisely because we believe that as a manifestation of the divine, loving is the most important thing of all, and we want to model rallying around what’s most important and not being distracted by what’s not. We’re tired of getting bogged down and losing energy arguing about what is arguably unimportant compared to what’s most important. We want to focus on sustaining the energy that loving creates—negotiating that tricky balance of giving so much of ourselves and simultaneously being so fulfilled. We want the passion such living brings and gives, and we believe the Church, our culture, and our world desperately need and want a community that can disagree about important things united by an even more important affirmation. And we believe the Church, our culture, and our world need now more than ever—a community prioritizing the love that arcs out beyond all immediate circles.
Because it’s that arc—from the individual out to family and loved ones out to the bullying in schools and politics, to the injustices of our justice system and our inner cities, to the deep hunger of those starving for food and those starving for meaning, to the houselessness of too many who live on the street and the homelessness of too many who live in mansions—it’s that trajectory that transforms us as individuals and as community. It’s our answer to the first question humans ask in the Bible. Do you know what that is? The serpent actually has the first question (Genesis 3:1). God then has several (Genesis 3:9, 11, 13; 4:6, 9). But the first human question is, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9) So much of the Bible, so much of who we understand God to be, so much of the life of individuals and communities of faith shaped in the image of God is the resounding answer, “Yes!” to that question even until all creation is redeemed. And we name that God at work, but, again, we believe that naming it is less important than doing it—less important than loving.
So while we do believe it takes a community of faith—while we do believe it takes, in truth, a God-with-us to sustain such a priority—to empower such a living, we are less concerned with the denominational traditions from which we came (honor them though we do) or even the institutional by-laws and expectations (honor them though we do) believing we may now have more in common with churches (and individuals) of many other denominations and even with communities of other faiths and even those who claim no faith than with others of like denomination and even like faith. We celebrate love where we find it and wonder if we might find a way of networking not defined by denominational criteria or any kind of checklist of orthodoxy (thinking rightly), but rather by the shared hope in and commitment to the transformative power of love which we name a kind of orthopraxy (doing rightly) that’s not a checklist of what to do, but the consistent evaluation of all potential doing in light of love.
It is our considered affirmation that we honor God—we manifest God—we participate in the truth and grace of God not in being right about anything or anyone, but in rightly relating to anyone and everyone.
We maintain there is no doctrine about which it is more important to argue than to love. There is no commandment, no interpretation of a commandment, that should take precedence over love. There is no tradition to be honored more than love. There are no politics with more promise than love. There is no leadership with more potential than love. There is no theology more crucial than love. There are no ethics more urgent than love. There is no worship not fulfilled in love, and, ultimately, there is no hope without love.
There will be those among us who disagree with you and with me about this, and that, or the other—about important things, but it will be done respectfully, and it will be done within conversation that is commitment to relationships characterized by, yes, you guessed it, love. For if God is love, then where we experience the immanence of love, it is the transcendence of God we experience, even in disagreement (maybe even especially in disagreement), and if you share this same priority, we believe your voice can enhance our conversation even as our conversation enlarges your voice.
Admittedly this isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, easy. Ever wondered how Jesus could say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Mark 8:34-35; Matthew 16:24-25; Luke 9:23-24)? Ever wondered how you can pick up a cross daily if a cross kills you? Only works if resurrection happens, right? Every day. Resurrection life. If any want to become my followers, let them stake their reputations, their fears, their safety, their loved ones, their lives—on love.
Again, not easy. Even agreeing on love (and loving) as our top priority does not imply (let alone guarantee) that that top priority will filter down into agreed upon implications and non-negotiable consequences. That’s precisely why it is so very significant and relevant that the author(s) of 1 John affirmed the commandment “Love one another” (1 John 2:10; 3:18; 4:7, 19) as the guiding principle in working out how to do community and how to do life yet without—without detailing specific implications.
That’s not a copout if we deliberately agree to disagree—if we affirm that while we may disagree about what it means to manifest love in different circumstances, we agree that it is our shared priority—if we respectfully agree that we are each and all trying to work out love with fear and trembling in the specifics of our living. Then, even when we end up in different places, that respectful acknowledgment transforms the tenor of disagreement. That’s not anything we need these days, is it?!
Too idealistic? Too naive? To have one most important affirmation more important than any other disagreements? To think that loving could be that one thing? To think that love would make a difference? Maybe. But maybe we just don’t dream big enough. Maybe we need a bigger dream.
Resurrection life is the best dream we can have. One committed to love. One that trusts love. One that ultimately trusts love. And informs a life in which everything we do, individually and corporately, at church and in the various and diverse settings of our living, will all be assessed by answering the question, how is this a manifestation of love? And as important as such an ideal is, equally important is the commitment to work through any and all times we fall short—let love down—let God down—let each other down—the commitment to work with God and each other to restore hope, to sustain faith and to manifest love.
We believe we are called as people have been called from the very beginning to be as God is. We are to be love and thus to do love. We believe that defines God and should define us. We believe that has implications for every relationship. And we believe that if we respond to God’s call—if we respond to God’s being with our own, then we’re part of something that does not die. We’re part of God’s story still unfolding.
I quoted John Gorka last week. Let’s let him have the last words this morning. “If not us—not them … if not now, then when? If not here—nor there—if not this world, then where?” (John Gorka, “If Not Now,” Old Futures Gone, Red House Records, 2003).