A Prayer for Our Graduates

Source of All Life,

We are grateful for the lives of teachers, friends, leaders, and family; for all whose lives have influenced our lives, and helped to make us who we are and who we are still becoming today. May the lives that have and continue to influence these graduates inspire them to lead, to serve and to care for the lives of others, as they care for the entire creation in which the mystery of their lives have happened.

Origin of All Love,

We are grateful for the love and support of those who have cradled our past, envelop us today and promise to surround us tomorrow. May these graduates mirror this love by living lives that always bear love for others.

Supplier of All Faith,

We give you thanks for the trust and confidence that education instills in us to follow our dreams, even if it means sacrifice and taking risks, going to places that we have never been before. May this faith encourage these graduates to dream bold dreams and give them the courage to bring those dreams to life.

Giver of All Hope,

We are thankful that our best days of living, the best days of seeing the meaning of our lives through are always and forever in front of us, even when we fall or falter. May these graduates always know the immense potential, see the boundless possibilities, and recognize the unlimited promises in all of the days that are before them.

Author of All Truth,

We are thankful for what we have already learned, but also for the opportunities that lay before us to continue learning.  May these graduates continue to be seekers of truth and knowledge, and may they always use truth, not for selfish advantage, but to be advocates of truth and justice for all people.

The One Who Grew in Wisdom through Jesus of Nazareth,

Thank you for teaching us how to live and to love. Continue to teach, lead, mold, and make us all into the people you have called us to be.  Amen.

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The More You Know…

Buechner Blessing and Healing

John 3:1-17 NRSV

Our church has always believed very strongly in education. This one of the reasons that we have a graduate recognition Sunday.

Our church also believes it is very important to always ask questions. Our church has never been the kind of church that expects its members to “check their brain at the door” before entering on Sunday mornings. Like our forefathers Barton Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell, we encourage free-thinking and open minds here. We believe that God created our minds to ask questions—even the hard questions of life and faith.

I know of some churches where people are taught never to question anything.  They are expected to go to church with the sole expectation to be indoctrinated with whatever the minister says. Not here.

Believing very strongly in the historic principle of the “Priesthood of All Believers,” our church encourages and even expects free thought and the free expression of ideas. You are your own priest. No one here is expected to agree with everything that is said from this pulpit. You are always free to examine, to mull over, and perhaps, even seek an entirely different word from God.

One of the reasons we encourage such questioning is that we do not believe anyone here, including the one who does the most talking on Sunday mornings, has, or will ever have, all of answers. We come to church recognizing that we will never be able to get our hands on, wrap our arms around, all there is to know about this mystery we call God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

During a Wednesday night supper, an eight year-old little girl came and sat beside me. She said, “Dr. Banks.”

Not many people address me in that manner. I kind of liked it. Made me feel smart, scholarly, intellectual! “Yes, how can I help you?” I responded.

She said, “I’ve got a lot of questions about God.”

I thought to myself, “Well, my dear little one, you’ve certainly come to the right place.”

She then asked, “Where exactly do dogs go when they die?”

I thought for a second or two, and responded the only way I knew how. I just looked at her—in dumbfounded silence

A little impatient, she asked, “Do they go to doggie heaven or to regular heaven with the rest of us?”

It was then I had to admit it, “I really don’t know.”

I could see the disappointment on her face. But she quickly moved on to her next question: “How old are people in heaven?”

Again, dumbfounded silence.

Frustrated she asked, “You know, if you die as a baby will you be a baby when you get to heaven? Or if you die as an old lady, will you be an old lady in heaven?”

Again, I had to say “I really don’t know?”

It was then she said, “You know something? For a doctor, you sure don’t know much.” She didn’t ask me any more questions.

No, the truth is, for someone who not only has a doctorate, but someone who has hardly missed a Sunday in church for the last forty-eight and a half years, I really don’t know that much.” All learned after spending a few moments with an eight-year old.

That is why I love ol’ Nicodemus.  For Nicodemus also discovered that he didn’t know that much either after spending just few moments with Jesus.

The very educated and esteemed Nicodemus, a leader of the Jewish Pharisees, came to Jesus full of questions. “Rabbi,” how can a man be born when he is old?” and “Can you enter the womb a second time and be born?” and “How can this be?”  And through all these questions, Nicodemus is asking another question, “Who are you anyway Jesus?’

When it all comes down to it, isn’t that THE question? Isn’t that the reason we are here every Sunday morning? We come asking, “Who is this Jesus anyway?”

We, like Nicodemus, have heard some rumors about the amazing things Jesus has done. And we have been listening to his teachings and have heard just enough to be confused. And we’ve got questions. Can we really believe everything we have heard about Jesus? How can he be both an earthly human being and God at the same time? How can his spirit be both ascended into heaven yet still here with us?

Notice that although it is Nicodemus who begins the conversation here, by the time our passage ends, it is Jesus who is doing most of the talking. Nicodemus appears to be just sitting there in dumbfounded silence.

For you see, Nicodemus thought he would be able to go to Jesus and grasp Jesus. Nicodemus thought he could go to Jesus and figure Jesus out, get his hands on Jesus, wrap his arms around Jesus—understand, define Jesus.

Nicodemus learned what most of us already know: Sometimes when we come to Jesus with questions, Jesus doesn’t give us easy answers. I’m not sure if Nicodemus got any of his questions answered that night. However, the good news is that Nicodemus got something better. Nicodemus went to Jesus hoping to understand him, put his hands on him, wrap his arms around him, but instead, it was Jesus understood Nicodemus. It was Jesus who put his hands on and lovingly wrapped his arms around him.

So this morning, I want us to take Nicodemus as our model. While you are here this morning in the presence of Christ, I want you to ask Jesus whatever is on your mind. Go ahead and use all of your God-given mental capacities, use every ounce of intellect to try to think about Jesus this morning. Listen to what he has to say. And then, simply enjoy being with him.

Give thanks that we have the sort of God who wants more than anything else to be with us, who descends to us, who speaks to us, who shares truth with us, even if we cannot comprehend the wholeness of that truth.

There are a lot of people who have a great disdain for us church folks. Because they erroneously believe that Christians are those people who have it all figured out. They believe church goers are people who have had all of their questions about Jesus answered. And I am afraid they have good reasons for believing that.

I heard one pastor describe a member of his church who was convinced that he had all the answers. He said: “He is very stubborn and close-minded about everything!”  He said, “If he gets to heaven and discovers that things up there are a little different, he is the type that would get mad and ask for a transfer!”

No, the truth is, as William Willimon has said, “Jesus is that illusive, free, sovereign and living God who makes sense out of us, rather than our making sense out of him.” Every Sunday we risk coming to him, listening to him and following him, even when we do not always grasp what he’s talking about and know precisely where he’s leading us.

Notice that Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about wind and birth. For what in our world is more mysterious than wind and birth? In meeting Jesus, we come face to face with a living God. And we cannot define him. We can’t put our hands on, wrap our arms around him. The good news is that it is he who defines us.  It is he who puts his hands on and wraps his arms around us—And beckons us to follow him even if we do not always understand him.

This is exactly what happened to Nicodemus. We meet Nicodemus again sixteen chapters later in John’s gospel. When Jesus was crucified, when most of his disciples deserted him, Nicodemus was one of the few people who were there to lovingly bury Jesus.

I’m sure Nicodemus still had even more questions on that Good Friday. How could it be that this one sent from God, this Savior of the world, be so horribly crucified?

But there, at the foot of the cross, Nicodemus doesn’t ask questions. He simply does what is right. He simply followed. By being associated with Jesus, a condemned criminal, Nicodemus risks his reputation, and even his life. He proves, in the most loving of ways, that one does not have to have Jesus completely figured out to follow Jesus.

If we take Nicodemus as our model, the question for us then is this, “Will we follow Jesus even if we cannot put our hands on him, even if we don’t always understand him?” The good news is that if we say yes, if we promise to walk with him, Jesus promises that he will walk with us forever. For faith is not in the understanding. Genuine faith is in the following.

Frederick Buechner has written: “You do not need to understand healing to be healed or know anything about blessing to be blessed.”

I would add that you do not need to understand the miracle of life to breathe. You do not need to understand the marvel of love to be loved and to share love. You do not need to comprehend the gift of grace to receive it and to offer it to others.  And you never need to figure out the holy wonder of the Trinity, the divine relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to be an eternal part of that relationship. You do not need to ever grasp Jesus to follow Jesus and have Jesus grasp you.

God Remembers

Cash
Captain Christopher Cash

If I am to be truly honest with you, I must confess that I have my doubts. It’s just part of my fragmented human nature. This is why I love the Bible so. When I slip into the doldrums of doubt and despair I can pick up the Bible to discover that I am not alone.

Listen to these words of Isaiah to the people of Israel in exile:

“Thus says the Lord…I have answered you…I have helped you…I have kept you…I have given you….”  In other words, “I answered your cries in Egypt, I sent Moses to deliver you, I protected you in the wilderness, and I gave you a promised land.”

“And not only have I acted in the past, I promise to continue acting, reaching out and reaching in… giving you light in your darkness…feeding your hunger, quenching your thirst. I promise to protect, lead and guide you. I will transform mountains into roads, lift up highways and show you the way out of captivity…”

And what did the people say?  “Amen!”  No, not even close.

The people in exile responded to the voice of God the same way I suppose you and I sometimes respond—with a lot of doubt.

In verse 14 we read: “But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.’”

Fifteen years ago I became good friends with Christopher Cash, a member of the National Guard.

On October 1, 2003, his unit was deployed to Iraq. As the only person I personally knew in Iraq, I specifically remember praying for my friend Chris on the Sunday morning before Memorial Day the following year.

About a month later, I picked up the Saturday newspaper and read the headlines on the front page: “Captain Christopher Cash Killed in Iraq.” I tried my best to read the article, but couldn’t. I never made it pass the sub-title: “Cash leaves behind his wife, Dawn, and two children.”

The room started spinning. I felt sick to my stomach. I was lost.  And I had never felt more alone. With Zion I wanted to cry out, “The Lord has forsaken me. The Lord has forgotten me.”

This is why I love the Bible. I love the sheer honesty of it! In spite of everything I knew about God, what God has done, and what God promises to do, like Zion, I doubted.

Now listen to the good news: In verse 15, we read God’s response to our doubts.

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands…”

This weekend we honor those members of our armed forces who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. They have loved others supremely, selflessly. And we remember them.

However, the good news is that our God remembers them.

This is great news, for our remembering is shallow and weak. Our remembering is fraught with doubt, laden with despair. However, God’s remembering is deep and unfailing. God’s memory endures forever. God responds to our doubt with the assurance that our loved ones will never be forgotten by God, because they are literally in the very hands of God.

The Birth of New Life

PentecostSunday_wide_tActs 2:1-21 NRSV

Here are just a few things my mother taught me…

 My Mother taught me about ANTICIPATION…

“You just wait until your father gets home.”

My Mother taught me about RECEIVING….

“When we get home, you’re going to get it!”

My Mother taught me to MEET A CHALLENGE…

“Answer me when I talk to you! And don’t talk back to me!”

My Mother taught me LOGIC…

“If you fall out off that swing and break your neck, you’re not going to the store with me.

My Mother taught me HUMOR…

“When that lawn mower cuts off your toes, don’t come running to me.”

My Mother taught me about GENETICS…

“You’re just like your father.”

My Mother taught me about my ROOTS…

“Shut that door!  Do you think you were raised in a barn!”

And last but certainly not least, my Mother taught me about JUSTICE…

“One day you’ll have kids, and I hope they turn out just like you!

And, of course, all of our mothers taught us something even more important—something about this wonderful gift we call “life.” There is absolutely nothing any of us ever did to earn or deserve this most precious gift. But here we are!—Inexplicable gifts from God, birthed through our mothers.

Pentecost is often referred to as the day the God gave birth to the Church—the day when the outpouring of God’s energy through the Holy Spirit swept down like wind and fire and touched every one who had gathered for the Jewish festival. New Testament professor Beverly Gaventa writes that the essential message of Pentecost is:  “Sudden, unmerited, irresistible new life!”

And this new life came in dramatic, indescribable fashion. Gaventa writes: “It is as if not even the most lavish use of human language is capable of capturing the experiences of the day.” She writes: “All of the stops on the literary organ are employed: a heavenly sound like rushing wind, descending fire, and patterns of transformed speech.” That’s because there are just no words to describe this sudden, unmerited, irresistible gift of new life!

Brooks and Jenny and Chase, Pentecost is like holding precious little Andrew White in your arms: feeling his soft skin pressed up against yours, smelling his sweet head, listening to his precious sounds. There are just no words in any language to describe it.

If only we, living today in the 21st century, could have been there on that day. Think of what First Christian Church could be, rather would be, if we could have been present on the Day of Pentecost. Think of impact we would have in eastern North Carolina and in our world if you and I received this indescribable gift of the outpouring of God’s energy. Think of all we could accomplish together for the honor and glory of God.

But we were not there, were we? Unfortunately, we were born nearly 2000 years too late. The Day of Pentecost was just a one-day, one-time event in human history, and we missed it all! God simply does not work that way in our world anymore!

Well, I don’t believe that, and I have this sense that you don’t either.

Theology Professor, Robert Wall, points out that the Pentecost experience of God’s Spirit occurred not only once, but is repeated several times in Acts. The images and language of Pentecost, Walls says, “are routinely recalled to interpret subsequent outpourings of God’s Spirit as the constant testimony to God’s continuing faithfulness.”

In the eighth chapter of the book of Acts, we read that after Peter and John laid their hands on the people of Samaria, they received the Holy Spirit.” They received sudden, unmerited, irresistible new life.

In the tenth chapter of Acts we read that while Peter was still preaching, “the Holy Spirit came on all who had heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were all astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.”

Again, in the eleventh chapter Peter says, “As I began to speak the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us in the beginning.”

In the nineteenth chapter of Acts, after Paul baptizes twelve people in Ephesus, we read:  “After Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.”

Throughout Acts we learn that Pentecost, the gift of sudden, unmerited, irresistible new life is not a one-day, one-time event in human history. The gift of Pentecost is an experience which is repeated and repeated often in our world. And it is still being repeated today.

The good news is that we have experienced the possibilities of Pentecost, the promise of the birth of new life, on numerous occasions. We have all experienced those special occasions where we were showered with the inexplicable gift of new life, sudden, unmerited, and irresistible. We have all experienced new beginnings, fresh starts and second chances.

The exhilarating discovery that a new baby is on the way.  The miraculous birth of that baby. The dedication of that baby in a worship service. The excitement of a new job.  The anticipation of a new school. The possibilities of a new marriage.  The promise of new friendships. Yes, we have all experienced the grand possibilities which come with new beginnings, fresh starts and second chances.

And it is not only in the special events of life that we experience these possibilities. I believe when we consider that all of life is a gift of God’s grace, there is no event which is so ordinary that the Spirit of God is not present in it. Frederick Buechner writes that God’s Spirit can be found in the most common of places, “always hiddenly, always leaving room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly.” Because all of life is a gift of God’s grace, inexplicable new life can be experienced everywhere!  Buechner writes that it can be found “Taking your children to school, and kissing your wife goodbye. Eating lunch with a friend.  Trying to do a decent day’s work.  Hearing the rain patter against the window.”

Yes, the possibilities of Pentecost are everywhere, but I believe it is most real right here in this place we call church.

On this day as we dedicate Andrew to God, our thoughts are turned towards family—our parents, grandparents, our children and grandchildren. We cannot begin to count the number of times we’ve experienced the gush of new life within the context of family.

However, sometimes I think we need to be reminded that Jesus’ concept of family was often much broader than ours. One day while he was teaching, someone interrupted him and said, “Your mother and brother are waiting for you outside.”  Jesus turned, and pointed to the crowd and said, “Here are my brothers, here are my mothers.  Here is my family.”

Yes, I believe that here, in this place, with our family of faith, the power of Pentecost is most real—as we worship and fellowship together, but also as we serve and reach out together.

I do not believe it is a coincidence that in Acts we read that the gift of the Holy Spirit often came after Peter or Paul laid their hands on others. I believe one of the best ways to usher in the possibilities of Pentecost is by reaching out and personally touching others.

God’s energy is released and sudden, unmerited, irresistible new life comes when graciously serve a meal to someone hungry, when we tenderly caress the forehead of someone in the nursing home, when we gently hold someone’s hand in the hospital, and when we empathetically embrace someone in the funeral home.

Pentecost comes when we, the body of Christ, lay our hands, which, by the way, are the hands of Christ, on all who are in need. Pentecost comes, when we seek out someone who has wronged us offering a handshake of forgiveness or a hug of mercy, offering the grace of friendship. Pentecost comes when we reach out and hold the hand of an outsider.

Pentecost—sudden, unmerited, irresistible new life comes. New beginnings, fresh starts, and second chances can come to us in the ordinariness of life, and most specifically, through the many opportunities we have as the body of Christ to offer personal touches of grace to one another.

And the really good news is that this sudden, unmerited, irresistible new life comes to all of us with faith in Christ when our lives on this earth are complete.

Peter, in his sermon, recalls the words of the prophet Joel. He recalls the signs Joel says are a prelude to disaster—blood, fire, darkness and smoky mist. However, the death and destruction prophesied by Joel is transformed on Peter’s tongue into a declaration of new life.  For Joel, these signs of the outpouring of God’s Spirit are a prelude to disaster. For Peter, with faith in the risen Christ, these signs of God’s energy released are a prelude to the redemption of humankind.

When each of us comes face to face with our own deaths, God, with the power of Pentecost, redeems our deaths and replaces our deaths with sudden, unmerited, irresistible new life.

Pentecost—this is our hope.  And this is our purpose.  May First Christian Church, who may not have been present on that day nearly 2000 years ago, but has, in so many ways, experienced this power of Pentecost nonetheless, work together to share this gift of new life with this community and with our world. May we share it with our words, but also through the laying on of our hands, so that sudden, unmerited, irresistible new life may rain down from heaven like wind and fire and touch everyone!

A Pastoral Prayer for Mother’s Day

mothersdayprayerNote: The words of this pastoral prayer are adapted from a letter written by Amy Young to pastors.

Gracious God, Father and Mother of us all,

During this time, with our hearts and minds turned toward motherhood, we give you thanks for all those in our lives who possess the soul of a mother.

We give you thanks and celebrate with those in our community who have given birth this year, and we give thanks and anticipate with those in our community who are expecting a child.

We give thanks and pray for all mothers who are in the trenches with little ones every day and wear the badge of food stains and wearied bodies. And we pray for and mourn with those who have lost a child, for those who have experienced loss through accidents, sickness, miscarriage, failed adoptions or running away. We pray for mothers who feel like their children are lost to drugs or other addictions.

We pray for and walk beside those who walk the hard path of infertility, fraught with pokes, prods, tears and disappointment. Forgive us when we say foolish things for we certainly do not mean to make this harder than it is.

We give you thanks for those who are foster moms, mentor moms, and spiritual moms – for this world so desperately needs them, perhaps more now than ever.

We give you thanks for and celebrate with mothers who have warm and close relationships with their children. And we pray for and sit with those mothers who have disappointment, heartache and distance with their children.

We pray for and grieve with all children who lost their mothers this year. And we pray for and acknowledge the experience of children everywhere who have experienced abuse at the hands of their mothers.

We pray for those who are single, yet long to be married and mothering their own children. We mourn that life has not turned out the way they have longed for it to be.

We pray for those who step-parent and walk with them on complex paths. And we pray for and grieve with all those who envisioned lavishing love on grandchildren, yet that dream is not to be.

We pray for, grieve with and rejoice alongside all those who will have emptier nests in the upcoming year.

We pray for those who placed children up for adoption. We ask you to bless them for their selflessness and comfort them as they hold that child in their heart.

O God, on this Mother’s Day, we pray that you help us to walk with all mothers, for mothering is not for the faint of heart, and on this day, we have real warriors in our midst.

Being a Friend of Jesus

friends

John 15:9-17 NRSV

Our text this morning contains some of the greatest words Jesus ever said to anyone:  “I do not call you servants any longer. . . I have called you friends.”  The disciples are invited by the risen Christ to know their Lord in a new light; they are invited to see their Jesus as a friend.  The question that I want us to ask this morning is this: “What does being a friend of Jesus truly mean?”

First of all, we learn from this text that being a friend of Jesus means to be chosen. Jesus said to his disciples, “You did not choose me, I chose you.”  This is very different from our definition of friendship, is it not?  For we are accustomed to choosing our friends. For us to be friends with another there’s usually got to be some sense of mutual attraction. My daughter Sara is going to Charlotte this afternoon to meet a girl who may be her college roommate this fall. They met on facebook and have scheduled a meeting today to see if they would both like to choose one another to be friends. However, Jesus had a much different understanding of friendship. It is Jesus who chooses us. We do not choose Jesus.

This understanding of friendship was also completely foreign to Jesus’ disciples. In Jesus’ day, it was customary for Jewish students studying the Torah, the Mosaic Law, to seek out a rabbi whose teaching they wanted to emulate. The choice was theirs. But Jesus reverses the order. The choice is his. Jesus chooses his followers.

That Jesus chooses us to be his friends prevents us from possessing a consumerist attitude toward the practice of this friendship. As disciples, we are not in a position to dictate when and where we will act like friends of Jesus. For example, we cannot choose to be Jesus’ friend on Sunday and treat him as a stranger the other days of the week. We cannot choose to act like he is our friend in front of some people, while acting like we have never heard of him in front of others. Furthermore, we are not in a position to pick and choose to accept and follow some of his teachings, while completely ignoring those teachings that we find offensive.

Secondly, we learn from this text that being a friend of Jesus means to keep his commandment to love others as he loves us.  Again, this too is very different from our understanding of friendship and love.  Most of us would probably tend to agree that the word “command” and the word “love” simply do not fit in the same sentence. We would say that love is not something that can be commanded.  For many of us, genuine love, we would say, must be spontaneous and come from within and not without.  We simply do not associate friendship or love with the word “command.”

The reason that “love” and “command” seem at odds is because we so often misuse and overuse the word “love.”  We have reduced the meaning of the word “love” to a mere feeling.  Jesus is talking about agape hereThis Greek word for love does not represent a “feeling.”  Nor is it a synonym for “like.”  To love is to be for another, to act for another, even at cost to oneself. The supreme act of love is the giving of one’s life for the other.

But for many of us, love is simply a feeling.  Love is an emotion. And we would say that no one can command feeling. We can not even command our own. But Jesus is not talking about feeling here. Jesus is talking about action. Jesus is talking about giving one’s self for another.

This is why the preacher never asks the groom and the bride in the wedding ceremony if they love one another. Think about it. You have never heard a preacher ask, “Do you love each other?” The preacher always asks, “Will you love one another?”  “Do you promise to love each other?”  True love is a verb. True love is action. True love is not a feeling. This misunderstanding of the definition of love is why many marriages end in divorce. A spouse wakes up one day and discovers that they have lost that loving feeling, so they move out.

Being a friend of Jesus means keeping his commandment to love others as he loves us. Unlike a feeling, love can be commanded. This means that we are to be there for others, to act for others, to be there with others, to laugh with others and to cry with others. Being a friend of Jesus means that we are willing to give of ourselves completely for others. Police officers, firefighters and others who put their lives on the line for us every day are our friends. The men and women of our armed forces who we remember in a couple of weeks on Memorial Day were our friends. Being a friend of Jesus means to sacrifice.

And thirdly, being a friend of Jesus means to know what is going on. Followers of Jesus become friends of Jesus when they know what he is doing. Jesus said, “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” What distinguishes servants from friends is that friends have been let in on the plans.

I once heard story of a family that was getting ready to move to another state. The parents did not want to upset their four year-old son who had made many friends at his preschool and in their neighborhood, so they kept putting off telling him about the move. When the movers came, the little boy was upstairs in taking nap, so the parents instructed them to pack up every room in the house except for their son’s room. They would finally tell him about the move when he awoke.

While the parents were outside taking some things to their car, the poor little thing awoke to find that every room in the house was empty except for his! The parents came back in and found him sitting on the floor in the empty family room crying like a baby. Realizing that it was probably a bad idea to wait until the last minute to let their son in on the plans, they finally told him that they were moving to another state, but assured him that he would quickly make new friends in their new town.

The little boy stopped crying. His face lit up with a big smile. And he said, “What a relief, I thought everyone was moving except for me!”

As friends, we do not like to be left out of the plans do we? As friends, we want to know what is going on. We want to be included in the plans. Jesus lets his disciples in on the plans. They are not kept in the dark about what is happening and what is going to happen.

Being a friend of Jesus means knowing God and God’s plans for us.  Do you remember the words of the prophet Jeremiah? “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me, I will hear you. When you search me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord….”

Being a friend of Jesus means finding God. Being a friend of Jesus means knowing that Jesus was God incarnate—God who loved us so much that he came to earth and became one of us—God who became our friend and laid down his life for us on a cross. Being a friend of Jesus means knowing that the same God who resurrected Jesus abides with us today, resurrecting our sorrow into joy, our despair into hope, and our death into life. Being a friend of Jesus means knowing that there is nothing on this earth or in all of creation which will ever separate us from the love of God we know through Jesus Christ our Lord. Being a friend of Jesus means always knowing that God is here with us working all things together for the good.

Students are in their last weeks of the school year. One of the things I loved doing during these weeks was passing my yearbook around and having my friends to sign it. I don’t know if you still do this today or not, but when I was going to school, nearly all of my friends signed my year book, AFA, a friend always.

Being a friend of Jesus means that God has signed our hearts, AFA, a friend always, and forever. It means that he will never forget us, never forsake us, always stay beside us, now and forevermore.

Love One Another

we do love

1 John 4:7-21 NRSV

It the fifth Sunday of Easter, and like the very first disciples, we have gathered together on the first day of the week to be with our family of faith. There are certainly a lot of other places we could be this morning. But here we are. We are here, together as a community of faith because like the very first disciples we have seen the risen Lord.

Somewhere along the way, probably during some of our weakest moments, those moments of pain and despair, those moments of great anxiety and fear, when we needed him the most, the risen Christ inexplicably came into our lives, stood in our presence and filled us with a peace that is simply beyond all human understanding.

So here we are, gathered together on this first day of the week, assembled in this place as believers. We’re here because we believe in Easter. We believe in the wonderful good news that Christ is alive and, even more than that, he is alive for us.

Now the question is: what are we supposed to do with this Easter Faith that we have?  How are we to live as Easter people?

There is no more direct answer to this important question than the one found in the little book we call 1 John.

When I was in seminary, I had to take two semesters of Biblical Greek and at least one semester of Hebrew. In my first year of Greek, the first book of the New Testament that the professor had us to translate was 1 John. Why?  Because in all the New Testament, the Greek in 1 John is the most simple and direct.  There are no complex, convoluted arguments, no long clauses or other linguistic difficulties that make the translation of some of the other New Testament books a nightmare. 1 John is simple and to the point. In fact, I can sum up the entire book in basically three words: “Love One Another.”

Three of the most simplistic, but at the same time, three of the most difficult words ever put together in one command.  Yet, this is how God expects believers in the risen Christ to respond to Easter.

Love one another. It is difficult because the “one another” we are supposed to love is not just our close friends and family, but also those who have misused and mistreated us. We are commanded to love one another, all people, including our enemies.

Every time I read or hear this command, I immediately think of that list that most of us carry, at least in our minds: that list of people who have wronged us.

Of course, none of you here in Farmville are on my list. I think of that long time member of my church in Winston-Salem who wanted me to fail so badly as pastor of the church that he actually wanted the church to fail. Although he gave very generously when the offering plate came around every Sunday, he never gave one dime to our church’s budget. He earmarked all of his money to go to the Baptist Children’s Homes.

I have in me to forgive someone who wanted to hurt me, but to hurt the church?

Then there was that lady in that same church who not only liked to run me into the ground in her conversations with others in the church, but she also seemed to enjoy taking about my family.  She told one group of ladies in the church that my son Carson, who was two years-old at the time, was one of the unhappiest children she had ever seen, implying that somehow Lori and I had made him that way by being bad parents.  “I wonder what really goes on in that home,” she said.  Because, “When I keep the nursery, he never smiles.”

It is one thing to talk about me, and it is another thing all together to talk about my children—a two year old, for goodness sake! I am pretty sure there was a very good reason that Carson never smiled around that woman. Carson wasn’t unhappy. Carson simply had good instincts.

Although we have this clear, direct commandment through the scriptures to “love one another” sometimes I think (or maybe hope) that God must have meant something else. I think: “God must not know some of these ‘one anothers’ that I know!”

I can better conceive of God saying something like: “You know, in this fallen and fragmented world of sinners, let us somehow learn to live with each other.” Now that’s a commandment that makes good sense! “Despite your differences, learn to live with each other.”

I think I would prefer God saying something like: “Respect one another” or “be kind to one another.” “Be courteous.” “Play nice.” Yeah, I like that. Sounds reasonable enough.

What about, “Be tolerant?” I really like that commandment. “I don’t have to like him, but I guess I can somehow tolerate him. I guess I can in someway put up with her.”

How about, “Let bygones be bygones”? That’s another good one. “We’ve got to move on and get over it. Get over them. Forget about them and the things they have done to hurt us. It’s simply not healthy to hold onto resentments or grudges forever.” Although it is sometimes easier said than done, I think I can live with that commandment.

But the scriptures say considerably more than all of the things I may want them to say. “Love one another.” And here in 1 John, it is a direct command. It’s not an option.

Love one another. I met Lori 29 years ago this month, and it was love at first sight. Twenty-nine years. That’s a lot of years. That’s a long time.  And I know, so before she says it aloud from the choir loft, I’ll say it for her—it’s been even longer for Lori.

When you really love another, you have this wonderful capacity to always see the best that is in that another. I know Lori does that with me, or she wouldn’t be with me today. When I do all those things that I do to annoy her, sometimes hurt her, she summons the strength to look past it all. And in so doing, my weaknesses, my quirks, and all of my shortcomings grow small, while my virtues, the few that I have, grow large. That’s love.

Love necessitates that no matter what the other has done to hurt us, we somehow focus on the positives. Love compels us to look for mitigating circumstances, to devise strategies whereby we earnestly attempt to see the other in the very best light.

If another hurts us, or if another is behaving badly, throwing stones at us or the police, love compels us to ask ourselves questions like, “I wonder what was going on in his or her life that made him or her feel the need to act out like this?” or “I have certain ways about me that antagonize others. I wonder how I antagonized him?” or “I have gotten a lot of good breaks in my life. I wonder what bad breaks she got that her to view me in this way?”

But once we give up on love, all moral bets are off. We become free to dehumanize, even demonize our enemies. They are no longer persons, no longer human. They are pigs, aliens, trash, thugs, rag heads and abominations. And are called other names that are too vile to repeat from this pulpit.

There’s an old saying, that in war, we actually kill our enemies twice. First we kill any shred of humanity in them, and then we kill them with bullets. The two go together.

But First John tells us to love one another. This means that when we or society is wronged, all moral bets are never off.  In fact, according to this ethic, it is precisely when we are used spitefully or wrongfully that the true moral test begins. Elsewhere, the scriptures note that if we love only those who show love to us, what is that?

I believe one of the reasons it is so easy for us to write people off, to write love off, is because we have been taught the false gospel of evangelicalism.

The evangelical gospel says: “All people are sinful, and because of that, God has condemned everyone to hell for all of eternity…unless we repent and accept Jesus. Then, and only then, God will love us and let us go to heaven.” It is primarily a gospel of fear; not love. And as John says, fear has nothing to do with love, but has to do with “punishment.”

Consequently, it is easy for us to demonize and dehumanize one another, call another a “thug.” After all, if another is behaving badly, it probably just means they are going to hell anyway!

However the gospel of Jesus Christ is completely different. The gospel of Christ says: “All people are sinful, and because of that, God loves us even more, and God will go to great lengths to reveal that love, even to death on a cross…to get us to see that love, get that love, accept that love, share that love, so that we will not be doomed for all of eternity living apart from that love.” Unlike the evangelical gospel, the gospel of Christ is all about love.

We love one another because the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the good news of Easter, demands that we love one another.

Because when the risen Christ showed up, when he came to us offering us a peace that is beyond all understanding, we suddenly realized that we were enemies of God. We realized that when this one came and said things as audacious as “love your enemies,” “pray for those who persecute you,” “if another slaps you in the face, turn the other cheek and let them slap you on the other side,” go the extra mile, “give another the shirt off your back,” “forgive another as many seventy times seven times,” “blessed are the poor,” and “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice,” “visit the prisoner,” “welcome the outcast,” and “love one another as I have love you,” we betrayed him, and we crucified him. When the risen Christ came to us, we suddenly realized when this one preached love, lived love, shared love and commanded love, unconditional and unmerited, we were so offended by it, we killed him. And yet, God in Christ still came back to us in the resurrection and loved us even more. Even when we did nothing to deserve life, God in Christ, love incarnate, love himself, laid down his life for us to give us life, abundant and eternal.

God not only puts up with us, respects us, and tolerates us, but God comes to us, calls us by name and embraces us. God looks past our flaws, our failures, and believes in the very best that about us and calls that best that is within all of us to come out.

God loves us and therefore commands us to love one another. “If I have loved you, then you should love others.”