Psalm 148, Acts 11:1-18 and Revelation 21:1-6
Some say that the problems of the world would be solved if we would all just love one another. Maybe it stems from the ‘60s and that toe-tapping Beatles tune, “All You Need is Love.” Regardless, it’s true. Love is a universal ideal that we want to believe will solve the problems of the world. It’s a Godly ideal that stands out for us from scripture. From 1 John 4: “God is love; and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them. (NRSV)” “Love one another” is Jesus’ palpable cry that extends in a very tangible way even to the traffic signs of our neighborhoods. Surely, you’ve seen them. When we arrived in January, I thought they were leftover from some street festival, or something. Yet, until last week, “One Way” was “One Love,” all over DC. Really, how can you argue with that?
Some say that the problems of the world would be solved if we would all just love one another. Yet, this is such a romantic thought that it could be perceived as a reductionist view of the hard work of the world that is still unfinished now that the ‘60s are long gone. We could also say that it’s such a simplistic idea that it leaves the church, most important of all, to walk away from some of the most pressing – however easily sidestepped – conversations of the day.
You might know that in the New Testament, there are no fewer than 3 words used to apply to the one word you and I use for love. This speaks to the complexity of love and the truth of what it takes to truly keep love alive in the world. First, there is eros love. This is the form of love we just can’t help. It’s the love we speak of when we think about falling in love. Eros love simply happens, which most of us want to last forever. But I think that most of us agree, the love that simply happens is often fleeting. Eros love can soon begin to fade, if it ever shines in your life at all. And so in our relationships and in life, we depend upon two other forms of love also shared in scripture. For one, we have philia love, or friendship love. Philia love is what helps us to get through the everyday occasions of life. It’s a less spontaneous form of love that encourages us to make decisions together about book choices, and committee decisions, hymn preferences and where to go for an annual retreat. Each one of us relies on philia love in all facets of our lives. But then, there is the third kind of love that we read most often in the Letters and Epistles of the Second Testament. This third kind of love is agape love, which is the love that we extend to a brother or sister, enemy of friend. Agape love is the principle by which we deliberately love. This deliberate love is what turns us toward those who aren’t as appealing as others, maybe even those we don’t necessarily like for a moment or an hour and compels us to find reasons – scriptural or familial or corporate reasons – for why we should (or should once again) embrace a person or even whole nation with whom we may’ve had a little (or even grand) falling out.
Agape love demands the exercise of our whole being. It’s a very intentional love. It’s not simply an emotional love that fills our stomachs, or a rational choice between attending a conference or a lecture. Agape love is the hard work of love that turns our frustrations into opportunities for conversation or negotiation or maybe even intervention, often called diplomacy. It’s what tells us to work hard to make something happen that might have turned sour before it had the chance to begin. So, you see, when we make the very simple suggestion that the world would be a better place if we would all just love one another, even while true, it reduces the task of love to a sound bite that could very well imply permission to leave the work of love unfinished.
To have something as powerful as love in this world is only possible by the work of our God who IS love, in its most complex form. To have something as powerful as love in this world is only possibly by the will of God who inspires us with enthusiasm, energy, commitment and courage to keep even the idea of love alive. So, to suggest that all the problems of the world would be solved if we would all just love one another is really to accept that we are willing to work hard for love in this complex world of our lifetime, for the sake of all love to come. This is not the task for each one of us to manage alone. This is a difficult task that requires the collective vision and careful management of the resources of the church that is occasionally, even when it is working so hard, misguided in what it means to love, at all.
In the early days of Christ’s church, in those days when the apostles were trying to find their way, “to love” was the hoped-for goal. Christ, himself, modeled such perfect love that to get even half way there could’ve been a stretch. But then, Peter had a vision. While he was praying, Peter had a vision with a voice that communicated to him that what God has made must not be called unclean or of little value because it is so common, in what I would call a more nuanced translation of the Greek. The implication is clear: we are called not only to love in its most simple form, but to embrace all of God’s creation which could be experienced as love in its most difficult form of all. There is to be no separation between one from another for any bias whatsoever, including the sometimes most widely differentiating characteristics as race or religion or relationship preference or age.
God requires this complex meaning of love that stretched the apostles far beyond where they had been comfortable and required them to wrestle with the basic definition of who could be fully loved and among them. And like Jacob wrestling in his dream to become forever changed, Peter and the disciples wrestled with God’s vision to conclude that it is necessary to baptize even those his brothers in Christ may’ve otherwise believed to be forever outside of the fold of God. Like the earliest apostles, you and I make choices about who’s in and who’s out, every single day. These decisions effect our daily living and they effect our church. We distinguish between those we perceive as “other” in what we say or don’t say, whether we invite or don’t invite, what and who we choose to encourage – even the music we choose to play and sing – as these choices say a lot about who we want in our lives and, by definition then, who we do not.
Our responsibility is to examine our patterns of living and identify for ourselves who or what is “in” so that we can examine our hearts for why we’re trying to keep what or who is obviously “out”. When our behaviors of inclusion or exclusion become identifiable as patterns, they begin to communicate our deepest fears as individuals and as a body. They could be beginning to communicate our deepest fears of what we see as “other” and how we fear that the “other” might be able to have some control, or undesirable consequence or unwelcomed influence in our life together.
Now, at the risk of making us bristle, I’ll suggest that when our examination of our self or our body comes to the physically obvious element of our racial identity the conversation can become a bit tricky and make us feel all out of sorts. Most of us rationalize what is likely our unconscious behavior (in spite of the evident or most obvious illustrations) to reject the notion that we allow our race to prejudice our life choices. But Reinhold Niebuhr cautioned against idealizing our lives, saying that we might “follow the truth of the matter rather than the imagination of it.” He nudges us to consider that even “idealists are subject to illusions about social realities,”1 going further to suggest that when we are unable to discover such a corruption in ourselves it suggests an “air of sentimentality
to the learning of our whole liberal culture.”2 Instead, he suggests that we need to reflect upon the tension between our love of self and our love of God in order to acknowledge those places where our natural egotism has the self and not God as its end.3 When we can carry this tension into a conversation about love, we might find that our natural egotism tends to lead us to love what is just like ourselves and away from what is different or other. Our natural egotism often leads us to believe that what is different or other is suspect and possibly needing to be overcome. It’s a Christian’s duty to overcome this tendency and perfect a love in this world that draws upon the resources of God over the inherently flawed resources of humankind. This is the true task of love and it is, by definition, work.
In our churches today, we can begin this work through a more intentional focus on our Godly call to love even those who are most obviously different from us. Stephanie Spellers, an Episcopal Priest in Boston, calls this, “living into the dream of God.” In her book, Radical Welcome, Spellers suggests that we embark on a journey of faith that has mutuality as a goal because you and I know that the essence of hospitality is not only a willingness to accept but to proactively ensure that someone feels welcome.
As we look around our sanctuary this morning, who can we imagine feels unwelcome today? As we stand up and sing, or quietly sit and pray, who sitting among our church for the first or even third time could feel like an outsider? As we consider our conversations in education hour and coffee hour, who might have an experience that feels less than hospitable? Reflecting on the concept of radical welcome, when we honor and extend gracious hospitality to one another, especially those who could be considered the Outsiders or the Others, we will discover new things about ourselves and others, develop an awareness of our own privilege and live into a graceful reciprocity of listening and sharing, praying and caring that we necessarily expound the boundaries of our experience as Christians. I would go one step farther to say that we would thereby be affecting an expansion of the boundaries of our church and the eternal hope for the world.
Just as this level of love is hard work in our personal lives, it is even harder work in the church as our individual self-interest can infect our collective self-interest and, as St. Augustine says, “when it is victorious…will become vice’s slave.”4 This is why we need to rely on one another to live into the covenant idea of God’s love and embrace, ferret out the injustices of our body and reverse those ways of being “church” that conflict with Christ’s desire for the church to come.
In our particular Presbytery, a group led by Sara Parker, who was on the field staff of the PC(USA)’s multicultural network office, is leading a multicultural gathering on Saturday, May 11th, so that we can learn how to strengthen our practices of mutual hospitality. The hope is that we will become better witnesses for God’s dream of inclusion and become a community that transcends the uncertainties of diversity – especially racial/ethnic diversity – in our churches and eventually in our world. Through our increased understanding of our oneness in Christ, we will experience an increase of love for one another in the church as our just and perfect home, and become emboldened to better reflect Christ’s image of the beloved kingdom on earth.
On this 5th Sunday of Easter, as we continue to celebrate the creation and history of the Christian church, let us embrace the truth that God creates each one of us equally, in God’s image, good. Let us consider our opportunity to love and embrace all people as essential in Christ’s hope for the world. Let us pray fervently for how our church home might fit within the beloved kingdom as a perfected embodiment of the diversity of God’s people. And may we consider how we are called to bring about a new heaven and a new earth among us here at Western Presbyterian Church for all time to come.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
1 The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses, Edited and introduced by Robert McAfee Brown. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986). P 123.
2 The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses, Edited and introduced by Robert McAfee Brown. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986). P 126.
3 The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses, Edited and introduced by Robert McAfee Brown. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986). P 130.
4 The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses, Edited and introduced by Robert McAfee Brown. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986). P 133.