Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Reach - God's Love Reaches To a Nation

Ten years ago, I was a doctoral student at Vanderbilt. I recall sitting in one of my professors offices for a seminar class. There were three of us with him: Scott, Miles, and me. The graduate school took three new students each year, and in 2002, we were the three. We did most of our coursework together. We got to know each other pretty well. On this particular day, we were sitting in Dr. Johnson’s office discussing our weekly readings on the Reformation. I know it sounds interesting, doesn’t it? Three hours of riveting discussion among four people about John Calvin and Martin Luther! Some of you are falling asleep just hearing that that conversation took place!
We sat there 10 years ago this week, anticipating the upcoming holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Dr. Johnson, as we wound up the conversation, reminded us about our readings for our next meeting. He seemed completely unaware or unconcerned that the school calendar had given us a holiday. When he finished, the three of us just looked at each other, each one wondering the same thing, who was going to be the brave soul to remind Dr. Johnson that we had a holiday? In our minds, we weighed the options, we could tell him and risk his response, or, we could come to his office during the holiday anyway. Our fear of Dr. Johnson made this second option a bit more appealing than you might think! But suddenly Scott stuck his toe in the water to check its temperature.

“Dr. Johnson, uh, you do know that next Monday is a holiday, don’t you? Do you still want us to meet you here next Monday?” I will never forget that moment. Dr. Johnson looked at Scott…expressionless. “Mr. Harris,” he said…“Do you plan to march in a parade next Monday honoring Dr. King?” Scott couldn’t lie. “Well, no sir.” “Then I expect to see the three of you in my office next Monday morning at 8:00.”

We were all there. Every year I send an email to Scott asking him if he is marching. I’ll send that email tomorrow. After studying so much of King’s life in my graduate work, I do believe it is appropriate that we honor his legacy each year. He did as much for racial reconciliation in our country as any one individual, and his philosophy of non-violent resistance was especially powerful. Though not everyone listened to him, then or now, he advocated a love among the races. He encouraged whites to respect African Americans, and he encouraged African Americans to respect whites. Interestingly, though, he did not always feel that way.

When King was a child, he had an experience that shaped him dramatically. When he was only 6 years old, his best friend in the world was the son of a man who owned a store just across from King’s childhood home. The storeowner and his son were white. As a six-year-old boy, King didn’t understand the problems that dynamic created in 1930’s Atlanta, GA. As the two grew up, it became time for them to attend school. Of course, Martin went to the African American school, and his friend went to the white school. Before long, they saw each other less and less. One day, his best friend said he could not play with him anymore. Martin’s father, at the dinner table one evening, had to explain to his son was racism was all about. Beginning that moment, and lasting many years, Martin Luther King Jr. said he was determined to hate every white person.

Now, we know he eventually changed his mind about that. His message was an extremely inclusive one. He talked often about a “beloved community” in which whites and blacks would join hands and treat one another as brothers and sisters. So, here is my question: What happened? Why did Martin Luther King Jr. so drastically change his position? In short, he says it was the power of love that changed his mind. He slowly became convinced that “love” is the most powerful force in our world to effect change. Hating people will not make them change, but loving them will!

There was another man who came to understand the power of love…

Many of you who have studied much of the New Testament do not need an introduction to the apostles Paul and Peter. These two men influenced the trajectory of Christ’s Church as much as any two people in history. Peter was a close and personal friend of Jesus. Paul wrote more of the New Testament than anyone else. Do you recall that these two had a run in one time? It happened in Antioch. Here is how Paul describes what happened…

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?  
Galatians 2:11-14 NRSV

Peter grew up a Jew. He grew up believing, as did most Jews, that non-Jews were dirty and unclean and not part of God’s family. Jews grew up hearing that they were “God’s children” “God’s chosen people” and no one else was as good as they were, and even if he knew God had opened the door to Gentiles, even if he knew in his heart that God loved everyone, he just couldn’t bring himself to love those “non-chosen people.” Now the reason I bring this up is because of something Peter wrote years later, years after his confrontation with Paul. Writing to a group of Christians, this is what Peter said,

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.  
I Peter 2:9-12 NRSV

There are a couple of important things happening in this text. First, you need to understand that when Peter says, “Gentiles,” he does not mean simply non-Jews. By this time in the history of the church, many Jewish Christians were coming to refer to non-Christians as “Gentiles.” For years, they have used this term to describe people not of the household of faith. It only made sense that they would continue using this word in much the same way. Those outside of God’s family, non-followers of Jesus, were Gentiles. Certainly most people in Peter’s circle were Jewish Christians, but he is writing to a much larger and broader audience now.

Second, notice the mission Peter outlines for the church. It is not enough to simply sit back and accept God’s love for ourselves. It is not good enough to simply revel in the fact that we are God’s people. If you were to paraphrase Peter’s argument, it would go something like this…Brothers and sisters, because you were shown mercy, show mercy to others. Because you were loved, extend that love to others. Though everyone else may think you are crazy, love them anyway, and watch what God can do then.

I believe Peter drastically changed his opinion of “others,” because he was what God’s love could do through God’s people. He saw former pagans suddenly fall in love with God. He saw Gentiles suddenly fall in love with the God he had known his entire life. What’s more he saw Jews, like Paul and James and John, he saw what dramatic effect God’s love could have on people when extending by the church.

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve talked a lot about God’s Plan for this world. Our world is inundated with talk about God’s plan or God’s will for our lives! Where does God want me to work? Who does God want me to marry? What does God want me to have for breakfast? I think we sometimes mistakenly believe God desires to micromanage our lives.

The important questions to ask are these…Can I honor God if I work here? Can I honor God if I marry this person? Can I honor God if I eat bacon instead of waffles? The fact is, we can honor God in all sorts of ways; there is no one path that God expects us to find in life! I think God’s plan for us is much broader than that! God’s Plan has always centered on Love.

In the beginning God created a perfect world, but it quickly became imperfect. But God didn’t give up on us. God initiated a plan to rescue us, a plan that would insure that we would be able to be close to Him forever. That plan had everything to do with love, God’s ever-reaching love. First, God loved an individual, Abraham. Then, God reached further, and he loved a nation, Israel. Then, finally God reached even further, and He loved the world through Jesus. This is God’s Plan, the redemption of the world through His ever-reaching love.

This week, we are talking about this second part of God’s plan, God’s Love Reached Through a Nation. The nation was Israel. But, as Peter reminds us in his letter, we are part of Israel now, we are God’s chosen people, we are a Holy Priesthood, and priests have a job. As a collective body of priests, we are called to love the world. Just as God loves us as His Body.

You know, I think some of us, even us Gentiles, have a lot in common with Peter. We were raised with the label: “God’s people.” We have come to believe, and rightfully so, that God loves us very much. We are part of God’s family. But, like Peter, over time, we begin to buy the lie that God cares more about us than He does anyone else.

I read an article this week entitled “10 Behavior Patterns of Inwardly-Focused Churches” One of the 10 items mentioned was “Attitudes of Entitlement.” It is possible for God’s people to feel entitled. After all, we are part of God’s family, God chose us! If we are not careful, we can easily lose sight of “God’s Plan.” Instead of reaching into the world to extend God’s love, we keep our arms very close and we become extremely concerned about our own comfort. Churches that lose sight of God’s Plan focus quite a bit on themselves. They become entangled in discussions that no one outside these walls really care about, and before long, without even noticing, they realize that those very conversations are repelling the world instead of attracting them to God. Glenwood is it possible that this family can be different?

I have found over the years that the best policy is just to say it, so here goes. Can we please not be like so many other congregations that get bogged down in worship wars? “I love praise teams…” “I hate praise teams…” “I think if you use a guitar in worship you’re going to go to hell…” “I think if you don’t use a guitar in worship you’ll become irrelevant to the world…”

Do you know how the world reacts to these conversations? “Who cares!?” “Is that why Jesus came, to ensure that you people worship in the right way on Sunday morning!?” Is it possible, church, that there is more than one way to worship God? And, is it possible that there are more productive ways to spend our time than arguing about this? Enough is enough, we’re losing sight of our mission.

Can we please not be like so many other congregations that get bogged down in discussions about our programs? “Our children’s ministry needs more fun activities…” “Our youth ministry needs to make sure my teenager does not leave the church…” “If we don’t enhance our program for senior citizens, I’m out of here…” Do you hear the language of entitlement? Enough is enough; we’re losing sight of our mission. Our mission is pretty simple: We are to love as we have been loved. Why?

So that they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when He comes to judge… 
I Peter 2:12

All of this is not about you. All of this is not about me. All of this is about God, and we need to remind each other of that from time to time. God, thank you for loving Your church, and please help us to love your world in the same way!

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