I Have Called You Friends

This week’s sermon from Boonville Presbyterian Church.

John 15:9-17

If you were to ask the average person on the street to define the term ‘God’ (as it is often used in most contemporary monotheistic religions), you would probably get an answer similar to what the late Anglican Bishop John A.T. Robinson used to call the God “up there.”  In his more cheeky moments, Bishop Robinson also referred to the God “up there” as “the Old Man in the Sky.”  This idea of God was taken quite literally by superstitious people during the Medieval Dark Ages.

Folks these days, while they might use language about God that describes “the Old Man in the Sky” as being “up there,” will most likely admit when pressed that God (if they believe there is a God) is neither biologically male, nor does “he” exist in a physical location that just so happens to be directly vertical in relation to the speaker’s current point of reference.  Most folks who believe in a traditional monotheistic deity these days tend to think of the God “out there” (to use Robinson’s words again).  In other words, they think of God as a singular, intangible, all-knowing, and all-powerful Supreme Being who exists independently of the created universe.  Depending on their overall outlook on life and religion, they may or may not identify this Supreme Being as benevolent or compassionate.

The attribute of God that people tend to name more than any other is omnipotence, which means “all-powerful” or “almighty.”  Have you ever paid attention to how often people begin their prayers with the words ‘Almighty God’?  We kind of take it for granted that God is almighty.  We figure that a Supreme Being can do anything that comes to mind.  This is a tremendous source of strength and comfort for those who face difficult circumstances.  It’s helpful to know that God is in control, can handle any crisis, and has a plan to work everything out for the better.  The downside to this idea is that there seems to be so much meaningless suffering in the world.  How could God possibly bring good out of it?  Philosophers and theologians have been wrestling with that question for thousands of years.  If they ever come up with a single, universally acceptable answer, I’ll be sure to let you know right away.

I find it interesting that omnipotence has taken such a central place in our ideas about God.  When you think about modern society, it kind of makes sense.  Modern people are obsessed with power.  In the last five hundred years, we’ve used the power of science and technology to accomplish things that our ancestors never dreamed of.  We’ve come to see ourselves as the masters of our own destiny.  We worship what we value, so it would be fair to say that modern people worship power.  When we try to conceive of a Supreme Being, the first thing we think of is someone who possesses unlimited power.  Thus, to the modern mind, God must be omnipotent.  It is as the philosopher Voltaire famously said: “If God has made us in his image, we have returned him the favor.”

However, our faith in the power of power has been shaken as of late.  The twentieth century, with its two world wars, the holocaust, and the threat of nuclear annihilation, gave us reason to doubt our ability to bring about utopia through science and technology.  The current century, as young as it is, has already drawn our attention to the growing problems of global warming, international terrorism, and social stratification.  The modern era’s faith in the power of power has left us feeling empty, helpless, and alone in a sea of political propaganda and consumer advertising.

The God of modern power-lust has also presented us with certain problems.  I’ve already mentioned what philosophers call “the problem of evil.”  How can an all-powerful deity allow such horrible things to happen in the world?  Whole books have been written on that question, so I won’t get into it just now.  The problem I want to focus on is a relational one.  There is only one way to relate to a God who is primarily understood as all-powerful: servitude.  Obedience is all that matters in a power-based relationship.  This much is true, even when power is trustworthy and only exercised in the interest of our individual or common good.

This idea of God is quite popular among religious believers today.  God is an all-powerful lawgiver with a plan for the world that must be obeyed to letter, or else…

The spirituality shaped by such a theology is characterized by crime and punishment, as well as guilt and forgiveness.  Average people, uncertain of what an all-powerful Supreme Being wants of them, tend to vest the authority for moral decision-making in some tangible and supposedly infallible source like a church, a Pope, or a Bible.  This infallible source, so they say, represents the will of God to the people.  In their minds, questioning the words of the Pope or the Bible is disobedience toward God.  One must either obey or face the consequences of eternal damnation in the fiery abyss of hell.  As you can see, this is how religious fanaticism and fundamentalism are born.

So, the question I want to ask today is this: is there a way to relate to God outside of the modern obsession with power?  The answer, in my opinion, is yes.

I have already noted how the only way to relate to the omnipotent God of power is as an obedient servant.  So, with that in mind, I love how Jesus says to his disciples in today’s gospel reading, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends.”

Jesus was (in)famous in his day for challenging the authority of traditional orthodox religion in order to replace it with authentic and radical relationships.  His own family called him insane, all the preachers said he was demon-possessed, and respectable folks called him a glutton, a drunkard, and “a friend of sinners.”  Those who followed him were as diverse as they were dense.  They were ancient versions of government workers with guerilla fighters, barstool brawlers with church choir soloists, adult film stars with senators’ wives.  It was an offensive and unlikely collection of people that found friendship with this remarkable person and each other.

Jesus, in his teaching and his living, replaced the God of power with the God of love.  He told his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”  He makes it clear to them that his friendship with them is not based on religious observance or moral performance.  He says to them, “You did not choose me but I chose you.”  His love for them is a free gift of grace.

Gone is the sophisticated legal system of the Torah with its 613 commandments.  Gone too are the famous tablets of the Ten Commandments.  In fact, the only commandment that Jesus leaves his disciples is the commandment of love.  “This is my commandment,” he says, “that you love one another as I have loved you.”  The only thing Jesus asks us to do with this free gift of love is pass it on.  And the end result, he says, of this extravagant love-fest is a lasting fullness of joy for eternity.

What Jesus knew on an instinctual level, and his friends learned by following him, is that God is love.  The experience of a lived compassion and affection is more than just a fleeting emotion.  It is divine.  Love, as Jesus lived and taught it, is an expression of that which is the “Ground of all Being” and the very heartbeat of reality.  Live like this, he says, and you will touch the face of God.  For Jesus, God is not some all-powerful Supreme Being who rules the universe from a golden throne behind a pearly gate on a white, puffy cloud.  The throne of God, the place from which God reigns, is much nearer to us than that.  The kingdom of heaven, according to Jesus, is within you and among us.

If you want to find God, don’t look up, look deep.  Look into your own eyes and those of your neighbors.  Honor the relationships in your life and you will automatically be following the will of God for you.  As the Christian theologian, St. Augustine, once said, “Love and do what you want.”

This is a radically different view of God than the one we get from religious fanatics, fundamentalists, and other modern folks who are obsessed with power.  According to Jesus’ experience, love (not power) is the primary attribute of God.  Everything else we might say about God must be understood in light of this first principle.  This kind of God, the one revealed in and through Jesus, is Emmanuel (i.e. “God with us”).  The life of Jesus represents a fundamental shift in the way we think about God.  Going back to serving the demanding God of power after this would be an act of sheer idolatry.

Jesus’ God of love offers us a healing balm for the wounds and ailments of power-driven modern society.  In spite of our incredible technological capacity for communication and information exchange, folks of all ages today tend to feel more isolated and lonely than ever.  We are besieged by an endless invasion of barbarians who tear us and each other apart in the effort to obtain our money and our votes.  We are horrified to discover, as Charlton Heston did at the end of the movie Soylent Green, that we are all destined to become mere consumers and products for consumption.  But Jesus shows us that there is another way.  There is more.

Jesus turns us onto the God of love and the subversive power of committed relationships.  When we, as a community, begin to learn and practice this art, we find ourselves living the life of heaven on earth: the fullness of joy forever more.  We might not be luckier, happier, or more prosperous than before, but we will have discovered the secret to living well.

I want to invite you then, whoever and wherever you are, to begin to look deeper into the relationships in your life.  Take a second (or third) look at your family, friends, and neighbors.  Take an especially good look at those you might consider your enemies.  Take a look at those strangers you pass by in public and at the store.

If you’re listening to this sermon online or on the radio, I would invite you to take a break our culture’s individualism and consumerism to come visit us on Sunday at 10:30 and start exploring these relationships with us at our church.  We don’t do it perfectly all the time, but we give it our best try.  Come and get involved.  See what love looks like in our little community of unlikely friends and ragtag disciples.  Get involved and help us look for God in these little things.  Maybe you’ll find the God of love while you’re helping Wally move chairs after the rummage sale, helping Vivien make sandwiches, or helping Rod put up the Christmas tree.  These are the places and times when heaven comes to earth and the Spirit of God takes on flesh and bone again.

These relationships are sacred.  Try to treat each person as you would treat Christ himself.  Maybe you could memorize what Jesus said in Matthew 25:40 and recite his words silently to yourself as you interact with people, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  This is the secret to living well.  This is the fullness of joy.  This is how the kingdom of heaven comes to earth.  This is how we come to recognize the sacred face of Jesus’ God of love.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God… for God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)

Sola Gratia

King Street in Boone, NC. Image by Jeremy Mikkola

This week’s sermon from Boonville Presbyterian

Click here to listen to this sermon

1 John 3:16-24

Back when was in college, I lived in a little town in western North Carolina called Boone.  It’s nestled way back in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which form part of the ancient and gentle Appalachians.  Once you get up into the High Country of Christmas tree and tobacco farms in the hills around Boone, let me tell you: you will meet some “interesting” people.  We had one guy named Joshua who lived in a tent in the woods and sold poetry on the street corner.  We had Satanists, Neo-nazis, drug dealers, apocalyptic conspiracy theorists, and fire-breathing preachers galore.  Don’t forget: this is the same region of the country that produced snake-handling churches.  I think there are even a few folks left in that region who (still) might not have read the memo saying that the Civil War is over.

One such “interesting” person that I had the singular privilege of knowing was a guy named Mike.  Mike was a reformed drug user who lived in a trailer way back up in the woods.  He attended a particular church that holds the unique belief that theirs is the one and only true church left on planet Earth.  All others have either forgotten or corrupted the true gospel of Christ.  They believe that strict adherence to the dogmas and morals that constitute the membership requirements for their one, true church is what could secure one’s status as “saved” in the eyes of God.

Mike himself was an intense and energetic loner who felt drawn to their form of religious belief and practice.  Their robust conviction and die-hard certainty was attractive to him.  However, Mike was a person who struggled in many ways.  He wrestled with substance abuse and mental illness.  His church, unwilling to bend their strict rules in the name of pastoral sensitivity, was constantly excommunicating him and then readmitting him to membership.  Whenever I would bump into him in public, Mike’s customary greeting was, “I got saved again!”  Mike believed that his status before God was constantly in a state of flux because of his inability to adhere to his church’s code of faith and conduct.  That inflexible code, I think, only served to increase Mike’s anxiety and make him feel alienated from the Source of life and love that could truly help him on his quest to become a better person and a more faithful Christian.

Now, I don’t think many of us are likely to find ourselves in Mike’s position.  While we too might very well wrestle with problems like addiction and mental illness, this church does not exclude or condemn people for being human.  However, we do live in a time when it is quite likely that you will encounter someone (in person, online, or on TV) who will try to send you the message that you’re not “saved” or “born again,” which is to say that you don’t count as a “real” Christian or a child of God.  Let me tell you right now that I think that’s a bunch of baloney.

In the interest of full-disclosure, I should probably take this opportunity to also tell you flat-out that I am a universalist.  What that means in theological terms is that I believe in the doctrine of universal salvation.  What it means in plain English is that I don’t believe in hell.  I find the idea of eternal punishment after death to be completely incompatible with the nature and purposes of the God of Love who is revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ.  This means that I believe everyone, everywhere, regardless of their religion or their behavior, is “saved.”  I’m going to come back to this point later, but I think it’s important that I lay it out now, just so you all know where I’m coming from and where I’m going with this.

Those who try to draw lines in the sand between us and them (i.e. the saved and the damned, the religious insiders and the secular outsiders), typically do so using one or both of the following criteria: belief and behavior.  They might say that there are certain ideas you need to accept before you’ll count as a “real” Christian in God’s eyes.  They might also say that there are certain things that you need to do if you want to be “saved.”

Folks like this have been around for a long time.  In fact, I think it’s probably fair to say they’ve been around for as long as organized religion has been part of human society.  We can definitely see their tendencies emerging within the pages of the Bible itself.

In the earliest decades of Christianity, there were two influential groups that developed within the church, each with its own ideas and ideologies.  The first group is now known as the Judaizers.  These were folks who had a very high degree of respect for Christianity’s roots in Jewish religion and culture.  So great was their love for this heritage that many of them began to insist that every new Christian should become Jewish first.  They thought this would limit the amount of cultural perversion and assimilation that might happen among Christians.  The Judaizers insisted that Christian believers of all ethnicities should make certain that they follow all 613 of God’s commandments in the Jewish Torah.  The leaders of the early church, however, decided together that the doors of the church should be flung as wide open as possible in order to welcome people from every tribe, language, people, and nation into the community of Christ.  Christianity’s honored roots may have been Jewish, they said, but its future would be international and multicultural.  You can read about the details of this conversation in chapter 15 of the book of Acts in the New Testament.  The apostle Paul confronted this controversy head-on in his Epistle to the Galatians (also in the New Testament).  He had a lot of passionate things to say about it (he was against the Judaizers).  Even though the issue seems to have died down in the later part of the first century, we can still hear echoes of that conflict in today’s reading from John’s First Epistle.  John’s words about “obey[ing] the commandments” may well have been a reference back to the controversy with the Judaizers.  With their strict emphasis on following the commandments, one can easily see how the Judaizers were the ones who said that there are certain things that people need to do in order to count as “saved” in God’s eyes.  We could say that they believed in self-salvation through behavior.

The second influential group in the early Christian church was actually a collection or series of different groups that had common characteristics.  Collectively, they are now known as the Gnostics.  These were folks who came into their Christian faith from the Greco-Roman side of the equation.  They brought with them a love of philosophy and wisdom as part of their cultural heritage.  As they began to explore their newfound Christian faith, they tried their best to understand Christianity through the lens of philosophy.  Popular philosophical thought at the time saw the physical world as completely evil and the spiritual world as completely good.  The Gnostics saw Jesus as a kind of divine messenger who floated down to earth and appeared to take on human form in order to teach humanity the secret knowledge that would allow them to transcend above the realm of the physical and enter the spiritual realm, where God lives.  The early church leaders, especially the author of John’s First Epistle, were extremely uncomfortable with the idea that this world is totally evil and Jesus wasn’t a real flesh and blood human like you or me.  With their emphasis on “secret knowledge” as the source for salvation, the Gnostics were like those who insist that a person has to accept certain ideas or interpretations of scripture in order to count as a “real” Christian.  We could say that they believed in self-salvation through belief.

Now John, writing as a pastor to his congregation in his First Epistle, challenges both of these false assumptions, but he spends a lot more time being concerned about the Gnostics (probably because that was the bigger issue with this congregation).

John counters these ideas with one, huge, over-arching principle that trumps both belief and behavior: Love.

John is the writer who famously wrote, “God is love.”  God’s love, given freely and unconditionally to those who neither deserve nor earn it, is the basis of all authentic Christian faith and action.  Another word for this kind of unconditional love is “grace.”  That’s what we mean when we sing, “Amazing grace!  How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!”  The Protestant Reformers, our forbears in this church, were following in John’s footsteps when they leaned heavily on the principle of sola gratia or “grace alone” as one of the central foundations of their faith.  In theological terms, grace is the “unmerited favor” of God.  In plain English, it means “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

For John, the Protestant Reformers, and all of us in this church, the primary revelation of God’s love is in the person of Jesus Christ.  Jesus embodied love.  He lived and died for others.  He set for us an example of what love looks like and what the power of love can do in this world.

According to John, the only way to respond to this free gift of unconditional love is to give love freely and unconditionally.  When we love like Jesus, we remind ourselves and others that love is the Ground of our Being.  Love is the heartbeat at the center of the universe.  When we love like Jesus, our hearts beat in time with the cosmos.

Love is so much simpler, yet so much more difficult, than following a list of prescribed beliefs and behaviors.  We would much rather have an itemized creed to which we demanded adherence from everyone.  That’s way easier than loving.  We would much rather have a code of conduct that spelled out every possible contingency and application for each regulation.  That’s way easier than loving.

Love is a fluid and unpredictable thing.  Love keeps us creative and flexible.  Love is difficult, but it’s also so sorely needed.

You and I live in a society where dogmatism and litigiousness run rampant, but real love and community are on the decline.  Just as the Beatles found out that “money can’t buy me love,” we’re finding out that we can’t legislate it either.  It would be so much easier to simply draw our lines in the sand over belief and behavior, keeping us in and them out.

The one thing that’s lacking in this land is a sense of love and community.  People are longing to belong.

In spite of our exponentially accelerated rate of communication and information exchange in our culture, folks are feeling more isolated than ever.  This is a time when the recovery of love as our central principle for faith and action is needed more than ever.

Because of this great need in the world and the great love that is in us as the people of God, I am ordaining and commissioning you all this morning as evangelists and missionaries of love to Central New York and the North Country.  I’m not asking you to go proselytize your neighbors or try to win converts at the grocery store.  There are enough folks out there doing that already.

At best, those “missionaries” and “evangelists” are only trying to get people to “believe that” certain ideas about Jesus are true (i.e. that he is the Son of God who was born of a virgin, died on the cross, and rose from the grave).  Those pamphlets of religious literature can never really get people to “believe in” Jesus in a real way.

I can say “I believe that” about any number of facts.  I believe that I am standing in a pulpit right now.  I believe that there is a stack of paper in front of me.  I believe that I can see our organist from here.  All of those are simple statements of fact.

But to say “I believe in” takes a much more personal commitment.  I believe in this church.  I believe in you.  It’s a statement of personal trust and relationship.  It goes way farther than simply giving intellectual assent to a list of statements on a piece of paper.

Into this isolated and isolating world that knows so little of real love, I want to send you all as evangelists and missionaries of unconditional love in word and action.  Show your faith in love through loving deeds, not creeds.  Help people to believe in that love which we hold most sacred.

I commission you in the words of another, more famous, American Universalist named John Murray, who preached during the 1700s:

Go out into the highways and by-ways.  Give the people something of your new vision. You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not Hell, but hope and courage.  Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.