Risen. Renewed: The Witness of Love - Rev. Michael F. Bailey

Risen, Renewed: The Witness of Love
John 13:31-35
Michael F. Bailey
April 24, 2016

John 13:31-35 When he (Judas) had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

Have you ever noticed that, by observation, you can pretty well guess some things about people. You might be able to tell where they’ve been, what their occupation is and sometimes even some of their beliefs. For example, how many of you know Mark Vickers? He is part time as one of our associates and the lead pastor at our partner church St. Timothy. Those of you who know him, know that if you were to see him on a Sunday, say at a restaurant after he led a traditional service, he would have on a particular type of shirt. Does anyone know what that would be? You’re right! Mark would be wearing a full clerical collar. I personally think he does this in hope that a loving or guilty Catholic will offer to buy him a glass of wine! Seriously, this has been a good way for Mark to connect with people who need a minister. 

Or, where do you think a friend has been if they show up with a dark tan everywhere except for having those un-tanned skin, reverse, raccoon eyes? Right–they’ve been to the beach. There was a day when, in a hospital, if you saw someone wearing a white jacket with their name stenciled above the pocket you could be pretty sure that they were a physician. Years ago, nurses would wear hats unique to their nursing school. Sometimes by observation you can tell what a person does or where they’ve been. 

As we enter into a political season some will wear T-shirts or hats proclaiming their beliefs and support for a particular candidate. In that vein, some heard me share a story in our traditional services about what happened to me during our Greensboro Urban Ministry food drive at Harris Teeter. Volunteers are given a blue with white lettering stick-on name tag identifying them as working with Greensboro Urban Ministry. You stand outside the door with shopping carts serving as receptacles for donated food. As people enter the store you hand them a list of the food needed by the ministry in hope that they will purchase what’s needed and drop it in the cart on the way out. Now, understand it’s pretty hard to get by me without stopping, as I’m a pretty rigorous panhandler for Jesus! One fellow though, parked and came straight toward me and the first words out of his mouth were these: I can’t help you–I’m a Republican. Needless to say, I was rather stunned and told him that we would take Republican, Democratic or Independent food. He then looked at my nametag more closely and said: “Oh, I thought you were campaigning for Hillary.” And by the way, he still didn’t give any food when he came out!

The fact is, by observing people sometimes you can tell what they do, where they’ve been and even some of their beliefs. So here’s a question: if someone were to observe your life, all the time, not just here at church, would they be able to tell that you were a Christian? The old-time preachers used to put it this way: if Christianity were outlawed, would there be enough evidence in your life to convict you in a court of law? In our passage today, Jesus teaches us what the greatest evidence would be; namely, love for one another. 

Here’s the context of our passage: In the Upper Room, site of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus modeled for the disciples, then and now, love in action by kneeling and humbly washing the feet of the disciples. And then, he predicted that the one dipping bread in a bowl with him would betray him. This was, of course, Judas, who left the room our passage says. And against this model of servant love through the foot-washing and against the background of blatant betrayal, Jesus taught disciples then and disciples now, that people will know we are Christians by the love we have for one another. And oh how we need to recapture this teaching in the church! And by church, I mean the church universal, our United Methodist tradition and our own congregation. In the church universal, we fuss and feud over theological differences. In our United Methodist Church, we threaten to divide as we focus most of our time on who loves whom, rather than on sharing the love of Christ in word and deed. In every local congregation, small groups can devolve into cliques and often we appear to be more of a gathering of strangers than a divine family of brothers and sisters. 

This past week some of the staff and lay leadership attended the change the world conference at Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church. It has grown to be one of the largest congregations in United Methodism by simply giving itself away. It sits literally in the midst of agricultural and farming areas. While there, we heard the great young Christian activist Shane Claiborne state that the church is better known for walls than for bridges. Oh, how we need share the love of Christ in the church. And how the world, maybe now more than ever, needs the church to be the church, that is, the body of Christ on earth; His loving hands and feet.

I mean, think of it; our civil dialogue is primarily uncivil; our political life is venomous; our culture is marked by violence; gaps between the haves and a have-nots continue to widen; we live in the number one food insecure area in the most wealthy nation on earth. Mother Theresa visiting the United States once said, “I have never seen such poverty; a poverty of loneliness; even the poor in Calcutta have each other.” Oh how the world needs the church to be loving; to build more bridges and to tear down walls!' Claiborne shared that this means it’s a wonderful time to be a Christian. There are so many opportunities for the witness of love. 

We were reminded at the conference about extremism in the world. Dr. King once said that there are extremists of hate in the world, and what Christians need to be are extremists for love! The extremists of hate have as their fuel, fear; fear keeps us fractured and from connecting with others. But, John teaches that perfect love casts out fear. At the conference, we heard that when love reigns there’s no room for fear; when fear reigns there’s not much room for love. Now, because God is love, His true followers are loving. This is rather a litmus test for whether we are following God or not, isn’t it? Anne Lamotte once said, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the people you hate.”

So what does it mean for the risen Christ to renew us in our witness of love? Let’s think about this together for a few minutes.There is a witness of love in a transformed life, isn’t there? Sometimes we mainline folks let others re-define and therefore abuse the meaning of the great Christian word, “witness.” For these folks who abuse the word, witnessing is arguing for the truth of Christianity. Their method is to get folks to agree to three or four of their truths, and then have people pray a particular prayer, and suddenly, they’re Christian and the witness session is over. These folks often seem bent on defending God; but God needs no defenders rather, God needs followers!

Here though, is what I believe is the greatest proof or witness, if you will, of the living Jesus: how Christ and His love transformed and is transforming and shall transform your life! You see, we are a work in progress. But never deny the reality and the wonder of the progress you’ve made. Think of it, because of the love of Christ you are here: praying, serving, giving, worshiping, with a transformed personality that reflects Jesus’ personality. He has transformed you. I believe by your presence here today, He is transforming you and in your tomorrow’s, He will continue to transform you. 

Here’s what transformation takes: staying open to Christ and knowing you are not yet perfected in love. Philip Yancey once said, “Imperfection is the prerequisite for grace; light only gets in through the cracks.” We need to know ourselves, our weaknesses, our growth gaps and indeed the cracks. Seeking Christ’s love in our life transforms our life and is a witness to our living Lord.Then, there is the witness of loving service in Jesus’ name. 

I’ve been on the board of ministry for a number of years and we always examine our ministerial candidates regarding their sacramental theology. It can get pretty intricate and deep pretty quickly. But reduced to its most basic affect on our lives, the sacraments are where we meet Jesus. John Wesley believed that hands-on service with and among the poor, the alienated, the rejected and the un-loved was nearly sacramental in nature. In hands-on service and relationship with the marginalized, Wesley believed we met Jesus in meeting the hungry, the homeless, the vulnerable, the hurting and imprisoned. He actually required such service of the early Methodists as a part of their membership. And here’s the beauty of the witness of loving hands-on service, in Christ name– when we truly get to know people, to build relationships with people and even to love them as God’s children, all our stereotypes and generalizations fly out the window. And so does fear and hate. Our politicians and culture seem bent on causing us to fear, reject and even hate folks we’ve never met by making sweeping generalizations about whole groups of folks. 

I was struck recently by a photo on the “Soup for Syria Greensboro” FaceBook page. Many of you were here when Soup for Syria had its kickoff event in this very room. Many of you have been involved in helping our Syrian refugee families get settled, donating furnishings, friendship and food. The picture that was so striking to me was a little girl of about 8. You could describe her as an All-American looking girl: brown hair, striped blouse, a big smile with her baby teeth gone and her grown up teeth in; I assume she is Christian, but maybe not. Right next to her was a little Syrian girl; a whole head shorter, a Muslim with jet-black hair and eyes, wearing a pretty sweater. You can see the Syrian girls arm is wrapped around her American friends waist. They are so close there is no gap between them. What must this do for these little girls? I suspect the American girl will never think of Syrians and Muslims the same way. When people try to generalize about her friend’s country, or refugee status, or faith and generate fear, which fuels hate; I think the American girl will think of the embrace of her Syrian friend. I wonder how the Syrian girls life has changed? Was she playing safely in the street at home one day and did fighter jets scream across the sky? Did the shadow of a helicopter bearing barrel bombs come to her village? Did they pack in the night? Was she allowed to bring her favorite little girl thing? Did they travel through a war zone? Cross a sea in a leaky boat? Did she wear swimming pool floaties as a life preserver? How was the camp like? And what is it like for her now to live in a house with these strangers coming in, bringing things and supporting her family. Somewhere in the embrace of two little girls is the witness of love in this world! And Lord knows, we need that witness of love.

And then, there is also the witness of love in the church. Wesley once said “Though we do not agree, can we not love one another? If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand.” If you’ve given your heart to Jesus and I’ve given my heart to Jesus, we can disagree on many things and yet still have love for each other; we can still join our hands together. Friends, Jesus said our greatest witness to the world is found in our loving one another. He said to the “first church” the disciples gathered around him in that upper room and he says it to us gathered around him today: the proof of our love for him is found in our love for each other. We can, in the words of Wesley, “agree to disagree” and do so agreeably! Look, when churches and denominations have conflict, Satan howls in glee! When we don’t love one another because of differences of opinion, the Gospel is thwarted from it’s full potential. Yet, when we love one another and the world, watch out Satan, the extremist army of love is on the march and all your demons of hunger, poverty, violence, hate and division find their doom is near. 

Sharing Starters:

Share with your group about a person’s appearance revealing something to you about that person.

Share with your group some ways Christ has transformed your life.

Share with your group about a time you got to know a person different from you and how it changed your perspective.

Share with your group about power of a loving, united congregation.