May 3, 2009; Easter 4
I John 3:14-24
The New Community of Love
The writer Anne Lamott refers to it as a miracle.
Ken had been attending her church for about a year. His partner had recently died from AIDS, and Ken was also infected with the disease. Lamott says that Ken was disintegrating before their very eyes.
Renola was an established church member. She sang in the choir. And she was a bit wary of Ken. Maybe it was because he was gay. Maybe his emaciated, diseased body frightened her. Maybe she just took awhile to warm up to new folks. Whatever the reason, Lamott says that Ken seemed to have won over everyone in the church except for Renola.
One Sunday, simply getting into his seat seemed to take all of the energy Ken had. The congregation began singing “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.” People were standing, but Ken just sat there. Then the congregation sang “His eye is on the sparrow.”
Everyone in the congregation was standing and singing except for Ken. He simply did not have the strength. So the congregation stood and Ken sat and then Renola came right over to Ken, wrapped her arms around his waist and hoisted him up. The two stood there, Ken’s body propped against her body, as they sang with the congregation: “Why should I feel discouraged? Why should the shadows come? Why should my heart be lonely and long for my heavenly home?”
Ken and Renola. Anne Lamott calls it a miracle.
“We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers and sisters.” That’s what John writes to the early church. “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers and sisters.”
Do you hear that resurrection language? “We have passed from death to life.”
This Easter season we celebrate, first, Jesus’ passage from death to life on that glorious Easter morning. And this season, this year, we are particularly celebrating the way that the life of Christ gives new life to the body of Christ—the church.
Two weeks ago we were blessed to witness the baptisms of Jenny and Dar. Going into the water they died to their old selves, rising from the water into new life in Christ. In this act of baptism, they were first and foremost committing themselves to Christ; and they were also committing themselves to the church—the church and this church.
Last week we learned a bit about those earliest followers of Christ after the resurrection. How Jesus’ raising from life to death empowered his followers to move from fear to boldness.
We heard that those earliest followers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayers.” We learned that they witnessed many signs and wonders. That “all who believed were together and had all things in common.” That they shared with all who had need.
That sounds a lot like what John is saying in this passage. Our participation in the resurrection, our rising from death to life, is based on our ability to love our brothers and sisters.
Let me say here that Jesus does command us to love our neighbors—and he identifies our neighbors as basically anyone and everyone. This is the heart of Jesus’ message. The heart of what we are called to live out in the world.
I do not think what John says in any way diminishes the command to love our neighbors. But John has a different focus—love your sisters and brothers. That’s Bible code for your fellow Christ-followers—the people sitting next to you in the pew, or on the floor, or on the hard metal chairs.
Loving each other, says John, is the way that we participate in resurrection.
Just as the lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”, John may have anticipated the question: How do I love my brothers and sisters?
John responds to the anticipated question with a question: How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
This is, of course, a rhetorical question. Preachers used them even back then. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? . . . It doesn’t.
When John talks about loving your brother and sister, he is not talking about some warm fuzzy feeling we get when we’re all gathered around a campfire singing Kum-ba-yah. The word he uses is agape. The kind of self-sacrificing love that Jesus has for us. The love that followers of Christ must have for each other.
The warm fuzzy feelings are great. I think there are some plans forming for campfires and Kum-ba-yah singing this summer—count me in! But what love is really about, what it is really about, is that we actually, practically, help each other.
Now this is the point where I get to pound the pulpit and tell all you love each other gosh darn it!
Except that you do. You do love each other. I know of people who have offered and given money to others in the church to help with needs. I know that when Jim and Patrice were without a car for awhile, many people gave them rides. I know when I had mono and Ryan was out of town, Barbara Yoder took me to the emergency room and stayed there with me. I know that we make meals for each other and care for each other’s children.
I imagine most of you have your own stories about how people in this church—or in another church you have been part of—have cared for you. How people have shown their love in truth and action.
Stan Wilson led some people from his church in a study of this passage from 1 John. He says that his Baptist congregation had an unwritten rule already in place about helping each other. They baked the meals, made the hospital visits, helped with the home repairs . . . did all those things good church folk do to take care of one another.
And this group of church people were studying I John: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”
“So,” says Stan, “how about it? What if this church makes a pledge that no church member will ever be in need? What if we covenant to always take care of each other within this congregation?” . . .
And what do you think those good, church-going Christians said? . . .
I don’t have a transcript of the Bible study session, but I can imagine: “Well, pastor, that’s sure a lovely idea. We’d really like to make that commitment, but . . .”
That’s a lovely idea, but . . .
What do you think? What are your “buts”? How would you finish the sentence: Making a commitment that no one in church will be in need is a lovely idea, but . . . *[try to get people to share]
As a pastor, I’ll tell you my buts. They are mostly administrative. But how will we decide who counts as one of us? Do we have to meet all of the needs of anyone who walks in off the street? If people have to become a member before they count, what about people who are active in this community but are not members. And how do we make sure that needs are cared for? Is there a fund? Would this mean another committee?
Really, some of the reasons we give for not formalizing our commitments to meet each other’s needs are quite legitimate. And in an individualistic culture like ours, the models for creating communities where people commit to care for each other are few and far between.
These models, however, do exist. There’s Reba Place in Chicago where members contribute all of their money into a single pot and the money is then distributed based on the discernment of the community. There’s Rutba House in Durham North Carolina where people maintain their own finances, but are encouraged to contribute to—and take from—the community pot. There’s Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco, where members agree to abide by a certain standard of living and contribute the rest of their income to the community.
There are more and more of these communities popping up around the country, around the world. Some of them have all members living together in the same neighborhood—or even the same house. Some don’t. Some of them collect all money in a community pot—some don’t. Some use traditional health insurance—some don’t.
They all pray together, eat together, worship together.
And they all take what John says very seriously: How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
When Adam quit his job awhile back, I told him not to worry. “You know,” I said, “that the church will never let you and Rhea be out on the street—especially not now that Lucas is around.”
While I had no reason to believe that Adam and Rhea were in any danger of loosing their home, I was being completely sincere in my statement.
I would like to think that somewhere, in the back of Adam’s mind, he knew that this church loved him deeply enough to make sure his needs were met. I would like to think that the love of this church was a part of what allowed him to quit an unbearable job. I don’t know.
I do know that it would be incredibly freeing to live in a community where you knew that all of your needs would be met.
At a time when so many fear loosing their jobs, you know that even if you get fired tomorrow, people who love you will make sure that you and your family have a place to live, food to eat.
At a time when retirement savings are being sucked down to nearly nothing, you know that your security rests in the loving community, not the stock market.
In a time when health care costs bankrupt so many people, you know that your faith family cares for your body as well as your soul.
Jesus calls his followers into a new community of love. He leads the way. He lays down his life out of love for us. John reminds us that we, in turn, are called to lay down our lives for one another.
It is a difficult calling. But we know the truth. When we give our lives in love, the new life of resurrection follows.
Some might call it a miracle.