2/15/2015 Sermon – Friending #3: “The Community of Friends”

DSC_5598 (2)*Friending.  A couple of weeks ago, we began this series called “Friending.”  We heard Jesus say, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)  This is beyond Valentine’s Day chocolate and roses love.  This is extraordinary tolerance and forgiveness love.  This is “you are more important than me” love.  The basis of the kind of love we’re talking about is the love of Jesus living in us when we have faith in him.

Then we looked at how one friendship changed the course of history.  Saul the murderer of Christians (he also went by the name Paul and yes, this church is named for him) needed a friend, and God sent him Barnabas.  If Barnabas had not been willing to forgive and trust Saul, and if Saul had not been willing to trust and open up to Barnabas, we might not be here today, gathered in this way.  Barnabas stood by Saul as he came to into the friendship circle of the church – a group of people who had every reason to fear him.  We all need to be willing to offer friendship to that unlikely person God sends.  All of us are one friend away from changing the course of one person’s history.  The impact of that relationship could ripple out in ways we can’t imagine.

Today, we’re going take a look at the environment of friendship that God wants to create in the church.  We each have a part to play.  There are people in our lives, in our town, and in our world who need a community of friends.  They need more than just one friend.  They need a collection of people fueled by the love of Jesus.  Together, God gives us a mission to change the culture that lives on the streets of our town from apathy and mistrust into friendship of the best kind.  We are one community away from changing the world.

I’ll bet each one of us has at least one memory of some significant experience of friendship that happened through the church.  I’ll bet you could tell a story.  Or two.  And maybe you should tell that story!  I’ll bet you could also talk about a time when you realized you were part of something powerful that was bigger than yourself.

I have to confess that sometimes, as I look at what we do to be God’s Church (and I don’t necessarily mean just here at St. Paul’s on Main Street in Manheim, PA), I wonder if this is what Jesus had in mind.  I’ll bet you’ve occasionally had the same thought.

There is an old Norwegian joke I like, and I’m not sure if you have to be from Wisconsin or Scandinavia to appreciate this (I have no idea where this came from – if you know, send me a message!  revjcn@gmail.com).  Maybe it’s funnier up by the Arctic Circle.  And I don’t know exactly what it is about Norwegians that makes this funny; it must be something about their ethnic personality.

It seems Uncle Knut was shipwrecked, all alone, on an uninhabited desert island.  No people, no sheep, no cows – just him, all alone.  Being a good Norwegian, he put himself to work and he worked hard.  He loved to build things, so that’s what he did.

One day, a ship appeared and he was finally rescued.  His rescuers were amazed at his good health and asked him, “How did you keep your sanity, living here all alone?”  Knut said, “It wasn’t so bad,” and he gave them a tour of the island to show off the things he’d built.  First, there was the house – a fine house with a second story balcony (he’d always wanted a house with a balcony!).  Then, there was the cottage on the other side of the island (he’d always wanted a cottage!).  Then there was the barn, the outhouse, and the workshop.

2011-10-22 12.04.04But his prize accomplishment was the church.  With his hands on his hips, he showed them around inside and outside, even up in the bell tower, and said, “Isn’t this a great church?”

As they made their way to the ship, they walked past a building Knut hadn’t said anything about.  It also looked like a church.  One of the rescuers asked what it was, and Knut said, “Oh, that’s the church I used to go to.”

Now, that does not sound like the church that’s described in the Book of Acts:

Acts 2:42-47.  42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds* to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home* and ate their food with glad and generous* hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Sometimes, I’ll take a key word from a scripture reading and do an internet search for images.  If you do a search for “Fellowship,” this is one of the first things that comes up: “The Fellowship of the Ring,”  J.R.R. Tolkien’s story about a group of humans and creatures who join forces to defeat evil.  Tolkien was a Christian and he wrote that story as a word-picture of the Christian life.  The church is a group of misfits working together to defeat monstrous evil.  And the hero is the one you would least expect.

I have to confess that that real-life story from Acts is one of my favorite moments in scripture.  To get the most out of it, we’re going to do a little Bible study this morning.

Luke says that there were 3,000 believers in that group, some of whom may have actually been in the crowd that was demanding the crucifixion of Jesus just a few weeks before.  Talk about a change in their crowd mentality.

The Spirit of God working in them had defeated the evil, the hatred, the anxiety.  And it was just the beginning of the adventure.

 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)

There’s a formula here.  They devoted themselves to being taught by those who had been with Jesus.  They devoted themselves to fellowship – to being together, to knowing and supporting each other.  They devoted themselves to the breaking of bread.  This can mean the sacrament – communion – or simply sharing food with each other.  They devoted themselves to the prayers.  Not just any prayers – the prayers.  This was not some new thing – they practiced their Jewish faith with a different sense of purpose.  They were worshipping the Jewish Messiah God had sent to them.

In the mix of all that – the teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, the prayers…

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. (Acts 2:43)

Awe.  It was jaw-dropping awesome.  Miracles, healings, amazing stuff; it’s almost as if you-know-who never left.  They are impersonating Jesus.  They are Jesus.  It’s God the Holy Spirit living in them.  God the 3-in-one, the God of the Universe, is living through them.  They vessels of God; they are channeling God’s Son, the Messiah, Jesus.

When they were together, this is what was happening:  There were many wonders and signs being done –miracle moments like healings, maybe demons being exorcised.  Incredible, special God moments!!  What were they?  What happened?  What did exactly they do?  Maybe it was all happening so fast Luke forgot to write it all down.  Or, there was too much to write down. Or, those miracles paled in comparison the next thing that happened, the next miracle.

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:44-45)

This group of people became selfless.  In the truest expression of what it means to be a believer in Jesus and have the Holy Spirit living in you, they became selfless.  They gave themselves to each other.  They were on a mission to make sure everybody was okay.

Behold the miracle.  I read somewhere that for a true revolution to take hold in any place, among any group of people, it changes the economy – the way they use money and the material things of their lives.  Form a few weeks ago – they share what’s in their barns, the stuff they had stored up for themselves.  For most people, when God starts to change the economics of their lives, there’s no doubt that something significant has happened.  They had all things in common.  They shared.  They created balance.

One of the apostles makes a blind man see, everybody says, “Wow.”  The crowd sold “their possessions and goods and distributed the proceeds to all.”  Jaws drop.  Luke, the writer, can’t believe what he’s seeing.  Nothing like this had ever been recorded in scripture before.

Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.  (Acts 2:46-47)

The amazing experience of life these folks were having was happening in several places.

They came together the temple for group worship, but God couldn’t be confined there.  The story says that they broke bread at home, but the original wording says they broke bread “from house to house.”  I think we get the idea of fellowship and food, but they didn’t just share faith and food at home; they shared homes.  I think we get that food is at the center of every healthy church!  And every Christian fellowship!  But God would also like us to hold onto the truth that limiting the Christian experience to the place where you worship is not a healthy way for the church to live.

Those first Christians were having a great time.  And God saw that it was good.  Actually, that isn’t part of the reading, but it could be.  God speaks the church into being, through the Word; these were folks who heard the good news of Jesus and believed in his resurrection, and through their faith, God did a miracle.  The miracle?  They loved each other.  They saw God in each other.  They were able to say, “My faith is a gift from God for you.  It’s not about me.  Through the Holy Spirit, God comes to live in us, change us, and make us a blessing for other people. And they did it.  Every healthy group of Christians, every group of Christ-focused believers still does that: gets their minds off of themselves and on to others. And the love is contagious.  And it has to be protected and nurtured because one day…

Somebody from Rome served Italian bread at the traditional communion meal.  Hmm.  We’ve only been using unleavened bread.  Tests my sense of comfort, but okay.  You know what, though? I’m afraid it was downhill from there.  Then somebody started saying debts instead of trespasses in the Lord’s Prayer (by the way, the original word is sins).  But “trespasses” is what I’m used to.  Then somebody brought in a new hymnal, and there were some new songs in it.  And I said, hey, Jesus never taught us those songs.  The Christians over in Greece didn’t want to do the traditional prayers; they made up their own prayers.

We began to discover that just as everybody brings a gift from God to the fellowship, everybody brings an issue, a potential problem.  Among God’s children, not all the kids in the family are alike!  I don’t know about you, but the kids in our family couldn’t be more different from each other. The list of issues, past and present, is endless.  The power of the Spirit working in that early church was probably most obvious in the ways those folks tolerated and forgave each other.

It’s easy to give up.  Uncle Knut’s church of one begins to sound very appealing.  And I know there are many people who say that they go to church in the woods or some other way of being alone, and not to diminish private ways of deepening spirituality, that’s not church. I mean it.  That’s missing the huge spiritual benefit of community, which can be life-changing.

I really do believe that we are a community of God’s people who can change the world; that’s what God needs us to be.  God needs each of us to find our part.

There are a thousand reasons to opt out.  The opportunities we have to remove ourselves from the core of our faith and the community of change is endless.  Satan doesn’t have to distract us from our faith – we do it ourselves!

Jesus tried to make it simple: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…  [and] …you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-40, quoting Deuteronomy 6:5, etc.)

There are people walking the streets of our town who need the God living in us.  And God needs us to be strong together.

God gives us each other to make that happen and we are a force.  We are God’s personal community of friends.

Prayer

O God, there is so much we need to learn about you and about each other.  We need to learn to love as you do, and then learn it again.  We need to learn to listen to you and to each other.  We trust you and give ourselves to you.  We want to know you and live for you.  Show us how.  Then show us how to give hope to those who suffer.  Show us practical ways we can bring peace, justice, healing to the streets where we live, the places where we go to school, the buildings where we work.  All these things we pray in the powerful name of our loving Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

[*Note – This series, “Friending”, is based on sermons given by Craig Groeschel, the Pastor of LifeChurch, Edmund, OK (http://www.lifechurch.tv/okc/)  When I quote him, or use words that may be close to his, they will be in blue.]

2/8/2015 Sermon – Friending #2: “The Friend You Needed Most”

DSC_5598 (2)*Friending.  You know, if you opened up a search window on your computer and typed in the word “Friends,” it would probably come up with this first:  “Friends,” the television comedy that ran from 1994-2004.  It seems to me that the basic theme of that show was mostly about how people with quirky personalities had to learn to tolerate and love each other.  You may have enjoyed that show, or not.  I don’t instinctively watch comedies, but every now and then I watched an episode of Friends.  There are other TV shows that use the same theme:  people with crazy personalities learning to live with each other.  When they try to be with each other, it’s… funny.  A certain level of conflict is… funny.  Maybe you can think of others (Seinfeld, Cheers…).  I once heard a critic say that the one thing that made these shows work is that in the end, in spite of the fighting and awkward situations, the characters all liked each other.

The other thing those shows all have in common is that if they want the series to continue, if there is going to be another show next week, the relationships all need to work.   That means they need there needs to be healing, toleration and forgiveness. The characters all have to get past their problems or we can’t get to another episode in the series.  In other words… Friendship!  In the church, we are a bunch of quirky people with crazy personalities, and God makes it work.  But it’s not pretend, our relationships are real, and we need to work at keeping God at the center, God in control.

Last week, we started a new series about friendship called “Friending,”  and used that Facebook word to describe how some friendships can work.  Most our Facebook relationships aren’t very deep, but for what it is that can be okay.  I think everybody understands that any helpful relationship needs to deeper that a screen on a computer or phone.  And we are all hungry for that.

If Facebook is at one end of the “friendship” spectrum, Jesus is at the other.  As you heard last week, the kind of friendship Jesus showed us involved love and sacrifice.  The end result of a friendship with Jesus is change.  Having him in your life can bring major change.  When we have him with us and in us, I believe that God gives each of us the ability to be the friends that we could not be before.  We begin to reflect the love and sacrifice of Jesus in ways that are simply not possible without him in our lives.  Then from each of us – and all of us together – there are ripples of friendship that go out through the community.

Each one of us has had the friend that came along when we needed a friend most.  Then God gives each of us an opportunity to be that friend for someone else.  Starting with Jesus, the individual friends you have in your life make you a better person, and that can be a powerful thing.

This morning, we’re going to look at one person and how friendship changed him.  Then, you could actually say that this man’s friendships changed the world.

Acts 9. Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ 5He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’

26 When he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. 27But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. 28So he went in and out among them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 

Yes, that story was about St. Paul, the man this church is named for.  You might not have recognized him because when he first shows up in scripture, he is going by his Jewish name: Saul.  His friends were enemies of Jesus and they had murdered a church leader named Stephen (Acts 7:54 – 8:3).  Hatred was the basis of their friendship.  That was one thing they had in common.  Common hatred can be a binding force between people; you could see it at work among the people Jesus lived with, and you see it at work in the world today.

Saul did not start out as a friend of God, but God had other plans.  God sees possibility in everyone.  The light shining in his personal darkness knocked him to the ground – nobody else, just him.  And immediately, he gets a new life and a new job.  “Get up, go into the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”  I suppose he could have rebelled and said no, and I wonder if he ever thought about that later.

Most of the rest of the New Testament story of lives changing and faith spreading hinged on that one moment. Saul (or Paul) could have said no.  But saying yes meant putting Jesus in control.

SPUCC front door window

Sitting in this building with the name “St. Paul’s Reformed Church” in the stained glass window over the front door should give you some pause.  We are named for this man whose first career choice was to be a hired killer, but God had other ideas.  And if you get nothing else out of taking a close look at his life, you should know that with God anything is possible.  Anything, as long as God is in control.  God is the master of “before and after.”

Conversion on the Way to Damascus - Caravaggio (1600-01)
Conversion on the Way to Damascus – Caravaggio (1600-01)

Not everybody has conversion experiences like his; in fact, Saul was the only one in that group of people to see the light on the road that day.  Nobody experiences Christ in exactly the same way as someone else, and I think most folks who believe find themselves changing over a period of time.  Conversion is a process; even Saul’s conversion wasn’t exactly instantaneous.  He talked about how he stayed out of the public eye for about three years after that experience on the road (Galatians 1:15-18), and you can tell from his writings that he continued to change, to grow in his faith over time.

This person who was “breathing threats and murder” was the same person who wrote “Love is patient and kind, love is not envious or arrogant or boastful…” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5).  But at first, the entire Christian world was saying, “Saul?  A Christian?  A preacher?  You must be kidding.  Don’t trust him.”  In fact, if I was there, I probably would have been saying that.  People!  This is not the guy you want at your potluck!  He’s at the door?  Somebody frisk him for weapons!

One of the hardest things to accept – in our naturally untrusting way of thinking – is that the people who are picked out by God for special use aren’t necessarily perfect, or as good as we think they should be.  Sometimes, in their unchanged state, they’re actually pretty bad.  In God’s eyes, we are all sinners who need forgiveness.  One of the most frightening things about being human is the evil that any one of us might be capable of.  But in spite of itself, God so loved the world, right?  In spite of our flaws, God loves us.

This is when Paul needed a friend, and God sent Barnabas. So, Paul needed to say yes to God, and then needed to trust this man named Barnabas.  They needed to trust and be vulnerable to each other.  In a situation that ordinarily should have cause them to run the other way from each other, God, working on their lives helped them trust.

Barnabas acted on Paul’s behalf with the Christians in Jerusalem, and helped them see how God was at work.  And we might not be here if St. Paul did not have a friend.  The course of history was changed because of a friend who refused to give into the fear and hatred that could have easily kept him away from that moment when God needed him.

And the same is true for every single one of you. You, literally, may be  one friend away from changing the course of your destiny. And that friendship could change the world.  The thing is, the friend you’re looking for might not be the friend you pick out for yourself.  God loves to put people together who are very different from each other, out of some other life experience or maybe some other generation.

Speaking for myself, looking back over some years of relationships that came through leading different groups, being in certain places at certain times, if any good came from any of it, if God was able to do anything, it was because of friends who stepped and helped make it happen.  I think of the college roommate who tolerated my obnoxious arguing while patiently explaining faith in Christ.  I think of the businessman who opened the door of full-time ministry for me through his constant encouragement.  I’ve had a couple of those.  God needs all of us to be ready to be that friend who makes the difference.

There is an overwhelming presence of evil in our world that seems impossible to overcome.  But this is still the way God is most visible in our world: one person whose life is changed by saying yes to God, somebody who allows God to change them.  One person at a time, God changes Saul, God changes you, changes me.  God creates friendship in impossible places when people have faith.  God creates order out of chaos.  Maybe not all the chaos, maybe just your chaos.  This is a subtle thing, from the inside out.  To overcome the greatest evil in our world, God doesn’t have to put on a big show.  On the other hand, if nobody but people like me share the Christ we say we know, God is helpless.  God needs us to be who we say we are – openly.  I believe this is probably the most effective antidote to terrorism, but like Saul/Paul, it starts internally, in a very personal way.  And God need to be able to use faith-centered friendships.  First there are two, then three, then the love flows.

A pastor named Craig Groechel likes to ask: Do you have someone in your life who helps make you better at the things that matter most? Are you part of a group that builds you up?  Do  you have a friend that helps make your marriage better? If you’re hanging around a bunch of people with bad marriages, they’re not going to make your marriage better. You show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future. If you’re hanging around people that eat doughnuts for a hobby, chances are you’re not going to get in better shape. If you want to be a better leader, if you want to be better with finances, you want to hang around some people who will make you better.  And at the same time, God wants to use you to help make others better as well. Say it with me….

“As iron sharpens iron,” Say it with me, “so a friend sharpens a friend.” (Proverbs 27:17)

Friendship doesn’t always have to feel good, especially when truth needs to be shared.  Healing needs some surgery sometimes.  This is a kind of hospital, where people come to get a transplant of the Spirit. A place where people come to hear that there is good news.

There is redemption, there is resurrection, there is hope, because Christ lives.  This is where God brings us the friends we need , and where God changes us into the friends we should be.  But don’t forget, God gives us this Spirit of friendship to give away.  The strangers outside these walls are the friends we haven’t met yet.

 Prayer

O God, the world is so cruel sometimes, and we thank you that we don’t have to walk through life alone.  Live with in us, change us from the people we are into the people we should be.  Change us and walk with us, help us know your love and mercy deeply within ourselves.  We put our faith in Jesus, and thank you for the mission of mercy you sent him on to save us.  As you change us, use us.  Help us not to become so absorbed in our schedules and our things that we lose sight of the mission of mercy you send  us on.  Help us to communicate your mercy to our friends and neighbors, our town, our country, our world.  Use us as vessels of your friendship.  Amen.

[*Note – This series, “Friending”, is based on sermons given by Craig Groeschel, the Pastor of LifeChurch, Edmund, OK (http://www.lifechurch.tv/okc/)  When I quote him, or use words that may be close to his, they will be in blue.]

2/1/2015 Sermon: Friending #1: “The Foundation of Friendship”

DSC_5598 (2)*Friending.  Today, we’ve started a new series about friendship called “Friending.”  Those who know about “social networks” will understand that word from Facebook, the computer application where people connect.  How many of you use Facebook?  (maybe half of the crowd) Your friends on Facebook could range between people you know and people you don’t know at all.  Bear with me if you use it all the time and might think everybody does…. people can post what they’re thinking, what they’re reading, photos they’ve taken… whatever.  I know that Facebook makes some people cringe for good reason, but for me, there are people whom I’d lost touch with many years ago and Facebook helped us reconnect (one of my Facebook friends is a cousin in her 90’s).  Our church has Facebook friends.  We use Facebook to let them know what’s going on at St. Paul’s.  St. Paul’s UCC on Facebook.

But here’s the thing: To enjoy the good things you see on Facebook, you have to be able to tolerate the not-so-good things.  Facebook certainly isn’t everyone’s way of being friends, but that sounds a little bit like a definition of friendship, right?  Facebook is just one way to do friendship.  What do you expect in a good friendship?  You’ve said:

Trust, loyalty, respect, honesty, availability, faithfulness, humor, kindness.Someone who is there for you; a good listener.  Someone who accepts you and loves you for who you are.

Let’s hear what Jesus had to say about friendship:

John 15:9-17. 9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

This morning I want to look at how Jesus thought about friendship, so brace yourself.

Do you consider yourself a radical?  Probably not, but you know, when Jesus commands us to love one another, it’s really pretty radical.  You may have never thought of love as a radical thing.  And more than that, you have likely never thought of love as a divisive thing.  And most times, love is not radical or divisive.  You love your children, your parents, your brothers and sisters — and that’s a good thing.  A loving person is generally a good person.  Isn’t it true that we would much rather be involved with loving, caring people than un-loving, un-caring people?  So… how can love be radical or divisive?

DSC_2539

Some time ago, another pastor was telling me about his Jewish doctor whom, he said, loved to talk about religion.  During one visit, he asked, “Do you know what the unforgivable sin is?

“Well,” said the pastor, sifting scripture through his mind, “One interpretation of that question is that the unforgivable sin is to reject the work of God’s Spirit.”

“Nope,” said the doctor, “The unforgivable sin is to love everyone.”

“Doesn’t sound like a sin to me,” said the minister.

“Well, it is.  If a Jew loves an Arab, it’s unforgivable to lots of Jews. Or if a Korean loves the Japanese, or a communist loves a capitalist.  Then there are Democrats and Republicans, labor and management, and on it goes. No, in most places it is not acceptable to really love everyone.”

Maybe you know that there was an “incident” during the Miss Universe pageant last week.  Miss Israel stepped into a photo that included Miss Lebanon and some people were very upset, because it gave the impression that they were friends. It’s interesting how our cultures can try to impose limits on our relationships and how we buy into that, even if it’s subconsciously.  There are people we are supposed to be with and other people not so much.  Many ways to not trust someone because of the way they look or what we think they believe.  In our church, where many of us look the same, God would like us to chip away at whatever prejudices might be there to include more strangers.

This is what made Jesus such a dangerous radical to some people.  He cared nothing about the “proper rules” for friendships.  Following Jesus means being open to friendships with some folks who are “out-of-bounds.”

Sitting with his closest friends, Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  If you were there, in that circle, what would that get you thinking about?  Jesus didn’t just say, “love each other,” he said, “love each other as I have loved you.”

The last part of that sentence puts a whole different twist on that commandment to love each other.  The love of Jesus caused him a lot of pain.  The love of Jesus took him to a cross.  So, our concept of love might be a little too superficial to get a good grasp on everything God’s love does and is.

Why did God send Jesus?  Because of love – because God loves the world (see John 3:16).  God sent Jesus because God loves you and me.   God loves the people sitting next to you, and many more of the people in your world.  God loves people who are strangers to us.  There was a cross and a tomb involved in that love. In Jesus, God made the sacrifice that brought us together with God and brought us together with each other.  We would not be in this room without that sacrifice.

God’s love means sacrifice and God’s love means patience. God appointed “you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.”  Sometimes, love takes a long time to bear fruit.  What is the fruit?  More people believing in God, more people loving God and more people loving each other.  That is why we are here.

That sounds great, doesn’t it?  Who doesn’t want or need more love?  Who doesn’t want to be part of a group where love is in control?  But because we are human and do this imperfectly, love can be complicated.  Love doesn’t necessarily feel good.  Love may take some determination and soul-searching.

grapesThis chapter began with Jesus saying, “I am the vine; you are the branches.”  (15:5)  Jesus does some pruning of this vine sometimes because he wants us to bear fruit.  It might hurt, but stay on the vine.  You could leave if you want to, but the vine is where the love of Jesus is.  He’s the one with the roots.  The fruit this vine grows is love: more people who are believing and letting God’s love live in them.  If you leave the vine, you leave Jesus, and you not only don’t bear fruit, in a spiritual sense, you die.

Each of us can think of a time when God was doing some pruning in our lives.  There was a time when we had to learn something the hard way and it was tempting to say, “God, I’m finished – this is too hard for me.”

You know, television in other countries is a really interesting thing to see.  It’s a little window on what the culture thinks is important – or is willing to watch.  Something to think about when visitors from other countries turn on a television here!  In southern Africa, people watch a lot of cricket, rugby, and football (which, of course, is soccer).

I was travelling with our son Jamie and we turned on the TV one night to watch a reality show called “Forgive and Forget.”  Someone who knows of a tense situation between two people will call the producers to give them the names and addresses of people involved in a dispute.  Here’s a trailer for an episode…

In the episode we watched, Ahmed is estranged from his mother because she knows he stole money from his former employer.  She had arranged for him to have this job as an office manager, and it was a good job.  He quit before he was found out.  Ahmed is miserable, full of guilt, and his life is in decline.  He is unemployed and estranged from his mother.

A TV crew in a van pulls up to Ahmed’s shack.  With cameras rolling…  the host with a microphone says, “Ahmed, we know what you’ve done.  Are you sorry?”  Tearfully, he is.  He gets into the van and they take him to his mother.  They embrace.

Now the TV crew goes to the employer.  He gets into the van and watches the apology on video.  Then the host says, “Ahmed is standing outside the van.  You can open the door to forgive him, or knock on the driver’s window and he will take you around the block while Ahmed goes home.”

The employer is clearly tense and he thinks for a moment.  Maybe thinking about the past.  Maybe calculating what he lost.  Maybe thinking about his memories of Ahmed.  Maybe thinking about how this situation looks on camera.  He opens the door.  He and Ahmed shake hands.  Ahmed is apologizing profusely, offering to work for nothing until the debt is repaid.  But the employer says, “All is forgiven; you don’t have to pay me back.”  You can feel this wave of relief wash over them.  You can see this burden lift from their lives.  It was a spiritual moment.  I’m sure everybody watching that show is wondering at some level – What if that van pulls up outside my house?

The word abide is used 6 times in this chapter.  Stay, remain, abide in the love of Jesus.  Stay on the vine.  Jesus is not saying “keep loving me.”  He is saying stay, remain, abide in my love.  The love we need is his.  We rely on his love, not on our own.  You don’t have the same kind of love he does; you can’t love like he does.  It’s a faith thing.  It’s a relationship thing.  Do you believe in Jesus?  If you believe in Jesus, you experience his love, you know his love.  It’s the love of God’s Spirit that flows through you.  Stay in that love and stay with the people who love Jesus.  Let them influence you.

When God gives the command to love, God is talking to you; not the person next to you and not the people who disappointed you last week.  It was a command, not a suggestion, for each of us, and this was not a sermon on how everybody else should be.

We organize ourselves to be the church – the family, the body of Jesus.  For some it’s religion.  For others, it’s about the love they find among us.  For some, it’s about the positive difference we make for others, the extension of friendship that starts with Christ’s presence in us.  On a personal level, someone in your life needs a break from you.  Maybe you need to give yourself a break.  One thing is true:  God’s Spirit of love will fill you as you believe – and as you may have heard before, you may be the only Bible some people will ever read.

Prayer

O God, we don’t think often enough about your love for us. You have done more to care for us than we will ever realize.  This is a good day to remember how deeply you love us.  You worry about us.  We do things that bother you – a lot.  We probably keep you up at night.  And in the morning you are there for us, no matter what we’ve done.  But you still have expectations, and your love for us can be tough.  Now help us be loving families and help us be a loving family.  Through your spirit, give us patience and forgiveness.  Deepen our faith and help us teach our community how to love.  Amen.

[*Note – This series, “Friending”, is based on sermons given by Craig Groeschel, the Pastor of LifeChurch, Edmund, OK (http://www.lifechurch.tv/okc/)  When I quote him, or use words that may be close to his, they will be in blue.]