This is the sermon I delivered on Sunday morning at Christ Lutheran Church in Washington, DC.
As the semester draws to a close and senior graduation creeps closer, I have been thinking a lot about my fellow students and life on Seminary Ridge in Gettysburg. I’ve been thinking about the experiences we’ve all shared – both good and bad. And I’ve been thinking about where we will all be in the coming months, whether in first call congregations, doing Clinical Pastoral Education and serving as chaplain interns, or beginning internship around the country. Seminary has a way of bringing people together in community only to send them back out again.
And I’ve also been thinking about my upcoming trip to Munich to live in an intentional ecumenical community while I study at the university. I’ve been reflecting on what it means to live in relationship with others from sometimes vastly different backgrounds. In short, I’ve had community on my mind!
The author of 1 John also had community on his mind. His community was going through conflict and strife, differing on theology and church practice. And so he was writing to encourage his community to “…love one another, because love is from God.” The reading we have for this morning uses some variation of the word “love” 27 times and the word “God” 21 times – that’s quite a bit of repetition and emphasis, so these must be important words!
Love comes from God and, as 1 John explains, “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Everything begins and flows from in God’s loving action toward and for us. Through Jesus’ death, he has restored our relationship with God the Father. And what’s more, Christ’s death has enabled us to love one another.
Now, we participate in all different types of communities: our families, our groups of friends, sports groups, music groups, book groups, academic or professional groups, theater and arts communities, and religious communities. And, through social media, we participate in online communities.
And we all know that life in community is not always…how shall I put this…pretty. We all sin, make mistakes, say things that aren’t very nice – we have all been there and done that. As it says earlier in the letter of 1 John, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” So when our human imperfection and sin happen in community, people get hurt, angry and upset. It’s a vicious cycle that’s easy to get trapped in.
I’ve been taking pottery lessons in Gettysburg for about three months now. Besides being something I’ve always wanted to do, I’ve found the classes to be a wonderful stress release. There’s just something about getting messy with clay that is incredibly freeing. If you mess up, you can usually fix it with a bit of water and some elbow grease. Or, if it’s really bad, you can ball it up and begin again. Some of the best pieces I’ve made have come about through mistakes. I’ve only had to take a step back to rethink what was happening and remain open to inspiration.
Life in community is kind of like pottery. It’s not clean, simple or perfect. It’s messy. But it’s wonderful. Just like with pottery, some beautiful things can emerge from the messiness and struggle of life in relationship with others.
For example, our recent conversations surrounding what we can do about economic disparity may be difficult conversations to have, but the Holy Spirit is at work, bringing about good fruit, even if we can’t imagine what that will look like right now.
God’s love as shown to us in Jesus’ death and resurrection restores our relationship with God. And knowing and abiding in that overwhelmingly beautiful and powerful love, we are to love one another. The author of 1 John even takes this a step further, saying that, “no one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” It is through loving one another, that God’s love is perfected or fulfilled in us. In practicing loving others, we come to know and understand more about the God who is love.
The church community, drawn together by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ, is where we should be able to let our hair down and be ourselves. It’s the place where we should be able to be vulnerable with one another. It’s the place we should be able to come and say, “I’m struggling with this and I need prayer.” It’s also the place we should be able to say, “God has done something amazing! Let’s celebrate together!”
But I fear that maybe because of our experiences in the world the other six days of the week, we may be less likely to embrace the church as the loving, forgiving, encouraging community it is. The world prizes individualism and self-sufficiency. The one who shows no weakness is the one who is valued as a strong person.
But the gospel flies in the face of all of this. We proclaim that we rely on the undeserved grace of God. We follow a savior went willingly to a cross for us – we didn’t do anything. We are called to abide in Jesus – to draw our strength, hope and our very lives from him. And we are called to live in community. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his classic work on community, Life Together: “Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ.”
In baptism, we are welcomed into the body of Christ where we find support for our lives and faith journeys. And in Holy Communion, we are fed together at Christ’s table in a meal that connects us not only with God, but with each other and all Christians, past, present and future, around the world. I love Communion – it’s a such an important part of worship for me. And part of it is being able to witness people receiving communion – it’s the communal aspect that helps to make it powerful for me.
I once thought that I could be a Christian on my own, but I ended up really missing the community of believers. I missed being able to worship God with others – to sing, pray, and to receive communion with fellow believers. I wanted a place that I could explore the faith and learn more from mature Christians. But that was only going to happen in community with others.
This community in Christ is an incredible blessing that I think we may take for granted. With texting, the Internet and social media, people are constantly “connected,” but these connections are not actually helping people to form or grow relationships. Instead, they are making us more lonely and less connected to actual human beings.
As Sherry Turkle, Director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, explains in a TEDTalk: “Human relationships are rich, and they’re messy and they’re demanding, and we clean them up with technology. And when we do, one of the things that can happen is that we sacrifice conversation for mere connection. … That feeling that ‘no one is listening to me’ is very important in our relationships to technology. That’s why it’s so appealing to have a Facebook page, or a Twitter feed – so many automatic listeners. And the feeling that ‘no one is listening to me’ makes us want to spend time with machines that seem to care about us. … We expect more from technology and less from each other.”
People are hungry for connections to others, but we’re tricking ourselves into thinking that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, MySpace, Google+, FourSquare or Pinterest will suffice. And don’t get me wrong – I’m on many of them! But people are longing for others to actually listen to them – to be present with them in the midst of what they’re going through. People are desperately yearning to be themselves, and to be welcomed and accepted for who they are. People desire real connection, but they are scared to death of intimacy.
Now people do post some important things on Facebook – things that they might not have the courage to say in person. Things that can be as simple as “please pray for me as I go through this difficult situation.” However, it’s one thing to be on Facebook and type something or respond to someone’s post – it’s another to walk up to a human being and be with them – to sit with them, listen to them, talk with them, and pray with them. We have been drawn together by the Holy Spirit into community – to pray for one another, listen to one another, learn from one another, encourage one another, share our joys and how God has been at work, as well as to share our sorrows, needs and shortcomings. The church is the place for people to be vulnerable and to learn to be themselves with one another. This means that we risk being hurt, but it also means that we have tremendous opportunity to grow closer to each other. And by being so open and vulnerable, we open the door and welcome others to be themselves. People are looking for real community where they can encounter God present in the faces of those around them. People are looking for a place where they can discover who God is calling them to be.
We have a priceless gift in the gospel and in our community that worships and bears witness to God together. “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear… We love because he first loved us.” This gift is not something to keep to ourselves. It is something that is meant to be shared with others. If fear of others’ judgment is holding us back from connecting with people, or being vulnerable with them, or inviting them to check out the community that means something to us, then may we look to God’s love – that perfect love that drives out fear. Drawing from God’s love, we, too, can love one another with all boldness.
How can you really connect with others in the coming weeks? Does this mean changing how much time you spend online in favor of spending time with people instead? How can you reach out to people longing for God and for real community? How can you welcome others into the community of faith? How can you support others in their lives and their faith?
Look around – look at the faces of the saints around you. These are your brothers and sisters in Christ. Let us take a moment to give thanks and to pray for this community that we may be filled with the love of God and strengthened by the Holy Spirit to welcome others into the body of Christ. Amen.
© 2012. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.