“Practicing Love”

pdficon_small Download a PDF of this sermon here.

 

Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

September 21, 2014 – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Scripture:  Acts 2:37-47

 

Peter must’ve been one heck of a preacher.

In the verses that precede the passage Jeanne read for us this morning, Peter delivered what became the first Christian sermon on record. They weren’t called Christians yet—that comes later in the Book of Acts—but that’s what it was, really. Peter told the story of Jesus—how he had lived, how he had died, how he had lived again, how that kind of abundant life was open to everyone through the power of the Holy Spirit. The way the Book of Acts reports it, the sermon would have been only three or four minutes long, but they must have been quite the powerful minutes, because at its conclusion, 3,000 people decided to join the ranks of the disciples. The Jesus movement went from 12 guys to a megachurch in a matter of minutes.

As the church grew, the story says, the people devoted themselves to teaching and learning and fellowship, to sharing meals and praying prayers. They spent time together studying and feasting and worshiping. They shared the chores—setting the table, preparing the meals, washing the dishes. They shared their possessions, giving up their own private property so that everyone in the community would have what they needed. When someone fell ill, they brought him medicine. When someone got hurt, they carried her to the doctor. When someone’s well ran dry, they filled his jug with water. When someone’s pantry was empty, they gave her food. When someone’s heart broke, they embraced him with open arms.

Day by day, these new believers were joined by others. People found out about how these Jesus-followers behaved, and they were intrigued. They heard about the healings and hospitality, the generosity and harmony, the goodwill and mutual love, and they wanted to be a part of that. It was like that hymn: “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love; yes, they’ll know that we are Christians by our love.”

The way the Book of Acts reports it, the earliest followers of Jesus built a community that was pretty idyllic. Even as the community grew in size exponentially, nobody argued and everybody got along. 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.

But do you think it really worked that way?

 

Here’s what I think really happened: I think it took some practice.

Among those 3,000 people, there were some who were the best of friends, and there were others who didn’t like each other one bit. There were some who got along with everyone, and there were others whose presence made those around them very uncomfortable. After all, in that big a crowd, you’re bound to have a little bit of everything. There were tax collectors and tax payers. There were Jews and Gentiles. There were Greek-speakers and Aramaic-speakers. There were those who kept kosher and those who ate anything they pleased. There were sophisticated urbanites and country bumpkins. There were wealthy elites and poor common folk.

There were neighbors who had been fighting for years about where the border between their properties really fell. There were employees who had been fired and the bosses who had fired them. There were prodigal sons and their long-lost fathers. There were prostitutes, and their customers, and their customers’ wives.

There were Hatfields and McCoys. There were meat eaters and vegetarians. There were CEOs and welfare mothers. There were Sunnis and Shiites, Hutus and Tutsis, Serbs and Croats. There were people whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower, and people who had just crossed the border on foot. There were soldiers and pacifists. There were people who’d like to see the flag in the sanctuary every week and people who’d rather not see it there at all.

Sometimes they would be baking bread together, and a woman would look up from the dough she was kneading and realize that the person working beside her was a sister she hadn’t spoken to in years, ever since that sister had run off with the woman’s fiancé. Sometimes they would be gathering to pray together, and a man would take the hand of the person beside him and realize that it belonged to the jerk whose cows kept trampling his garden. Sometimes a died-in-the-wool Democrat would bring his contribution to the communal treasury and discover that it would be given to a red-blooded Republican. Sometimes a Red Sox fan would go to visit someone who was ill to the point of death, and discover that person wearing his favorite pinstriped Jacoby Ellsbury jersey.

Sometimes as the community gathered and someone saw who was slipping into the neighboring pew, she would be sorely tempted to just get up and leave. Sometimes as they gathered around the table, someone would see who had sat down across from him, and he would seriously reconsider whether that gospel good news was good enough to make up for having to share a meal with this person he could not stand.

But they knew how they were supposed to behave. They knew that they were gathered in the name of a man whose favorite part of town was the wrong side of the tracks, a man who received all kinds of criticism for the company he kept, and he kept their company anyway. And so they gritted their teeth and passed the butter, and prayed for one another, and shared what they had, even when they didn’t particularly want to. And little by little—one meal, one worship service, one act of kindness at a time—they found that their forced smiles began to soften, and their robotic greetings began to warm, and their grumpy internal monologues began to die down. Little by little—one story, one shared experience, one word of comfort at a time—they found that that Holy Spirit that Peter had preached about was doing something new inside them, turning swords into ploughshares, deserts into gardens, condemnation into compassion.

 

Just like us, those earliest Christians didn’t always find it easy to get along—in fact, later on in the Book of Acts we do see some stories of disagreement and discord cropping up. Just like us, they sometimes had to employ that age-old strategy: fake it ’til you make it. Just like us, they sometimes wondered why they should bother sticking around such a strange and sometimes infuriating bunch of people.

Just like us, they discovered that even the people they found it hardest to love carried within them a spark of God’s Spirit. And in learning to love even those hardest-to-love ones, in going through the motions until they could actually feel the sentiment behind them, they found that the spark of God’s Spirit within them grew stronger, and warmer, and brighter. And in putting their sparks together with others, they were able to share so much more warmth and light with the world.

This is, I think, one of the best things about the church. It makes us learn how to be in community with people who, if we’re honest, we might not choose to spend time with otherwise. It forces us to be in relationship with people who, if we’re honest, might get on our nerves a little bit. It pulls us into interactions with people who, even if they sometimes rub us the wrong way, nevertheless have something to teach us about who God is and who we are called to be.

If you think about it, in many facets of our lives, we get to choose the people we see and the voices we hear. When we’re deciding who to spend time with, we get to choose the ones who agree with us. When we’re deciding which radio station to listen to or which television show to watch, we get to choose the ones we enjoy and skip the ones we don’t. When we’re looking at Facebook, we get to ignore or unfriend people whose posts we find irritating or disagreeable.

Not so in the church. As Christians, as followers of Jesus, we are called to love one another even when we don’t always like one another, because when we practice loving, we get better at it. We are called to commit ourselves and our resources to one another even when we sometimes disagree, because we know that each person around us is as much a child of God as we are. We are called to stick with it and to build up our community, even when it costs us some of our money, or our preconceptions, or our independence, because it is in being bound to one another and to God that we find true freedom.

 

Peter was one heck of a preacher, and he preached one heck of a sermon. It helped that he had one heck of a story to tell, the story of God’s love for God’s people. But it is because those earliest followers of Jesus practiced loving until they got better at it that the movement continued to grow. It is because Christians down through the centuries committed themselves and their resources to one another even when they disagreed that the church continued to grow. It is because our predecessors in this congregation stuck with it and built up this community, even at personal cost to themselves, that we are gathered here this morning.

It takes every one of us to continue this legacy of God’s love in action, to do as those earliest followers of Jesus did—feed the hungry, and give drink to the thirsty, and clothe the naked, and care for the afflicted, and comfort the grieving. It takes every one of us to be a living sign of unity in a world that is all too often fractured. Every one of us has something to teach and something to learn, something to give and something to receive. Only when we all join together can we truly be the church, the Body of Christ in the world.

And here’s the thing. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there are some people, some places, some situations in this world that are very hard to love. I’m not talking only about the people you disagree with or just don’t like. There’s cancer; there’s wildfires and hurricanes; there’s ISIS and Al Qaeda and genocide. If we are going to be able to go out into this world and do what Jesus taught us—love our enemies, bless those who curse us, overcome evil with good—then, Lord knows, we are going to need some practice.

So God gives us the church, full of broken people just like us, people who are sometimes a blessing and sometimes hard to love. God gives us one another to have and to hold, to practice loving until we are good enough at it that we really can love the world as God does—unconditionally, without exception, so fiercely and tenderly that, at last, this tough old world will be transformed into the beautiful realm of God.