How Will Other People Know We're Christians?
This is excerpted from a sermon preached a week ago by the author, who is pastor of West End Presbyterian Church. The sermon text was Ephesians 4:1-16.
By Larry Lyon
Special to The Pilot
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us not to worry. He does. He says things like, do not worry about your life, what you eat or what you will drink, and do not worry about tomorrow.
And so I take that seriously, I take it to heart, I seek not to worry. And honestly, I am fairly good at that. I think I worry less than most people. I may be in the 90th percentile of nonworriers.
And yet, while maybe I don’t have many worries, I do have a few, say, “concerns.” There you go — that’s a better word, “concerns.” It’s a much better word than “worries,” or even “anxieties.”
Here is one of my concerns: I am concerned about the perception of Christians in America.
In the world for which I will forever hope, and dream, about, and never give up on, the non-Christians in America, be they unchurched or of another faith tradition, would look at Christians and think to themselves, “Those Christians are some loving people. Those Christians do good things in this country. Those Christians work for justice and for peace and feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Those Christians seem to have an inner peace that passes all understanding. They are welcoming people who practice radical — yes, radical — hospitality.”
In short, they would think to themselves, “We know they are Christians — by their love.”
That is my dream world.
My reality world, however, has a concern. Now you and I are Christians, and we know the good that Christians do. But for a moment I want you to imagine yourself a non-Christian, on the outside looking in at the church, and I want you to think about the way you might perceive Christians if reliant only on what you see and what you read.
You see, my concern is this: Those who are unchurched, those who didn’t grow up in the church, those whose mamas and papas never took them to church, those who have never read the Gospels, and about who Jesus was and what he taught and what he did, might look upon Christians and think this:
“Christians seem judgmental. They might even seem angry. They seem more interested in denying people rights than in fighting for rights. They will line up in droves to buy chicken sandwiches to stand up for their beliefs, but when it comes to feeding the hungry, they assign that as a good project for their youth groups.
“Christians seem self-righteous. They seem far more interested in thumping their Bibles and quoting from Leviticus than they do in living out the two commandments of the very Lord they proclaim: Love God, love neighbor.”
That is my concern, that the world out there perceives Christians by almost anything but by their sharing the love of Jesus Christ.
In the end, I am not going to worry about this, because I know this, and all of life, is in the hands of a loving God. I don’t know where the world is going sometimes, but I believe, yes, it is God’s hands, not Larry’s, and in the end, yes, it will be all right. It will be.
And so we come to today’s passage, contained in a letter to the people of Ephesus, written nearly 2,000 years ago, perhaps by the Apostle Paul, perhaps by somebody else whose feet were firmly planted in the Pauline camp. These first six verses from the fourth chapter — well, to me, they read like a mission statement for us, for all of us who say we love Jesus.
It begins with “I therefore beg you.” That is a powerful verb, to beg. Some of us like to think of our ourselves as too mighty and powerful and strong to ever beg. We are too proud to beg. But apparently the writer of these verses is more like that old song of the Temptations, the one titled “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.”
This writer is begging, and what he is begging for? For the readers of this letter to lead a life worthy of the calling to which they have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.
Oh my. Humility. Gentleness. Patience. Who knew? Those are the traits that should define Christians?
We might think patience is for those people willing to sit at the Traffic Circle while the rest of us hunt for a shortcut that might save us, say, 17.39 seconds. We might think gentleness is for those “turn-the-other-cheek” weirdos. And humility?
I don’t know. Maybe it is just me. But when we Christians seem to have all the answers, seem to want to tell their world, “Believe my way or hit the highway,” or even worse, go to the opposite of heaven, when we Christians seem to thirst for certainty and absolutes more than we thirst for justice and for righteousness to flow like an ever-flowing stream, it seems to me like we may be checking our humility at the door.
Certainty vs. Truth
This morning, I will give you three quotes from the late William Sloane Coffin, who once was pastor of Riverside Church in New York City and also once served as chaplain of both Yale University and Williams College. The first quote reminds us that perhaps we ought to value, say, compassion, more than, say, absolutes.
“There are those who prefer certainty to truth, those in church who put the purity of dogma ahead of the integrity of love, and what distortion of the Gospel it is to have limited sympathies and unlimited certainties, when the very reverse, to have limited certainties and unlimited sympathies, is not only more tolerant but far more Christian.”
That phrase, the integrity of love, is what stands out. The writer of Ephesians writes that we are to bear with one another in love, and he writes of building this body, the body of Christ, of building itself up in love.
Love is the priority, love is what defines us, and growing love is our business. We love the other so much that unity is where we dwell, for we are one in the Spirit, one in our baptisms, one in our Lord, the Lord Jesus, the Lord of love.
Coffin, again, writes:
“In the sight of Christ, there are no insiders and outsiders, for we are finally of one nature and one flesh and one grief and one hope. And, in Christ’s sight, if we fail in love, we fail in all things else.”
‘Climate of Acceptance’
We can have the greatest stewardship season ever, friends, and here it is, August, and you can expect to hear that word more, soon. We can have the biggest Bible school in the community, we can have the most fantastic, sensational, awesome youth programs ever, we can fill up our pews and we can erase all of our debt, but you know what? If we, we Christians, fail at love, we have failed in all things.
All of those successes do not matter, if we have failed at love itself.
I receive a document in the mail, from what I would call some “anxious Presbyterians,” even though anxious Presbyterians should be an oxymoron if we truly believe God is in control of the universe. The free newsletter is called “Theology Matters.” I can’t seem to get off the darn mailing list. Of course theology matters. I, too, believe that, big time, but love matters more. Love matters far more. Send me that publication, anxious Presbyterians, the one you call “Love Matters.”
I close with a third and final quote from William Sloane Coffin:
“Church is where all hearts are one so that nothing else has to be one. Church is where there is such a climate of acceptance that each of us can be his or her unique self. Church is where we learn to be free, strong and mature by sharing with one another our continued bondage, weakness, and immaturity. Church is where we so love one another that it becomes bearable to live as solitaries.”
That is the church of Jesus Christ that I so long for those out there to see, and to experience, and to one day, embrace.
And when it happens, I will have one less concern.
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