Believe, Behave, Belong

May 6, 2018 by

Or: Learning to Love

Sermon for May 6 by Garry Blinch

I watched a film recently called “Come Sunday”. It’s on Netflix. It’s the real life story of Bishop Carlton Pearson, a man who was mentored by Oral Roberts. I like looking at IMDB, the online movie database, for summaries of movies to get an idea of what the particular movie is all about. For “Come Sunday”, there was this very terse summary:

“Evangelist Carlton Pearson is ostracized by his church for preaching that there is no Hell.”

That really misses the point, and it is hardly an accurate picture of what went on for this man. I don’t know if I agree with everything Bishop Carlton believes but I really related to his struggle and it raised an important point that is underscored in our texts today.

Carlton’s struggle with the traditional evangelical doctrine of who goes to hell and why began when he was watching the news and he saw the unfolding crisis in Rwanda in 1994 in which up to 1million people were killed in a genocide. His doctrine told him that anyone who has not prayed to accept Jesus or confessed him as Lord will end up in hell. As he thought about these tribes in this African country, with children and young people dying alongside of adults, it just didn’t seem right to declare that the majority were now in hell, knowing that most were tribal people and had probably never heard the gospel. He agonized over this doctrine that he had upheld and preached up to this point in his life.

He prayed, cried, and cried out to God, and looked again at the Scriptures. The first thing that struck me was that, instead of turning away from God or from the church, he decided the doctrine couldn’t be right. It just didn’t square with the life of Jesus or with other verses which said something quite different. There are various other people who have said, “if that’s the kind of God God is, I want nothing to do with him!”- instead of saying, “You know, this is an interpretation decided on by human beings- maybe it’s the doctrine that is wrong…”

Carlton believed God spoke to him during this time of wrestling and agonizing. The whole experience brought him to a different conclusion. Then he tried to explain the whole experience and his change in belief to his congregation. He declared his belief that God spoke to him with a message of the efficacy of Christ’s death for all people everywhere, regardless of faith affiliation.

Predictably, people were upset and began to leave. Pastor Carlton appealed to his people, saying, “I understand you are upset; you are wondering, if everyone is already accepted- saved- what’s it all about? Why go to church at all?” I was really struck with this, because I had had the same thought myself a number of years ago.

Real life, it seems, had pushed Carlton to challenge his beliefs and consider other possibilities. Exactly what happened for me. I had been of the mindset that wiser, more godly minds, both past and present, would teach me and I would receive these safe-guarded truths and safe-guard them. Which meant protecting myself from believing anything else. But real life came knocking. Knocking at my door, first in the form of my brother-in-law, dying with AIDS. Then, in the form of becoming radically honest and transparent enough to tell my own story of struggles in marriage and forging beautiful heart-connections with other couples of various faiths and no faith, realizing we were all just people trying to do the right thing and needing one another. Later in the form of friendships with non-church people in a variety of settings and discovering the same loves, needs, longings, fears. I had never thought that real life should also inform theology.

Bringing these thoughts back made me realize a couple of things. First, Church attendance as I knew it was greatly based on fear- fear of hell, fear of backsliding, fear of being rejected, or of disappointing or angering God. In the types of churches I attended, questioning beliefs was frowned on, with the priority being on reinforcing and repeating the same doctrines over and over. There were also unspoken standards such that you would never mention going to a bar or a pub, and you would be circumspect in mentioning movies you had seen. An unofficial measuring stick of a church member’s spirituality was how many weekly church programs and events the person showed up at. Church attendance was reinforced with a favorite metaphor where the church is likened to a well-built campfire, and how a log removed from the fire grows cold being away from the other hotly burning logs.

Take all that away, and why go to church at all?

Which brings me to my second point, and to what the scriptures are saying in the epistle and the gospel read today.  The reason to go to church, besides to worship, should be love- a place to receive love and to give love. A place to learn HOW to love, which can only be done in community.

Jesus’ laid this foundation in his initial approach to people, as we see it in the gospels.  His manner and attitude  communicated acceptance. Most people, experiencing that kind of love, wanted to know more, and behaviour changed organically. I spent years in a church culture that put priority on getting people to believe certain doctrine, getting them to confess this belief in prayer first before anything else would follow. We held people at bay and treated them like projects. Conversely, there were times I felt an oppressive burden of responsibility to reach out to those who did not attend church because they were headed for the fires of hell.

Jesus didn’t approach people that way, whether they were of Israelite descent or Gentile. He radiated acceptance. He expressed no anxiety about their “eternal destiny”. Now, surely the Son of God, even in the limitations of human flesh, would know better than anyone else about human destiny. But he was never anxious, never in a hurry in the picture the gospel writers give us.

The Acts passage we read is another picture of accepting people whose exact beliefs were unknown.  These Gentiles, these uncircumcised, receive the Holy Spirit just sitting, listening to Peter preach. Up until now, the believers had thought that what Jesus had done was about the Jews and about being the Jewish Messiah, so their logic said, “If you want to be a Jesus follower, if you want to be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit – you need to be a Jew first.  And becoming a Jew involves being circumcised.”  So their thought pattern went like this – everyone is welcome – as long as you first become a Jew by being circumcised, then you get baptized, then you get the Holy Spirit.

Christ’s big concern, here in John 15- in his final address to his disciples- is not that the disciples have the right doctrine memorized or that they behave a certain way, but that they abide in his love and love one another. The word ‘abide’ appears twice in the portion I read but also 8 more times in the 8 verses immediately before our section, John 15:1-8. Obviously a key word as we plumb the depths of this passage. Our beliefs should be forged in and lived out in the atmosphere, the “air”, of love for others.

What does it mean to ‘abide’?

The Greek word translated here means:

“to remain, not to depart, not to leave, to continue to be present; to remain as one, not to become another or different.”

So, one meaning is to simply, stay where you are. Stay in a love relationship with Christ. Continue to believe that your heart’s true desires are abundantly met in him.

The other meaning says, “remain as one, “don’t become another or different.” Don’t change in your attitude to Christ and disconnect. One way this happens is when we get distracted or deceived by the promise that our heart’s desires or longings can be met some other way, such as through worldly power, physical attractiveness or money.

When we remain in Jesus, we naturally bear fruit: God is in us to extend compassion to others. This, in turn, draws others to the life of peace in Christ. Real life cries out for real love; a loving partnership with God.             Amen.

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