February 4, 2024 ~ Reconciling Sunday
Rev. Beckie Sweet
“Jesus loves me! . . . Jesus loves me! This I know . . .
Jesus loves me! This I know, for the Bible tells me so . . .”
Swiss theologian Karl Barth was one of the premier religious thinkers of the 20th Century. In addition to being a prolific writer, he would travel all around the world, including the United States, lecturing in colleges and seminaries about Christian theology and doctrine. He influenced those who wrote the texts I studied while in seminary, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jurgen Moltmann, James Cone and Reinhold Niebuhr.
After one of Barth’s theological lectures, a student asked him, “Dr. Barth, in all of your years of studying and teaching theology, what is the greatest thought that has ever gone through your mind?” Without hesitation, Dr. Barth answered, “That ‘Jesus loves me! This I know, for the Bible tells me so!’”
So, you take all of the theology, all the doctrines of the Bible, and they can be summarized in that one simple statement: “God is Love.” “Jesus loves me! This I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
It all begins with God’s love! In case we ever forget this basic, essential fact of our faith, I John makes it crystal clear. As Dr. Judith Jones states, “God is the source and the definition of LOVE. God IS love. God loves as the sun shines: love expresses who God is.”
That definition seems to be at the crux of our current divisions within the United Methodist denomination. “What is LOVE?” Is the definition of human construction or of divine revelation? Is there only one way to define Love? Or are there many? Is there only one way to express love between humans, or are there many?
I John emphasizes that God’s love is not some abstract concept. It is passion expressed in action. God made love real and present by sending Jesus to live among us and to die for us. God continues to show us love through Jesus’ life-giving presence among us. If ever we should question whether God truly does love us, the gift and witness of the Holy Spirit confirmed it once more: we are God’s beloved. God’s love is a truth more basic and reliable than the ground we walk on and the air we breathe.
God’s love does not depend on our initiative or on our worthiness. We don’t have to reach out to God or even believe in God in order to be loved by God. We don’t have to be a certain race, class, gender or sexual orientation to be loved by God. We don’t have to attain a certain amount of wealth or education, speak a certain language, have a job or a home, or express our love in the same way in order to be loved by God.
God embraces us as we are, loves us as we are, and works in us to make us clean, whole, new, and loving. I John insists that the more fully and completely we know God, the more the immense reality of God’s love dawns on us. And the reality of that love is that it is not just for us personally. It is a love that is offered and available to ALL.
That is the LOVE that we celebrate on this Reconciling Sunday! 26 years ago, after a period of study and discernment, St. Paul’s United Methodist Church voted to become one of the first congregations to claim the name “Reconciling” because of the desire, the need, to proclaim publicly that EVERYONE is loved by the God that we worship. And because of that, EVERYONE is welcome to engage in ministry at St. Paul’s Church. This definition and practice of inclusivity places no conditions on admission to the family of God, because God loves us all. The essence of the gospel we cherish as a core tenant of our faith, is compassion, not condemnation; inclusion, not rejection.
Such life-giving love is too wonderful to keep to ourselves. To know God’s love is to overflow with God’s love. How can we possibly love God while we hate God’s beloved? Seeing ourselves as God’s beloved means seeing our siblings as God’s loved ones, too.
You may have noticed when we share these scriptures and liturgies, that I intentionally change ~ or adapt ~ the more inclusive language of the past 30 years. When the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible was published, it updated the term “brothers” of the RSV to “brothers and sisters.” Today, we are aware that there are those among us who do not find themselves rightly defined by the finite terms, “brother” and “sister.” I, therefore, choose to use the term, “siblings,” in hopes that more folks will feel included, accepted, celebrated, and loved.
Larry asked that we include the scripture text from Acts 2 today (rather than just waiting to use it on Pentecost), because of the celebration of diversity contained therein. The Holy Spirit of the Living Christ was not just sent to the Galileans who had experienced life with Jesus. The Holy Spirit was sent dramatically and dynamically to those from every nation and tribe who were gathered in Jerusalem – the Sacred Village of Peace. And Larry even read the text from the First Nations Version, an Indigenous Translation of the New Testament, to add to the modeling of the celebration of diversity on this sacred day.
It bears repeating, such life-giving love is too wonderful to keep to ourselves!
The author of I John calls us to love one another, to love all of our siblings. The first-century Christians for whom this text was originally written were in conflict about the boundaries of their community, about theology, and about false teachings. Does this sound like the UMC today??? We here are taught that if we love others as God has loved us, there can be NO boundaries. God’s love, made visible and present in Jesus, is the source for the love we share with others. In Jesus’ ministry on earth, his harshest words were reserved not for the impure, but for the unloving, self-righteous people who saw some of God’s children as unworthy of their love. If Jesus shows us what God’s love is like, then there can be no doubt how far our love for others must extend: to every single human being, celebrating each one’s uniqueness.
We are called to open ourselves to God’s unbounded love so that God can love others through us! When we love one another, we represent God to the world. By allowing the love that God has showered on us to overflow to all others, we make divine love real and visible in the ordinary lives of every one God has fashioned to be unique and special.
I close with the poetic and faith-filled words of Jeannette Lindhold:
Love receiving, Love believing, we rejoice with thanks and song,
faith regaining, hope proclaiming; Love has taught us we belong
safe within Love’s tender keeping, safe from fear’s persistent call.
Love defending, Love unending, Love of God enfolding all.