1 John 3:1-3, 18-24
One of the best parts of my job is leading New Member classes. Two or more times a year, I get to spend 6 hours with a group of interesting, thoughtful, gifted people who are serious about their faith life. Without fail, I say about every new member group I’m working with “This is the most wonderful, diverse group of people we’ve ever had join the church.” Until the next one!
This group was no exception! Like others before it, it’s made up of lifelong United Methodists, people who have experienced several different kinds of Christianity, and brand new Christians. There are young and old; scientists, educators and musicians; state government employees and MSU employees. They ask challenging questions and offer up thoughtful responses. They make me even more grateful than I already am to be a pastor.
So now, friends, having praised and flattered you in front of all these people, I’m going to say something that may sound unfriendly:
Just saying you are a Christian doesn’t make you a follower of Jesus.
I am saying this to you, but I am speaking to – and about – the whole world of Christianity. Just saying you are a Christian doesn’t make you a follower of Jesus. This does not sound like good news. In fact, it is not news at all. I think we all know that it’s true.
From the genocide in Rwanda to the collaboration of the church with Hitler in World War II, from American slaveholders of the 17th through 19th centuries to the massacre of Muslims and Jews by European soldiers during the Crusades, history proves over and over that calling oneself Christian isn’t the same as following Jesus.
Theologian and ethicist David Gushee says "The presence of churches in a country guarantees nothing. The self-identification of people with the Christian faith guarantees nothing. All of the clerical garb and regalia, all of the structures of religious accountability, all of the Christian vocabulary and books, all of the schools and seminaries and parish houses and Bible studies, all of the religious titles and educational degrees - they guarantee nothing."
Why is this?
* Because not everyone who claims to be Christian has yielded to Jesus' command that "we love one another and our neighbors as ourselves."
* Because people come to worship, and join churches, and call themselves Christians for all sorts of reasons. We are all here today for all sorts of reason, probably more than we can imagine.
* Because Christian people are influenced, not just by Jesus Christ, but by social, economic and political systems and by assumptions, ideas, loyalties and feelings, some of which are at odds with the gospel.
By the turn of the 1st C AD, the early followers of Jesus in the Johannine tradition were also unsure of what it meant to say “I am a Christian.” They were arguing about who it was they were following – Christ, the second person of the Godhead, co-creator with the Father, the Word of God who is God…or Jesus of Nazareth, the human being who was born, lived and died the same way we do.
In this first Letter of John, which is more likely a sermon than an actual letter, the author is trying to remind his readers (or his listeners) of the core of the gospel teaching: God is love. Therefore, whether you understand your faith as following the human Jesus or the divine Christ, you must always test your faith by this standard: are you upholding the truth that God is love?
Part of the community was intent on proving that Jesus was more divine than human; they wanted to say that Jesus just looked like a human being. But the author insists that God truly did take on human flesh…out of love for us. God became human out of love for humanity…and God’s concern is that we human beings will become like Jesus. “When he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” God intends to work in us, with us, and on us until we fully reflect the spirit and character of Jesus.
Dr. Guy Sayles says that when he was a child, he got the impression that God was mainly concerned about life after death The whole point of salvation, it seemed to him, was to stay out of hell and get into heaven. In which case, life on earth didn’t count for much. It was all just the prelude to what came after – that was what was important. “I realized later, of course, that my impression of what God was concerned about was incomplete at best. God's concern is that we become like Jesus Christ-people who live with a passionate concern that the will and way of God be done on earth as they are in heaven.”
In her autobiography, Gertrude Stein described an exchange she had with Pablo Picasso. Even though he had painted a portrait of her, he did not immediately recognize her. Stein wrote: "I murmured to Picasso that I liked his portrait of Gertrude Stein. Yes, he said, somebody said that she does not look like it, but that doesn't make any difference, she will."
You and I are growing into the image of Jesus, even though there are days when we do not seem very much like him at all. We might think of ourselves as human beings, but really we are human becomings: people who try to follow Jesus as the lord of our lives and who are, by his grace, becoming more and more like him.
Which does not mean that God intends us to become exact replicas of Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, a wonderful and gracious paradox at the heart of the gospel is that the more we become like Jesus, the more we become our truest selves.
The words that God spoke to Jesus at his baptism are words that God speaks to Suguang and to each of us also: ‘You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter. With you I am well pleased.” More than any mother, more than any father, God’s love for us is tender and strong, reassuring and challenging, nurturing and empowering.
And because we know we are God’s beloved children, because of that assurance of love, we can risk becoming more truly human, more truly ourselves. We can join Jesus in his compassion for our broken planet, in his passion for peace, in his hunger and thirst for justice, his welcoming embrace of the excluded, his tender mercy toward sinners.
New members! Old members, both young and not-so-young! Not-yet members! How are you going to become more fully your selves? More truly human? How are you going to love one another, and your neighbors, in truth in action?
Will you remember those whom the rest of the world forgets?
The children with malaria?
Will you keep company with the fallen and the downtrodden?
The prisoner behind bars and the prisoner of addiction?
Will you labor for reconciliation among enemies?
Your estranged relative?
Will you work to turn strangers into friends?
The isolated elderly? The international student far away from home?
If you are going to say that you follow Jesus – if I am going to say that I follow Jesus – then we are going to have to commit ourselves to his will and his way. We are going to have to bend the energy of our lives to becoming more and more like him, agents of reconciliation and understanding, of healing and hope, of love and mercy.
Just saying you are a Christian doesn’t make you a follower of Jesus.
What’s true of one person is also true of a congregation: Just saying you are a church doesn’t make you the body of Christ.
As individual Christians are charged to become more like Jesus and therefore grow to be more fully themselves, so congregations bear a similar responsibility -- to grow and change in order to become more fully the body of Christ in relationship to our growing, changing world.
For example, we would not be meeting our goal to be the body of Christ in East Lansing, Michigan, in the 21st century, if we did not have a website, or an electronically-distributed newsletter, or a Facebook page. We can’t be the body of Christ if we can’t communicate with the people who aren’t here yet. And the people who aren’t here yet use the Internet to communicate. Even something as apparently- insignificant and non-church-like as electronic giving is a way for us to demonstrate that we are aware of the world around us and are responding to it.
This seems obvious – in order to be the body of Christ in our changing world, the church needs to grow and change in relationship to the world – but it’s a big challenge. Because often what the church does best is stay the same.
In contrast let’s take a look at an organization that specializes in change. Facebook. Pastor Bill knows that I’m taking a risk in talking about Facebook, because I am not a Facebook fan. I will confess that I am a failed Facebook user.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not a fan. Facebook has got something figured out that the rest of us, especially those of us in the church, can learn from. They’ve figured out how to create a culture of change.
Not a week goes by that Facebook doesn’t change something. The way things look on your screen, the format by which you present yourself to your friends, the functions that allow you to create groups of friends – all of that changes regularly. Facebook users complain about it, a lot and loudly. Facebook listens to the criticism. But they are not persuaded by the backlash. They’ve done their research ahead of time, they’re confident that the change is worthwhile, and they stick to it. Facebook users adjust; in fact, they’ve learned to expect change.
Churches, on the other hand, are often the places where we expect nothing to change. Congregations have been known to spend their time and resources arguing about changes in sanctuary furniture; time and resources that could have been spent reaching out to their neighbors. They’ve been known to divide and even collapse over changes in worship or music; eliminating any chance that they might grow in mission and ministry.
University Church, you went through a pretty important change last Sunday when you voted to purchase the Wesley Foundation property on the north end of this facility. And I want you to pat yourself on the back, because not only are you all still here this morning, but we’re welcoming a wonderful group of new members to help us keep growing and changing!
I know that not everyone is happy about the decision we made. Even some of you who voted for it are not entirely comfortable with it. The light at the end of the mortgage-payment tunnel was finally getting bigger. We had just six years of payments left before we paid off the loan that financed the renovation of this sanctuary, our office space and our upper level classrooms. Now the light at the end of the tunnel has receded another nine years or so.
What if our giving levels don’t keep increasing? What if the needed repairs on both sides of our facility cost more than we think they will? What if this move doesn’t help the Wesley Foundation as we hope it will? What if, what if, what if? This change can just seem too risky.
What I’m worried about isn’t the financial risk – it’s the spiritual risk. (Although those two things can’t really be separated.) What if we fail to use this change in order to become more like the church God calls us to be?
We could repair the tower, replace the boilers, and install new, energy-efficient windows. We could air-condition the north side of the facility, upgrading it for English as a Second Language and other non-profit organizations who would pay us rent. But none of that would make us more truly the body of Christ.
New members! Old members (young and not-so-young)! Not-yet members! How are we going to become more fully ourselves as a church? How are we going to love one another, and our neighbors, in truth and in action? How are we going to be the body of Christ for this community and this world in this time?
Not one of us can answer that question completely. Not one of us – but all of us together. I don’t have the answer to that question…but I do know what to look for that will say we’re headed in the right direction:
Our major focus will not be this building; it will be sharing the love of Jesus Christ.We will not grow committees; we will grow opportunities for spiritual growth.And every committee, every program, every activity will be for the ultimate purpose of connecting people with God.All of us, whether we feel broken or successful, confused or called, searching or certain, all of us will be able to look beyond ourselves to the world around us.This building will not be a fortress, protecting what we already have. It will be a launching pad, the place out of which mission to our neighborhood, our community and our world is sent forth.
New members! Welcome! My prayer for you is that your partnership with University UMC will help you to become more like Jesus, more like your true self.
Old Members (young and not-so-young)! How will we, together, become more fully the body of Christ, here on the corner of Harrison and Trowbridge?
Not-yet-members! What’s next for you? Who will you become?
Carroll E. Simcox. “On Being Both Christian and Religious.” The Christian Century April 18, 1984, p. 398
Guy Sayles. “We Will Be Like Jesus.” Day One Radio Program. April 30, 2006. http://day1.org/988-we_will_be_like_jesus
David Bartlett. Commentary on 1 John 3:1-7. Posted April 26, 2009 on WorkingPreacher.org. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=297