1 John 5:1-6 ; John 15:9-17
At the end of this sermon, I’ll come back to that outrageous claim in First John: “This is the victory that conquers the world, our faith! Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” “Really?” you say. How is my little faith going to conquer the world? Do we even want to conquer the world? We’ll get to that. But let’s start with not conquering the world, but with love right here in the church, which is what our Gospel reading talks about.
After over a month being here, I have gotten to know some of you, and observed more of you at church together, mostly on Zoom. There definitely is love for one another here in the First Congregational Church of Hadley. I know you all find being together in church pleasant and meaningful.
But on those other, hopefully rare occasions, what makes church unpleasant for you? I bet it’s when you find yourself locked in a struggle with a fellow member (or maybe the pastor). She wants it her way, you want it your way. And one or both of you try to game the system to have your way. We all recognize this as “church politics,” and it is be found in every church I’ve known. But conflicts in church do not all go that way. Sure, people inevitably disagree—it’s our human condition. But we can value those who disagree with us. One wants resources to go to the building, one to Christian Education or Mission—for example. But all of these are important. We can value each of our commitments like Paul values the many gifts of the Spirit. And then disagreement becomes exciting and illuminating; disagreement expands my vision: “Wow, I’ve never thought of it that way!”
Well, why does disagreement not always feel that way? Here’s a simple reason: It’s because of ego. Human beings have a strong tendency toward self-assertion for its own sake. We say that we really only care about the church clock, or Take and Eat, or protecting the minister, but our ego gets involved. And so we get locked into struggles, often repeatedly, with the same person. Some personality types even thrive on that kind of struggle (although it doesn’t actually make them happy). It’s a disease of the ego, that we all are probably infected with (even if we are “asymptomatic”). Martin Luther described the unhappy ego as “curved in on itself,” and usually that means walled up like a citadel, at turns defensive and aggressive.
Now, I’m still new enough here that I can be authentically innocent about if and where this problem with ego exists here. So I’m not talking about anyone in particular. But I also know that the problem with ego exists everywhere, and sometimes is even worse in churches, despite the fact that no other organization on earth, except the church, hears its founder say, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” The ugliest fight I’ve had in as long as I can remember happened with a church member (not here). This person chased me to my car in order to hound me and blame me for everything wrong with the world, forcing me to defend myself, which I can do if I have to. But I left with that churning feeling in my stomach, and a shaky feeling in my knees. And the other person probably did not feel great, either. When people are curved in on themselves, defensive and aggressive, you have the very opposite of joy. Our bodies cry out against it.
No one should ever have to leave church with a churning stomach and shaky knees. There’s no excuse for that kind of behavior and the conflict-prone ego that causes it, here in the church: because being released and liberated from your ego is at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian (as in many other religions as well). The letter of John tells us that whoever believes Jesus is the Christ has been “born of God.” This phrase refers back to what John said in chapter 4: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” Jesus is our prime example of love, as our gospel reading shows: “No one has greater love that this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Perfect love involves giving up something of oneself—at the extreme, one’s own life. But more ordinary loving also involves self-giving: every romantic lover and parent knows something of self-giving—and Mother’s Day is the perfect time to remember this. But Jesus lives perfect love to the point of laying down his whole life, and in doing so he shows us that God is the source and the reality of this love. In other words, God has no ego. Everything God does is for our good, not for God’s—including judging our self-centeredness and freeing us from our egos.
This is the open secret of the Christian faith, the pearl of great price that anyone with any sense should be searching for. Here is a place, and a community, where you can lay down your ego, and we can all lay down our egos and our hang-ups and our hostilities and know real peace with one another. It’s at the heart of what we are as a community, it’s the stuff of our sacraments and our worship. This communion of selfless love is what the world so desperately wants and needs, because deep down everyone knows it is right, that selfless love represents a pinnacle and perfection of human life.
But of course, we are distracted from this knowledge, and blinded to this need, because we live in a culture that likes to tell us “it’s all about me,” at least for those who are white and privileged (like me). We are taught above all to guard and exercise my rights and my personal liberty to do whatever I want. And so we guard our privacy, the private citadel of my ego. And we resent anyone who wants to invade it. Sometimes we even resent God for invading our privacy.
I may sound un-American to question our obsession with personal liberty. I’m not, really. Liberty and self-interest has its place in the created order, especially given the colonial tyranny of the British in the 1700s. But our jealously guarded, American sense of freedom—as relatively justified and economically useful as it is—finds almost no support in Scripture. (If I’m missing it, please comment in my blog.) Real freedom, according to the Bible, isn’t doing what you please. Jesus defines real freedom in John 8: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” That word is above all the command to love one another. True freedom is obeying that command.
Personal liberty can lead to the unhealthy stress that comes with always having to advance your own agenda and assume that everyone else is doing the same. The church can be a sanctuary from personal liberty and its discontents. It can be a safe place to heal from the pressure of trying to make it on your own. The church should be a community where I can let go of self-control and not fear that I will be exploited, be someone’s sucker (which is a real danger, given human sin). The church should be a place where instead of looking out for myself, we look out for one another. It should be in short a place of love first, not liberty first. (Paul speaks beautifully of this in Corinthians.) And if you have real love, you don’t need to fall back on your private citadel of personal liberty. I see that love at work here.
But of course the church can fail terribly in this regard, and it has. The church and the church alone stands condemned by God whenever we violate the trust that has to be rock solid in order to be a community of selfless love. That should scare us, and especially scare any clergy who have ever abused that trust.
So if we are to risk being a community of love, we must be transparent and vigilant to protect the weak from abuse. This congregation has a fine Safe Church policy. You have also made developing a communication covenant one of your top priorities. This is wise. Law and policy are important and a good start. There are practices we can adopt that will make sure conflict is addressed constructively, and that everyone in the community, especially those most vulnerable, are respected. Respect is a minimum, and law and policy can be good at preserving respect and dignity for all.
And respect is satisfying, but I don’t find it fulfilling. Respect brings contentment but not ecstatic joy. And joy is what Jesus is going for. The verse before our gospel reading says, “I have said these things to you so that…your joy may be complete.” Completion, perfection, and joy come from perfect love, perfect egoless love. Friends who lay down their life for one another. Who doesn’t want that?
I had a great conversation this week with Jean about all this. “Yeah, but,” she replied, “selfless love is really hard.” Of course it is. I mean, Jesus did it. And he tells us that this kind of love is not just what God commands but who and what God is and what human perfection is all about. But my goodness, I am just about constantly stuck in my ego, more attentive to my own thoughts and feelings than to those around me. Stuck in my so-called freedom. There have been precious few moments in my life when I really felt and acted out of egoless love—and this did not make me anyone’s sucker, by the way. These moments were the most joyful I have ever known. They are real; they are the most real. No ethical principles or policies or rules did this for me; only giving myself to Jesus took me out of my ego. Maybe you know what I’m talking about, maybe you don’t. Either way, we’re probably in the same boat. I know of no one aside from Jesus who lived that kind of selfless life to its perfection. But that’s why we need him, and that’s why God raised him from the dead. We don’t need to be perfectly egoless, although being so is absolutely beautiful. We only need to believe, as individuals and as a community, in what perfection is, because mostly the world doesn’t believe in it. In our words and sacraments and worship, we testify to this belief; a little later on, First John says “Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts.” We believe, we testify, we try to live it out together through loving one another, because trying to be egoless all by yourself doesn’t make a lick of sense, if you think about it. And when we fail to love one another, as we will, again and again, we practice mercy and compassion with one another. You know, policies and laws are necessary but complicated; love really is very simple. And my friends this is how our faith, our belief in and testimony about selfless love, becomes “the victory that conquers the world.” Amen.
Selfless, egoless love is our goal. It is what it means to share in God’s own being. But belief and testimony are all that is required to begin. We confess our faith and testify to Jesus by praying in his name. So let us turn now together in prayer.