Lecturer in Practical Theology, the Rev. Dr. Rhonda White delivered the following sermon. This was part of Uniting Mission and Education’s closure of ministry service for Bronwyn Murphy and Kath Merrifield on Wednesday, 24 January. This version was edited for Insights.
“See how these Christians love each other”, an exclamation from a pagan Roman, quoted to us by Tertullian.
I’m not sure how you receive this statement – but my first response is negative.
I immediately go to all of the examples and situations where the church has behaved badly – congregational meetings filled with anger and venom, carpark meetings cruelly crucifying someone with whom they had just passed the peace. Synod meetings where the ammunition is carefully distributed for maximum effect – so many examples.
Yep, see how these Christians love each other – they will tear each other apart at every opportunity – maybe I’m a bit jaded but that’s where I go and if you go there too, then maybe Paul and John have a word for us?
I want to question why I immediately fixate on the negative.
Is it the “mea culpa” preaching of my tradition that is deeply embedded?
On the whole, my experience of being in the church has been pretty good. It’s definitely had some dark times but on balance it’s good enough to keep choosing to participate. So I’m a little bit curious as to why the negativity?
After all isn’t this what Jesus said we would be known by? Our love for one another?
I think part of the problem for me here is that I think it’s all about me. If I am loving, then people will know that I am a follower of Jesus. But I can see how twisted that way of thinking is. How contra to the Gospel of God’s grace.
The Spirit is with us
What if Jesus is not telling the disciples that it’s all about how well they obey the rules? What if Jesus is telling the disciples this is how it is, how it already is, because the Spirit is with us?
Then and only then, does it makes sense to me that Tertullian can quote a pagan Roman who is not being hoodwinked by a façade of nice, polite people but who is looking at a group of human beings, with all the political dynamics of humanity and seeing in the midst of that something more, that something he calls love. “See how these Christians love one another.”
Jesus calls it love too.
I don’t know how problematic that word was in the first century – clearly there were some issues in interpretation as Paul spends a fair bit of time trying to spell it out. It is definitely problematic today.
The concept of the followers of Christ being known by their love for one another has been corrupted into something that is not just unachievable it is also destructive. An image of cordial agreement, which works toward sameness and no evidence of conflict. This image is counter to the evidence of creation – in which God has created and embedded difference.
If this is not a statement of rule but rather a statement of reality with God, how might we hear it differently?
What does it mean to be Church if we also have to be human?
The language of loving one another doesn’t help me. The language of reconciliation however, does.
By the time Paul gets to Romans 8 he has moved away from simply the language of love to talking more about reconciliation and I think this might help us also except that this word too is being morphed into agreement and sameness. Here, the language of accountancy is helpful!
Reconciliation in accountancy is not about making balances the same – you can have reconciled accounts where the balances are quite different. Reconciliation is identifying and understanding the differences – they don’t have to be made the same, we simply need to know what the differences are. That’s a long way from everyone having to think or be the same.
Paul invites us to embrace our humanity and join with the whole of creation in the labour of living in hope because we have the Spirit working with us, interceding for us and reconciling us to God and one another – this is what it is to be church.
This is what I think the “love” that Jesus is referring to looks like. This is what I think Paul is talking about when he boldly rewrites a popular saying, which likely went like “one should accustom oneself to say that everything the mercy of God does, it does for good”. Paul shifts the emphasis away from God being the inflictor of suffering to focus on the role suffering plays in reconciliation.
“For we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, those who are called according to God’s purpose.”
Faith in God doesn’t make us better than those with no faith or a different faith. We are not exempt from disappointment, conflict or pain. The followers of Christ will continue to behave as human beings but we will learn about God and we will be known for reconciliation, celebrating differences, because the Spirit is with us.
Paul inextricably links hope with vulnerability, you can’t have one without the other. You can’t have hope without vulnerability. In vulnerability we find hope. The struggle, the pain, the heartache or conflict is not a sign of lack of love. It is the way in which we experience the reconciling work of God.
We don’t need to be afraid or even ashamed to be in a mess, to be in conflict, it’s ok because God is for us, nothing will change that – go figure it, you can’t, because it doesn’t make sense – it just is.
Being the Church
So what is being the Church?
It is remembering that it is God who calls us into community and at the same time gives us the gift of reconciliation – because God has created difference and shows us how to celebrate it.
We have to stop berating ourselves, and each other, for being human and instead embrace Gods call to be communities reconciled by the Spirit of God.
If we can let go of our twisted notion that it’s all about how we perform, and instead embrace the challenges of living with difference and disputes, then there will be less disappointment and greater opportunity to embrace all that is brilliant and life giving about sharing with those who are different and even difficult.
What if our task is to resist the urge to make everybody play nicely together, with all the energy that would expend?
What if our task is to celebrate the struggles, the conflicts and in the process learn more about God?
Reconciliation doesn’t have to look like order or neatness, it doesn’t have to look like everyone agreeing or playing together nicely. It’s not about agreement or unity or sameness or absence of conflict. It’s about recognising and understanding differences. Reconciliation is visible when we embrace that God is with us, all of us, even when we are not very nice.
So let us all be enabled by the spirit who celebrates difference to accept one another…so that others can exclaim, “See how these Christians love one another”