Homecoming is a time each year where we try and get everyone back together after a summer of travels and being away. It’s also a day when we encourage people who may have stepped away for a time to come back home, and to invite new guests to come join us and learn more about this church family. Today is a very special homecoming Sunday for us because it is our church’s 140th anniversary. Maitland Presbyterian Church has been here since 1882. That’s a long time! As we were reflecting this week on our church’s long history and the future of our ministry as a church, we went looking for what theologians and wise men and women would have to share with us. We wanted some encouraging words as we look back over where we have been, and prayerfully look forward to where we are going. One of our favorite theologians, Frederick Buechner, just passed away recently. And he wrote a quote we would like to share with you about the church to guide us.
"The best thing that could happen to your church is for it to burn to the ground and for your fax and email machines to be burned up, and for your minister to be run over by a truck so that you have nothing left except each other and God.” - Frederick Buechner
Encouraging, right? But we believe that there is something to this. Of course we would rather not get run over by a truck. And the first building here at Maitland Presbyterian didn’t burn down . . . but it was eaten by termites. But our church family is still here, 140 years later. We’re still tempted sometimes to make it all about our building (and it is a very expensive building). We have been through times of making it all about the minister. And I am absolutely in favor of burning all of our email machines. Over and over again, this church has had nothing left except for two things: God and each other. Which is exactly what the church is meant to be according to Frederick Buechner, and according to the Apostle John. We’re going to read through a passage from 1 John 3: 16-23. Let’s take a look: 16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
John spends a lot of time talking about love, about how God loves us, and how we are supposed to love one another. He wants to make sure here that we know what love really means. So he starts out “we know love by this” or another way to translate the first phrase of this passage is “this is how we know what love is.” Love is when Jesus laid down his life for us. Jesus, the Son of God, loves you so much, that he laid down his life for you. He set down his power, his fame, his own desires and laid it all down because he loves you. That’s a big kind of love. Then without hesitating, John says “and we ought to lay our lives down for one another.” For John, we love one another by following the example Jesus sets of sacrifice and selflessness. If this is how we’re defining love, and there’s no better definition of it than that. What do we do with all of our lesser definitions of love? What do we with all the talk that makes love out to be just a feeling? The next verse addresses that.
17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
A lot of people feel like they are loving because they, I don’t know, just think of themselves that way. They feel like they feel it. Or they aren’t actively hurting someone. It’s not about how we feel, though. It’s about what we do. John says here that God’s love doesn’t abide in a person if they don’t live like God has a claim on their whole lives, everything they see, and have, and want. This goes for each person here as an individual and it goes double for us as a people. 18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
For John it isn’t enough to think you are loving, or even to say you love someone, You have to show it through the way you care for them. You lay down your life for them. When Jesus laid down his life, he gave up his actual life, his living and breathing. But you aren’t Jesus. So you might lay down your life by laying down your time, or your money, or your desires, or your ego or your comfort - it’s small, everyday things you do daily, laying down your life over and over again, to love other people. 19-20 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
Right here, John addresses the tenderhearted among us. Sometimes when we preach these passages that tell the people of God to do better, we wish we could issue some instructions for some of you to cover your ears. It’s always the most loving people, the ones who really do love in word and action, who hear this and feel terrible that they could be doing more. On the other side, there are those who spray themselves with Teflon before coming to church. Nothing’s going to stick! So John addresses those whose hearts condemn them, and says, God is greater than our hearts. The heart isn’t actually a great gauge for right and wrong. Some people feel great in their hearts, entirely justified, about every thing they do, no matter how terrible. And others feel terrible about everything they do, no matter how good. But John says that our feelings are not God’s standard. God knows everything and has set the standard through his Son.
21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
Let’s take a minute with this verse, because it’s important how we read it. John says “we have boldness before God and we receive from him whatever we ask….” And when you read that, you’d be right to have an immediate reaction: “no I don’t.” If you have prayed for specific things in your life, there have been times when you didn’t get the answer you were looking for. But this verse isn’t talking about your personal prayers for healing or direction. How God answers these prayers is a topic for another day because we can’t give it the time it needs this morning. But here, John is talking to a group of people. WE receive from him whatever WE ask. This is about the prayers of a gathered group of followers. These are the kind of prayers we pray as a church as we pray for our future ministry. And it puts an important stipulation in place - we receive what we ask for because we obey his commandments. One of our seminary professors Dr. Clifton Black writes about this passage saying “a church captivated by the gospel finds in prayer the solutions for some of its problems. It is also given other problems it never had and would happily dodge.” Be careful what you pray for, church. When we, as a church, align ourselves with God’s commandments, then our prayers will flow out of that relationship with God. Our prayers will more closely reflect what God wants for the world. But the commandments John is referencing are not the Ten Commandments from the Old Testament. So what does he mean?
23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.
That’s the commandment from which our prayers flow. And it tells us what our prayers should be, too. We pray, as a people, that we would truly believe in Jesus Christ, and that we would love each other. It’s a tall order, isn’t it. Some days, it seems like it would take a miracle to really do those two things. That’s exactly what we are promised, the miracle of faith and the miracle of love. It’s a pretty simple job description. Simple, but not easy. But it’s what we are here to do. It’s why God put us here, and called us together, in 2022. To believe in Jesus, and to love one another. That’s why Beuchner writes what he does about the church burning down and your ministers stepping into traffic. It’s not because those things are bad, it’s because they can be a distraction to why we are really here. The church is a people, not a place.
It’s a people who love God and are committed to love one another. The video below shares stories about what this has meant for the members here at Maitland Presbyterian Church.
These are just a few of the hundreds of stories that could be told from the people right here in this room. Then there are the stories that go back over the 140 years of this congregation. It hasn’t always been perfect (the church never is - we are sinners saved by grace) but what has kept this church here this long has been a people committed to love. You are a part of this. Some of you have been in this church for decades, and some of you might be attending for the first or second time. Some of you come every Sunday and some of you . . .not as often.
No matter what brought you to this church family, I am so glad you are here, because you aren’t meant to live life on your own. There are plenty of things you can fill your time with on a Sunday morning. (We know about brunch and the beach). But in church, God can change your life by inching your faith forward, one week at a time. Those other people in the pews, they can be the hands and feet of Christ in your life, especially when things get tough, if you’ll let them. This congregation has been here for 140 years. But in so many ways, it feels like God is just getting started.