Summary: What does it mean today to be called Christ's friends? It means we live as a community, united in Christ's love; we don't focus on differences, but celebrate diversity.
I’m going to do something this morning that I never thought I would do as a preacher. In fact, I’m going to break one of my cardinal rules of preaching, which is, don’t preach about politics! Now, the truth of the matter is, if I really did preach about politics, I could get myself and this church in a bit of trouble. So before you get too concerned, be assured that I have no intentions of preaching partisan politics in an election year. But I do want to point to the great political divide we see in this country, and how it is indicative of an ever-widening rift in our society, even among Christians. Let me to explain what I mean.
Several months ago, Ken and I were looking back at the electoral maps from past presidential elections. We went all the way back into the 60s and then began working our way up to the present day. We were fascinated to notice that in the 60s and 70s, the electoral map was always decidedly monochrome. That is, with just a few exceptions, the entire country tended to throw their electoral votes towards the same person, the person, of course, who ended up winning the election in that particular year. As we moved into the 80s and 90s, though, Ken and I noticed that trend began to change. With each progressive election, the country divided more and more, until we got to where we are now, with a pretty equal divide between “red and blue states.”
Now, the sad thing is, that I don’t even have to tell you about my brief historical research for you to know how divided we are these days. We saw a fine example of it this summer as our government was nearly paralyzed by this partisan division, unable to reach any sort of agreement and move forward with a budget and spending plan for our country. And the unfortunate truth is that these same sorts of growing divisions are evident everywhere, not just in politics. Parents are fighting over little league games. Cities are sparring about zoning matters. And even at the United Methodist General Conference that ended just over a week ago, there was great division on nearly every matter. No, I’m not exaggerating; I really do mean that the Church was greatly divided on almost every issue that was presented to the body.
In a synopsis of the 2012 UMC General Conference, one Bishop said, “Some aspects of this General Conference were unique to this session. In the past, there has been some degree of corporate optimism, as well as a spirit of cooperation among the body. This year, however, the combined assembly of delegates was often described as cantankerous, snarly, and flat-lined. There was an unusual air of unease every time we gathered. You could feel it.” The Bishop went on to say, “if we are going to ever reach a point of moving this denomination into God’s preferred future, if we are ever going to find a way to make our church relevant for the 21st Century, we must find a way to respect one another more deeply and cooperate with one another more significantly. This conference should remind us that the church cannot change without all parties, or at least most of them, finding a way to compromise, cooperate, and respect one another. That applies to liberals & conservatives, Central Conferences & US Jurisidictions, the young & the old.” Even among Christians, there seems to be a general mistrust. We are paralyzed by fear, so we digress to name-calling and finger-pointing. The result is that very little is done to further our mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
Which brings us to this morning’s text; a continuation of Jesus’ words we heard last week about remaining in the vine so that we might bear fruit and thus bring glory to God. Today, Christ explains to his disciples what exactly it looks like to abide in his presence; and so begins a beautiful passage about love and charity, friendship and community. Jesus explains to his followers that just as a branch cannot bear fruit by itself, his disciples cannot love one another, much less bring others to faith, apart from the abiding love of Christ. As Jesus speaks here about love, the word he uses is agape. Agape love is love given freely, love offered without condition; it is sometimes translated as “charity” rather than “love,” but there is such a stigma around charity these days, that the more appropriate reference is love.
Such agape love is first and foremost interested in the good of the other person. It never attempts to possess or dominate another. In fact, so great is this love for others that it follows the very pattern Christ modeled for us – care and concern for others, even to the point that we will lay aside our very lives for our friends. Now, it is rare in this day and age that we have to love all the way to death, Christians are not persecuted now they way they were in the years immediately following Jesus’ death and resurrection. But I do think there is an important message for us even today, and that is that we must be willing to set aside our agendas in order to work in unity as the body of Christ; that we love others enough that we are willing to lay down our own beliefs in order to love our friends.