BY THIS WE KNOW LOVE
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And so ought we to lay down our lives for our brothers.” I John 3: 16
I have an announcement to make this morning: It has been revealed to me, by divine inspiration, directly from the throne of heaven, just what shall be the nature and goal of our missional engagement and witness in this neighborhood. I know that we agreed, on church council at least, that we would use this first year here as a time to explore this community, find out what God is doing here, find our place in it, our partners, and the gifts we have to offer, and what it has to offer us, before we jumped in feet first to make any specific local ministry commitments as a congregation. But now I’m ready to announce what I think should be the stance of our missional engagement toward this community.
Now by “divine inspiration directly from the throne of heaven” I’m not saying that I heard any voices or had any visions from heaven. I have not. I just read it in today’s Bible passage from I John chapter 3. But I think that counts as divine inspiration, direct from the throne of heaven. And as for what I mean by “our stance of missional engagement” toward the community, I’m not going to get too specific and say we’ll do this and that with this and that agency. I’m still talking generally, more than specifically. So no, I haven’t jumped the gun yet, either.
I might have, though, in response to some mail and announcements I have received about an upcoming citywide revival meeting in August. I have received mail and information and invitations to this summer’s Rock the River Tour, sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, with his son, Franklin Graham the main speaker. It will be here on August 16. With a summer like this one coming up, with two conferences and helping a daughter move to Pittsburgh, I don’t know how much time I can contribute to that. But if anyone wishes to get in on it as a volunteer or a counselor or simply to attend, and hopefully bring a friend, let me know and I’ll get you the information.
I’ve been to at least one such event. It is inspiring to see people responding to the message and coming forward to accept Christ’s acceptance of themselves. But I sensed, and people in the know have confirmed, that the majority of people going forward have usually already had some kind of relationship with the church and the Christian faith. That’s evident just by the fact that they were willing to go to the revival meeting in the first place. That doesn’t make these gatherings worthless. In fact, they often galvanize people who have been sitting on the fence spiritually. They provoke a decision after many other people, like Sunday School teachers, their relatives, friends and co-workers have planted gospel seeds in their lives long enough and strong enough to get them to come to the crusade in the first place. If you have friends or family members like that, who you suspect would understand words like “salvation” or “redemption,” for whom such a gathering would be in their comfort zone, then by all means invite them and attend.
But when I look at our new immediate neighborhood here, and who’s here in the Phillips Neighborhood, I don’t know how such a meeting would work for our Somali friends in this neighborhood, who for now would not be caught dead at such a meeting. Especially not after some of the insensitive things Franklin Graham said a few years back about Islam. To his benefit, he seems to have learned from that, and to have stopped. And fortunately, the Rock the River tour is not being called, a “crusade” this time.
But many, or most of our Somali friends wouldn’t understand the language anyway. Many of our immigrant Spanish-speaking neighbors would also have some language and cultural barriers. And then there are our Native American neighbors who often associate churches and the gospel with the brutal beating they’ve taken culturally and militarily. I can understand why. And then there are the older, former hippies and the new urban progressives who are doing wonderful things by way of urban homesteading, reclaiming old homes and entire blocks here. But few of them would answer an invitation to a revival meeting. For many of them, their relationship with the church is more like one of a divorce than of the courtship that characterizes good evangelism. Hear some of their stories about things like judgmentalism and the abuse of power in the church, and again I understand why it might take some time to earn their trust.
No, as far as our local witness is concerned, we have a lot of work ahead of us just to earn trust and the right to a hearing among the many who are culturally and spiritually distant and resistant to the gospel, often for reasons with which I have some sympathy. But I still have much hope, because of what John tells us in today’s scripture passage: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And so ought we to lay down our lives for our brothers.” I am also hopeful, even enthused about the prospects for ministry, because of how such love has been expressed, and because of the results I’ve seen of such love.
Let me give you a few stories about such love and its fruits. Many of us know the story about Dirk Willems, the Dutch Anabaptist martyr in 16th Century Holland. Imprisoned for his faith, sentenced to death, he escaped from a cold, dark dungeon one cold wintry day. His escape was detected, and a prison guard pursued him across a frozen canal, until he fell through the ice. Hearing his cry for help, Dirk Willems remembered what Jesus said: “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, do good to those who hate you.” So Dirk returned across the ice to rescue his pursuer. Once atop the ice again, the pursuer was prone to let him go. But his superiors, safe on the shore, ordered him to re-capture Dirk, which he did. Dirk was executed a few days later.
Or let me tell you again about Prisoner #16670 in Auschwitz, Nazi-occupied Poland, 1941. Its been some years since I mentioned him. But he bears mentioning again, and his story is somewhat like Dirk’s. He was not just a number; his name was Father Maximilian Kolbe. In 1941, he was arrested for hiding and smuggling thousands of Jews in his Polish monastery, and sent first to prison, then to the death camp, Auschwitz. One morning, a man turned up missing. The prisoners were lined up in an open yard where the camp commandant told them that every time someone escaped, ten prisoners would die. In front of Father Kolbe, a man was chosen to be sent with nine others to a cell to starve to death. He hung his head and cried, “My family! What’s to become of them?” So Fr. Kolbe stepped forward and told the Camp Commandant, “I’ll take his place.”
Who are you? The commandant asked.
“Just a priest. And an old one at that,” Kolbe replied.
“Suit yourself,” the commandant sneered. “As long as there are ten.”
If anything, getting captured and executed looks like a strategy for church shrinkage, not church growth. But you never know what God might do with our efforts to love faithfully, courageously and sacrificially. Some thirty years ago there was a Japanese television series on prisoners and martyrs of conscience. One episode dramatized Dirk Willem’s story. Dirk’s story so affected one viewer, that he had to study and find out everything he could about Dirk Willems and the 16th Century Anabaptists. The result of all his study was that he became a Christian, a Mennonite, and a pastor. His name is Pastor Takeji Nomura. Becky and I got to know him, his wife, and his story when we were part of a small group together at Seminary, back in 1984. He is now pastoring several churches in Tokyo.
As for Auschwitz Prisoner #16670, Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, the man he saved was Francis Wajownicjek. Fr. Kolbe was canonized and declared a saint by Pope John Paul II in 1982, with Francis Wajowniczek alive and present at the ceremony, along with his family. And other survivors, whose bodies survived the death camps. So did their faith, their relationships with God, and their capacity to love and believe, even though they had been through the hell of Auschwitz. Because there, amidst all the squalor and brutality of a death camp, they saw Jesus present among them, in the self-sacrificial love of Father Kolbe.
So much martyrdom looks like a sure-fire way to shrink churches, not grow them. But I don’t see church growth as an end in itself. Sure, I want to see Emmanuel Mennonite Church continue to grow numerically to the point where we start other worship services, at different times, in different styles and maybe different languages. Maybe we’ll even start another church some day, and have other members who are licensed and ordained to ministry. Sure, I want to see us grow to the point where we take on extra ministry staff, preferably staff who speak other languages like Amharic, or Spanish or even Somali. I want to see us grow in ministry so that we are linked by members and Mennonite Voluntary Service workers with other churches and other ministering agencies in this community like Urban Ventures, or Lutheran Social Services and the Center for Changing Lives, or Community Emergency Services or Open Arms, which gives meals and material support to people suffering with things like ALS or HIV/AIDS without asking them, “How did you get HIV?AIDS?”
We can work toward such things, but we have no control over whether or not they actually happen. I see such growth as something secondary, a symptom or a result of another kind of growth, the growth I talked about most of last year, when I preached again and again from Mark’s Gospel on the kingdom of God. God has not promised that our churches will grow. God has promised to grow his kingdom, “on earth as it is in heaven.” Church growth, and new churches, are signs and results of God growing his kingdom.
Which makes this as good a time as any to remind us of the four main features of our local mission engagement plan. They are: 1) spiritual growth; 2) hospitality; 3) publicity, hopefully word of mouth, but any other way, too) and 4) partnership with other churches and agencies. Of those four, everything depends on number 1: spiritual growth, so that there is something contagious, compelling and unmistakable about the life we are offering, that can’t be ignored, to which people must react, either positively or otherwise. In the stories of Dirk Willems and Maximilian Kolbe, there is something just like what I described: something so compelling and contagious that you either embrace it, like Takeji Nomura did, or you disdain it and reject it, like the camp commandant at Auschwitz did. But you can’t ignore it. Not a love so strong that someone would substitute their lives for someone else’s.
So where did they learn such love? Even to the point of being able to respond and offer their lives immediately, automatically, when a moment’s hesitation would have meant the death of Dirk’s pursuer and of Francis Wojawniczek? Dirk and Father Kolbe would have said the same thing John the Beloved said: from Jesus. “This is how we know what love is: Christ Jesus laid down his life for us. And so we ought to lay down our lives for each other.”
Such a love doesn’t just happen. We aren’t born with it. If anything, our brains are wired to respond to differences and threats with a defensive, aggressive fear. And when a truck is bearing down on you while you’re walking across the street, that’s a good thing. But when we meet someone who believes differently than we do, or someone who opposes what we believe and even persecutes us for it, such fear is not so good. Not if we want to live and love like Jesus. We have to learn something deeper than our fight or flight reflexes; in effect, to re-wire our heads, our hands and our mouths and connect them to open, loving hearts. And if all our prayers, our worship and our Bible study have not served that end, to substitute the love of Christ for the knee jerk fear reaction toward others, then they have not accomplished one of their most important purposes.
That’s why our spiritual growth is the key to God’s kingdom growth. Without it, Dirk Willems would have kept on running across the ice, if he’d even had a faith to be imprisoned for. And the family of Francis Wojavniczek would have been without a father, husband and son after the war.
That kind of love, a love that is willing to die for others, is what I mean by our stance of missional engagement toward this community. Look at the picture of Dirk Willems on the cover of the bulletin, with his hands spread out towards his needy, vulnerable enemy, at great risk and cost to himself, and you get a powerful image of the kind of love that John’s letter is urging on us.
Its something that our Somali friends and neighbors have seen too little of, in this day and age when everyone is looking at them with fear, asking themselves, “Are they harboring terrorists?” or worse: “Are they recruiting terrorists?” This last weekend in Goshen, Indiana, when I tried to describe our church’s new neighborhood to friends and family members, at least twice I was asked, “So, are there any pirates in your neighborhood?” Ha-ha. The answer is No, of course not. They came here to get away from that stuff, same as you or I would. They need people to look at them not with eyes filled with fear, but eyes filled with the kind of love that would offer to do what Father Kolbe did and say, “I’ll take his place.”
The same with our Mexican and Latin American neighbors, when people look at them so often with fear and wonder, “Are you legal?” or now, “Are you carrying a contagious disease?” The only contagion I care about is a contagion of self-sacrificial death-defying love, spreading out from ourselves, and jumping boundaries of language and culture.
Now I know that very few of us will ever actually be called upon to offer our lives in the place of someone else’s. It hasn’t happened to me obviously. Or if it has, I missed the opportunity and flunked the test. But if we get that down, in our heads and hearts, the willingness to love people to the point of dying for them, everything else short of that becomes a piece of cake. Need help with lunch? Need a place to hang out for a bit? Need someone to hear your story? Need someone to set aside his schedule and give you some time? Its all okay when you have already determined that his or her life is worth your own.
And not only is it easier to give; love is also about being willing to receive. If I love you enough to die in your place, then I should also be willing to receive and learn from you, too. I should be just as concerned about your dignity as my own. I experienced this on our recent visit to a local Somali mall. When I ordered an espresso from a barista, he asked me why I and some other obviously non-Somali people were there. I told him we were visiting from a local church, just wanting to get to know our neighbors. He asked which one, and even said he’d like to visit one day. Later that next week I went back with a bag of Somali coffee that someone had given me as a gift, to ask him, How do I make Somali coffee and what do I need in order to make it? So he took me behind the counter and showed me. And there I was, suddenly, a barista in a Somali coffee shop. That’s a tough job. Fortunately, no other customers came in. But he taught me something. And then he gave me another bag of Somali coffee as a gift. We’re friends now.
Now I cannot guarantee that if we develop and harbor such love, we will automatically fill this sanctuary to overflowing and fulfill all our dreams and goals for ministry and church growth. I am just as concerned about the church that goes into the world from this sanctuary every Sunday, as I am about the church that gathers here every Sunday. I am at least as concerned about the ministry that goes out from this sanctuary, from Monday through Saturday, as I am about the ministry that happens inside here every Sunday. I see church growth as secondary, a symptom of other kinds of growth that happen outside of church, especially spiritual growth. And spiritual growth, again, is nothing less than growth in our capacity to love, to the point of being willing to die for others. Such love is how the kingdom of God grows. “For unless a seed falls into the ground and dies,” said Jesus, “it can bear no fruit.”
Not only is this helpful for our mission and outreach outside the church. Its indispensable for us within the church. In fact, that’s what John had in mind when he said, “Christ Jesus laid down his life for us, and therefore we should be willing to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” To make that practical, he asked, “If anyone has this world’s goods and withholds them from his needy brother, how can the love of God be in him?” He was saying that to strengthen fellow Christians who were oppressed by the world and depressed by recent conflicts and church splits.
So for example, consider the possibility of discussing and discerning something sensitive and controversial, like politics, sexuality or money, with a fellow Christian whose opinions you know are contrary to your own. Imagine that you both come to this discussion and discernment with the intention to beat and defeat the other and demolish each other’s arguments. Its either you or him. Now feel your wrist for your pulse rate. Is yours doing like mine? Let’s see: 68; 72; 77; 83….
Now imagine instead that both of you have come to this time of discernment not with a driving desire to beat, defeat and humiliate each other, which is how so many discussions go, but with a willingness to die for each other long before you would do anything to hurt, humiliate or even kill each other, so that the point of your discussion is to better understand each other and love each other, even if there’s a slim chance that you’ll ever come to agreement. Now feel your pulse. Mine seems to be 77…73….71…68. Come to the table with that willingness to die for your discussion partner, if need be, and you won’t even need him or her to do the same.
Or consider the testimony to the world, and the benefit to the church, if our denomination can succeed in its current plan to help all pastors and church workers gain health insurance through the Corinthian Plan, a proposed denominational health insurance plan. It will cost every congregation something, even if they don’t enroll.
And yet every expression of love is costly, even if only of our independence and isolation. But I don’t think that either Dirk Willems or Father Kolbe would say now that they were cheated and paid more than the results were worth. Because they had already determined that other lives were just as worthy and precious as their own, even the lives of their enemies. A lot of loving must have gone on in their lives long before it got to the point where they could automatically say, “I’ll take his place,” or “I’ll pull you out.” That alone draws me toward them and makes me wish I could have enjoyed their fellowship from time to time.
Where did they learn such love? I’m sure that both would say that they learned it from their Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. Having learned from him what it is to die for others, they then knew how to live for others. The results are magnetic and attractive. And visible, in the shape of real flesh-and-blood persons.
As for us, such love is the goal of our outreach to the world. Whether we strive toward such love and express it is the one thing we can control. The details of the map have yet to be filled in, and the results are totally up to God. But expect great things from such love. For as the French priest, Fr. Teillhard de Chardin said, “Some day, after mastering the power of the wind, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the power of love, and then, for the second time in human history, we will have discovered fire.”