Love, whether it is the comfortable love between friends, the passion of a new romance, or the compassion and empathy we feel for strangers, binds us together as a community of faith and as a species; and since God is both the source of Love and love itself, we should assume that wherever we find love we are in the presence of God. Being a part of a community is vitally important because it allows us to experience God, which brings me to my questions for today, how do you experience God? And how do you help others do the same?
John informs us that Jesus told his friends to abide in his love. Abide is an old word that we do not really use anymore, it means to accept and then act in accordance with, so when we abide in the love of God, we are both accepting their love and then acting, according to our gifts, because of it. I often wonder where God is in my life because it is not always obvious to me. I often wonder if I am doing enough to restore creation; if am I really doing my part; if am I truly abiding in God’s love; if am I both accepting it and passing it on or if am I simply accepting it? Most of the time I think that I, and probably most of us, simply immerse ourselves in God’s love, but do not give much thought to how or when we pass it along to others, which means that we are not abiding, we are just absorbing.
When we abide in God’s love, we are truly experiencing it; it feeds us, it inspires us, it energizes us to go into the world rejoicing in the power of the spirit. Many people experience God in church, they draw energy from the liturgy and from being among people they care about. That energy is the love of God, it is what binds us together as a community, but it has the potential to do so much more.
When I was discerning my call to ordained ministry, I reflected a great deal on what my ministry would be as a deacon and the answer changed from week to week depending on my mood and as I learned new things about myself and about God. What finally dawned on me is that there are two types of ministries. The first type is the kind that we do because we think we are supposed to because that is what we were taught in Sunday school or from the pulpit. This type of ministry involves caring for the less fortunate, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. The second type of ministry is far more subtle, it is the ministry of human relationships. You see, God’s love flows into us through the Holy Spirit and if we are truly abiding in God’s love then we will allow that love to flow out of us and into others with our actions, binding us to one another and to God. You are probably thinking that both types of ministries sound exactly alike because when we feed and clothe the poor aren’t we sharing God’s love? To that I say, maybe. I say maybe because I would argue that in many cases, we do these things out of a sense of duty and not because we are immersing ourselves in God’s love. We do them because we think we are supposed to, not because we experience God while doing them. To be clear, I am certainly not saying that we should stop doing ministry if we are doing them because we think we are supposed to help people, I am saying we need to rethink our motivations to ensure that they are driven by the Holy Spirt and not by our egos. If we are unable to see or experience God (more on that in a minute) then perhaps we need stop participating in that ministry because it is very possible that it is our ego that is driving our participation and that will only lead to disaster. It will eventually cause us to burn out and the people we are trying to help can and will sense that we think they are less fortunate than we are, rather than our equal who has fallen on hard times, again, subtle but important. We are all equal in God’s eyes so if we are going to claim to share a bond with another person, then we can’t enter the relationship thinking that we are some how better than the other person.
So how do we know if we are experiencing God? Well, it is about the relationship. If God is present then you will experience love, because remember God is the source of all Love. Love can take many forms and we all experience it in different ways, so we all need to take the time to think and pray about how we experience God’s love in our lives so that we can discern whether we are truly abiding in God’s Love and whether we are using our gifts in the way God intended because if we don’t see God in our ministry then we are not doing ministry.
When I teach European History, we spend a good amount of time talking about the reformation, and I take the time to talk about some of the theological differences between the Catholic Church, Luther, and many other reformists. Medieval church doctrine said that we needed to do good works to show God that we were worthy enough to go to heaven, and until the 1960s that remained official church doctrine in the Catholic church. What Luther, and others said, is that our good works, in fact our desire to do them, are a manifestation of God’s love; so, we don’t need to do good works because we are supposed to, the good works are a sign to the world that we have a relationship with God; that we abide in God’s love and it is with love that we seek to aid others.
This distinction between doing things because we think we must and doing things from a place of love is vitally important. No one has ever come to God because another person gave them a bag of food or a pair of socks. They come to God when they experience the love our community of faith shares with one another. They come to God when they see your smile as you ask them how they are while you are giving them the bag of food. You see, giving away stuff is only a part of ministry, and it is the least important part, it is the part that is often driven by ego. The far more important part of ministry is the building of personal relationships because it is in and through those relationships that God’s love is experienced by everyone. If we are not building a relationship with the people we serve, if love isn’t a part of the equation while we are serving, then it isn’t about God; and if it isn’t about God, we either need to figure out why or stop calling ourselves the church. I fully understand that this may sound harsh, it felt harsh to write it, but sometimes we need to face new truths, sometimes we need to look at ourselves, at what we do, what we say and ask ourselves some hard questions. So, let’s ask ourselves, do we, both individually and collectively, abide in God’s love, in every sense of that word, or do we simply absorb God’s love by coming to church and then walking away with a good feeling? One of those options is about God and one is about us, and until we have taken the time to figure it out we will not grow as people of faith. Amen.