Let Mutual Love Continue

Love on another

Text   Hebrews 13:1-8

“Let mutual love continue.”

 We have no idea who wrote the Book of Hebrews so for discussion’s sake let’s just call him Fred. No disrespect intended.

Right after Fred give this imperative about love he gives further instructions such as a command about hospitality, a command to hold marriage in honor, and a command to be free of the love of money. I have an idea that these commands are not as random as they first appear. In fact perhaps what Fred is giving us are very concrete and practical examples of how we can ensure that mutual love continues. But before we consider that in more detail it is noteworthy that Fred calls on his listeners not only continue in love, but to continue in MUTUAL love. Some translations use “brotherly love” but the word “mutual” more instructive. Why is that important? It is important because one sided love can be very damaging. We know this to be true in interpersonal relationships. If one partner is continually giving and serving and laying down their life while their partner is an unfeeling narcissist, the relationship will either not last very long or it will become very unhealthy.

Similarly love that is not mutual in the Body of Christ can be very damaging. Years ago we had a young woman in our church in Florida that looking back I believe had a borderline personality disorder. She was smart, attractive and very high functioning but she was ill, but ill in an almost evil kind of way. She was needy, so folks in the church reached out to her. She would befriend the wife and then spend so much time with the wife, either in person or on the phone, that she would come between the wife and husband. Then when the wife became completely drained and/or began to lay down some boundaries, she would move on to another family in the church and not only do the same thing there, but talk badly about the previous family. So family number two would now think very poorly about family number one. The same thing would happen again and she would move on to family number three, who in turn would think very poorly about families one and two. It took me awhile to see her pattern but when I realized that she was sowing some very serious seeds of division in the flock I called her on it and gave her some boundaries. As you can imagine she ignored them so to protect the flock I ended up asking her to leave. Of course she moved on to another church and spoke badly about me and our church.

We tried to love her but because the love was not mutual, because she was a taker and not a giver, the relationship became something that hurt rather than built up the Body of Christ. The Church is a hospital and so we attract broken people. But we need to be clear that the goal is to move as quickly as possible towards health and wholeness. The Church is not here to perpetuate illness and as difficult as it is to understand, there are folks who don’t really want to be helped. We still have to love people who refuse to get well but we love them with a fireman’s love; that is from a far.

So the first thing we need to ask ourselves is do we give as well as take when it comes to love in the Body of Christ? Is our love mutual or are we a black hole that absorbs everyone around us? How do we evaluate that? Let’s move to Fred’s other commands and see.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality…” That is certainly a way to ensure that mutual love continues. Showing hospitality is how we ensure that we are a giver and not just a taker.

I fear our fast food, smart phone American culture has lost appreciation for hospitality but in other cultures it is very important. I was taken to a gentlemen’s home in Egypt and on the way my host said, “He will offer you tea or a coke and even if you don’t want it, say ‘yes.’ He would be deeply insulted if you did not accept his hospitality.” And that sentiment is true in many parts of the world. It would do us well in the U.S. to regain this perspective.

Being hospitable is a very practical way to show love. In my last year of high school I was a lifeguard on the Chesapeake Bay. During a break I went with two college guys to Rehoboth Beach and coming back late at night we decided to pull over and get some sleep. We were all too broke to afford a motel room so we parked in a corn field. Very early the next morning, it was a Sunday, there was a tap on the car window. It was the farmer who was waking us up and I was relieved that he was tapping and not shooting. He said to us, “You boys come on into the house and wash up, breakfast is almost ready.” We washed up and sat down at the table and then he said, “This is a Christian home and this is Sunday so we are going to say our prayers before we eat and go to church. You boys kneel right there at your chairs.” So we all knelt down and leaned on our chairs and he prayed for what seemed like forever. I don’t think there was one missionary in China that didn’t get prayed for. He finally finished and we sat down for breakfast. Just as I was about to dig in he stopped me and said grace. I had never seen anyone pray twice before! I thought that surly the first long prayer covered the food but evidently not.

That happened more years ago than I care to remember but I can not only recall that event, I can still feel the emotion that his hospitality evoked in me. I have no doubt that he sowed seeds of the kingdom in my life.

I have said it before and will continue to do so, that the two greatest tools of evangelism that nearly every one of you has available are your cars and your dining room tables. Don’t just invite someone to church, tell them what time you are picking them up. That is hospitality. And then to show even more hospitality by break bread together. We above all others should know the covenantal power of taking a meal together. So use your cars and your dining room table to sow seeds of the kingdom into the lives of others. That promotes mutual love. And since, as Fred said, you may even be entertaining angels when you do so, you are missing out on a blessing if you fail to be hospitable.

The next practical way to ensure that mutual love continues is through compassion. We are to remember those who are in prison and those who are being tortured.

When I was doing social work I took a group of young troublemakers to a state prison for a scared straight program. But instead of being scared straight they saw so many of their uncles and cousins and friends that I ended up hosting a family reunion. These are not the kinds of prisoners that this text is calling on us to remember. In these verses Fred is referring to our brothers and sisters in Christ who are being imprisoned and tortured for their faith. The idea here is that because we are part of the same family, a part of one Body, if it is happening to them then we need to realize that it is happening to us. If we are calloused to the sufferings of other parts of Christ’s Body then mutual love will not continue. Therefore I am so grateful for Fr. Chris’ leadership in bringing to us Underground Church. He is helping us to better understand what our brothers and sisters around the world are enduring for the sake of the Gospel. When I have met some of these folks and asked them what they needed from the Church in the West they uniformly answer “prayer.” I want to encourage you to come to Underground Church and learn more and learn how to pray for them.

Next Fred tells his listeners to honor marriage. How does honoring marriage ensure that mutual love continues? It does so because a healthy marriage is the best example of genuine love that there is. I say that because the Scriptures teach that husband and wife are an icon of Christ and the Church and there is no greater love than that of Jesus for His Church.

How do we go about honoring marriage? First we do so by only accepting Jesus’ definition of marriage. Jesus said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and cling unto his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” Marriage is a divine institution and so the Supreme Court was out of bounds to redefine it. That is why I reject their redefinition and why I will no longer sign a State marriage document. Even if one day it costs us our tax free status we must not waver on this matter.

We honor marriage by not living together before marriage. Fred gives us here a pretty strong warning about both adultery and fornication, which is sex outside of marriage. I read a university study that concluded that those who live together before marriage have an even higher divorce rate, so the theory of giving it a trail run is factually proven wrong. When we do things God’s way life works better because we are following the manufacturer’s recommendations.

We honor marriage by doing all that we can do to strengthen them. The fairy stories may conclude, “and they lived happily ever after” but marriage takes work. You need to be very intentional in order to serve and honor and lay down your life for another. But it is worth the work not only for a good marriage but for the good of the Church because strong marriages built strong churches. Thus mutual love continues.

But what does keeping our lives free from the love of money have to do with mutual love? If you have the love of money then there is never enough and when there is never enough you turn into Uncle Scrooge. Isn’t it true that Uncle Scrooge was hardly known for his love?

If you are free of the love of money then you will tend to be generous and what could be more loving than helping a widow pay a light bill or sending an offering to Food for the Poor or going on a mission trip to Honduras to get water to an orphanage? As Jesus said, we cannot serve two Masters so if you are a servant of money then you are not truly free to serve Christ or others. If you love money then you tend to use people but as Christians we are to do just the opposite. We are to use money and love people.

As many of you who have experienced, as a result of going through Financial Peace University, the first step is to get out from under the burden of debt. The Bible says that we are to owe no one anything but love and life feels very differently when that becomes a reality. We are going to keep offering FPU so that as a church we remain free of the love of money and free from debt so that we can give generously to show the love of Christ to those in need.

Lastly we ensure that mutual love continues by remembering our leaders who speak the word of God to us. We are to be teachable and receptive to their leadership because it is for our own good. As they speak the word of God to us we have a clearer picture of who God is and what His plans are for our lives. As they speak the word of God to us we see more clearly God’s love for us. As they speak the word of God to us we grow in our relationship with Christ and we become more whole and more able to live not only for ourselves but for the sake of others. We find, as the collect in the Book of Common Prayer says, that service to God is how we come to perfect freedom. It is perfect freedom because when you serve God and others you get rid of the two year old brat who lives inside, always having needs and demanding his own way and pouting when he does not get it. It is perfect freedom to come to a place in life when you are no longer self absorbed and you start looking around for ways of helping others

If you know your Bible then you know that it is not an accident that Fred has gone from teaching us the last couple of weeks about faith to now speaking about love. The two are like kissing cousins and they promote one another. To grow in faith is to grow in love and visa versa. As St. Paul put it, “now abideth faith, hope and love but the greatest of these is love.” So let mutual love continue. Amen.

Faith not Fear

Fear

Text Heb 11:1-16

“And without faith it is impossible to please God.” Heb 11:6

“If you had more faith your child would have not been born with Downs syndrome.” “If you had more faith your church would be larger.” “If you had more faith you wouldn’t have these money problems.” “If you had more faith your husband wouldn’t have left you.”

These and many more like these are the kinds of comments about faith that I have heard over the years. They reveal an appalling misunderstanding of faith and given how important faith is to God, it is a misunderstanding that we cannot afford to have. So let’s dig a little deeper into the topic of faith and ask the classic questions of “what?” “why?” and “how?”

In answering the “what” of faith let’s first make a clarification. As the earlier comments “if you had more faith….” reveal, it is a common notion that faith is something that you quantify. If you have little of it then nothing happens but if you have more then things start to pop. My guess is that this notion comes from the expression in the Bible, “Oh ye of little faith.” Doesn’t it sounds like they needed to get some more?

The problem with this view of faith is that it opens the door to all kinds of false narratives about God. Faith becomes quarters and God becomes a slot machine and if we just put in enough quarters then God will pay out eventually. Or instead of being coworkers with God, this falty view of faith puts it all on our shoulders. God would like to bless us but He can’t because we haven’t yet piled up enough faith to tip the scales in our direction. So God wanted to heal me but since I didn’t have enough faith then He couldn’t. Question. How much faith did Lazarus have right before Jesus raised Him from the dead?

Faith is not about quantity. Jesus said all we need is faith the size of a mustard seed to move mountains. Sure faith grows and matures but all we need is the faith of a child to enter the kingdom of God. So the real issue of faith is not how much you have but in what or in whom it is placed.

I was at the Outlet Mall in Lebanon and while in the restroom observed two Muslims washing up for prayers. I followed them out and they went to their car and pulled out some cardboard to use as prayer rugs. They figured out which way Mecca was and they knelt and said their prayers right there in the parking lot. While I admire such faith and devotion and admit that this is more faith and devotion than many Christians exhibit, nevertheless it is my understanding of Scripture that Mohammed will not get them to the kingdom of God. So again, it’s not the amount of faith but in what or in whom it is placed.

Our lesson from Hebrews gives us the definition of faith. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The New Living Translation make is clearer to me. Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.”

So faith is confidence that gives assurance. We exercise faith every day and we do it in pretty profound ways. Think of all the ways that we put our lives in danger without giving it a second thought. When we get into our cars, when we get on an elevator, when we board a plane we have confidence that the ones who build these things have done it correctly and so we assure ourselves that we will arrive safely. We do this even without having the first clue who these guys are that built these things.

A principle point of Jesus’ ministry was to reveal a God in whom we can place our faith. He is not an anonymous union worker up north putting parts together. He is a heavenly Father who like all fathers wants the best for His children. What an astonishing line in Luke’s Gospel. “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” I saw a great quote. “ ‘Do not be afraid’ is said 365 times in the Bible so it is a daily reminder that God wants us to live each day courageously.” But even more than that, not only does God not want us to be afraid, He wants us to understand that He has gladly determined to give us His kingdom. If we could embrace that thought we would have no difficulty placing our faith in this Lord.

Through parables and teachings and demonstrations of mercy Jesus showed us a God in whom we can trust. We place our confidence in Him because He has a character worthy of such trust and because He is the same yesterday, today and forever, we have assurance, we can rest in Him.

That is the “what” of faith. Let’s consider the “why” of it. Why is faith so important for us? One reason is because faith leads to obedience. The text in Hebrews says, “By faith Abraham obeyed God when he was called to set out…and he set out not knowing where he was going” (and because he was a man he refused to stop and ask for directions). Abraham did not know where he was going but he had faith that God did so he obeyed. Here we see the facet of faith that is trust.

Some of you may not know the story of George Mueller but you should because he is such a great example of a man who had father Abraham’s kind of trust in God. Muller pastored a church in England for 60 years in the 1800’s but he also began an orphanage that cared for more than 10,000 orphans. What was amazing about this was that he purposed to never ask for money nor could any of his coworkers. He believed that if it was God’s work then God would provide and over the years he prayed in millions of pounds. One day he was told that they had completely run out of food and there was nothing to serve for breakfast. Trusting in God to provide, Muller had the orphans assembled in the dining hall and he said grace. Hearing a loud crash they ran out of the orphanage to discover that a bread wagon had collided with a milk wagon and this became breakfast for the orphans. The important lesson for us is Muller’s motives that were combined with his faith. Muller wrote, “The first and primary object of the work was and still is that God might be magnified…..” He exercised his faith in order to give God an opportunity to demonstrate His power so that God would be glorified. This is very different than sending in money that you don’t have to the TV preacher so that you can get your miracle.

A second reason that faith is so important is because it focuses our lives. The reason that Abraham could leave his homeland is because by faith he could see a better one before him. The text says, “For he looked forward to the city that has foundations whose architect and builder is God.” The reason that the Apostles could sell their possessions and follow Christ was because they had just been told that it was the Father’s delight to give them the kingdom. It’s like meeting someone for lunch with a bologna sandwich in hand only to discover that they have prepared for you a steak dinner. By faith we can see that what the world offers us cannot compare with what God has in store so it is not really a burden to leave the world behind.

Lastly we need to ask the “how” of faith. How do we grow and mature in the faith? If faith has to do with convictions and assurances that are based in the character of God, where do we best learn about the character of God?

First we learn best about the character of God through the Scriptures. The Bible says, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” Some translations say “and hearing by the word of Christ.” To put it another way, we learn about God best by listening to what Jesus said about Him.

There are so many false narratives about God in the world and even at times in the Church that it is very easy to have a distorted image of Him. This in turn makes it difficult to place our faith in Him. It took me forever to rid myself of my childhood image of God as a big cop in the sky who was looking for an excuse to punish me. That He would delight to give me His kingdom never entered my imagination. It took years of study for that truth to replace the childish false narrative and sometimes it still is a battle. The point of the Scriptures is not so that we can debate about fine points of theology, the point of the Scriptures is so that God can reveal Himself to us so that we can place our faith in Him. Bottom line is that you will never grow and mature in faith if you are ignorant of God’s Word.

Second we learn best about the character of God through prayer. What has especially helped me has been using the Book of Common Prayer for decades. The prayers and liturgies of that book have taught me about God and His will for us. In the morning we pray, “O God who are the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom…..” What did we just learn? We learned that God loves peace and concord and so I better not put on Facebook my response to my commie pinko friend. I learned that knowing God gives us eternal life so it’s not the end of the world if I don’t know the difference between a cruet and a ciborium. I learned that rather than being a burden serving God it is how I find the freedom that I seek. If we can get all of that from one half of one prayer, imagine what is formed in us as we pray many of these prayers day after day and year after year.

A third way that we learn best about God is through His Church. Why is that? It is because the Church is the Body of Christ. One of the things I enjoy about Bible Study is when we get together we represent different parts of the Body of Christ. And these different parts will see in the Scriptures things that I would never see only coming from my perspective. So the other parts of Christ’ Body give me a more full picture of this God who is revealing Himself to us and it is why lone ranger Christianity does not work.

There is a dangerous sentiment on the rise that the Body of Christ is optional. It is becoming more and more popular for Churches to stream their services live so folks can stay home and watch it on the computer but they will soon discover that is a huge mistake. Not only can you not receive the Sacrament through a computer screen, you also cannot wash anyone’s feet. God so loved the world that He did not become a Facebook friend. A religion based on the incarnation of God Himself requires that we spend real time with real people in order to love and serve one another.

Strengthened by these first three ways, a fourth best way that we learn about the character of God and grow our faith is through patient suffering. You probably don’t want to hear that and I really did not want to have to say it but the Scriptures compel me to do so. The Bible says that if we are His children He will discipline us and although no discipline seems pleasant at the moment it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace (Heb 12). Like the guy who had seven theories and no children, and then had seven children and no theories, I have learned not to trust an authority who is not a wounded healer. Jesus was the suffering servant of Isaiah and so it follows that His followers will also be suffering servants. It is only as we are in the valley of the shadow of death that we truly learn that His rod and staff will comfort us. Up until then it is a nice verse on a plaque. As the saying goes, “mountain tops are wonderful but the fruit only grows in the valley.” It is when we are in the valley, in times of suffering, that we learn more deeply about who God is if we will turn to Him in those times.

“And without faith it is impossible to please God.” So the opposite must also be true. This means that our faith pleases God even faith the size of a mustard seed. Jesus asks us to place our faith in the One who delights to give us His kingdom even though we have not earned it nor do we even deserve it. So let’s be God pleasers and place our full trust in Him. Amen.