SJF • Easter 6b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.+
For as long as I can remember, at least since I was four or five years old, I have had a great love for dinosaurs. I know I am not alone in this, and there are probably more than a few people here who as children staged dinosaur combats with diminutive molded plastic figures of those ancient giants. One of my earliest church memories — I couldn’t have been much older than six — is about arguing with the Sunday School teacher about which day of creation God made the dinosaurs. (I could be a very annoying child!) There was a time I could rattle off the names, terrible-sounding polysyllables worthy of these mysterious monsters from the dawn of time. I’ve forgotten most of the names I knew, and they’ve added so many new ones as discoveries continue, that I can’t keep up. But my fascination and interest still remains.
So a few years ago, when I first saw the previews for the Disney film called simply Dinosaur, I knew I would have to see it. Well, it lived up to all of my expectations, as well of those of a theater full of attentive viewers, most of whom were much, much younger than me!
And lest you find it odd that I am talking about a dinosaur movie in the context of a sermon, I do so because a major theme of the film — and actually a major theme of just about every movie Disney or his successors ever made — is also a major theme of our Scripture readings today. For the primary message of the film is the difference between conflict and cooperation.
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This theme is echoed in our readings as the difference between self-giving love and self-centered fear. We are called to love one another, and even more, we are commanded to love one another by our Lord Jesus Christ. The fact that we are called and commanded reveals a simple truth: love is not natural, it is something we have to be reminded to do, called to do, commanded to do. If love came naturally, the world would be a very different place, and people wouldn’t be singing about “what the world needs now” — because we’d already have it without having to sing for it.
The history of life on earth, including the dinosaurs — and this is where the Disney movie departs from reality and heads off for fantasy land — life without the call and command of God is not loving. Life without the call and command of God is survival of the fittest, every man — or dinosaur — for himself, and the devil — or the Tyrannosaurus — take the hindmost. Nature without love is, as Tennyson observed, “red in tooth and claw” and natural life — as Thomas Hobbes put it — is “nasty, brutish, and short,” though Hobbes thought the answer was good government rather than the love of God.
But to get back to Disney’s fable: in the real world of the Jurassic age there was no enlightened dinosaur to teach that cooperation is better than competition, that the way to survival is not to be found through victory over the weak, but through charity. Real dinosaurs are not charitable! Love does not come natural, and love does not come easy
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Yet love does come. Even more important, love did come. Love came down in the person of Jesus Christ, the only Son of the God, God who is love — in person. God is the love that fills the universe with his desire for unity and wholeness, love that draws together things that are flying apart by spreading out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross, to draw it all back together again, love that lifts up things that have been cast down, by stooping to the very depths to get under the weight of a fallen world and hoist it up on his shoulders.
Love came down to us in the person of Jesus Christ, and love called us and gave us a commandment: “Love one another; abide in my love.” This is the love that is greater than any other, the love that lays down its own life for the sake of the beloved; the love that puts others ahead of itself.
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This is the love we are called to; this is the love we are commanded to have for one another. This love is not just affection or warm feelings, but the gift of your very self for the sake of the ones you love. This is the love that marked the first Christian communities, such as the one that Barnabas gathered in Antioch, to which he called Saul, and in which those who believed in Jesus Christ were first called “Christians.” They must have been a particularly loving community — after all, they are one of the few to which Saint Paul did not have to write a letter of admonishment!
Somehow it seems they got it right, and the Scripture witnesses to their generosity and love in response to the prophetic warning that a world-wide famine was coming. Instead of hoarding their own resources, as well they might have done in the face of the terrible news, instead of looking out for themselves they took up a relief collection and sent it to Judea at the hands of Barnabas and Saul.
Think about that for a moment. For the ancient Christians of Antioch it wasn’t “every man for himself” but everyone for somebody else. The Christians of Antioch, were filled with the Holy Spirit, which is the Spirit of love. They didn’t fear for their own survival but risked all they could, to take up a collection to help the faithful three hundred miles away. God’s love, at work in their hearts, cast out the fear that urged them towards self-preservation, the fear that would have them concentrate on their own survival. God’s love transformed them into generous and memorable souls who were the first to be worthy of that old hymn refrain, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” And so it was in Antioch, that the believers were for the first time known by the name “Christian.”
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And this is still true. People will know we are Christians by our love. We will gain that name, that identity, not because we’ve got it printed on I.D. cards in our pockets, or name-tags round our necks; not because there’s a sign on the door or a cross on the roof. Anybody can get an I.D. card these days; anybody can put a sign on their door or a cross on their roof. Anybody can plaster a bumper sticker on their car, proudly asking you to honk if you love Jesus. Well, I can tell you, Jesus did not command us to honk; he commanded us to love each other as he has loved us! Anybody can slap a WWJD bracelet on their wrist — you know, the one that asks What Would Jesus Do? Well in response to WWJD, I say H C Y D W J W D I Y D K W H D: How Can You Do What Jesus Would Do If You Don’t Know What He Did? There are plenty of folks who call Jesus their Lord without the least interest in doing what he did, or even in doing what he said. What Jesus said is, “Love one another, Abide in my love,” and what he did was to lay down his life for his friends.
Jesus commanded us to love one another because he knew it takes a divine commandment to override the built-in natural drive to self-preservation that all of God’s creatures have carried in their brains and bodies from before the dinosaurs to today. Love is unnatural: natural selection is based on the survival of the fittest, not the love of the most generous. “Love comes from God,” as John the Beloved Disciple wrote, “We love because he first loved us.”
Love comes from God, for God is love. Love isn’t something we thought up, it is something God gives us. The love of God is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that is given to us. It takes the grace of God to turn away from the biological imperative to preserve oneself, to favor oneself, it takes the grace of God to embrace the call of God to sacrifice oneself for others, to place others first. It takes God’s call and command to think first about the misfortune and need of another before you tend to yourself; to take up the collection for people you’ve never met when you hear they are facing famine, even when you yourself may not know where your next meal is coming from.
But this is what our loving God through Christ commands us to do, and this is what loving God through the Spirit empowers us to do. And when we do, we too will be known to be Christians as were the first believers in Antioch. We too will be known to be Christians by our love. Not because of the sign on the door, or the cross on the roof, the i.d. card in our pocket, the name-tag round our necks, the bumper sticker on our cars, or the bracelet on our wrist. But because the love of God dwells in our hearts, through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us, in Jesus Christ our Lord.+