Hard, Troublesome, Dangerous Love
There are some things you need to know. Maybe some things you just forgot.
A couple of weeks ago, I talked a little bit about numbers. I talked a little bit about the numbers that I obsess over. I talked a little bit about how I keep track of our attendance and membership and giving. And I talked a little bit about how I feel better about myself when those numbers are higher.
That wasn’t the core message of the sermon, but still… I know that there are people in this sanctuary who dream of being a big church, with lots of young families, and full Sunday School classrooms, and maybe even two services. And there are days when I am one of them.
Last week, I talked a little bit about being noticed. I talked a little bit about people seeing our generosity and asking, “Who are these people? Who do they think they are? Where are they getting this stuff?” I talked a little bit about hearing people ask those questions, and telling them the answers, and asking them to get in on it, too.
That wasn’t the core message of the sermon, but still… I know that there are people in this sanctuary who dream of being a noticeable church, with people coming from miles around to check us out, and folks talking about how amazing we are, and maybe even being a little bit famous. And there are days when I am one of them.
We are part of a culture that dreams big. We celebrate celebrity. We trust millionaires to make education policy or healthcare policy or whatever. We trust famous people to tell us the truth.
And even if we go through our daily lives mostly content, we all have those moments when we want to be on the red carpet, or in front of the big crowd, or on the cover of some magazine.
And even as a church, we have those moments when we look at megachurches and celebrity pastors and think, “Wouldn’t it be nice?”
In the second part of today’s reading, Jesus gets a moment.
He has taken Peter and James and John up a high mountain. And, in front of these three friends, he is changed. His face shines like the sun. His clothes become a dazzling white.
And then, appearing in front of them all: Moses and Elijah.
Moses, who led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Moses, who went up the mountain and spoke to God face to face. Moses, who brought the law to the people. Moses, who led the people to the promised land.
Elijah, who raised a widow’s son. Elijah, who called fire down from heaven. Elijah, who prophesied to—and sometimes against—the king. Elijah, who did not die, but was taken into heaven by a whirlwind.
Moses and Elijah… the law and the prophets. And Jesus is talking with them.
And then, the pièce de résistance, a bright cloud rolls in and a voice from the cloud says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
Peter and James and John see Jesus… conversing with the law and the prophets… endorsed by God. And they are afraid. It’s overwhelming.
Something you need to know. Maybe something you just forgot.
Several weeks ago, I mentioned that one traditional criticism of Christianity is that our God doesn’t act like a God. Ancient pagans complained about it. Modern atheists complain about it.
This Jesus person doesn’t roll into the world with glory and honor. He doesn’t show up with the weapons of war. He doesn’t slaughter his adversaries in front of him. He doesn’t take the throne and demand worship and throw the unfaithful into a lake of fire.
He sometimes says that he’ll get around to that sort of thing eventually. But he just seems to do it.
He is… they complain… weak.
And they’re not wrong. Six days before he took Peter and James and John up the mountain to witness the transfiguration, he was in Caesarea Philippi. And he kept telling his disciples that he had to suffer; that he would be tortured and killed and raised again.
And he told them, “If you want to follow me, you need to deny yourself and take up your cross. If you try to save your life, you will lose it. And if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it.”
Sure, someday there will be glory. But, for now…
…there will be times when we suffer.
…there will be times, as we share the love of Christ with the world, when the world will push back.
…there will be times, when we say that no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here, when our friends and neighbors in Christ will call us heretics.
…there will be times when it will be hard.
And, I’ll be honest with you, if we live our lives in a way that is always easy—where people always like us, and are always comfortable with us, and always applaud and celebrate us—then we are not following Christ.
If it was always easy to follow Christ—if people always liked us, or were always comfortable with us, or always applauded and celebrated us—then we wouldn’t be following Christ. Christ does not call us to easy. Christ calls us to love. And, sometimes, love is hard. Sometimes, love gets you in trouble. Sometimes, love is downright dangerous.
And hard, troublesome, dangerous love is exactly what Jesus calls us to. Hard, troublesome, dangerous love is exactly what Jesus does.
Jesus—the son of God, the beloved with whom God is well pleased, the one to whom we should listen—loves the world in this way:
He puts his glory aside. He hides his honor. He puts down the weapons of war and lets his adversaries come at him. He steps down off the throne and asks us to love one another, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to love the stranger, to love our enemies. He seeks out the unfaithful and redeems them.
He seeks out the unfaithful and redeems us. Again and again and again. And he asks us to do the same for each other.
And, I’ll be honest with you, it is hard to do that—maybe even impossible to do that—when we dream the dreams of this world.
It is hard to do that—maybe even impossible to do that—when we prioritize being big, or having lots of young families, or having full Sunday School rooms, or getting to a place where we need to have two services.
It is hard to do that—maybe even impossible to do that—when we prioritize being seen, and having people come from miles around, and getting people to talk about us, and maybe even getting a little bit famous.
It is hard to do that—maybe even impossible to do that—when we prioritize anything else.
Because when we prioritize the success of this world, fear creeps in…
…what if loving that person makes our members uncomfortable?
…what if loving that family makes other people talk and spread rumors?
…what if loving those people gets a member to walk out, or a donor to stop giving?
It is hard to love with the hard, troublesome, dangerous love of Christ—it is, maybe, impossible to love with the hard, troublesome, dangerous love of Christ—when we put anything else before that love.
Now, don’t worry, that doesn’t mean that I’m not looking at the numbers. That doesn’t mean that I’m not working on things like membership and engagement and giving.
But it does mean this: our focus—our unwavering focus as individuals Christians and as a congregation—is on love. It is on love for people who are part of this congregation and for people who are not. It is on love for people who are Christians and for people who are not. It is on love for people who like us and for people who do not.
It is on love when that love is easy and bright and wonderful… and it is on love when that love looks like a cross and is hard to bear.
For when we love—when we pick up our cross, and give up our lives, and love—we see Christ in all his glory: radiant and dazzling. When we love, fear flees. When we love, God provides.
Thanks be to God!