May 6, 2018: "What's Love Got To Do With It?"

“What’s Love Got To Do With It?”

A sermon by Andrew Philip Long

The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK

May 6, 2018

1 John 5:1-6 & John 15:9-17

There is a pretty obvious theme in the Scripture lessons we’ve heard today, and that theme is love. The psalmist writes that God is worthy of praise and new songs because God has remembered and is fulfilling his promise to love us. First John reminds us that in order to love God we must keep God commandments. God’s commandment is that we love one another—anyone who claims to love God must also love their neighbors…all of their neighbors. And from Jesus we heard a part of his final address to the disciples at his last supper, and his words are familiar: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Today’s Scriptures are all about love.

But what’s love got to do with it? Have you ever thought about that? It may seem strange, but as I studied and prayed through the Scriptures this week, I kept wondering about why there is so much love talk in God’s word. Why is love the commandment we receive from God and from Jesus Christ? Why does Jesus say, “love one another as I have loved you”? Why not “be successful” or “fill the plates and the pews in my name,” or “conquer foreign lands for me,” or “try to always be right.” There are plenty of other things Jesus could have told us to do, even things he did like feeding the hungry and healing the sick. Why does Jesus command us, above and beyond all else, to “love one another as I have loved you”? What’s love got to do with it?

I’ve been watching a documentary series recently on the history of the Pope. One episode in this series is titled, “Wartime Popes,” and it looks at how Popes throughout time have handled history’s wars. A particular focus in this episode is on Eugenio Pacelli. Pacelli was Secretary of State for the Vatican under Pope Pius XI and he was a fierce diplomat. In 1926 Pacelli negotiated a treaty with Italy’s dictator Benito Mussolini that allowed the church to exist in the fascist country without the threat of invasion or destruction by the government. In 1938 Pacelli negotiated another peace treaty between church and state, this time in Germany with the newly elected Chancellor, Adolf Hitler. By March of 1939, Hitler had all but torn up the treaty he had made with Pacelli and with the death of Pope Pius XI, the College of Cardinals saw the writing on the wall. On the third ballot, just a day after they began their work of electing a new Pope, the College of Cardinals elected Eugenio Pacelli as Pope Pius XII.

Pius XII is a controversial figure of church and world history. One of his first speeches as Pope was to condemn a set of laws passed in Italy that banned interracial marriage and placed certain restrictions on children of mixed marriages. This was a firm and progressive stand for the the Pope, and the church, to take. But when Kritallnacht, the night of broken glass, took place in November of 1938, the Pope said nothing. Kristallnacht was the single largest attack against Jews and Jewish life in Germany to that point. Pius XII seemed to be getting into the struggle on behalf of the Jewish people when he secured 3,000 visas for European Jews to immigrate to Brazil. There was one condition, though: the Jews had to convert to Catholicism. It was learned after the war that nearly two-thirds of those visas were revoked for what the church called ‘bad behavior.’ The Jewish Virtual Library says this is likely that those Jewish families converted to Catholicism to get the visas, then began practicing Judaism once in Brazil. As the war progressed, the Pope went from silent to outright denial, sending word to the U.S. Congress in a letter that there was no way to verify the rumors about crimes committed against the Jews.

The history of all of this is way more complicated than we can fully examine here today. But the facts speak for themselves. Any support that Pius XII gave to the Jews came after 1942, once officials from the United States told him that the allies wanted total victory and it was likely that they would get it. Once Pius XII heard this, he sent word to German and Hungarian bishops telling them that it would be to their advantage to go on record immediately, in print or from the pulpit, as totally opposed to the massacre the Nazi had brought on Jews, gay people, Gypsies, the mentally ill and handicapped, women, people of color, and anyone who was not a white, Eastern European. Did the Pope offer this advice from some deep-seated moral inclination? Probably not. Instead, he was telling the bishops to cover their behinds so that when the dust settled, the Church would still be standing.

Dr. Suzanne Brown-Fleming is a life-long Catholic and a historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. In this episode about war time Popes she says, “I have worked for 17 years at the Holocaust Museum…it is difficult to just look clinically at a documented story of a Ukrainian Catholic taking a Jewish child by the neck and executing him in front of his mother, and then going to church the following Sunday.” She goes on to say, “To see that Catholics had the capacity to set their faith to one side and be part of the Holocaust that destroyed 6 millions families, that makes me question, “What is the point of my faith, at all”? Brown-Fleming then extends the question and asks, “What is the point of a Pope leading a church where love and mercy is not paramount?”

Pius XII had the ear of nearly 400 million Catholics in the 1940s—he could have radically influenced the course of World War II and the Holocaust. But it wasn’t just the Catholics who kept silent during the Holocaust, and we know that now. The German Lutheran church was not only silent about the Holocaust, they fully endorsed the Third Reich. The Protestant churches of Europe and Great Britain, and even those in the United States, offered written condemnations and thoughts and prayers as Hitler systemically annihilated an entire race of people. What is the point of the Pope, the church, the Synod, the General Assembly, the Presbytery, the church council, each individual congregation of faithful worshippers if love and mercy is not paramount. What is the point if that love and mercy is not shown in tangible and concrete ways when God’s people are at their most desperate moment? There isn’t a point, not a single point at all. That’s what love has to do with it—without love, there is no point to the church.

I’m sure there was plenty of love flowing through the Catholic church and all churches during World War II and the Holocaust. What we see, though, from history is that love of Christ was not allowed to lead during these terrible times. To be sympathetic to the plight of the Jews and to pray for an end to their persecution was good, but it was not enough. Without the love of Christ leading, the church worked to preserve its place in the world and not the lives of 6 million of God’s people. Without the love of Christ leading, the church backed down and sometimes bowed down because the work was messy and complicated. Without the love of Christ leading, the church imagined that someone else would take care of the problem. Without love, the church becomes just another organization out for its own good. Without love, the church is just another organization struggling to survive and maintain the status quo. Is that what God calls us to be and do? Is that our vocation as baptized members of Christ’s body?

God wants better for you and me, my friends, and God expects better. It is simple to look back on history and see the mistakes. It is easy to look back and see the complacency of the Catholic church during the Holocaust. It is simple to look back on the American Civil War and see how American Presbyterians split in two because one group wanted to keep slaves and the other group wanted slavery abolished. It is simple to look back on the Civil Rights Movement and at all the white, privileged preachers and church folks who claimed to stand for the Bible but could not stand up for their black brothers and sisters. It is easy to look back on 9/11 and the ongoing war in the Middle East and see how the church has done so very little to curb the rise of extremism within its ranks, extremism that somehow has forgotten that Muslims and Christians share the same matriarch and patriarch in Abraham and Sarah. It is more difficult, however, to look at right now and into the future. It is difficult to dream and imagine about all the ways God is calling us to love God and our neighbors so that these terrible things stop happening.

Love has that much power, to change the very essence of our existence and of those who will come after us in life and faith. The question we must ask ourselves today is this: Do we have the strength and courage to step out in faith and love as Jesus has loved us?

Love one another as I have loved you. Forgive each other as often and as abundantly as I have forgiven you.

Love one another as I have loved you. Don’t look at people for what they can give or offer you, but as creatures formed in my father’s image.

Love one another as I have loved you. When you sit at my table and eat your fill, pray for the hungry and then feed them…that’s how prayer works.

Love one another I have loved you. Just as I loved the woman at the well even though she was religiously and ethnically different, you should love your neighbors because they are people of God.

Love one another as I have loved you. Don’t turn your back on the Peters in your life—everyone stumbles, but no one stumbles beyond the grace of God.

Love one another as I have loved you. Eat meals together, pray together, worship together, but don’t leave your faith in the sanctuary or fellowship hall—take it with you into the world and let your light shine.

Love one another as I have loved you. Don’t worry today, about what you will eat or what you will wear or how the church will survive—God feeds the birds and watches over them, and you are more valuable than the birds. Instead, use your time and energy to spread the good news of my love.

Love one another as I have loved you. Don’t be afraid to lay down your life for what you believe—death is the gateway to resurrection.

The good news of the gospel today, my friends, is that the love we are called to show to the world as Christ’s followers is love that has already been shown to us—our Lord Jesus Christ is not asking us to do anything that has not already been done to and for us. It is not in the big stuff; the love we are called to show as followers of Jesus is not heroic or show-stopping. It is as small as the mustard seed, which when planted grows into a great bush where the birds can make a home. Take the love that God has shown you, take the love of Jesus by which you live, move, and have your being and plant it. Plant it. Plant it everywhere—at home, at work, when you are playing, and when you are wrestling with life. Plant it and then pray that God’s goodness will nourish it and help it to grow. If we all plant a little bit of love into everything we do there will be no end to the transformation God can and will work in and through us and the world. By the perfect love of God, may it be so. Amen.

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