Fire of Love

Randall Tremba
May 13, 2012
6th Sunday of Easter
Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church

John 15:9-17
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

* * *

Last Sunday afternoon at 4:30, seven ninth graders stood here to make their Public Profession of Faith as part of a confirmation ceremony. They stood before family, friends, neighbors and members of this congregation.

I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing those seven may have been the only 9th graders in the tri-state area that were not only in church last Sunday afternoon but also dressed up. I asked them to “dress up” because being inducted into the historic Christian community of faith is at least as important as being inducted into the National Honor Society for which I’ve heard “dressing up” is required.

Of course dressing up wasn’t the main thing. Standing up was. And so as a preface to their profession of faith I addressed them thusly:

When you were newly born your parents presented you for baptism. You were baptized which is to say, initiated into the world wide Body of Christ, the community of the Beloved. Your parents brought you along and up in the Presbyterian tradition of the historic Christian faith. And now you are young adults, old enough and strong enough to confirm your own intention and desire. Are you of your own freely offered intention ready to stand within this Christian tradition and to learn, grow and walk with this congregation for the foreseeable future? Are you?

And each one in turn said, Yes, I am.

Joshua Nolen, our youth director, and I met with the confirmands as a class nine times over three months. Over that time we came to know each other better. We practiced listening to each other. Each time we gathered we shared something good that happened the previous week and offered a simple prayer of thanks for each other by name. At the end of each class we shared some challenge we’d face that coming week and offered a simple prayer for strength for each other by name.

Over those three months we evolved into a spiritual community. Love after all is, in part, simply paying attention to another and keeping the other on our minds and in our hearts. As we learn to abide in the presence of the other we find ourselves abiding in God. For God is love and those who abide in love abide in God.

No one gets it overnight. We have to go to school. We have to attend the school of love with Jesus as our master and guide.

At the heart of the Christ tradition is Jesus. And the heart of Jesus’ teaching is this: love one another as I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends—which I take to mean not death per se but rather self-forgetfulness. Let yourself go for a while. Let go of all your demands and screaming needs for attention. Let go of self-centeredness and give your attention and compassion to another. There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends. And with that kind of love comes great joy.

No one gets it overnight. We have to go to school. We have to attend the school of love.

The first unit of the confirmation class was a look at Presbyterianism as a Christian tradition—not THE Christian tradition, just one of many. We looked at what we have in common with other traditions and what is distinctive about our own. One distinction is our acceptance and delight in education including scientific findings such as the story of evolution. Our youth are surrounded by aggressive born again Christians who say you can’t be a Christian and believe in evolution. Well, guess what: we are and we do.

The second unit was on the Bible as the foundation of the Christian tradition. Unlike some denominations, we don’t take the Bible literally—seriously, yes; literally, no. We recognize the Bible as a divinely inspired but human product and thus not to be swallowed whole or uncritically as the irrefutable, inerrant “Word of God.” Interpretation is necessary and best done with higher learning in mind, in conversation with others and open to new insights and more light from the Holy Spirit.

The final unit was on Jesus as the heart of the Christian tradition. We focused not on doctrines about Jesus but rather about the way he lived.

The way of Jesus—we repeated over and over—is not a way out of this world but a certain way of being in this world, of being in love, of being on fire with love. And that includes loving those whom the world, whom societies and even whom churches exclude or stigmatize.

I can tell you this: our youth are proud and grateful to be part of a church that warmly embraces all people including gays and lesbians and same sex married couples. They would have it no other way even though the loudest so-called Christian voices in their schools denounce homosexuals as despicable in the eyes of God. We let our youth know that not everyone who speaks in the name of God is necessarily of God. Beware. Be a witness to Christ’s love for all. Not everyone who speaks in the name of God is necessarily of God. Beware.

After the seven confirmands affirmed the traditional vows of faith they received a wooden cross that I placed around their necks, a symbol of sacrificial love. Loving others boldly can be costly. It can cost us our popularity, our comfort and sometimes our lives.

After receiving their crosses they were welcomed with a handshake by their “older” church brothers and sisters, the confirmation class of 2011. Then the class of 2012 and 2011 sat together on the front pew while Josh gave them a charge. I wanted Josh himself to read it this morning for you to hear but he was unable to be here this morning. These are his words addressed to the confirmands last Sunday.

The apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.”

Jack, Madeline, Addison, Georgia, Madison, Will, and William you are no longer children, no longer confirmands, but full-fledged members of this congregation, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails. This doesn’t mean you have “graduated” from church, quite the opposite. This covenant is a symbol of your dedication and ongoing commitment to this family of faith. You are not finished with us, and we are not finished with you.

Faith, like love, is a journey.

Too often, these days, people look at Christians with anger, contempt and scorn; it is now your responsibility to change that.  When people think that Christians are close-minded, bigoted and “end times-oriented,” prove them wrong. Show them the power of compassion, acceptance, and love.

I charge you therefore, to be humble, kind and fair, because that’s what Love requires and that’s exactly what the world needs.

Tomorrow when you go back to school you will be different from the students around you because you represent this church family. When people see you, they’ll no longer simply think: “Oh, there’s a Barrat, a Madison, a Murdock, a Musselwhite, a Quinn, a Ransom, a Snyder,” they’ll also be thinking: “there is a Presbyterian.” And that, by the way, is group that has included: John Wayne, Christopher Reeve, David Letterman, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Sally Ride, John Glenn, 9 US Presidents, Bono, Meryl Streep, David Hume, John Muir and now you. Represent us well.

Finally, we do not expect great things from you, but we do expect small things done with great love.  If you can love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as you love yourself that is enough.

And I say, open your eyes, my friends. New light is streaming in this place. Young and old are being called again to be light for the world and salt for the earth.