This sermon was delivered at Cobleskill United Methodist Church on May 9, 2021.
Sixth Sunday of Easter
44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants[a] any longer, because the servant[b] does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
Before I left for vacation last week, I selected a photo for this Sunday’s bulletin that I thought might be appropriate to our worship theme. It’s a bright yellow dandelion coming up in the middle of what looks to be concrete. Maybe a sidewalk. About a
week later, after coming home, I was with my daughter and my mom at Maple Grove Greenhouse, the Amish establishment up on 145 with abundant and beautiful plants of all kinds. Being there, smelling all the flowers, surrounding myself with greenness and color, was so rejuvenating.
On the way back to our car, June noticed something. At the edge of the gravel parking lot was a stray pansy growing up through the crushed rock. Not a dandelion in concrete, but the similarity struck me. Perhaps easy to miss because of the abundance of flowers we had just been surrounded with, but this flower was clearly different. It hadn’t been pampered in a heated greenhouse on the cold spring nights. It hadn’t been cloistered away from the elements by a roof and walls. It hadn’t depended on daily watering from the faithful Amish children or rich potting soil in which to root. Yet it still bravely and beautifully grew.
Now, I tell you this story as a way of introducing something that might seem like it needs no introduction all, especially in church. It’s the concept and feeling of belief. A word that the dictionary defines as feeling sure of the truth of something. I’m talking about belief today as we begin a short little three-week series on what it means to be the beloved community of the risen Christ. The three weeks will be shaped around the ways we respond to God’s love and become committed to God on a deeper level. We believe. We belong. And we become transformed.
It’s these things that make church different from a movie theater or a Netflix show. This is not just something you watch and maybe have feelings about it. What we do here is not just about consuming good stuff and feeling better about ourselves. What we do here is about a relationship between God and ourselves. And in a relationship each sides has something to give. God gives and we respond. When this happens, we begin to be made whole and our salvation begins.
Today we focus on what it means to believe in God. An elemental part of our faith, but something that we can take for granted. Belief is, as I said before, feeling sure of the truth of something. When we come to church, we hear scriptures that tell us God is our creator, God made Jesus, Jesus loved unconditionally and taught us that we should do the same, and in the end, it was God’s love for Jesus and all of us that defeated death and brought forth the resurrection of Christ. These are profound messages. These are truths offered to us that have the power to transform despair into hope, sadness into joy, and brokenness into wholeness. The truth embedded and infused into everything we read and hear about God is that God is love and God wants desperately for this love to reach absolutely everyone and with it to change our lives. This is the truth that is given to us through the scriptures, the preaching, the hymns, the communion, the prayers, the community gathered here today. The truth is God saves us with love. God loves you and wants you to love one another.
No one takes for granted, though, that you accept that truth. In fact, you could sit in church for all of your life and not “believe” in that truth. That wouldn’t wrong, but we must also understand that if we want that power of love to begin to work in our lives and to bring us wholeness and salvation, then we must move out of just a passive listening role and into an active believing role. Belief in God’s saving love is different from just hearing about it, singing about, and praying about it. Belief actually requires a very personal confession from you. It requires admitting that you actually feel sure that God’s love is true and real for you. It’s just not that the pastor believes it, or the person next to you believes it, but that you also believe it.
This is a profoundly courageous and vulnerable thing to do. I want to make that very, very clear. When I chose the cover image of our bulletin today to be a dandelion growing bravely in the midst of concrete, and when I saw that pansy growing out of a parking lot on top that windy, cold hill, I was reminded of the strength and courage it takes to believe, to trust surely, in anything at all, especially to believe and trust in the power of God’s love to save us. Because here’s the thing: everyday there will be something that makes you doubt it. Every single day. It could be large and life-changing like unexpected tragedy that replays itself in your mind day after day, month after month. Or it could be a small but persistent voice in your head that says you’re not good enough. It could be despair you see in the injustices of the world. It could be isolation and hurt you feel from the many, many places in our world where God’s love is absent.
All of these things make believing in, trusting in, and feeling sure of God’s love such a very hard thing to actually do. But you are not alone. You do not have to take the first step. God does that. With grace, God surrounds you with God’s love long before you ever even realized it. In the midst of every storm, God is there loving you. In the midst of every doubt, God is there loving you.
No matter who you are or what path you’ve walked, God is there loving you. The gift of God’s love is available to all. Our scripture reading from Acts in particular makes that clear. It wasn’t just the “in” crowd (called the circumcised in this passage) who had special access. It was everyone. God’s spirit, the Holy Spirit, surrounds each and every person, in the midst of every season of life.
All that is asked of us is that we admit that we feel that love; that we are willing to be loved and that we are will abide in that love and reflect it onto everyone else we meet. Believing means accepting God’s love into your life, saying it to yourself and saying before God and this community in a way that feels sure and certain.
God’s love and the wholeness and salvation that comes from accepting that love into our hearts is not something that we can see with our eyes. And so we use water as a way to visualize this moment of acceptance. In baptism, God’s love for you is named and celebrated. Your pastor puts water on your head, or even sometimes helps you take a whole dip, and tells you, on behalf of God that God loves you and claims you as God’s own. And during the baptism, you also have a turn to speak. You get the chance to profess that you admit, that you believe, in that love. That you feel sure of its power in you, so much so that you want to live your life in a better way. To turn away from that which isn’t reflecting God’s love and abide with blessed assurance in the unfailing power of God’s saving grace.
Now, in the United Methodist church babies are baptized and adults are baptized. When adults are baptized, they are able to respond with their own words, their own profession of faith. They are able to say, “I believe.” When a baby is baptized, they can’t yet speak their belief and so we have the corresponding tradition of confirmation: a season of learning about God and belief in God and that traditionally happens in the years when a young person is beginning to come into their own. We are, in part, talking about this because of the upcoming confirmation of some of our youth in two weeks. But we’re also talking about this because it’s always relevant. Whether you’ve been baptized as a baby and have never yet spoken your belief out loud to yourself or God, or whether you’ve not yet been baptized, or whether you been both baptized and confirmed and you need to be reminded that God’s unfailing love for you is true, even when challenged by real life difficulties. We’ve all been there. If you fall into any one of these categories, this message today is for you. God loves you. God wants to be in a relationship with you. God wants you to abide in God’s love.
I don’t say this lightly and I certainly won’t ever take it for granted. If you are ready to reclaim, or perhaps claim for the first time, God’s unfailing love for you against all the odds, then you are like a brave flower growing up through the hard ground. You have courage and you have faith that despite what the world hands you, God’s love will see you through. And that is all you will ever need.
Will you pray with me?
Mothering God, loving God, undying God, God of all hope and God of promises kept. We live in worlds where the doubt and pain creeps in around us like the cold hardness of cement. Without you we struggle to survive in this harsh landscape. But your love is working on us, planting a seed, giving us all that we need to grow, long before we realize what is happening. You are the one who makes it possible for us to grow through the cracks in the pavement, to exist against all the odds. And now, I invite anyone with us today in this room or watching online who is ready to accept God’s love into their life and to say that they believe in the power of God’s love to give them strength to live their life in the abiding love of Christ, to repeat this next part of the prayer after me.
O God, I acknowledge to you today, that your love sustains me. I trust you to carry me through my hardest moments. You alone bring me wholeness. Your son Jesus offers me salvation. I love you. I want to live my life in your abiding love and I want to radiate that love to all who I meet. In Christ Jesus we pray, Amen.
If you said those words for the first time today, I am so proud of you. And I want to follow that by saying that if you have said those words for the first time, and you haven’t yet been baptized, then that might be the next right step. I would love to talk with you about that. Maybe you’ve been baptized as a child, and you don’t remember it and you haven’t ever had that opportunity to say publicly for yourself that you do believe. If this is you, I would love to talk with you about that, too. The beloved community of Christ is a place where we grow in love, despite all the odds. And God is calling your name to be part of it.
At Betty Lory’s memorial service a few weeks ago, one of her grandchildren told the story of how when she sat with them in church and they were restless, she would grab their hand and squeeze it four times. These four squeezes were code for “Do you love me?” The child’s response was three squeezes, “Yes I do.” Betty would squeeze two back for “How much?” and the child would respond by squeezing her had as tightly as possible. I just love that story about Betty. But I also love it because it is just what God would ask us and what God expects from us in return. To believe in God’s love and to love back fiercely. Go in peace!