Saturday, August 25, 2018

"Act Inclusively"

            This Sunday, I begin a new sermon series at Christ United Methodist Church entitled, “The Essentials of Discipleship.”  Jesus calls each of us to love and follow him, as his disciples.  Following Christ involves an ongoing process of learning, experiencing, and growing.  When we first become Christians, we are beginners in the faith.  But, over time, Christ intends for us to grow deeper in our faith.   

I believe that Christian disciples grow best through a process that combines “education” and “experience”—that is, learning and serving.  In this series, we will explore the four core principles for growth and service.  They are:  (1)  Seek God; (2) Act Inclusively; (3) Serve others—both human and nonhuman; and (4)  Work for Justice. 

We begin this week with “Act Inclusively.”  To act inclusively means that as a community of faith, we welcome and include everyone, regardless of age, color, disability, ethnic origin, family status, gender, political beliefs, race, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation.  To act inclusively means to welcome and include everyone, with no exceptions. 

This principle of Christian discipleship is grounded in many places in scripture.  For instance, 1 John 4:16b says, “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”  Since God = love, to live lives that are filled and directed by love means that we also abide in God.  And, when our lives are filled and directed by love, then we have established the conditions under which God chooses to abide in us.  That is, God cannot be an intimate part of our lives, unless our lives are filled and directed by love.  This is because God is love.  Since God is love, God does not abide in the hearts and lives of persons who are filled with hatred. 

The writer of 1 John considers love of others to be a process in which we continually grow in our capacity to love.  It is this scriptural understanding of love as an ongoing growth process which grounds the claim by John Wesley that one can become perfected in love. Although Wesley, who was the founder of Methodism, never believed that one would ever become completely perfect—never making another mistake—in this life.  He did believe that some people could nurture and grow God’s love in their hearts so much that they always spoke and acted out of a love for the other person—even if they made mistakes of judgment due to human sin and finitude.

The writer of John 1 concludes this chapter by observing:

“We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.  The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

That is, we love others in response to God’s gracious, undeserved, and unmerited love for us.

            Another scriptural grounding for the discipleship principle to act inclusively comes from what the scripture says about each and every human person.  Each of us is created in the image of God:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So, God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”        (Genesis 1:26-28)

It is common for contemporary Christians to assume that the “image of God” must refer to a certain human characteristic, such as our rationality or our ability to vocalize.  However, most Biblical scholars caution against that interpretation.  Instead, they point out that in many of the kingdoms surrounding the ancient Israelites—such as Egypt and Mesopotamia—the ruler was seen as possessing the image of that culture’s god.  For the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, the god-king was responsible for insuring the safety and security of the citizens and their land.  Further, the god-king was responsible for insuring that social justice was carried out, especially in regard to those who were weak, vulnerable, and exploited.

Scholars note that in Genesis this “royal image” is democratized.  It is not just an individual ruler who is responsible for caring for creation and working for justice.  Instead, from a Judeo-Christian perspective, all persons are responsible for being good stewards of nature and working for justice.  From this perspective, God chooses to share power with humans, even when we sin and fall short of God’s expectations. 

A careful study of the Hebrew words reveals that the Hebrew verb translated into English as “having dominion” must be understood in terms of “care-giving, even nurturing, not exploitation,” while the command to “subdue the earth” refers to agricultural cultivation.[1]  The most faithful interpretation of having dominion and subduing the earth is to realize that humans are to relate to nature in the same way that God relates to humans.  We are to love and care for nature, working to maintain a sustainable and clean environment.  When God blesses humans, “God gives power, strength, and potentiality”[2] for this responsibility of caring for Creation.

Taken together, these two scriptural passages—along with many others in the Bible—provide a strong mandate to act inclusively, welcoming and including everyone within our community of faith and our individual lives, regardless of the unique characteristics which make them different from us.  There is a profound strength in our diversity as a community of faith.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, August 26th, as we begin our examination of the four essential principles of Christian discipleship.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  We are committed to acting inclusively because God loves us all.

[1]Terence Fretheim, Commentary on the Book of Genesis in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 1, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

[2] Ibid.

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