Always Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing
A Sermon For Year C, Easter 5
Copyright © 2010 Nathan L. Bostian
Based on John 13:31-35, Acts 11:1-18 and Rev. 21:1-6
The duty of every good pastor is to clearly and concisely teach and preach what God desires for our lives: To teach it clearly, in such a way that anyone can understand; To preach it concisely, in such a way that anyone can remember.
And although I feel I have been very clear about what I have taught you these last four years at Canterbury, I fear I have not been very concise. Our two hour Bible studies, while deep and intense and even hilarious, desperately resist being put into a "nutshell".
And now we are coming to the end of one Journey of Ministry, and we are beginning another. But before I leave, I want to give you the nutshell. The big picture. The cliff notes of what this has all been about.
My most formative mentor, teacher, and coach from my childhood had two phrases that I will always remember, that put everything in a nutshell.
The first was "Keep yer feet movin'! Drive drive drive!" And while that is not very applicable to this sermon, his voice ringing in my ears has pushed me through more tough times than I care to remember.
His second phrase, which is more important, and more applicable here, was this: "Always keep the Main Thing the Main Thing." Don't loose the big picture. Keep your eyes focused on the goal. In the midst of the game of life, always remember WHY you play the game in the first place.
"Always keep the Main Thing the Main Thing".
So, what is the Main Thing that has motivated my ministry here? What is the Main Thing I want you to take home from my teaching and preaching and counseling? What is the Main Thing in our Bible, in our Theology, and in our Worship?
Let me start by saying what the Main Thing is NOT. When I think of what the Main Thing is NOT, I am always drawn back to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, where He says:
"The gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction… [But] the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life..."
I envision a narrow path laid out before me, like a tightrope, with two wide paths on either side that fall off into destruction: One on the Left and one on the Right.
The cold, dark Chasm on the Left is the "religion" of apathetic inclusion. Now, this is an odd sort of religion, because not everyone in this religion even believes in God. But that doesn't matter.
In fact, on the Left nothing matters. Do your own thing. Think what you want to think. Do what you want to do. Just keep it to yourself. I won't bother you if you won't bother me.
On the Left, we demand absolute toleration, because there is no real love or care for each other. Leave us alone and let us do our own thing. There is no Creed or Code except the absolute rejection of any Creed or Code.
That is precisely because on the Left is the Hell of total indifference towards one's neighbor.
The fiery, painful Pit on the Right is the "religion" of fearful exclusion. It is the religion of drawing up endless lists of expectations: Ideological expectations, Moral expectations, Spiritual expectations, Cultural expectations, and even expectations of what types of expectations we should have.
Then we use our endless lists of expectations to rigorously determine who is IN and who is OUT, who is GOOD and who is BAD, who is BLESSED and who is DAMNED: All so we can clearly define US, and control THEM, and keep everyone in their nice, neat boxes.
This is precisely because on the Right is the Hell of everyone trying to control everyone else.
And the Main Thing is to walk with Jesus on the Narrow Path over, through, and between these broad roads to oblivion. And if that sounds impossible to walk a tightrope between desolation on the Left, and destruction on the Right: You are correct.
It is impossible.
And that is why we need Jesus to hold our hand, and His Spirit to be our guide, as we travel this Journey with Him. We can't do it without Jesus.
But a Journey implies a Goal. A Destination. A Main Thing we are journeying toward. So, what is the Main Thing?
Now, lots of people have lots of answers about what the Main Thing in Christianity is. Ask 10 Biblical scholars what the Main Idea of Scripture is, you will get 100 different answers.
But, as for me, I am going to follow my coach's advice and pay attention to what Jesus says is the Main Thing.
I say this because Jesus DOMINATES Christian Scripture as THE Main Thing.
Jesus or Christ is mentioned 1,446 times in the New Testament. That's once every six verses, ten times more than any other human, and even more times than the word "God" is mentioned.
In fact, Jesus is named as God, as Lord, and by Saint Thomas as "My Lord and my God". Jesus embodies the fullness of God in Colossians, contains the Reality of God in Philippians, and incarnates God's Word in John.
Jesus is variously called The Way, The Truth, and The Life; Our Savior, our Victor, our Resurrection, our Peace, and our Hope. He is the only Remedy for our Sin, and in Him all things in Heaven and on Earth will be reconciled to God, by the power of His Death and Resurrection.
So, in Jesus, the "Main Thing" has entered into History in bodily form. And since He is God, I think we should pay attention to what He says is HIS Main Thing. We need to emphasize what He emphasizes, and de-emphasize what He de-emphasizes.
So, what is it exactly that he emphasizes?
Jesus starts by making it clear in Matthew chapter 5 that there are "lesser commandments", and in chapter 22 that there are "greater commandments". And in chapter 23 Jesus scolds the Religious leaders for "neglecting the weightier matters of the law" and instead focusing on religious trivia.
Across the New Testament, both Jesus and his Apostles make it painfully clear that certain issues are central to following Him, to becoming LIKE Him, and other issues are peripheral, and even trivial.
So, what is Central? What is the Key? Is it justification by faith? Is it social justice and inclusion? Is it making it to heaven and avoiding hell when we die?
Is it correct doctrine: Knowing all the right answers? Is it having the proper philosophical foundation to support our massive theological systems?
No, as significant as many of these things are, they are not the Main Thing. They may be important, even eternally important, but ONLY in the service of the Main Thing.
Apart from the Main Thing, they become idols and distractions that make us veer to the Left, or swerve to the Right.
But countless romance novels, myriads of silly songs, and endless cheesy movies have spayed and neutered the Main Thing. They have taken something Strong and Vibrant and Real, and turned it into a selfish, sappy, saccharine sweet sentiment.
So when I finally name the Main Thing, I want you flush all your pop-culture, semi-romantic, weak-willed notions down the drain. I want you to prepare for the Main Thing as embodied in Jesus, as lived by His Apostles, and as taught in the Scriptures.
The Main Thing is Love. God's Love. The Love strong enough to speak Creation into existence. The Love powerful enough to bring Jesus back from the dead. The Love mighty enough to heal all of Creation.
The first time we encounter the Centrality of Love is in Matthew chapter 5. There Jesus tells us what it means to be "perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect".
It is the one and only time Jesus ever teaches HOW to become as perfect as God.
What is "The Secret"? What will makes us perfect like our Father? It is this: "LOVE your enemies and pray for those who persecute you". Perfection IS to LOVE those you can't stand.
Later, in Matthew chapter 22, Jesus is asked what the Greatest Commandment of the Law is. His reply was:
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ON these two commandments HANG ALL the law and the prophets."
And before we skip past it, ponder its implications. The Greek word that is used here literally means that all of the rest of the Scriptures hang, like a mountain climber hanging from her fingertips, on Divine Love.
Without Love, the whole purpose and plot of Scripture simply falls apart. As Saint Augustine said: "If it seems to you that you have understood the divine scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up this twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not understood."
Again, in Mark chapter 12, Jesus re-iterates that this twin Love of God and neighbor is God's FOREMOST concern for us. In Luke chapter 10, Jesus does the same thing again, but this time he ups the ante.
In that chapter he gives a story to illustrate what that Love looks like lived out. And in his story, it was not the ultra-righteous priest, or the ultra-orthodox theologian, who were examples of Divine Love. It was the heretical, impure, half-breed Samaritan who exemplified Love by actually helping someone in need.
As we turn to the Gospel of John, we find that Love is the whole motivation why Jesus came to save us. In chapter 3 we read: "For God so LOVED the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."
And then we turn to our Gospel reading today from John chapter 13. There we find that THE critical mark of discipleship is this: "Everyone will know that you are my disciples, IF you LOVE one another."
In the eyes of a hurting world, our status as followers of Jesus is not determined by our political party, our personal piety, or our defined dogmas. It is determined by whether we actually Love people like Jesus did:
"Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another."
In John chapter 21, when the Risen Lord comes to restore Peter, what was his primary concern? What did He ask Peter, not once, not twice, but three times?
Did he say: Peter, are you convinced now? Peter, do you finally believe? Peter, are you sorry for denying me?
No. He asked "Peter, do you Love me?"
And even in this passage, Peter's Love for Jesus is connected with Love for other people. Because as soon as Peter affirms His Love for Jesus, Jesus challenges him to make this Love concrete by feeding Jesus' flock of followers.
Then, as we flip the page to the book of Acts, we see what this Love looks like embodied in community. In the 2nd and 4th chapters, we see pictures of the early Christian community spending time with each other, sharing everything in common, and serving each other, so that there was not a needy person among the whole lot of them.
In our passage today from Acts chapter 11, we get another glimpse of the all-encompassing Love of God for all people, and all of creation. Again, Peter is confronted by the Risen Lord: This time in a vision. In that vision, God makes it clear that no one is unclean. Are are useful. All are loved. All are included.
As we turn to the book of Romans, the most systematic book of theology and ethics in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul makes it crystal clear that Love is the Source, Center, and Goal of his teaching.
In Romans chapter 8, we are told that nothing in all of creation- not life nor death, nether angels nor demons, nothing present nor yet to come- NOTHING can separate us from the Love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In Romans chapter 13, we are told that all of the commandments are summed up by the command to Love our neighbor as ourselves. This is because "Love is THE fulfillment of the Law".
This insight is epitomized by Paul in his Love song in First Corinthians chapter 13. He introduces his song by stating that Love is "the most excellent way".
Then Paul goes on to sing:
"Love is patient, love is kind: It does not envy or brag;
Not proud, rude, self seeking, or provoked to be mad;
Love does not enjoy evil, nor keep a record of wrongs;
Love rejoices in the Truth [with a joyful song].
Love bears everything, with faith, hope, and endurance;
In the end Love never fails [and that's our assurance]."
In fact, chapters 12 through 14 make it clear that Love is the pre-eminent gift of the Holy Spirit, and that without Love, ALL other gifts, talents, and abilities are simply worthless.
In the last chapter of First Corinthians, we are told "Let all that you do be done IN LOVE." And in the last verse of Second Corinthians, we are blessed by the words "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you."
In Galatians chapter 5 we find that Love is foremost among the fruit of the Spirit. In Ephesians chapter 3, Paul prays that we would "know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God".
I could go on and on about how Christ and His Love are the two central themes of every book in the Christian Scriptures, but I am sure you get the idea.
I could tell you about how James speaks of Love as "The Royal Law", or about how Peter tells us "Above ALL, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins."
I could talk about how John's first letter sums up God's character and essence and motivation by simply saying "God IS Love". Not once, but twice.
And I could keep going on about how this letter makes it clear that Love for God and neighbor is so interconnected, that how we Love God IS how we Love each other, and how we Love each other IS how we Love God.
But I will skip to the end of the Bible. Today's reading from Revelation shows us Scripture's final vision of what God desires for His entire creation.
And what is it a picture of?
Unbroken fellowship. Complete intimacy. Final healing. A place where God dwells with us, and we live forever in God. A place where death and separation are no more.
God's Main Thing is Love.
Love is the Source. It is the motivation of Creation, the overflow of the inner life of the Triune God, and the whole reason we live and move and exist.
Love is the Center. It is the spiritual gravity that draws the whole universe into God through the person of Jesus. It is the healing power that radiates from Christ, filling all creation with the light and warmth and energy of His Holy Spirit.
Love is the Goal. It is the New Heaven and New Earth, where we will all share unbroken fellowship, and complete healing, in the presence of Christ.
This Divine Love is not some selfish, sappy, saccharine sweet sentiment.
Love is giving self away for the good of another. It is the exact opposite of treating people as consumable objects to use, abuse, and throw away. Love is willing and working for their healing, health, wholeness, harmony and happiness.
It is more compassionate than a mother nursing her child.
It is more angry than a father breaking up a fight between his children.
It is more serious than a doctor healing her patient.
It is more joyful than newlyweds on their honeymoon.
It is more courageous than a hero dying for his beloved.
In a word, Love IS Christlikeness, for Christ IS Love embodied.
THIS is the Main Thing: That you are filled with God's Love; That you connect with the Risen Christ who is the Source of Love; That you are filled with Christ's Spirit to empower you to Love.
I pray that we all would allow the Love of Christ to so fill us, that it overflows into concrete acts of Love to all those who God puts in our path.
May we always keep HIS Main Thing as OUR Main Thing.
And that IS the Main Thing. Amen+
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.