Monday, April 29, 2013

Leaving it all on the field

Acts 11:1-18
John 13:31-35

When my youngest daughter was active on the high school swim team, the coach was fond of saying "leave it all in the water".  Though I was pretty sure of what this implied, I didn't really know exactly what she meant until I started noticing that this saying is applied to all kinds of competitive events on the field, on the court, in the water, on the mats.  What it means - for those of you who may be even more mentally challenged than I! - is that the team goes onto the field and puts everything they have into the competition so that in the end, there is nothing left to give.  All the preparations, all the training, all the efforts, all the blood and sweat and tears are left on the field, all given to the contest; the competitors emptied themselves of everything they had to give.  Anything less, and it can be said that something was held back; "saved" for later, perhaps.  The question, then, is: what would it be saved FOR? 

I think it is safe to say most of us do not always give so freely or completely of ourselves - unless there can be some measure of personal gain.  We might give freely of what we think we can spare at any given time, but to give of oneself so completely until there is nothing left is just downright scary because if there is nothing left, we may be vulnerable.  What will be left for "me and mine"?  Even in the worship practice of tithing, it is not so much the practice of what we give but rather the measure and evaluation of what we withhold - and why we choose to withhold it. 

The state of marriage in this country is perhaps the greatest example of what our culture is teaching us to withhold.  Early in the marital relationship, there is that highly ideal nature of giving completely in the romanticism of what marriage is supposed to be.  When "real life" starts creeping in, however, too many find themselves in a struggle between A WILLINGNESS to be vulnerable - OR - choosing to be what we think is "strong" ... according to cultural concepts rather than theological realities.  When it comes to "real life", we are much more inclined toward our culture by having convinced ourselves that our culture IS our theological reality. 

Love, true love, real love, "agape" love, sacrificial love is completely vulnerable because it gives so completely; and that makes us nervous because we often equate vulnerability with weakness.  Being a patsy, being a fool, being naive, being an easy target is NOT the so-called "American Way"!  And yet the only "fools" are those who think love is easy!  Jesus Himself never suggested "agape" was easy and never would be!  Yet Jesus is also clear in that true love, real love, "agape" love, love that is self-sacrificing is the ONLY way "everyone will know you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."  "Personally saved" but withholding oneself from others?  Hating anyone?  Sell it to the devil because the Lord is not buying it!

Notice, however, that Jesus does not say "if you FEEL loving toward one another".  Nowhere in the Holy Scriptures is love ever implied as magical or emotional or a component of fate as if it may "just happen".  In the biblical principle of love, for instance, it is possible to marry a complete stranger and have a fulfilling life together IF you have love; that is, if we have it to give in the first place.  This may sound ridiculous to some, but it is no more ridiculous than those romantic flights of fancy that proclaim "love at first sight".  This principle I do not believe in, nor should you because such a notion betrays the reality of agape love which is GIVING and unconditional - not "magical".  At "first sight" we may be infatuated with physical appearances, but we cannot honestly say love is present until we know for sure that we are willing to tolerate that person's unsavory habits or get beyond that person's less-than-admirable past.

Though it is often said that men do not generally respond well to sermons about "love" (because "love" is vulnerable and thus perceived as weak; more feminine than masculine), it must be said that love is not for sissies!  Love may indeed be "vulnerable", but there is nothing weak about a willingness to love even when there seems to be nothing worth loving OR there seems to be nothing to be gained.  "No such thing as a free lunch", we say.  "You don't get something for nothing" with the implication being that if there is nothing in it for "me", I have nothing to offer you.  Jesus DOES NOT back up this sentiment!

Divine Love, "agape" love, sacrificial love knows no boundaries or borders; and yet Christians are very nearly as "tribal" today as Jews were then.  Anyone outside of Judaism's cultural and religious boundaries were considered "unclean" (translate "unworthy" in the human mind) and thus to be avoided at all cost; even to be looked down upon.  Yet we should see of Peter's vision in Acts 11 that our Lord's own ideal of His boundless Love can have no boundaries, no limitations.  Contrary to what Christians have come to believe, this passage in Acts IS NOT ABOUT FOOD (the inherent danger of literalism)! 

Acts 11 is not about how or even whether Christians have suddenly been given Divine Permission to eat anything that suits their fancy.  If that is all there is to it, this passage would be more about "lust"; that is, self-fulfillment rather than Divine fulfillment.  "What God has made clean [the angel says], you must not call profane ... the Spirit told me not to make a distinction between them [Gentiles] and us [Jews]."  The passage is clearly about people, not food.  It is about filling others rather than filling ourselves.

Tribalism is most apparent in Christian denominations as we may proclaim a commonality in Messiah, but there are some religious practices we WILL NOT SHARE such as baptism and communion, insisting "they" are wrong and "we" are right.  Tribalism is apparent in our American patriotism in which we declare ourselves unique and distinct, ironically a "Christian nation" that is permitted - even encouraged - to hate those who are different from us.  Indeed the newspaper headlines encourage us to distrust any who do not look like us or act like us.  All completely contrary to what is written in the Holy Scriptures, and yet we "believers" will give much more credence to these "headlines" than to the Scriptures.  "In God we trust"?  Not really.  We trust only what we see with our eyes.

We face these realities with a sense of practical experience AND survival instinct.  And I am not aware of any religious doctrine (Christian doctrine, anyway) that contains an element of "fatalism"; that is, we are not encouraged to go headlong into a dangerous situation in blind faith.  Even Jesus said, "Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves" as He sends His disciples out "as sheep in the midst of wolves" (Matthew 10:16)

Yet He does send them - and us.  "Freely you have received; so freely give".  That is, "leave it all on the field" as we enter into the mission field; whatever mission field may be before us.  It is important to remember, however, that in all this there is more to it than simply "doing because Jesus said so".  It is about ultimately about fulfillment, yet it is not about the personal satisfaction we may get from doing "the Lord's work". 

Rather it is not only about what we have to offer; it is also about what we are willing to give.  It is about what we have been given to "leave on the field"; given not for our own pleasure or amusement but for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, given freely so we have it to give.  Completely emptying ourselves and "leaving it all on the field" so that we may be filled; for it is as our Lord promises: "Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your lap.  For the measure you give will be the measure you get back" (Luke 6:38).

This is the sacrificial love to which Jesus refers in His challenge to His disciples "so everyone will know you are My disciples".  This is who we are, measured by what we "leave on the field"; not by what we take home. 

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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