Fresh Heart: 6th Sunday Easter 2016
“By the love you have for one another, everyone will know you are my disciples.”
That’s a nice motto for a t-shirt or a bumper sticker, but it also happens to be an incredible challenge for us as Church. How often do people look at you, and see so much love, they immediately think “that is definitely a Christian.” And today, I think we might even have to take the question a step backward: is that even what people expect from Christians today?
It’s His one commandment, the law and the prophets all fulfilled, the Gospel in a word: to love. And the first question is: what does He mean by love? You’ve heard me preach that sermon before and you will again. Bottom line for now: Jesus isn’t talking about an emotion. He’s talking about willing the good of the other. Which might feel very nice, emotionally. But sometimes it feels like crucifixion.
But it always wins out, it always conquers, even death… and it’s the mark of a Christian, that kind of love. Self-denying. Self-forgetting. Self-less! Willing the good of the other, and not counting the cost, and not heeding the wounds, seeking no reward or recompense… just to do the will of God and to choose the good of the other.
But it isn’t always a big dramatic sacrificial thing; we need this kind of Christ-like love on the ordinary days too. One of my very favorite examples of it is what Luke is writing about in the first reading, from Acts 14, about the journey of Paul and Barnabas. They arrive in Antioch, and here’s the phrase I love, using the Jerusalem Bible translation: “they put fresh heart into the disciples.”
Man, I can’t think of anything I’d rather accomplish on any ordinary day than that. To give fresh heart to somebody. For somebody to feel renewed, rejuvenated, encouraged, motivated, supported, confident, courageous… to take heart.
God knows we need it. Like Paul says to begin with, “we must all experience many hardships before we enter the Kingdom of God.” And nobody needs convincing of that truth. I’ve never met anybody whose objection to life was that it was too easy. I’ve never met anybody who felt like God didn’t give them enough of a challenge in life. You’ve got hardships. There are things about your life that you wish were different. There are longings in your heart that aren’t satisfied. There are things that have turned out in ways that disappoint you crushingly. There are people you miss so much… maybe so much that you don’t understand how God could let it be so. Well, think of your own hardships… what challenges stand between you and the Kingdom? And is it possible… just maybe… that some of them are helping you toward the Kingdom?
It’s all going to glory. In Revelation, our second reading, John sees a new heaven and a new earth. Jesus says from the throne: “Behold, I make all things new.”
What do you need Jesus to make new in your heart, your mind, your life? In your habits, in your family, in your hopes and dreams? But making things new involves those hardships we heard about in Acts. The old must give way. That isn’t easy. It’s dying.
So… we need any encouragement we can get. Put fresh heart into us, Lord! Help us put fresh heart into each other! We don’t need easy comfortable lives with no challenges… that isn’t the way to the Kingdom. At the end of the day, it’s not even what we want, not really. But we do need encouragement, we need support, we need strength from others. We need them like we need oxygen. If not today, someday.
The last few weeks, more than almost anytime I can remember, friends old and new gave me fresh heart. They made me new. They were the instruments through which Jesus made me new. What a gift! And one that I will continue to need, as you will continue to need, again and again.
That’s another thing that we notice in Acts 14: Paul and Barnabas, on their fresh-heart-giving mission, are going ‘back through’ where they’ve already been. The people they’re ministering to have met the Lord, received the Gospel… but that isn’t the end of the story. That was then, this is now, and they need strength and support. They decided one day in the past to follow Jesus. Will they decide the same today, and tomorrow? Thanks to their friends in Christ who give them fresh heart, perhaps they will.
Love takes many shapes and wears many faces. One of the best is exactly this: we hold each other up. When a brother or sister is weak and faltering, we lend them our strength. When we are weak and faltering, we aren’t too prideful to lean on each other.
And when we get up each morning and face each day, willing the good of the other, being other Christs in the world, we can seldom find a greater act of love than to give fresh heart to someone who needs it.
I stole a few words earlier from a prayer by St. Ignatius, and the whole prayer will make a good closing. It’s about facing hardships, loving others, and helping each other on the way to that Kingdom where all things are made new.
“Teach us, good Lord,
to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will.”