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The Survey Says-- Love: Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, August 27, 2023


Who are we? And who is Jesus?

Our reading from Romans asks us if we know who we are. Specifically, it asks us if we know that we are all ONE body, each of us with a role to play to benefit each other. Our gospel then takes that question one step further, by asking us who Jesus is.

Now, THERE’s a question.

Of course, scripture has a lot of suggestions.

A while back I took a list of all the names for Jesus found in scripture and created a word cloud for the cover of our bulletin for this week. But then I thought that, as cool as many of those images and metaphors are, there were definitely some names for Jesus that were missing. As I looked over that list, I realized there were some words I would use that were not there, or not there enough:

Friend. Companion. Model. Fully One Who Has Known All My Pains and Sorrows. The One Whose Love of Me Never Fails.

True, all of these things add up to the concept of Jesus as Messiah, as Savior—as the one who was anointed by God to show us the way to live fully abundant lives as children of God.

To confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord means to me that Jesus first of all reminds me of how very much love is at the center of this relationship. And that love always starts from God first. Like the children’s song goes, “Oh, how I love Jesus! Because he first loved me!” Understanding Jesus as Messiah is never meant to allow that title to obscure the fact that Jesus’s love for us—for each and every one of us-- is a real and abiding love. The word Messiah refers to an important title and role, but Jesus becomes incarnate to put a human face on God’s amazing, incredible love for us. Maybe that’s why he de-emphasized the term, as true as it was, during his lifetime—he didn’t want the title to get in the way of the relationship at the center of his mission—and ours.

So who do you say Jesus is for you, in your relationship with Jesus each and every day? Who do you say Jesus is in your own understanding? Who do you say Jesus is in your representation of him out in the world?

Because here’s the thing: if we ourselves don’t know who Jesus is, how can we possibly share him with the world at large? We ARE Jesus’s face and heart in the world today. And how well we allow Jesus’s love of us to mold and shape our attitudes toward others is the absolute main way the world sees Jesus, too.

So who do you say Jesus is?

Eighteen months ago, the Episcopal Church worked with the polling firm Ipsos to commission a survey about popular attitudes toward Christians among the general American public. Over 3100 respondents were carefully selected to be representative across a broad spectrum of backgrounds and beliefs, as well as no beliefs at all. All of the respondents were adults—and I wonder what would have been the results if they had asked young people between 12 and 18?

The fact that I just found this survey is pretty maddening, and I blame myself. There were press releases on two major religious news platforms, for starters: Episcopal News Service and Religion News Service. And I missed it all, probably buried in preparations for Lent. And now that Episcopal Café and Episcopal Journal have both folded up, both of whom I not only wrote for but turned to as my first stop for religious news, I will confess to more than a bit of concern.

There were many results from that survey, which I will be pondering for some time. But picking out one question in particular, questions number 17, seems to be a good place to start unpacking the implications for us right now.

Question 17 asked “What values and lessons do you believe Jesus teaches? Select all that apply.”

The top responses chosen across the board, including, mind you, people of other faiths than Christianity and people of NO religious affiliation, included

Love your neighbor, the top choice at 64% overall.

Love God came in at 58%.

Not judging others, without first judging yourself was chosen by 54%.

Moral teachings came in at 51%.

Feed the hungry was chosen by 48%

Love your enemies received 47%.

46% chose I am the way and the truth and the life.

43% picked repent and believe.

41% chose the promise of return/resurrection.

37% chose heal the sick

36% chose warning against false prophets;

35% chose turn the other cheek; and

32% chose how to live in community with other people.

Now there were other choices offered to the respondents. But these are the main ones.

For those who claimed not to be religious at all, the top answers for their understanding of the teachings of Jesus were: Love your neighbor (38), moral teachings (35), not judging others without first judging yourself (34), and feed the hungry (33). So even a good proportion of non-religious people were familiar with the teachings of Jesus.

I was wondering, how do you see these findings relating to the question Jesus asks today?

That’s important. Because right now, Jesus has a pretty big public relations problem. And it’s NOT his fault.

Today, and every day, Jesus asks us: who do you say that I am? Who we say we are, and what we teach and do, and after all intertwined. I was thinking and praying about this, because there was another survey response that left me gutted. As one of the news stories on this survey stated it, there is a disconnect between the way Christians see Christians, and the way the world outside our faith sees us. Quoting one of the articles about that survey, here was the lede: “Ask a Christian to describe other Christians and the answers likely will be “giving,” “compassionate,” “loving” and “respectful.”

Ask a non-Christian, on the other hand, and the more likely descriptors you'll get for Christians are “hypocritical,” “judgmental” “arrogant,” and “self-righteous.”

Non-Christians are also far more likely to say Christians do not represent the teachings of Jesus….

“There is a disconnect between the reality of Jesus and the perceived reality of Christians,” said Bishop Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.”

I don’t know about you, but those responses break my heart. I can’t say I am surprised, when I think about my own numerous failures to represent Jesus’s love in the world, but it does break my heart.

In our relationship with Christ, Jesus is constantly showing us who he is, and like a good teacher, he constantly checks our comprehension by asking us if we understand who he is. He knows it’s hard to cling to him in all the stresses and challenges of life.

Getting back to that survey, it means looking like the loving face of Jesus in the world in ways that everyone can understand—even people who have turned away from religion. There’s a blueprint for modelling the Christian faith in that survey question:

Love your neighbor.

Love God.

Don’t judge others, before we first judge ourselves and hold ourselves accountable for our sin (and sin is almost always about disordering our relationships).

Be willing to repent when you fall short.

Feed the hungry. Heal the sick.

Love your enemies.

When we look at those survey responses, we see that the huge majority of the responses have to do with relationship, and LOVE. To be the face of Jesus in the world, we are called to be the face of love in the world. Even when we are cranky.

It's clear that real love—love in action—has to be at the center of our relationship with God, and our relationship with others. And it’s how we love others that we demonstrate the depth of our love for God.

So I ask you, who is Jesus for you? If you were to describe your relationship with Jesus, what words would you use for him? What words would you use to describe your relationship with Christ?

Think on this. Pray on this—prayer is, after all, one of the greatest ways to deepen your relationship with God. Listen to your heart and your soul.

God is calling us always into deeper relationship—into deeper knowledge of the love that is at the center of the Trinity, and at the center of our faith.

We are ONE Body. All of us. And how we love the member s of that body demonstrates how we love God. And love is always the answer-- to every question.

The love that we are called to center at the very heart of this community, and at the very heart of our interactions out in the world, where the world is most definitely watching us to learn about who Jesus is.

-- The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire

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