Yesterday morning, my wife Gay and I spent a lovely morning at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga. For those of you who do not know, Maranatha Baptist Church is President Carter's home congregation. Whenever he is in Plains, he teaches Sunday School at this small country church.
President Carter's lesson, which came from Smith and Helwys' Uniforms Series, was on 1 John Chapter 3. What follows the scripture is my response to his lesson:
11 For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12 We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13 Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you.
14 We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15 All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. 16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him
20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
This lesson was particularly relevant to the issues facing the church and our country today. Many of us seem to be perfectly content to focus entirely on the welfare of an ever shrinking "us," while ignoring, in the best case, or exploiting the welfare of others. The reason we do this are obvious. We may be jealous of what others have that we do not. We may be afraid of others; even if we do not know exactly what it is we are afraid of. Or, we have adopted the foolish notion that we must agree on everything in order to live in friendship or work together. We have forgotten that we are all human beings and, therefore, all equal and all equally flawed. Instead, we do what we have always done throughout history: we try to minimize the humanity of "them." We don't go to war with the Germans and the Japanese; we go to war with the Krauts and the Japs.
All of us are guilty of labeling those who are not like us. Christians are equally guilty: we do it to others and we even do it to ourselves. We define ourselves with terms like Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians. We define others as liberals, fundies, or heritics. The problem with any of these "labels" whether they are positive or negative is meaning. How many of you who are Baptist actually know what it means to be Baptist? How many of you who have called someone a liberal or a fundamentalist actually know either of those terms mean? While they may have a useful, academic, and definable meaning, for many people, for many Christians, they are slurs; they are words of hate. "All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them." We should all think about this the next time we label someone.
Instead of focusing on what divides us, it is time to focus on what unites us as Christians. What is that? President Carter answered that question and had the class repeat it after him at the end of the lesson:
"We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ."
That is what makes us a Christian, and everything else pales in comparison: "And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us."