Editor’s note: This column was adapted from Johnson’s commencement address at Howard Payne University on May 8, 2010.
We are here today because of love: the love we have experienced from God, the love of that God incarnated in Christ Jesus, the love of our family without whom we would not be present at this holy moment, and the love we have toward our fellow human beings in the global village, starting here in Texas and extending throughout the entire world.
But the world you commence into today could not be at more cross purposes to this love. We find ourselves in a world divided by hatred, a nation divided by rancor and incivility, a church divided by doctrinal differences, families divided by discord, and even our very selves divided.
More than ever, the world needs people with a wide open heart of love.
The New Testament makes two central points to underscore the utter necessity of love.
First, it establishes the celebration of love in unity. Love is not something we must produce but has already been given by God. Reconciliation has already been established by Christ. This is central to Paul’s understanding. The love we are called to is impossible on our own power.
We simply are not the kind of creatures who can “bear all things, believe all things, hope all things and endure all things” on our own power. We don’t have to produce or generate this quality of sublime, divine love because God has already done so.
Paul argues that we are new creations. “All this is from God,” he says, “who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. That is, in Christ God was reconciling the whole world, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” We do not create any measure of love not already made by God in Christ. All we do is give witness to it. We are ambassadors of it. We represent it. We speak and act it on behalf of Christ in the world.
This understanding is essential to possessing a wide open heart of love. Without the reconciling power of Christ at the center of all we do, of all we are, we will experience a failure of love. We can say and do all the right things, have all the right doctrines, have all the right truth, but if we don’t have love it is nothing but noise. The task of love is simply too morally challenging for human creatures to accomplish on our own power.
Second, the New Testament recommends the execution of love in diversity. Diversity is not antithetical to the Gospel project of love, but absolutely necessary in order to get the job of love done. The multiplicity of gifts, perspectives, opinions, viewpoints and experiences in the community of Christ are not points of disagreement, but places at which the reconciliation already given by God is celebrated.
The diversity principle means that every last person, however much her point of view differs from your own, is essential. There are no dispensable or nonessential persons. Everyone counts. Your place on the planet is not a ratification of your own personal point of view or position on any given issue, theological or social. You don’t come to this community or any community to look for agreement. You come seeking and giving understanding.
I’m not sure that old phrase, “like faith and order,” is wisely put anymore. Everyone in this room is unlike me in basic ways, and that is as God has ordered our human family. I must embrace the world of not-like-myself, and that is the only way I can grow and mature into the person God intends for me to be.
Anyone that tries to put God’s vision of transformative love into practice will encounter difficulty. Conflict happens only in communities that are struggling to appropriate the diversity principle. Show me a group where everyone looks alike, thinks alike, sounds alike, acts alike and I’ll show you a group in utter uniformity. And boredom.
Values produce conflict. If they don’t, they are something other than values.
Women and men, God means something by you. God means nothing less than to change the world by you. Your baptism into God’s love is your commencement into this high and holy work, much more than the diploma you are about to receive.
Don’t play small ball. Open the game up wide. Swing for the centerfield fence. Follow that counsel from Teddy Roosevelt: “Make no small plans – they have no power to stir people’s blood.” Value dissent and disagreement, and stand against conformity of any kind. Have a wide open heart of love to receive your world with unconditional acceptance and affirmation. You have everything you need. There is nothing you lack.
A young pastor at the outset of his ministry in Washington, D.C., was walking with a priest down 14th Street one day. At that time, 14th Street was the seediest section of our nation’s capital. Drug abuse, prostitution, pornography and crime comprised the main business of that neighborhood in the 1970s.
The priest operated a halfway house there to minister to street people. He was in regular civilian clothing that day, not dressed in his clerical collar. The young pastor and the priest passed by a teen-age prostitute on the street corner. As they passed, she turned to the priest, who passed nearest to her, and spoke in a voice so hollow it is remembered to this day: “Hey mister, you wanna make love?”
The priest whirled around, looked the young girl directly in the eye, and asked, “What’s the matter, honey? Doesn’t anybody love you?” The girl stood silently for a moment, then began to weep, big streams of black mascara coursing down her caked-on rouged face. Then she said in words that will challenge that pastor for the rest of his life, “You know, I’m not sure there is anyone in this world who really loves me.”
To which the priest said, “I want you to know something. I love you, and, more importantly, God loves you.”
The world inside this room and outside this room longs to be loved. You have the wide open heart to give it to them. Don’t withhold it. Let it loose. And see what a new creation really looks like.
Charles Foster Johnson is interim pastor of the First Baptist Church of Brownwood, Texas.