And as the music swells, their voices grow. They shout out, “Jesus has overcome, and the grave is overwhelmed!” I can pick out a few voices. Mostly treble, with a smattering of bass.
That one’s the teen who has come to deeply love Jesus. Tonight as I was dropping off teens after worship, I stopped to invite a mom to worship next week. This particular teen waited patiently in the van. When I told her I was inviting the other teen’s mom, her response was, “Yeah. It’s so sad she doesn’t know Jesus.” And she meant it; no sarcasm there.
This one is the young mom who is struggling with consequences of past sin. I can hear her voice tremble as she sings, “I will rise when he calls my name!”
There is the voice of a young man who hated me last week. I called him on a sin, and he didn’t want to hear it. Tonight he brought a friend to church.
Here’s a woman’s voice, deep with age and smoking. She sings with her son, returned to Jesus after many decades away. Her voice shakes with the lyric, “I hear the cry of every longing voice: Worthy is the Lamb!”
I am surrounded by such a cloud of witnesses. I have gathered with Jesus’s people. He has brought them together to hear him, to grow together, to praise and pray together, to confess sin and rejoice in forgiveness. And I get to lead them? I get to take them into God’s Word? I get to announce what he says to them? I get to deliver forgiveness to hearts that yearn for it?
I love these people who have gathered together this Sunday evening to worship. It breaks my heart as I think of each of their stories. I know them, and they know me. I call to them. They answer.
How can such things be?
Who am I?
This morning I stepped out of the sacristy as the church bells rang. I announced the theme of worship. “Today, we’re going to talk about something really, really controversial. Love.” There’s some snickering in the congregation. And then I look at them all. Every single one. And I say what may be the hardest thing to actually say out loud: “I love you.”
And I let it sink in.
“I love you. I know you all. And it is honor to serve you.”
And then some people begin to panic.
I continue, “No, I don’t have a call. I don’t plan on leaving. Don’t worry. But I want you to know. Today we’ll be talking about loving one another, because Jesus loves us.” I announce the first hymn, and as I turn, one woman bursts from the congregation, “We love you too, pastor!”
I nearly melt.
Bible study. We’re checking out shepherds, sheep, and the Good Shepherd. And one of the questions: how is a good shepherd (a good pastor) like the Good Shepherd (Jesus)? And the congregation goes through several.
And I point out one they missed: A good shepherd loves his sheep.
And I say, “If I don’t love you… I’m failing.”
Oh, God. What have I done?
I have failed.
I have sinned.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’ve struggled in loving this congregation. Yes, they have failed in so many ways. Yes, I have hit my head against a brick wall as I attempt to give them God’s Word, over and over and over again.
Jesus doesn’t tell us to “Love those who make your life easy.”
He says, “Love each other like I love you.”
In the sermon this morning, I told the congregation that love nearly always leads to pain in this broken world. And loving this congregation leads to such pain. It hurts to love them.
But that does not give me an excuse.
Jesus loved me. Look what happened to him because of that love. Look at the pain he endured for a sinner like me. For someone with such a hard heart he’d rather not love the blessing of a congregation God has given him.
But this morning, as I looked over this flock God has given me to shepherd… I meant it.
I love them.
And there is no way I can take credit for that love. I have not gritted my teeth and said, “I will love you anyway!” This is not some decision I made. My heart is not superhuman.
But my Savior’s heart… it is amazing. And he loves me?
And he loves them.
And I will rise. And so will they. And we will live together, walking on golden streets. And we will praise the Lamb forever.
This love I have for them… it is not me. That love is a gift Jesus gives.
And it hurts. It really does.
But it is a gift from Jesus, so it is good. And for this I praise him. Even through pain. Even through tears. I will love, because he has loved me, and because he has loved them.