Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (May 5, 2024)

Gospel: John 15:9-17

Several years ago, Amy and I watched the Netflix film “Come Sunday” about the evangelical preacher Carlton Pearson. As I recall it was prompted when Amy heard a podcast episode about his life and mentioned his story to me. At the time his name didn’t ring a bell, despite his being at one time one of the best-known preachers in the country.

Bishop Pearson, a graduate of Oral Roberts University and a close friend of that institution’s president and namesake founder, was pastor of the Higher Dimensions Family Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. At its peak the church hosted more than 6,000 people at weekly services. He was in great demand as a speaker and preacher, invited to appear at services and conferences across the country.

Then something happened that changed the course of his life forever.

One night Bishop Pearson watched a television program on the horrific genocide taking place in Rwanda, and as he watched he heard the voice of God speaking to him. He realized it was inconceivable that the victims of this genocide or indeed anyone else in the world who was not Christian could be condemned to hell. How could anyone, he wondered, who was not even aware of the Bible or Jesus or God be condemned to an eternity of punishment? From this his preaching moved in a new direction and he began to talk about the doctrine of universal reconciliation – something known to many simply as “universalism,” the belief that all will be reconciled to God.

The results were immediate and dramatic. Nearly 84 percent of his congregation left. The church went into foreclosure. Bishop Pearson was condemned as a heretic by the national council of African American Pentecostal Bishops. Despite pointing to passages in the Bible that supported this new vision, and by pleading with his congregation that he was not – as he was accused in one dramatic moment from the film – “rewriting the Bible, but rereading it,” everything fell away.

But he persevered. He was accepted as a pastor in the United Church of Christ. He wrote books on this doctrine and how it’s reflected in the Scriptures, and he was once again invited to speak around the country. I would occasionally watch some of his livestreams on Facebook over the years and recognized when he died of cancer late last year that an important voice had been silenced.

I bring this up not to highlight the differences in the understanding of doctrine that can exist within congregations or denominations, or how relationships can be affected by them. I’m not mentioning his story as an example of fall and redemption, or even simply to plug the movie (although if you do have an opportunity to watch it, I highly recommend taking the time to do so – as of Friday evening this week it was still on Netflix). No, I wanted to bring up the narrative of Bishop Pearson’s life because of what I think many missed in arguing against him and walking out of his congregation.

Many were focused on the doctrine of hell. What I think should be the focus of attention, however, is the overwhelming capacity of God’s love.

Love has without question been at the center of our lectionary readings for the past several weeks, particularly in the readings from the Gospel of John. We just heard another passage from that Gospel that continues that theme, and within it some of the most familiar passages from Scripture. Love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

To love is one of the most beautiful things we can do – and sometimes, one of the most difficult. Loving our friends, our parents and children, our siblings and neighbors: that seems easy, and we may do so without a second thought. But there’s also a struggle in love, and it’s one that I certainly have found myself dealing with from time to time. When I watch the news or look at things occurring in places around the world, I often feel frustrated. I look at the way some groups of people treat others – the way that they marginalize and harm one another, through their words and their actions – and I feel sorrow. Admittedly, I get angry at things I see taking place in and to the world.

It’s easy for me to look at those causing harm and demonstrating hate and conclude I don’t like what they’re doing. I don’t like them. But I have to love them. I must love them because it’s what God asks of me. Love one another as I have loved you.

Has humanity disappointed God? In a word, yes. I think humanity has disappointed God many times throughout history. As much as we try to do things pleasing to God, humanity has made mistakes. Humanity has caused sorrow and anger and grief for God. But here is the good news: God loves us … all of us. The whole reason you and I are here, the whole reason creation exists, is because of the abundance of God’s love and the desire to have a visible reflection of that love.

God’s love is sweeping. It’s limitless; there’s no way to measure its breadth or its depth. We’ve seen it in the life and ministry of Jesus. There was much that caused him pain and grief: the treatment of his homeland by the Roman authorities; disciples who were often short-sighted or overzealous and made mistakes in trying to do the right thing; people who never could seem to trust enough or have enough faith in God; followers who denied him and abandoned him at the cross.

His response? He loved them. Without question and without exception, Jesus loved them all. In today’s Gospel reading, he asks one important thing of the disciples – one thing of us – in return.

Love one another as I have loved you.

As I said, it’s not always going to be easy. Our personal feelings will sometimes get in the way and shape what we think of people. But rather than being bound or limited by our feelings, we can be freed by the limitless and unbounded love of God.

Bishop Pearson risked it all – his ministry, his congregation, his church, his standing as a pastor – because of how he understood God’s love as given for everyone. What are we willing to risk in the name of God’s love?

Who will we dare to love?