Reckless love – 2: Expand the circle

When you’re a kid, or you feel like a kid, and you get together with a bunch of friends to play a team sport, what’s the first thing you do? You choose up sides! The captains of the two teams stand over there, and all the players stand together over here, and one by one the captains choose who they want on their team.

Depending on how good you are, or how popular you are, this may be the best or the worst part of the game. Ever been the first one chosen? You get to high-five all those chosen after you. Ever been the last one chosen? Humiliating. No high-fives left for you.

With me, it mostly depended on the game. If we were playing basketball, I was one of the last chosen. I couldn’t dribble. Well, I could dribble, just not while running. Major handicap for a basketball player.

Softball or baseball, I was an OK pick. I didn’t have a strong throwing arm, but I was a good hitter. You could depend on me to get on base, and I was a fast runner.

You know the dynamics of the team selection process. Each team captain has to choose the best first, or the other team captain will get them. You can play nice guy and choose friendship over ability, but every time you pick a loser, you forfeit the chance to add a winner to your team. The object is to build a team with the strongest players on the field. You want all those on your team to be winners, so you can smoke the other team and claim bragging rights.

If those factors go into selecting a team for a pickup game in somebody’s back yard, what more must go into selecting a team to help save the world? When you look at the 12-man roster Jesus chose for his team of disciples, you may wonder what he was thinking.

Consider the some of the variables. What kind of person would you choose to proclaim that God’s kingdom is coming right here and right now? What kind of person would you choose to proclaim that God’s love is all that matters in the world, and however important other things are, this is the most important?

What kind of person would you send out “like a sheep among wolves” to represent you and heal people and drive out demons in your name? (Matthew 10:1, 16) What kind of person would you choose to learn from you and carry on after you when you know that your message is going to get you killed and probably will get them killed, too?

Is there one special kind of person you would choose to be your disciple? Or are there several kinds of personalities and temperaments you might want to include? And how do you get these very different people to work together, not only when you’re leading them but, maybe more importantly, after you’re gone?

From the stories we read in the gospels, it appears that Jesus purposefully enlists five of his disciples and chooses the rest from a crowd of hopefuls. He goes to a mountaintop and spends the night in prayer. Next morning, he calls up all the disciple wannabes, and from them he chooses the final 12 who will be his closest followers.

The number 12, of course, is highly symbolic. It’s the number of the original tribes of Israel. Jesus begins his mission calling all Israel to repentance, so that number is important. The 12 seem to represent not only Israel but also some of its major religious and political factions.

The first four personally enlisted by Jesus are the Johnson brothers, Andrew and Simon Peter; and the Zebedee brothers, James and John. They’re all commercial fishermen on the Sea of Galilee.

All Galilean fishermen are under great pressure from the local despot, Herod Antipas, who taxes them heavily so he can build a big new seaside resort named after the emperor Tiberius.

That makes the fifth disciple enlisted by Jesus a very interesting pick. That’s Matthew, also called Levi. He’s a tax collector. He’s got a kiosk right on the lakeshore, and he charges a tax on every fish hauled out of the water. Some of it he gives to Herod and Tiberius; some of it he keeps for himself.

It’s an understatement to say that he is not well-liked, especially by fishermen – maybe especially by the Zebedee brothers, whom Jesus calls the Sons of Thunder, as if they were part of a motorcycle gang.

The remaining seven disciples are a mixed bag. Simon the Zealot is called Zealot because he wants to fight the Romans. Judas called Iscariot is a special kind of Zealot, a Sicarrii. He and his buddies specialize in cozying up to someone in a crowd, sticking a knife in them, and then quietly disappearing. You can bet both of those guys really get along well with that tax collector fellow.

Thomas is a staunch loyalist to Jesus, but he’s such a literalist; he demands proof of everything. There’s a second James, sometimes called James the Younger. He’s a brother of Matthew/Levi. The brothers are cousins of Jesus, sons of Alphaeus, who is the brother of Jesus’ foster father Joseph.

About the last three, Philip, Bartholomew and Thaddaeus, we know little if anything beyond their names. Perhaps they represent the major sects of Judaism at the time: the liberal Pharisees, the conservative Sadducees and the ultra-conservative Essenes.

We don’t know what makes these 12 potential winners. All we can be sure of is that Jesus wants all of them on his team. He has not chosen them willy-nilly. He has given careful thought and much prayer to each one. And I haven’t even mentioned the female disciples who follow with them. They may represent constituencies of their own.

Viewed politically, it looks as if Jesus is building a team of rivals. That’s what historian Doris Kearns Goodwin calls the cabinet that President Abraham Lincoln forged to guide the Union through the Civil War. The men in Lincoln’s cabinet represented very different viewpoints and were rivals in many ways. A couple of them really wanted Lincoln’s job, too. It was Lincoln’s genius not only to get them together in the same room but to get them to work together productively.

Viewed theologically, Jesus is creating what theologian Scot McKnight calls a “fellowship of differents.” That’s the word “different” with an “s” on the end. It’s a fellowship of very different people. Though the disciples spend much of their time with Jesus not listening very well and often missing the point entirely, all but Judas eventually become of one mind when it comes to proclaiming who Jesus is and what the kingdom of God is all about.

That suggests that Jesus chose them more for their strength of character than for their ability to get along. In fact, you might say that he intentionally creates a team of people who rub against each other. He knows that they will stretch each other, if they didn’t kill each other first. And stretching one another is one of the major goals of Christian fellowship.

So says Tom Berlin. His book Reckless Love is guiding our study this Lent. This is the second Sunday of Lent and the second message in a series inspired by the book. (You probably thought I’d never get around to announcing that.)

Living God’s way means loving God’s way, Berlin says, and that means loving recklessly. To love recklessly means to enter every situation and human encounter with love. Loving recklessly means expanding your circle of love – loving more people, especially those who are not at all like you.

When we think of love, we tend to think of it as a precious resource that is limited in supply – sort of like your favorite pie. When you cut up a pie, it gets smaller with every piece you give away. But you don’t have to divvy up love to share it. Love involves multiplication, not division. Love multiplies exponentially. When you love, your share of love doesn’t diminish. It expands in explosive fashion. There’s always more than you started with. Don’t you wish pie were the same way?

Expanding the circle of love starts with you. Remember, Jesus says you should love the Lord your God with every fiber of your being, and love your neighbor as yourself. It has to start with you. You can’t love your neighbor the same way you love yourself. But you can’t love anybody if you don’t love yourself.

Fact is, a lot of us don’t even like ourselves, let alone love ourselves.

Maybe it started with one or both of your parents. No matter how hard you tried, you were never good enough. Nothing you did earned praise or affirmation, only criticism. You yearned to hear those simple but powerful words, “I love you.”

Relatives, friends, teachers were all the same. Your extended family saw you through your parents’ eyes. Your friends were always asking for something but never giving much in return. From the first day of school, your teachers put you in a box labeled “hopeless.”

As you got older, it didn’t get much better. You were always “less than.” Even when you got married, you never felt secure. You were burdened by shame and guilt over minor things – maybe even shame and guilt over some big things you did to get attention, any attention, from anyone who would pay attention.

You know the hardest person in the world to love? Yourself. You know the hardest person in the world to forgive? Yourself.

Whatever your story is, you can love yourself and forgive yourself because God does. Any capacity for love that you have springs from God’s love. You can love only because God loves you first. (1 John 4:19)

If God loves you and God forgives you, who are you to keep beating up on yourself? You are a valuable human being. Live like it. Be the wonderful person God created you to be. Bust out of the cage others have built around you. Bust out of the cage you have built around yourself.

“Come to me,” Jesus says. “Come to me, all you who are struggling and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

Jesus wants to set you free of your burdens. Jesus wants to set you free to love God, yourself and others. And that he will do. By loving you and forgiving you, Jesus removes the barriers between you and God. By loving and forgiving you, Jesus heals the inner turmoil that alienates you from your very self. By loving and forgiving you, Jesus drives away the fear that keeps you from embracing the other.

Fear of the other is what keeps us in homogeneous camps, surrounded by people who look like us, eat like us, act like us, hate like us – who for all purposes are just extensions of our fearful ourselves. But to be fully ourselves, we need to expand ourselves. We need to expand our circle of love and spend more time rubbing against others who aren’t like us at all.

Sure, it can be kind of scary, especially at first, when it feels like everyone rubs us the wrong way. But quickly we learn that others are more like us than not like us, and if we have a common goal, we can work together as a team.

Maybe that skinny kid can’t dribble, but he sure can sink one from the outside. That big kid moves slow, but nobody gets past him. There could be a place for both of them on God’s team. There could be a place for you, too.

God’s team isn’t limited to 12. Its circle is constantly expanding. If your circle is expanding, too, those circles could come together in a new and much larger circle of love. Ask yourself: Who’s on your team? Whose team are you on? On God’s team, everyone’s a winner!

This message was delivered at Edgerton United Methodist Church, in Edgerton, Kansas, on March 8, 2020, the Second Sunday of Lent, from Mark 2:14-17 and 3:13-19.

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