USP’s, Unique Selling Points. People in business will often talk about USP’s. A USP is something that a particular product or service has which its competitors do not. It is the thing that makes the difference, that puts it out in front and makes it a market leader drawing in new customers. Who likes M & M’s? Do you know what their USP is? ‘The chocolate melts in your mouth, not in your hand’. Apparently, the hard candy outer coating was developed for troops serving in the Spanish Civil War so that the chocolate would not melt in the sun!
Does the church have a Unique Selling Point? Many people don’t know quite where to place us in the marketplace. Are we a charity, a voluntary service, a religious organisation or a community group? In reality we are all these things and more besides, but do we have a USP?
The church in Britain today is not what it was. Sunday congregations used to be much greater. Far more children were involved in Sunday Schools and church youth organisations. Church leaders were significant players in the media and their voice was respected even if it was not acted upon. Today, it can seem that church matters only hit the press when there is a child abuse scandal, or some journalist uncovers a prominent Christian who does not agree with every aspect of commonly held liberal views on sexuality and moral standards. In marketing terms, the church seems to have a dodgy profile with no outstanding USPs.
I know some of us wish we could wind the clock back to the ‘good old days’ but of course we can’t. What we can do is to take a fresh look at the new testament and the experience of Jesus’ first disciples. The reading today from John’s gospel chapter 15 has Jesus gathered with his disciples shortly before his crucifixion. John’s gospel gives us far more insight into what went during that fateful night than the other accounts. It was a small and intimate gathering; Jesus with the twelve and very likely a few others including some of the women who supported them. He had described them previously as a ‘little flock’ (Luke 12.32) and this must have been how they felt at that meal after Jesus had washed their feet and Judas, having shared bread with Jesus had left in the darkness of the night to betray Jesus. There is no sense here of an internationally recognised movement to which thousands were signing up daily. That would come later. At this point in time, uncertain of the future, they were a small group who seemed inconsequential.
There is a sense in which the church in Britain today has more in common with this gathering of the disciples around Jesus on the night of his betrayal than the church which began to making waves on the day of Pentecost. We have lost popular support. Hoped for growth has not happened and we are confused about the future. But it is in this context that Jesus wants to teach the disciples what should be at the heart of their faith, what should be their USP. We do well to listen up.
It follows on from what we heard last week about as Jesus the true and vine and the disciples are the branches. Branches will not be successful or fruitful unless they stay attached, unless they are grafted into the vine. What is unfruitful will need to be cleansed or pruned away as we are attentive to the word Jesus has for us.
Now, Jesus takes a slightly different tack. ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.’ There is still a sense of abiding or being rooted in him but now the imperative is love. Love is a big word for us. Contemporary society doesn’t care what kind of love or in what context just so long as there is love and not war. Jesus is very specific about what kind of love he means: ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you…’ There is nothing sentimental here. John’s gospel is at pains to point out that the Father and the Son are one, they speak with one voice. The events of the next 24 hours will make clear to the disciples the extent of Jesus’ love for them. It is a self-sacrificial love, a costly love. This is the flavour of love that Jesus commends to his disciples. It is the kind of love they will be enabled to show if they abide in him…if they keep his commandments, that is follow his ways and teaching. Again, in verse 12, Jesus gives the command: that you 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.’ (John 15.12-13) Our passage ends with these words: ‘I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.’ (John 15.17)
In going over that section of Jesus’ teaching, I am fairly certain that I’m not telling you anything new. That Jesus told his disciples to love one another is not a startling new fact. We know that but how far do we make it our business to do that? As the body of Christian believers shrinks in size, the quality of our love and care for one another needs to grow. We have all missed family members during the pandemic and our love for them should be unquestioned but there needs to be a special quality of love, the love of the Father for the Son, the love of the Son shown on the cross which needs to be demonstrated amongst all who would be his disciples. It is love not just for those who we might call our friends in church but also those we know less especially those who are newer to the fellowship and particularly to any who are needy.
As normal life begins to resume after covid, it has been remarked upon in a number of settings that people seem a bit more accepting and easier with each other, just glad to be back together. I’ve noticed it in our church community too. May it can be a springboard to us all valuing each other and loving each other with something of the joy, intimacy and sacrifice of which Jesus talks here. Could not the quality of our love for each other more closely reflect the quality of love between Jesus and his Father? That would be my challenge as we look to rebuild our church.
This Godly love is and should be our USP as a church. Like other organisations, we engage in charity activities, we support our local community. As a religious body, we undertake worship, and we have a set of beliefs which are important and which we rightly seek to promote and share with others. But none of that cuts any ice if the love of the living Christ is absent or compromised in our shared life. The gospel message we proclaim only becomes real to others when the USP of the sacrificial love of God is seen in our midst.
Of course, the church is not always a fearful little flock. There are times and places when it is blessed with God’s power to reach out. Our fervent prayer should be that we will see such an outpouring in our time and day. Even then, the USP of love should not be overlooked. Towards the end of the Day of Pentecost account we read that all who believed were together and had all things in common, selling goods to give money to the poor.’ (Acts 2.44-45) Those verses frighten us, but they are the outworking of the very teaching we have heard today amongst those who first heard it. May we embrace this teaching afresh in the 21st century just as they did in the first.
Easter 6 09.05.2021