10 May 2015

Abiding in Love

A Sermon for Easter 6B

On this sixth Sunday of Easter we are standing at the edge of a new reality. This Thursday the Easter season, which is all about Jesus' resurrection and the resurrection life that we are called to share, ends with the Ascension, in which we mark the end of his bodily presence among us after his resurrection. Ten days after that, we celebrate Pentecost, when the Spirit that Jesus promised burst upon the world, bringing in the New Creation, a world of men and women infused with and transformed by his Holy Spirit, with the potential to become conduits for the Spirit's continued presence and action in the lives of all. Our readings are infused with an awareness of this coming transition and its themes.

We are lucky in this Easter season to read the letters of John in tandem with John's Gospel. Today as on previous Sundays, what we learn from 1st John prepares the ground for what we will receive in our Gospel reading. From it we learn that, as we strive to live in the love and obedience that Jesus calls forth in our lives, it is the Spirit that bears witness to what is in our hearts, to our belief and our love. The Spirit, John tells us in this letter, is the truth, that is, the truth about Jesus, that he is the Son of God and calls us into relationship with him and with the Father. This relationship is a family relationship, for John reminds us that we are born of God: hence we can say we become children of God. We also become partakers of a faith that overcomes the broken world around us if we remain in that love and obedience.

Obedience is not something that comes easily to us. But here John the Elder (who is likely but not certainly the same as John the Evangelist) tells us that we can do what God wants us to do, because we are born from God on account of our faith. For God's commands are not burdensome or hard to obey, because whatever is born of God conquers the world, and our faith is the victory that conquers the world. Hence that faith makes God's commands do-able: in that faith we are able to love God and obey God's commandments.

Remaining, that is, abiding, in the love of Christ is the theme of our Gospel reading. It's taken from John 15, a chapter known as "the abiding chapter", and for many the most comforting words in the whole Bible. This chapter begins with the parable of the vine and its branches, which we heard as our Gospel reading last week. It ends with a reference to the coming of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, which we will soon celebrate at Pentecost. And between these two poles, as it were, we hear Jesus call us to abide, to remain and make our home (our abode) in his love.

That may sound passive, a call to abide. But it requires us to do more than simply think loving thoughts, whether about Jesus or about our brothers and sisters. Jesus' love is an active thing, and the call to abide is a call to participate in that love. Our first reading offers a good example of the active nature of that love, because it is about the Spirit working to include outsiders within the circle of abiding love.

In that first reading, from the Book of Acts, we hear the conclusion of Cornelius' story: he was the Roman (and hence Gentile) centurion to whose household Peter was sent to preach the Good News. Cornelius is prompted by a dream to ask Peter to come and Peter was prompted in turn by a dream of his own to go. He arrived with fellow believers who were sceptical about the whole thing, but their misgivings were completely overcome when they witnessed the gift of the Holy Spirit, given to the Gentiles who had listened to Peter's preaching and been moved by him. So those Gentiles were baptised and became part of the New Covenant fellowship in Jesus' name.

The role of the Holy Spirit in this story is key. If Cornelius' household had not shown the presence of the Spirit among them by speaking in tongues and praising God, their baptism might have been hung up for days or weeks in arguments about proper procedure and Scriptural precedents! Although few of us will experience such a dramatic outpouring of the Holy Spirit as that, John's promise is that in all of us the Spirit is alive and anchoring our trust in God's faithfulness.

In the gospel reading Jesus offers us a quite extreme example of love: giving up one's life for one's friends. The occasion of these words is of course the night of the Last Supper, the night before Jesus' death. Again and again John shows us that Jesus is aware of the danger he is in and the need to prepare his disciples for the challenge of facing the world without him. Hence the emphasis on abiding in Jesus and his Father and in their love, and this example of someone giving up their life for their friends.

Jesus speaks of his disciples as his friends, part of the intertwining relationships of love with which these chapters of John are full. Here he gives an extraordinary definition of what it means to be his friend. 'You', he tells the disciples present, 'are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.' Jesus' friends are those who have heard from him everything that he has heard from his Father and who do what Jesus commands.

Simple, right? If only.

But if we want to achieve a right relationship with the Father and with Jesus, a relationship based on love, a relationship in which we can abide during our earthly journey, we have to unpack what it means to be Jesus' friend. John uses both the image of friendship and the image of family in his writings to express for us what it means to be in right relationship with God and Jesus. The epistle reading was more about familial ties. Here friendship comes to the fore in Jesus' words: he links friendship with our obedience as well as with our listening in other ways. If Jesus is to make known to us what he has heard from his Father, then we also have to hear. We have to learn to listen to Jesus' voice teaching us about himself and about the Father. And we have also to learn what it means to obey Jesus' commands.

We heard about doing what God commands in the epistle reading. But what Jesus commands us is the same as what God commands, for what Jesus tells us is what he has heard from his Father. So we are part of a virtuous circle of loving obedience: we do what Jesus and his Father command because of our love for them. Our love is rooted in our faith and our faith is rooted in our love: inseparably intertwined through the Spirit, love and faith sustain us on our journey. And the commands we are to follow? There's really only one: Love one another. Love one another as he has loved us.

It's simple but it doesn't sound easy, and it's not. So it's reassuring that we've been told that the command is not burdensome, that it's something we can do. How do we love one another? As we've seen, Jesus takes an extreme example and talks about laying down one's life for one's friends, because of course that's what he was about to do. Few people find themselves in a situation that's comparable to Jesus' situation, called on to give their lives for those they love. But we can love one another sacrificially all the same.

We show our love by living our lives lovingly: by giving to one another of our time and attention, our talent, and our treasure. We show our love by living our lives joyfully: on the night of his betrayal, Jesus says 'I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete'. That perfect joy is ours when we love one another in hope, desiring not what we want but what is best for our brothers and sisters. And we show our love for one another by bearing fruit, as the vine bears fruit and as Jesus chose us to bear fruit. We see that fruit here in our outreach, in our lunch programme, in our teaching and learning together, in our fellowship, and in our meeting together for word and sacrament. We see it too in our friendships and our families, as we do in our friendship and familial love for Jesus and his Father. May God bless us always to bear fruit for one another and for God's work in God's world. Amen.