3 May 2009

True Love?

ASermon for Easter 4B

This Sunday we get a double-dose of the Beloved Disciple, or at least of his most articulate follower, known to us only as 'The Elder'. He was the one who took the Beloved Disciple's reminiscences and teachings about Jesus and the meaning of his life and death and articulated them in the fourth gospel, the gospel of John. And he also produced the three letters called the Johannine epistles. Both our gospel and epistle readings this morning come from him, the only New Testament writer to leave us both epistles and a gospel.

It's very easy to summarise in a single word what the epistle is about; it's about love, certainly one of the most important themes that recur in The Elder's writing. Think about all the 'love' passages that come from him -- 'For God so loved the world'; 'Greater love has no one than this'; 'love one another as I have loved you'. Through The Elder's gospel we are invited into the heart of the relationship between Father and Son to become 'children of God', and the heart of that relationship is love.

So what is the epistle telling us about love? It gives us some important clues for recognising true love (and I don't mean the kind in romance novels!) and for living our lives in God. It also brings up another important concept for The Elder, that of abiding. Let's look more closely.

First and most importantly, we must love in truth and in action. That tells us two things we need to know about the nature of love: it must be genuine and it must be active. To say that we must love in truth is to say that our love has to be authentic. We must sincerely become a people of love. Child of the sixties that I am, I always seem to come back to this point -- it's got to be real, man! And so, it is not enough to 'talk the talk', we must also 'walk the walk' -- the love has to produce results, actions that are loving. In fact, the epistle sets the standard high, by referring to Jesus' sacrificial love as a model that we should aspire to.

We ought, The Elder says, to lay down our lives for one another. What does he mean by this? Are we talking about literally laying down our lives, or metaphorically? Unfortunately the answer seems to be, Both! The allusion to Jesus' example is unmistakeable, because Jesus did, after all, literally lay down his life, as our gospel reading also points out. By remaining true to his heavenly Father's will and staying 'on message' until he had passed a point of no return, Jesus offered his life for us, so that we could also live our lives in obedience to God's will. Our Gospel reading is thematically linked to this epistle reading here.

In the gospel passage, Jesus says that he is the good shepherd that lays down his life for the sheep. The Elder is often criticised for portraying an inhuman Jesus by emphasising a Jesus who goes to his death so willingly that he seems impervious, untouched by fear or pain. I don't think that's a very fair judgement, although it is true that the idea that Jesus was willing to die rather than forced to die is very important to The Elder's viewpoint and he does emphasise it a lot. But here The Elder puts the image of a working shepherd at the fore and shows us a very human way to understand Jesus' willing involvement in the events leading to his death, one that doesn't rob him of human feelings.

Jesus is the good shepherd who is willing to risk his life to keep the sheep safe, who actually dies in defending the flock. And why? Because they are his flock and he knows them. That is something we can completely relate to on a human level. And there are still jobs, even in our urban, 21st century lives, that require the same willingness to risk oneself. Of course it isn't the whole picture -- what is going on in Jesus's saving work is more complicated that this parable can represent. As the passage itself goes on to show, Jesus also acts the way he does because he knows the way to gain his life is to lose it (as he puts it elsewhere) and because he has received a commandment from his Father. That takes us back once again to our epistle.

But the price of loving obedience is not always physical death. Sometimes it's another kind of loss. In the epistle, The Elder continues by asking 'how does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help'? Well, clearly the answer he is looking for is that God's love does not abide in such people -- ouch! It's so hard to share our portion of 'the world's goods'. We need those goods for a variety of reasons (good and bad) -- we need them to be secure in our own future but we also need them to keep score, because one of the ways the world gets between us and God is to make us feel that we need to accumulate stuff in order to succeed. In fact, many of us, here in the so-called first world maybe even most of us, can afford to share some of the world's goods with our brothers and sisters, through the church or the lunch programme or the food bank, or in any number of other ways.

However we work out the details, the Elder tells us that living our lives in God is about love, and love involves sacrifice -- sacrifice of ourselves, of our stuff, of our time. Does this mean becoming a bunch of gloomy, sad-faced Holy Joes? Of course not! St Paul reminds us in Corinthians that the Lord loves a cheerful giver, and this kind of sacrifice is about cheerful giving, in love, to our sisters and brothers, not about being 'martyrs'. Just as we should wash our faces and put on clean clothes and a cheerful attitude if we fast, so we should act with energy and cheerfulness if we are called upon to make sacrifices.

After all, the rewards of this sacrifice are immense, because they involve abiding. Abiding is a very common word in the Elder's writing -- here it basically means to remain or to dwell, to reside. At the end of the epistle, we hear that all who obey God's commandments abide in God, and God abides in them. The key to obeying those commandments, we know from all we have heard so far from the Elder, is to love and to live our lives in God.

When we do, we remain in God and God remains in us. That sounds simple, doesn't it? Well, not so much.... Remaining, abiding, is not a passive thing -- we don't remain by just staying in one place, but by staying on course. Just as love is more than thinking warm, fuzzy thoughts about our neighbours, abiding is more than standing still. Our life in God has to be holistic -- rather than something we do on Sundays, it's something we do all week and all year long, hence the elder's question about whether God's love does indeed abide in those that have the world's goods and fail to help a brother or a sister.

So to abide with God, to live in relationship with God, means living an entire life that is directed toward and by love. That's one reason why it is often sacrificial, because we have to love more than just ourselves -- we need to love God and our neighbour to boot. And when we love others, we want to help them and even make sacrifices for them. But abiding with God is a lifestyle rather than just a slogan. And different people will live out their lives in God in different ways. In our baptismal service, we conclude with a series of promises that give shape to our life in Christ -- continuing in 'the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the Prayers'; persevering in resisting evil and when need be, repenting and returning to the Lord; proclaiming 'by word and example the good news of God in Christ'; seeking and serving 'Christ in all persons, loving our neighbour as [ourselves]'; and striving for 'justice and peace among all people'.

We all appropriate these promises, internalise these promises in different ways, and we carry them out in different ways in our lives. But it's not easy, sacrificial love is not easy. Every Lent and Holy Week, we remind ourselves and anyone who is willing to listen of just how hard it is to live a life of love in God. It hasn't got any easier over the centuries since Jesus lived. But every Easter, indeed, every Sunday, we are reminded of what is at stake in that life -- being part of a resurrection life in a community that abides in God and in which God abides. Let us pray to God always to give us the strength, the humility, and the insight to live that life of love and partake in the resurrection life with God. Amen.