SERMON preached at St James, Colwall, Easter 6 2015
Acts 10.44-48; 1 John 5.1-6; John 15.9-17
I want to say something about love. I have experienced love in my life as I hope you have. I know, for instance, that each of my parents loved me as best they could in their circumstances. I know equally that I was not loved as I should have been. I am a parent. I love my children and, like many parents, I know too that my love has been at times deficient, that I failed in love. I have been in love a number of times and know the delights of that experience – and also the sadness that accompanies its ending. I have experienced love from many people. Some were – some still are – friends, others acquaintances, and yet others complete strangers who simply acted out of love and touched my life for the better.
You will know from your own life that not all these experiences are the same kind of love and that, having just one English word, love, can confuse at least as much as it can illuminate the process that goes on between people. But getting the words right – as C S Lewis set out to do in his famous book, ‘The Four Loves’ – is not always the most useful way to de-confuse us. People of faith – and Christians rank strongly in this – have very clear ideas about the most important features of love and it is those characteristics that underlie all the different types of love.
Jesus is quoted in today’s gospel reading as saying that “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” That stark statement, which comes in the Passion narrative of John’s gospel, points to a fundamental understanding about love. Love is for the sake of the other. To love is to will and to act for the sake of the other. Love may involve sacrifice, even a supreme sacrifice – which is not to say that love is not in itself fulfilling for the one who loves.
For example, if you have felt impelled in the past two weeks to give money to the Disasters Emergency Committee for the relief of people in Nepal who lost friends, relatives, lovers in those terrible earthquakes, then you have done a loving act for strangers. You have reached out to people you do not know and whom you will never meet – solely because you know of their need. Are you the poorer for that? Surely not. What if you gave more than you meant to? What if that leaves you short next month? Even then, would you really say that you lost by it? Almost certainly the answer must be no, because that act of love is its own reward, its own satisfaction.
Perhaps you have loved and lost in a more personal way: it can happen with children, it can happen with friends, and between spouses and partners, and it can happen with parents. But if you have truly loved, then you still have the fulfilment that comes from loving.
Of course, we are not perfect, our love is not perfect, so that often we do not truly love. Maybe, like me, you’ve thought you were loving, but actually were doing something else as well – perhaps appeasing, perhaps hoping to change the other person’s attitudes or behaviour in your favour. Perhaps you gave far more emotionally and spiritually than you truly wanted to give, so that your gift is laced with resentment when you did not get what you wanted. Few of us have not done that. You may have been lucky enough to learn from your mistakes.
Again the key to all this loving is found in the love of God, as seen in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus was neither a fool nor a masochist. His love was clear-sighted. When the wealthy young lawyer asked Jesus what he had to do to be part of God’s rule, Jesus loved him and gave him the unwelcome news that, in his case, he had to become un-wealthy. We’re not told how Jesus knew that, but he did: and we learn that sometimes we have to say unwelcome things to people we truly care about.
Jesus loved his group of disciples. He was not a fool, but he chose one man whom, we are told, sold him down the river. Again, we don’t know why that happened, but John’s gospel tells us that Jesus was pretty sure that Judas would do that in the end.
Jesus, we can be confident, loved his family – his mother and his brothers (there’s no mention of sisters, but who knows?). Yet when they came to see him at work, he did not stop for them: instead he told his hearers that they were his mother and his brothers if they followed him and did God’s will. He seems deliberately to have stretched the meaning of family to breaking point – if you think of family only as your blood relations. But he was not unloving in doing so. Indeed, according to John’s gospel, one of the last acts of Jesus’ earthly life was to have John adopt his mother and his mother adopt his closest friend.
I don’t know about you, but I can find myself bemused when I compare my ideas of love with what I read in the New Testament. And yet I come back time and again to see that, where Jesus and I part company, it turns out that my loving is not as clear-sighted as Jesus’ loving. I am not quite the clean machine I fancy myself as being. If I’m too needy, then perhaps I should turn to the most loving parent any person could have – my God and yours – rather than make impossible, perhaps conflicting, demands on human beings. If I’m too cold in my loving, then perhaps I need to risk opening my heart to the one person who really has seen it all, can take it all, and can turn me around. Fortunately, this is not a lonely exercise to be undertaken by hermits, because I belong to an extended loving family – the Church – where all sorts and conditions of people are invited to belong. There’s no qualifying bar, nor entrance exam and no need to swot for finals before you die. Throughout your life as part of the Church, which is the Body of Christ, you can belong just as you are. If you trust the process, you will find that you begin to grow. You may or may not become a nicer person – that’s hardly the point. But you are likely to respond to the love that flows from God into and through the Church and to the wider community. We are each a child of God, known to and loved by God. Let us therefore treat each other as persons whom God loves and respect each person we meet as such. It could catch on – and change you, me and the world.