I’ve been learning how to be a local preacher since November and today (well, yesterday now) I delivered my first sermon since starting training. I hope to post a selection of the sermons on here as I progress through my training so I can see how I’m developing. I hope there will be improvement and any comments would be appreciated if you’re mad enough to read the whole thing. So here goes…
Readings: Acts 10:44 – 48, 1 John 5:1 – 6, John 15:9 – 17
Do you ever have those days when you just end up really annoyed at someone? It doesn’t matter what they have or haven’t done but you’re still annoyed? I know I do. Not often but it still happens. It was after one of those days that I ended up on the phone to a friend of mine whinging about it. He’s great at calming me down in these situations by using a mixture of understanding and sarcasm. Do you know what he said about it? Ever sympathetic, he said:
“Don’t worry Jo. You aren’t asked to like everyone.
You’re asked to love them.”
It’s a good thing that you can’t see a scowl or withering look down the phone line – even if it’s in response to a semi-sarcastic comment!
Despite my immediate reaction, this seems an interesting way to start to look at the theme of love. Love is something fantastic, brilliant, wonderful and forms the target for all Christians, to love one another and to love God. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus tells us:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
But what does this mean for us?
My friend pointed out that there can be difficulties and times when this really isn’t easy to do. The story we heard from Acts suggests that the request to love one another can really push our comfort zones.
In the story, we hear of Peter preaching to a congregation of circumcised and uncircumcised people. The circumcised people, former members of the Jewish community, are surprised by the way the Holy Spirit is poured upon the Gentiles. At the time, early Christians were still trying to establish whether they thought that the Gospel was only for people of Jewish origin and this very clearly, very publicly, very unashamedly proves that it’s not. What else can we learn about life at the time? Peter, himself, had just had a vision which challenged his own opinion. He was a man who had never profaned himself and obeyed the laws of the Jewish community but had just been told that they no longer matter! In the Christian community, these laws just don’t apply! Peter was confused by this image and didn’t know what it meant, then he met Cornelius. Cornelius was a Roman Centurion (albeit a respected one) and a Christian, but not only was he not Jewish, he was Italian – an invader and a gentile. This framed Peter’s vision and led to him welcoming Cornelius into the community and into his home. Gentiles, Samaritans, Italians and others like Cornelius were outsiders. The country had been invaded by the Romans but was still allowed comparative freedom. The Jewish authorities were still in charge of their communities and so the Gentiles and others were people who fell outside those laws. Including ‘outsiders’ in the new Christian community had the danger of further alienating the Jewish community many early Christians had grown up in.
To believe that ‘Jesus is the Son of God’ as John said in his letter, cost followers everything. Even if they weren’t actually killed for it, they were being asked to give up everything they knew, their communities, their life; to join a new, different, radical, dangerous movement. And they were asked to love, welcome and accept all the members, regardless of who they are or were before becoming Christians – just as Cornelius was welcomed by Peter. Sounds like rather a challenge, doesn’t it? However much an invading soldier was respected, he was still an invading soldier. If Cornelius could be welcomed, then it showed that anyone could. Regardless of anything that had defined a person before becoming a Christian, all were welcomed. None of the old rules apply and we’re invited into a new way of living. Peter is reported as saying:
“You yourself know that it is unlawful for a Jew to be associated with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”
This is a fantastic aspiration, to say that nobody is profane or unclean. As Christians, most of us don’t hold to the laws of the old testament – we eat shell fish, we wear mixed fibres, we don’t have the same views of what is clean but we do still have ideas about what forms acceptable practice. The old rules no longer apply, but have we made new ones?
Does the Christian community welcome everyone into its fold regardless of background? I’m sad to say that I don’t think we do. If you ask people outside the church, and some inside, to describe it, I doubt many would use the adjectives ‘welcoming’ or ‘inclusive’. That falls to each of us in turn to live out and most of us have one group of people or another that we are uncomfortable around. Each of us is likely to have a blind spot. I welcome everyone! Except…
Blind spots are a problem, but not an insurmountable one. That’s why when I was taught to drive I was asked to acknowledge them and learn to work around them. Blind spots are the areas we can’t see in our mirrors when we’re in the drivers seat. If we can’t see what’s coming up behind us, we just don’t know. When we acknowledge our blind spots, we can address them. When we’re driving, we know that we won’t hit anything or get hit ourselves. When we think about ourselves, we need to think about what we are unwilling to admit or try to hide. What are we unable or unwilling to see? Our challenge is to consider who it is who pushes our comfort zones. Who makes you feel uncomfortable? Who is in your blind spot? Is it an individual or a group of people? It could be rich or poor, young or old, people defined by their ethnicity, religion, gender or sexuality? People from different social backgrounds or geographical locations? Only you know. well, only you and God. We may try to convince ourselves and those around us that these blind spots are nothing of significance but God knows in our hearts. In his first letter, John says:
“Whoever says, ‘I have come to know him (Jesus).’ but does not obey his commandments, is a liar and in such a person truth does not exist.”
We need to learn to accept our blind spots and work around them. Hiding them and denying them is not acceptable. John says that to not live out this love is as bad as not believing in Jesus at all! Not an easy challenge but we’re already responding and sharing our love with those we welcome and include. The difficulty comes when we have to demonstrate our love to people outside this group. How do we learn to do this? John suggests that we should “love not in word or speech, but in truth and action”. He is teaching us a way of living out the commandment – intention and belief are good but not enough. It’s through the actions and truth that we live out the commandment best.
This is a reflection of God’s love for us. God’s love has been repeatedly demonstrated through actions – sending Jesus to live amongst us being the biggest and best of all. Jesus – the truth – calls us to love him and to love one another as he loves us. He set us the example and an example that seems impossible to live up to. His love for us is unconditional and beyond comprehension. We have been chosen by Jesus and welcomed into his love. This is a love that overcomes everything. We are loved. Each of us. Nothing can separate us from this love. *This* is the love we are united in and the love we are challenged to share with those around us. There is nothing that should stop us from loving each other, just as there is nothing that can stop Jesus loving us. He says, himself,
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”
We are still asked to keep the commandments – to love Jesus and to love one another – but that is not supposed to be a chore. We heard it in our reading from 1 John earlier. It may not be easy to love everyone, we still have our blind spots, but that is not the same.
“Since God loves us so much, we ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God, if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is perfected in us.”
Through Jesus’ love and by living out the commandments, God’s love is perfected in us. Jesus tells of the joy that this brings when he says,
“I have said these things to you that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”
As we remember these messages of hope, love and joy, let us think back to those people who challenge us. Let us spend a few moments reflecting that there is nobody outside the love of Christ. Think of the people who we love and welcome. Think of the people we shun and exclude. As we bring these people and ourselves to God we ask that we are strengthened as we try to share his love. Whatever the situation, whatever the location, whoever the person, let us live out this love as faithfully and as honestly as we can.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”