Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 22 October 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses, Vicar
Readings: Proverbs 4.1-18; 1 John 3.16-4.6
The First Epistle of John, from which we have been reading at Sunday Evensong, is not so much a letter as a series of meditations on love. While sometimes described as a sermon, one of the commentaries I consulted declared, rather discouragingly, that it is not the easiest of texts to preach on. This is because it works not so much by logical argument as by intertwining themes and phrases about:
- Confessing Christ,
- Obeying his commandments and
- Abiding in God.
If we are to begin to understand a text which is a series of meditations, then we must give time and attention to meditating on its themes. So perhaps the best thing the preacher can do is to draw our attention to the Letter’s recurring themes.
As Fr. Michael told us last week, it seems to have been written about AD100 – possibly in Ephesus – in response to a group that has left the church and rejected its beliefs. These early opponents of the Church were probably Docetist – that is they emphasized Christ’s divinity at the expense of his humanity. They refused to accept that God in Christ had fully entered the human situation. For the writer of 1 John this is no academic discussion. For him, it fatally undermines the ethical implications of the Gospel. Unwilling to grasp the depth of God’s love for the world, its followers are unable to live in true communion with God or with their brothers and sisters.
“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” Our reading tonight begins by focusing on the character of Christian love. It describes the shape of love that God demonstrates and to which God calls us.
This runs counter to much of the way our society thinks about love: that romanticization of love as something spontaneous and free; something ecstatic which lifts us above the ordinary; rather than, as I was saying in a wedding sermon only yesterday, a long term commitment.
John insists, instead, that God’s love is self-giving to the world. It is not a spiritual high that lifts us above the problems of everyday life or takes us out of the world. Quite the opposite, it sends us into the very world for which Christ lived and died. It directs us to life in true community, here and now. It calls us to bring all life into the light of the gospel.
Our passage reminds us that we come to know what God’s love is all about from the cross. “He laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our loves for one another.” The Son of God emptied himself to become human in the Christ who gives himself for us on the cross (cf. Phil 2.6-11). This Christ who has been crucified is the Saviour who has been raised from the dead and draws us to himself today. His incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection tell the story of God’s love – a love that turns us away from self-interest and self-centredness, from the short-term satisfaction of our “needs” to the real needs of others: “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 to help?’
“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Our words about God’s love – the theology which seeks to understand it, the hymns and prayers in which we praise it, our meditations on it, all need to be translated into action. In the language of John’s Gospel: as “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth”, so our words too need to become flesh; they must translate that grace and truth into action. Our passage reminds us that life in Christian community is more than a matter of friendly words and similar interests. It is a calling to share our lives with each other in concrete and particular ways. Along with other passages in the New Testament, it tells us that we respond to the God who loved us in Christ only as we bear each other’s burdens and are stewards of our gifts and goods for the sake of others.
If the life and death of Christ are central in defining and shaping Christian love, so too is the second of our themes: obedience to his commandment. Alongside Christ’s example of love, we also have his commandment to love. Love is not simply a spontaneous response to God’s mighty acts in life, death and resurrection of Jesus; it also comes to us as a demand. Here John echoes the words of Jesus to his disciples at the last supper in John’s Gospel: “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” The freedom that Christ has won for us and the obedience he requires of us are two sides of the same coin: one is the response to the other.
Then, our reading picks up again the connection between love and belief. It links the command to “love one another” with the command “that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ.” Belief and practice are inextricably inter-connected. What we believe and think about God does affect the way we act in our lives.
Politicians and commentators often use the word “theology” as a term of abuse, to belittle and deride someone’s thinking as irrelevant and arcane speculation; of no use in the “real world;” a world which would be much better off if it listened to their plain speaking common sense. But theology, thinking about God, about the God revealed in Jesus Christ, is far from being irrelevant. It is what helps us “test the spirits”; to know the difference between “the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” It defends us from the “false prophets”; the ideologies and idolatries of the world which threaten to seduce and enslave us: the false gods, the antichrists of power, status and wealth, of racial or national identity.
For most of us, our main encounter with theology is in worship: in the prayers we say and the hymns, psalms and canticles we sing, in the readings and preaching we hear, in creeds we recite and the sacraments we celebrate. These shape our understanding and that is why it is so important that the Church’s worship and preaching remain focused on the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
There is a place for immediate concerns in Christian worship –in preaching and intercession – worship does not exist in vacuum. Its role is not simply to lift us above the mire of this world. But its relevance to our world and our lives in it, its capacity to bring about the transformation of that world and those lives, is dependent on its own Christ-centred character being maintained.
That is why”
- Our hymns should speak of what God has said and done, and not just our feelings;
- Preachers should give their attention first to the texts of scripture provided by the lectionary – and not just select the bits we like, the ones which support our own hobby-horses.;
- The psalms, the catholic creeds, liturgy and sacraments should not be abandoned in favour of something more “accessible,” as siren voices try to persuade us in a quest for growth in numbers born of a panic about decline in them.
We must obediently hear and believe the story of God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ, and we must obediently embody that story in our way of life in Christian community.
For John, the third element in defining and shaping Christian love is “abiding,” dwelling in: “All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us by the Spirit he has given us.” Love is no passing fancy or emotional spasm but an ongoing and committed relationship in which we grow as it is sustained. Christ’s death on the cross and Christ’ commandments open us to life in God. Christ’s self-giving love draws us in the very presence of the living God, the God with whom we can share intimate and abiding relationship which also calls us into relationship with each other.
Our sinfulness, means that we do and will fall short in worship, falter in our obedience, be seduced by the spirits of this world and their false prophets, but the Gospel has the power to call us back; to remind us that the life of God is stronger than sin. So, “whenever our hearts condemn us….God is greater that our hearts.” God’s love gives us the assurance and confidence that we know God and belong to God.
So, to sum up, the First Letter of John reminds us that when we say, “God is love,” we have to say more.
Firstly, that. Christian love is Christ-shaped. Its only source is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. No matter how noble our definitions of love, we must measure them against the story of God’s work in Jesus.
Secondly, that Christian love is deepened through lifelong disciplines of belief and practice. It is not a state we achieve once and for all; nor is it a feeling that ebbs and flows. It is not simply a self-help manual, among many on the shelves of the airport bookshop, a set of tips for better living or a series of suggestions we can choose to ignore or modify. Rather, Christian love is defined and shaped by the way of life to which God has called us. To love in the way of Christ is to learn obedience to his will.
Finally, that Christian life springs out of communion with God and seeks community with others. 1 John focuses on the household of faith – community with brothers and sisters in faith. But its author knows that Christ came not just for an elect few but for the whole world (2.2). Christians are called to a way of life together that embodies Christ’s self-giving love. We are called to care for each other in time of need. This self-giving love must surely seek to draw others into its orbit, that the whole world might know God rightly and abide in him.