Sermon for Sixth Sunday of Easter – High Mass Sunday 1 May 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Love Divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven, to earth come down,
Fix in us thy humble dwelling,
All thy faithful mercies crown.
Woody Allen remembers a moment in his childhood when he was first aware of death. He was outraged. ‘This ends?’ he claims to have shouted. I can remember the first moment it meant something to me, because my grandmother died the day before my seventh birthday. I woke up to find that my father had disappeared to Melbourne, a thousand or so miles away, and wouldn’t be back for a week. I too was outraged, especially as the news was drip-fed to me on the way to school and I hardly knew that grandmother anyway. I didn’t know how to feel. In any case, this was not how I had envisaged my birthday.
Saying goodbye to people we love, like the first apprehension of death, is for most of us probably at first memorable but then increasingly something we learn how to do. Jesus’ disciples, of course, had a rather enriched learning-opportunity since they mourned his death, were variously surprised by his resurrection, and then had to deal with the dawning understanding that he was leaving them again. I think something between ‘this ends?’ and irritation at yet another dislocation of expectations might have seemed reasonable.
The Gospels report different moments in this process, including what we heard this morning, which seems to be Jesus managing their expectations in his farewell sermon, located by John in the narrative of the Last Supper.
St John gives us a picture of someone concentrating on essentials, and looking to the future when he was gone. One of the repeated riffs is ‘Those who love me will keep my word’ (a little earlier in the same discourse, ‘those who love me will keep my commandments’)
You can hear and understand that as a command: if you love me, then keep my word. But I suspect it is a subtler teaching: ‘if you love me, you are keeping my word’. Then it is another variation on John’s major theme, love as the basis of the new sort of law, an observation about what the Christian life is like, rather than a formal command.
We aren’t given a specific list of commandments by Jesus: when asked to provide one, he compressed all the commandments into love of God and neighbour. The focus here is on loving Jesus, on what we call discipleship, ‘following’, living after the pattern of, the Lord. It is the person and life of Jesus that we are to emulate; we are not given a new set of rules to keep (‘keeping his word’ is following the whole conversation of his life, not ticking off a list of do’s and don’ts). This is one reason why knowing and valuing the gospels is at the core of Christian life (and why we pay the Gospel special honour in the liturgy).
Again, this saying does not mean, ‘if you keep my word then I will love you’; it isn’t the saying of a manipulative parent. Rather, it means, ‘those who keep my word already live in a loving way’: their life is a respectful and generous conversation with others and with God. During the same meal, John tells us that Jesus says, ‘love one another as I have loved you’, ‘by this shall people know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’.
‘As I have loved you’ means, of course, even to death. Again, he is saying to them, if you love me, if you love one another, you are keeping my word. Unconditional acceptance and generosity is the model of love he offers. We all have a deep need for unconditional love. Yet I sense that unconditional acceptance is less and less fashionable in human relationships and those of us who have not always experienced it from our own parents find it especially hard to believe that God really loves us like that. We tend to believe, and may even have been told, that God loves us only if we are good. God loves us, not because we are good but because he is good (as I’ve said to you before, one of the best-known parables is not about the ‘prodigal son’ but the ‘loving parent’). Our very existence is a sign of God’s love. God’s unconditional love for us is the Good News, the gospel. And, Jesus says, if we love him we are keeping his word, his good news, his gospel. That, not the contents of a book, is the lesson we have to spend our lives learning.
The practical outworking of this is not always easy; many of us fail, or at least stumble, because we fall back on rule and respectability in place of love. But, as we approach the end of Eastertide and the feast of Pentecost, we are reminded that the Holy Spirit is given to us precisely to help us with those difficulties.
The Spirit is described in today’s Gospel as a Counsellor, an Advocate, someone on whom you call for help. The Old Testament prophecy of Emmanuel, ‘God-with-us’, our Christmas proclamation, is fulfilled in the coming of Jesus as a human person, permanently embedded in the lives of baptized and communicant Christians. Jesus, though risen from the dead, must leave his friends (Thursday’s feast of the Ascension), but from now on, Jesus says, God is present in every detail of our lives, in the person of Holy Spirit. That gift is offered freely to us in baptism and confirmation and nourished in the Eucharist. It is activated on our part by love: our love for Jesus, for God, for one another. ‘God is love, and those who love live in God and God lives in them’ as we read in 1 John 4; and as we hear in the legend about John’s repeated lapidary sermon in the last years of his life, when he is said to have repeatedly preached only the words ‘love one another’, because ‘it is a command of the Lord and if you do that you do enough.’
We come here to be built up in love and to learn how to do it better. If we make the most of what is offered to us then God can multiply it a hundredfold in the lives we touch.
Finish then thy new creation,
Pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see thy great salvation,
Perfectly restored in thee,
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise!