Loved against all odds
A Sermon by Eleanor Childs
Sunday 10 May 2015
John 15: 9 – 17
Hands up if you have children or grandchildren or nieces or nephews! Have you ever said anything like this to them? ‘If you eat your dinner you can have an ice cream.’ ‘If you don’t do your homework there’s no TV for you.’ ‘If you’re a good girl, Santa will bring you a lovely present.’ Ever said things like that? I think most of us have. And some of the time it works, doesn’t it. Why do we do it? Well, we want our children to do what we want and what is good for them and we know that people are motivated by self-interest, so we dangle rewards and punishments in front of them – carrots and sticks, they’re called. The need to earn what we want is very deep-rooted in us from childhood. We must earn what we want by our good behaviour. And basically these methods continue through life: If I work hard and please the boss, I’ll get promotion.
You could say this was being realistic about human nature and working with its selfish bias, but there is a down side to this. What we most want in life is to be loved and accepted, and regularly we get the message – which is often unintentional – that we will only be loved if we are good, if we do what we are told, if we please people. A lot of human love is conditional. If you do this, I’ll do that. We love people if they please us, if they are nice, if they do what they are told If.
And the good news of the gospel is that God’s love is completely different. He loves us unconditionally. For, He is love. Jesus loved Judas who sold him to be crucified. He loved Peter who betrayed him. He loved even those who nailed him to the cross, saying ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ God’s love is offered to all of us. Someone once said ‘There is nothing you can do to make him love you more, and nothing you can do to make him love you less.’
Nothing could stop Jesus loving unconditionally for as God he is love. Our gospel reading is part of Jesus’ last words to his disciples. If you knew you were going to die in a day’s time and this was your last conversation with your loved ones, what would you say? Remember, they are going to be very vulnerable when you go. Words of love? Words of warning? Reminders of things they mustn’t forget? Encouragement? Whatever you thought of, I’m sure it was important to you and you thought it was important for them.
A lot of Christians behave as if Jesus’ last words, his vital message, to his disciples had been ‘Be good! Say your prayers! Go to church!’ But he didn’t. Let’s look at what Jesus actually said. ‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.‘ Jesus knows we need an example of real love, because so many human examples of love are contaminated.
His father’s love was the solid rock on which Jesus founded his life. It wasn’t something he earned through good behaviour. You remember at his baptism the voice from heaven said ‘This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ This was before Jesus began his ministry, before he had done anything to earn his father’s approval. He began his life of service rooted in his father’s unconditional love. And that is how he loves us. And you know if we want to be true followers of Jesus, that is where we have to begin: knowing we are loved by God – unconditionally.
But his love is of no benefit to us unless we believe in it and receive it. That’s why Jesus goes on to urge his disciples ‘Remain in my love.‘ That’s why the importance of faith is stressed in Scripture. Faith is trusting in God’s love. Judas couldn’t do that because he had another agenda which involved money. His refusal to trust in Jesus’ love led him to self-hatred and suicide. He chose hell. Peter could trust God’s love even though he knew he’d failed. No, his trust in God’s love led him to repentance and restored relationship. If we believe in God’s love and receive it, he welcomes us into his family and gives us his peace in our hearts. And that is why the gospel is called Good News. No matter how we may have messed up, no matter how many regrets we may have, he loves us and welcomes us into his family.
In our gospel passage Jesus knows what is just ahead of him and of his disciples and he knows that the only thing that will get them through it is their relationship with him and with one another. So he urges them, ‘Now, remain in my love.’
How do we remain in God’s love? Our culture promotes the idea that love is a feeling and we can’t control our feelings. But that is a lie. Love is a choice. And it is about our actions more than our feelings. We can choose to give and receive love – or not to. We can consciously trust God’s love or block it. We can block it by refusing to let go of anger or hatred or unforgiveness, or preoccupation with other things such as money or success – for these things all block the inflow of his love. But we can receive God’s love too. Someone once said ‘Love is spelled ‘t-i-m-e.’ If we love someone we want to spend time with them, to listen to them, to share our lives and concerns with them. That way the relationship grows and develops. And our relationship with God is the same. If we spend time in reading his word to find out what he wants for us and in sharing our concerns with him in prayer, our awareness of his love and his presence with us deepens.
Jesus also gives us a very clear key to how to remain in his love. ‘If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.’ Again, love is about actions, not just warm feelings. Jesus’ relationship with his Father is the pattern for us. While he delighted in his Father’s presence, and probably had warm feelings towards him, He delighted to do his father’s will, because he loved him, he shared his vision and concerns.
The word ‘obedience’ has a very bad press in our modern world. We are persuaded that the highest good, the most mature state is one of independence and autonomy and being answerable to nobody but ourselves. And never has there been so much loneliness and so much brokenness. For we are created for relationships, for love. I know that for people who have been made to obey cruel or unjust parents or adults, the word raises their hackles. But the word ‘to obey’ literally means ‘to listen’, ‘ to harken to’. Think of a loved child who listens to his parent when he says, ‘Don’t put your hand on the hot plate,’ or ‘Don’t thump your brother.’ or ‘Invite your friends round and we can have a party.’ For Jesus, obedience is a loving response to love. The purpose of obedience is not to control us or spoil our fun, or make life heavy, but so we can know joy. Jesus says, ‘I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.’ Jesus counsels obedience, out of his own experience. He radiated joy and confidence in God’s love. That’s why his disciples followed him, why the crowds gathered round him, that’s why he was welcome in the pubs and clubs of his day.
And in case any of his disciples think remaining in his love is an individualistic pursuit and just about personal relationship with God and joyful feelings, he follows it up with a very specific and practical command: ‘Love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.‘ Which is precisely what Jesus is going to do. Again, he is our pattern. Now it’s unlikely we will ever be required to lay down our lives for our friends, – Jesus had a very specific role to play in our salvation, but he is our pattern. We are commanded to love one another, truly, deeply. Often we pat ourselves on the back for being friendly and welcoming as Christians but how deeply do we really love and care for one another? The test comes when someone hurts our feelings, or disagrees strongly with our opinions, or questions our motives or discounts us. Often if we manage to tolerate the person, we think we are doing well. But this falls far short of loving one another. We cannot love the people who hurt us, disagree with us or put us down, unless we are abiding in God’s love. Only his strength and the power of his Spirit within us will enable us to forgive and accept and love one another unconditionally in a way that is healing and uniting and which reflects God’s character to the world around us. Jesus knew this and that is why these are his urgent last words to his disciples.
Most people, Christian or not, believe – in theory – that loving your neighbour is a good thing. But we like to choose our neighbour, usually someone like us. But God doesn’t allow us to choose the people we will love. Often he puts in our path people we find impossible to love, so we have to turn to him and put our roots down into his love so he can enable us to love as Jesus does. Loving frequently goes against the grain of our self-centred lives and is not an easy option. But it is the secret of joy and peace and it is the family trait.
As a church we are considering building a new hall so we can welcome others. But bricks and mortar are not the church. Jesus dispensed with that idea. In Old Testament times God dwelt in the Temple, in the Holy of Holies but Jesus’ death made possible God’s indwelling his people. God was no longer located in a physical place but in his people. Paul writes to the Corinthians, who are squabbling among themselves, ‘Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s spirit lives in you? ‘ Peter writes ‘You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house…a people belonging to God that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.’ We, the people, are God’s church, his building and the mortar that holds us together as living stones is love.
Let’s hear Jesus’ words again: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.’