Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Simple and Difficult Gospel

A Sermon for Easter 5.

If you want the Gospel in miniature, then we are offered it this morning.  Jesus says to his disciples ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’  ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’  It really is as simple and as hard as that.  Simple, because that is all that the Gospel is about.  Hard, because loving and being loved is not an easy business.  In the next few minutes, I want to explore the simplicity and difficulty of this, and think a little bit about what we should take with us into our lives.

We start with being loved, because that is where Jesus starts.  ‘Just as I have loved you’ he says.  The foundation of Christianity in all of its forms is that we are loved by God.  God loves us.  That is the message of Christianity from beginning to end.  Beware of anyone who tells you that God doesn’t love you, or that God’s love for us is conditional on us doing something or being a certain way.  God loves us.  No small print; no limitations.  That love starts in the very beginning of creation, where God makes a world where there was nothing there before.  It is seen above all in Jesus, who comes to live with us, dies for us, and lives again to share that love with everyone.  God loves us.  That is the cornerstone of what we are about.

But we find it difficult to be loved.  I certainly do.  It is hard to accept that I am loved no matter what I do, or say, or feel.  I am loved.  That is the starting point for all of my Christian life, but there are days when I find it difficult to get beyond the starting line.  Pope Francis, in his remarkable letter The Gospel of Joy, suggests that every Christian should renew their personal encounter with Jesus each day.  He suggests that we pray this prayer: “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace” (Evangelii Gaudium 3).  Whether we use this prayer or another, or find another way of doing it, we need daily to encounter the love of God.  We need daily to accept that God loves us. That is the starting point for all of our Christian lives.  God loves us.

Being loved by God overflows.  ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’ says Jesus.  God’s love for us overflows into our love for others.  We know from studies into bringing up children that children who are loved unconditionally are able to love others.  In loving us, God gives himself away to us.  In loving others, we copy God in giving ourselves away to them. God does not run out of love in giving himself away.  It can feel very different for us.  But the miracle is that because we are loved in this inexhaustible way by God, so we don’t run out of love as we give ourselves away in love.  That is why it is so important to be loved by God.  ‘Just as I have loved you, so you also should love one another.’  This love is seen in practical ways – offering help, care and concern.  It is seen in phone calls, shopping trips, time given to others, words that are spoken and tasks that are done. 

But staggering thing about the love of God overflowing in our love is who is included in it.  Peter knew more than a little about the love of God.  He knew about getting things wrong regularly, and yet still being part of Jesus’ inner circle; he knew Jesus forgiving him after his denial.  Perhaps that is why he was so good at spotting the love of God for the Gentiles in the vision that he had and when he saw the Holy Spirit at work in the Gentiles living in Joppa.  So Peter took a risk.  He broke the rules that said people had to become Jews before they could become Christians, with all that entailed in terms of food laws and circumcision and so on.  He shared the Gospel with them and baptised them.  In doing this he began the first major argument of the Christian Church, which lasted for a generation.  But what Peter saw was that God’s love extended beyond the limits that he thought it had.  This is the nature of the love of God, it overflows and is not exhausted.  It is not exhausted by differences between the people who receive his love.  So who are the surprising people that we are being asked to share the love of God with today here in Mapleton?  I could make suggestions, but you are the people who need to see where the Holy Spirit is at work, and who you are being called to love.

‘Just as I have loved you, so you also should love one another.’  This is the Gospel in miniature.  It speaks to us of the inexhaustible love of God, that flows out to us, and through us, and that includes surprising people who seem beyond the pale. It is simple and it is difficult.  It leaves us with challenges: the challenge to accept and renew our experience of God’s love for us; the challenge to love others; and the challenge to spot those surprising and different people who God is calling us to love here and now.  ‘Just as I have loved you, so you also should love one another.’  Amen.

First given at St Mary’s Church, Mapleton. 24.4.16

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