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God's Love for humankind

Sermon preached by
The Revd Charles Royden
at Bedford High School Guild Service
Saturday 18th May 2002

 

When Corinne and I go to France one of our favourite day's out is to the champagne caves at Epernay. Champagne is such a wonderful wine and this is one trip on which Corinne and I insist on having souvenirs.

Cork popping off champagne bottleI remember the Moet Chandon experience, whilst we were waiting for our tour of the caves, I looked at all of the pictures in the foyer of Formula 1 racing drivers who had celebrated with Champagne. It may seem strange that the pictures, which most exemplify the essence of champagne, had nothing to do with drinking it so much as spraying it about!

When I open Champagne I do not mind popping the cork off across the garden, but I always try to ensure that no champagne is lost. This is costly stuff so we must not spill it.

So why do Moet Chandon feel so able to endorse the spraying of their champagne all over the rostrum of the winning racing drivers? Surely there is something offensive and obscene about the waste and extravagance? No, for Moet Chandon this is part of what Champagne is all about! It is about celebration, extravagance and not counting the cost.

Now instead of thinking about Champagne, think instead of the love of God for humankind, which is the title for our service today. I am not seeking to be rude today, but I recognise that for some the indiscriminate nature of the love of God of which I speak may be offensive. I want to suggest to you that we have exactly the same approach when we think about God's love and forgiveness. The love of God is costly, it is special and for us that means that it must be rationed out, given sparingly, because our love is not so generous. But this is not the case with the love of God, which is distributed in a way that you and I find difficult to comprehend. God scatters his love all over the place, indiscriminately, just as those racing drivers so deliberately spray champagne all over the place.

We think it is costly, it is. We think it is special, it is. For us that means that we want to make sure it is given out sparingly. That is not the way that God thinks. God's forgiveness is distributed in a way that you and I find very difficult to comprehend.

So we have tried to circumscribe this love of God and put fences around it. For a quotation from the Bible think first of that key text from John 3:16 

'For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that all who believe in him may have everlasting life.' 

It is clear that the original intention was to speak of a much wider redemption than some consider today. The Greek word used for world is 'Kosmos.' The redemption of God is not restricted, this is not the limited atonement of Calvin, this is the everything.

Romans 8:21 Paul says 

'Creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.'

In Philippians 2:9-10 we read 

'Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,'

Frederick William Faber wrote the hymn 'Souls of men why do you scatter' and it has telling lyrics 

  1. Souls of men, why do you scatter 
    like a crowd of frightened sheep? 
    foolish hearts, why do you wander 
    from a love so true and deep?
  2. There's a wideness in God's mercy 
    like the wideness of the sea, 
    and forgiveness in his justice 
    sealed for us on Calvary.
  3. There is plentiful redemption 
    in the blood that has been shed: 
    there is joy for all the members 
    in the sorrows of the Head.
  4. For the love of God is broader 
    than the measures of man's mind; 
    and the heart of the Eternal 
    is most wonderfully kind.
  5. But we make his love too narrow 
    by false limits of our own, 
    and we magnify his strictness 
    with a zeal he will not own.
  6. If our love were but more simple 
    we should take him at his word; 
    and our lives would be illumined 
    by the goodness of our Lord.

Frederick Faber (1814-1863)

In verse 5, what he means by making God's love narrow with our strict zeal, is that we have imposed doctrines and theologies to fence in the love of God and ration it out to the deserving. The church has often been like a miserly water board, rationing water in a drought and metering it so that you pay for every precious cup full. Bath with a friend, we can't spare a drop!

God's love is bigger and wider than that. In the words of Rowan Williams, possibly the future Archbishop, God is more like the elderly grandfather who starts lavishing out their wealth on charities and the cats home. They see it all flying out the bank and they don't like it, because there may not be enough left for them.

So we have said, 'God loves and forgives us, but only if we are very obedient,' or 'God loves and forgives us, but only if we are very sorry for our sins.' All manner of theologies have been formulated to restrict the love of God to the special few.

So, where should we go to discover what God's love forgiveness is really like? I would suggest that if we believe Jesus to have been the living, walking, breathing manifestation of God himself, then it is to Jesus we should go. I would pick two things from the life of Christ which I would consider were typical of his love for us. One is to do with teaching and the other is to do with practice.

Firstly - The teaching of Jesus

Jesus gave to us the parable of the prodigal son. The son is loved and forgiven of his wrongdoing by the father,

  • Not because he has changed his behaviour - he just ran out of money.
  • Not because he was very sorry - he was just very hungry and was prepared to eat anything at all.
  • Not because the son professes his love - the father rushes out to the son with a robe to say how much he loves him.

That is champagne forgiveness! I suggest that you and I would say, like the older brother, that there should be signs of real repentance, apologies etc. Instead, God just runs out, that is what the love of God for humankind is like. The older brother did not want the prodigal forgiven because he was jealous, he wanted it for himself. This parable is a teaching to us, that the righteous get upset at the forgiveness of God.

Secondly - The practice of Jesus, the action or lifestyle.

I would like us to think of Jesus on the cross. Firstly, he forgives one who is crucified with him. He says, 'today you will be with me in paradise.' Perhaps humanly speaking that is understandable, this thief shows a kind of repentance and finds forgiveness, nothing overtly extravagant in that. But! Think further of the prayer of Jesus on the cross, 'Father forgive them for they know not what they do.' As they mock him, beat him, scourge him, kill him, he still continues to love and forgive. Jesus forgives even those who persecute and kill him, this really is champagne stuff!

Now, Christianity has spent the last two thousand years formulating complex doctrines of judgement and punishment. We have devised concepts of hell which relegate God to the level of a vicious tyrant pushing people into eternal fire like the ovens of the holocaust. What kind of God would this be? Surely no better than those who devised the ovens of the holocaust, indeed at least for those condemned to die in the concentration camps, the pain was brief. Christendom has preached eternal damnation the fires never went out.

For many people that doctrine has left its mark today and if they are ill, or if something bad happens to them, they think that it is God who is in some way punishing them. Into that doctrine we must hear the words of Jesus telling us what God is really like. From the words of the cross we must hear God speaking to us afresh, 'Father forgive.'

Forgiveness did not come to those who crucified Jesus

  • Because they were sorry
  • Or because they accepted Jesus as their personal saviour

Forgiveness comes not because of what they are, bur rather because of what God is like, even though they do not know any better. God loves people because like the father of the Prodigal Son, you cannot hate your child.

This may be offensive to some. It may seem like scattering that grace and mercy around too much, it is falling all over the floor and being wasted. This is champagne forgiveness. But do not blame me, it is Christ who has opened the bottle and from the cross he sprays it around and it goes everywhere.

Christians may think that if we preach messages like this it will end in a free for all. People will think that they can just do what they like. Of course that is not the danger. When we see the love of God for us it is overwhelming, intoxicating. When the penny drops and we discover that God actually likes us it is a life changing recognition. He likes us, loves us, just for who we are and not for what he wants us to be. God loves us because we are his children. Each one of us made in his special way.

I wonder if you know of people, or if you are one of those people, who show people pictures of your children or grandchildren. Somebody did it to me only recently, showed me pictures of a child. The child was just like any other child, but to them they were very special. The parent or grandparent sees in their child something beautiful. Perhaps this is why God loves us, not because we are beautiful but because God sees us as beautiful, and he does that because we are his children. He loves us no matter what creed or colour we may be. Those who have and those who have not heard of Jesus. God loves us when we worship him; he continues to love us when we run from him. In fact he seems then to love us more, for when just one of us is lost he leaves the others and goes off after it. When he finds it, he doesn't punish it, he carries it home. Such love.

Charles Royden

 

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