Sermon preached by The Reverend Charles Royden
Love one another as I have loved you
When he was gone, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once. My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come. A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
I have brought some dolly mixtures along this morning, I thought that they were a tasty way to demonstrate that we are all different but that doesn't mean that we are not all fabulus. Perhaps I should have chosen Liquirice All Sorts, because that is probably a bettr name to illustrate this, the problem is that I am not a fan of liquorice.
The early church struggled to come to terms with this notion of ‘all sorts.’ It was at first thought that God’s children were just one group who were all the same, the Jews. The first followers of Jesus were all Jews and if you wanted to join them you had to be become a Jew. The lesson was slowly learned that we are all God’s children and you really did not have to change to loved by God.
We read in the passage from Acts today how Peter struggled with this idea. Like the other early Christians, he thought that God’s people were people like himself. Good Jews were God’s people, the others were unclean. This is why the early Christians, like Peter, would not share fellowship with Gentiles.
Then Peter had a vision and he believed that God was saying to him that there was no such thing as unclean people, because God never did make unclean things. After that vision Peter went to the home of the Roman Centurion Cornelius and he started to share fellowship with gentiles.
The sad fact is that even with a very clear belief that he had a direct message from God, Peter still went back on this decision. He found it really difficult to behave differently from the people around him who pressure on him to treat people differently. Peter was afraid to carry on this acceptance of others when challenged by the strict Jews from Jerusalem like the apostle James. Eventually the Apostle Paul was forced to have a public showdown with Peter and challenge him to live up to his beliefs.
This is not just a historical problem which Peter and Paul faced as they tried to get the church to accept people who were different. This has been a major problem throughout history and each generation has had to learn again that the barriers which divide us are barriers of our own making, they are not God’s.
In the book of Galatians in the Bible we read all about this controversy and the Apostle Paul has left us with that magnificent text from Galatians 3:28
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus
Given such a fantastic mission statement, we would perhaps expect Christians to be at the forefront of breaking down prejudice and division. Sadly the opposite has been true, indeed so often we Christians are the ones who reinforce prejudice and give it legitimacy by proping up prejudice with scripture. We use our religious belief to define us from people who are different or who think differently. We have just enough religion to make us hate but not enough to make us love.
Learning has given us so many tools which should help us to see that our divisions are artificial.
- If we live in certain parts of the world we believe certain things, geography makes us different.
- If we grow up in certain families we believe certain things, relationships make us different.
- Equally we know from Myers Briggs that our personalities are disposed towards certain behaviours, biology makes us different.
We should be able to treat these differences as opportunities to celebrate. Dolly mixtures are so much better because they are not all the same. So too, life would be horrible if we were all the same.
Since Christians believe that God created all people we are encouraged to love all people. This can be seen in the passage from John today, Jesus says
‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’
We know that this command to love is at the heart of what it means to follows Jesus. Jesus said that in loving we fulfil all of God’s commandments. This is a universal command to love. It can be seen most clearly in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan is good because his love knows no ethnic or religious boundaries, but is extended even to those who he would have been told were the enemy.
This is what Jesus is talking about, love which extends even to those who hate us, even to our enemies. It might seem demanding, and it is, but it is exactly what Jesus did for us. In scripture we read that while we yet sinners Christ died for us. He died for us even though we hated him, even though we hung him on a cross. This is the love upon which we must model ourselves, a love of God which forgives us even when we demonize and butcher his only Son.
Our text today commands us to extend to one another the kind of love that the Father extended to us in Jesus. There are no ifs, ands or buts. There are no conditions or qualifiers.
So is this the image which people have of Christianity . Do they look at us and say
‘See how these Christians love one another,’ the charge which Tertullian records was made against the early Christians?
Well in his book The Heart of Christianity (2003), the theologian Marcus Borg describes how his university students have a uniformly negative image of Christianity. "When I ask them to write a short essay on their impression of Christianity," says Borg, "they consistently use five adjectives: Christians are literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental, and bigoted."This is not what we want to hear.
A book called unChristian (2007) by David Kinnaman of the Barna Group presents objective research that supports Borg's subjective anecdote. Kinnaman's three-year study documents how an overwhelming percentage of sixteen to twenty-nine year olds view Christians with hostility, resentment and disdain.
According to Kinnaman's Barna study, here are the percentages of people outside the church who think that the following words describe present-day Christianity:
* antihomosexual 91%
* judgmental 87%
* hypocritical 85%
* old-fashioned 78%
* too political 75%
* out of touch with reality 72%
* insensitive to others 70%
* boring 68%
There is obviously a lot of work to be done before we could arrive at final conclusions. However I would be prepared to say that as a Christian community in our own country, my own perception is that we do spend far too long arguing with each other. The Church is therefore seen as preoccupied with its own divisions and for that reason we are not recognised by our society as the disciples of Jesus. We are introspectively arguemental, we do not like each other and we seize on opportunities to fall out and not have anything to do with each other, preferring people like us.
Let us be honest there are now many people out there who think that that the church has done more harm than good. There is a terrible price to be paid for the abuses which are coming to light across the world. Christians are not seen as God's messengers of love and we have to work hard to win back cedibility.
We hear some people who say that the answer is for the church to take give a stronger clearer moral lead. This is appealing to some, the temptation to make bold statements in rights and wrongs is very tempting, especially when we speak to lazy minds. Rather we should follow the example of Jesus who refused to make judgemental statements, refused to pretend that we could offer simplistic solutions to complex problems, refused to condemn those with problems as sinners.
The Christian church will not establish itself in the hearts of minds of people by words, we will do it only actions.
No wonder then that Jesus did not ask his disciples to love one another, he commanded it. We are without choice, we are mandated. It is a matter of obedience and faithfulness.
Martin Luther King said once that the story of the church is like a great extended family that receives a tremendous bequest: they receive an inheritance of a wonderful, beautiful, spacious, luxurious home to share. There is only one stipulation. All must live in it together.
So often we say that we want to tell the world about Jesus, we sing
‘go forth and tell, the door is open wide’
Actually telling people about Jesus is not very effective. It is by living out the Christian 'Way' that we communicate most effectively. As Saint Francis said to his monks, 'preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words.' We should know this only to well, God did not speak to us in words, he came to us in flesh, living a life of love to his creation.
Well today Jesus tells us that the way we will show our faith and prove that we are disciples is by our love for each other, not by talking the Christian life but by walking the Christian life.
This isn’t just a good idea it is a command from the Master himself. We cannot ignore this, we love God only as much as the person we love the least.
If we refuse his command then our church lies broken and ineffective. Moreover we ourselves are impoverished spiritually, for that which keeps us from our neighbour, keeps us from God.
I have said in our commentary this morning that love is cross shaped. By that I mean that Jesus shows us how to love. Loving to death even those who banged nails into his flesh. This is the love which we are called to follow. It is within our power to help fashion a world, a country, a neighbourhood, a family where there is genuine love for one another and sincere concern for the well-being of all.
It is by our love that we will show ourselves to be God’s people and demonstrate that God does indeed dwell with us.