OUR CALLING - TO MAKE PERFECT THE LOVE OF GOD
Sermon delivered on the 4th Sunday after Easter (Easter 4) the 3rd May 2015 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Acts 8: 26-40 1 John 4: 7-21 S. John 15: 1-8
1 John 4: 9 "In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him."
1 John 4: 16-17 “So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. In this is love perfected with us, that we have confidence in the day of judgment, because as He is so are we in this world.”
It might seem to be a cliche to say that the first thing we should do after waking up in the morning is to thank God for His love in making it possible for us to wake up. It turns out to be not just a cliche but a sane and sensible thing to do, because the conditions that keep us alive on this planet are very extraordinary. Some physical factor could change by a whisker, and the atmosphere would be gone or the temperature would be too cold or too hot, or the food resources could all run out and our lives could be snuffed out in a trice. In fact it is a sane and sensible thing to believe that the physical conditions of our existence are finely tuned and held in balance by divine Providence. Also, although we live in a fallen world involving human fallenness and sin, we are still divinely protected from the raw consequences of that fallenness by the grace of God.
Even on the physical level, therefore, we live because of the love that God has for us. And so we can indeed say as St. Paul does in Romans 1:20, “God’s eternal power and deity have been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” But St. John is always considering human life and living to have dimensions that go beyond existing on the physical level. In His Gospel St. John records Jesus speaking not merely about existence but abundant life, and that abundant life is always related to the life of God Himself. St. John declares that God sent His only Son into the world that we might, in this augmented sense, live.
OUR LIFE DEPENDS ON IT
Our life, our fulness of life, hangs upon this manifestation of the love of God, that His only-begotten Son was sent among us. That God sent His Son into our world is by any standards a remarkable narrative, the most remarkable of all the world’s stories. And ultimately you cannot construct something untrue that is more remarkable or greater than the truth, especially a narrative about God, who, as St. Anselm teaches, is greater than that which can be conceived. So we are convinced that our own living, and indeed our identification as those who live, comes from the loving heart of God who sent His Son. We should meditate on that long and hard, as St. John does in his first epistle. Just as what Jesus did manifested God's love, so if we are born of God and know God, we too must love, because He loved us. Our life in community with any others derives from the issue of divine love. However, we have a tendency to shift from this truth to some lesser conception. The Jewish people in Jesus' own time strongly believed that their life, whether in community with others or not, derived from faithfulness to God's law. If you knew the love-dimension of God's law there would be no problem with the idea. But if the law is principally the way you try to justify and perfect yourself in the eyes of God, there is a big problem. As St. Paul discovered when he was a zealous and anti-Christian Jew, the way of faithfulness to God's law seen like that is a way of death. The goads you kick against will eventually destroy you.
A DIFFERENT GOSPEL
We of the great Christianised civilisations have had a not dissimilar problem in more recent times. Under our own fallen human momentum we are getting to believe that life and fulness of life in society derive from the alignment of our behaviour with codes that we construct for ourselves. This is a general shift of position of the traditionally Christian western world. We late twentieth and early twenty-first century Gentiles are becoming legalistic like our first century Jewish cousins, only unlike them we tend to leave God out of consideration altogether. God doesn’t have to be the foundation or first principle of our codes, because we are wise enough and advanced enough to construct such codes without Him, so we fondly imagine. The goads that Saul of Tarsus kicked against hurt him; and if the West is faithful to humanly constructed codes and laws that year by year depart further and further from a godly principle, and reflecting a view of the nature of man that fades further and further from a theological understanding, these very codes and laws must eventually destroy us.
ABIDE IN CHRIST
But it is through the revelation of the love of God to us in the sending of His Son into the world, that we live abundantly. We live, says the Gospel, because He loves us. St. John says, “So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. In this is love perfected with us, that we have confidence in the day of judgment, because as He is so are we in this world.” As men and women of the Gospel, we have a calling, and that calling is to have the love of God perfected in us. That is an amazing revelation. God declares to us that the way He chooses to complete His love for the world is through us!
This is in truth consistent with the account today from Acts, in which Philip the evangelist explains to the Ethiopian minister of state the Gospel and baptises him. God shows His prevenient love for the Ethiopian in directing Philip to go towards the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, and then prompting Philip to join the chariot the Ethiopian was sitting in, struggling with the meaning of Isaiah 53. Some commentators regard the book we know as the Acts of the Apostles to be more the Acts of the Holy Spirit, and what we find in this passage would support that view. It would seem that just at the point that the Ethiopian is ready to be baptized, they arrive at a rare watering-hole on the desert road. Bearing in mind that the baptized Ethiopian went on his way home rejoicing, we can see how the love of God that first brought this individual into the fellowship of the Gospel through Philip, next, through the witness of the individual perhaps, brought a whole nation into the same fellowship. It is no accident that Ethiopia, alone among the sub-Saharan states, is known to have been a Christian kingdom up to recent times from the early centuries of the Christian era. It is an example of the love of God “becoming perfected” – or being made fruitful - with us humans.
Today’s Gospel reading about the Vine shows how close must be Christ and His followers, including you and me. When Saul of Tarsus persecuted Christ's followers, Jesus who appeared to him showed Saul it was He, Jesus who was being persecuted. Step on a branch of a pumpkin vine or any other kind of vine, and you step on the vine itself. So the way we, baptised Christians are in this world is the way that Jesus has left open to Himself to be. And Jesus has left us the way that we are to be. Upholding His Name and laying down our life for the love of our brothers, is the true way, ours because it is His. It is the way that the love of God is to be made perfect or complete or fruitful in us. God grant us the grace of His Son, for this our calling.