Sermon, Village MCC, 22nd April 2018
1 John 3
I had a real struggle knowing what to go with for the reading for this week. Because the Psalm for this week is Psalm 23, it’s what I will always think of as the Vicar of Dibley psalm. ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I’ll not want’ – which is gorgeous and beautiful and I think if I preached on it for twenty years I would not run out of things to say about it, (and not just because I’m Welsh and raised in farming country). And then there’s the gospel for this week, which talks about Jesus being the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep, unlike the hired hand who runs away because he puts his own life first – all about how in any kind of cost-benefit analysis, love does the completely illogical thing and lays down his life for the sheep – you know, if that wolf kills him, the other 99 sheep aren’t going to do him much good, but that’s not how love thinks. And that would be a wonderful thing to preach on.
But in the end I chose the first letter of John, which kind of leads on from the psalm and from the gospel, and talks about what that means, then, that Jesus laid down his life for us. And partly because it leads on quite nicely from some of the things that Michael said last week – you really started something with that tag-team Lent series, Michael! It builds on this idea of Jesus the good shepherd, to remind the readers yet again how, and how much, we’re supposed to love one another.
An ancient tradition has it that John, alone, I think, of the disciples, reached a ripe old age, and died in Ephesus in his 90s, and that although he’d survived persecutions and the destruction of Jerusalem and such things, he was a very old man, and they’d bring him out at the end of services to say a few words.
It actually reminds me of a time I was at an interfaith service in London organised by Rainbow Jews. And Rabbi Lionel Blue was there to say a few words, and he was old and very ill by that time, and his voice was not strong. I think only those of us sitting nearest could really hear what he was saying – and I think he dozed off a few times, he really was not well – but everyone was listening so hard, you could have heard a pin drop in that room. Because he was their elder, the rabbi of LGBT Jews, and they loved and respected him so much, they were listening so hard to hear what he had to say, and I thought ‘That, that is how should treat those who have loved and served them even when they’re so frail you can’t hear what they’re saying.’
And I like to think that that’s how it was for the apostle John, they wheeled him out and said ‘Come on, John, what have you got to say to us this week?’ And tradition says that he always said exactly the same thing: ‘Little children, love one another’. And that was it, he was done. And one week one of the young priests said to him ‘Elder, why do you always say that same thing, over and over again?’ And he said: ‘Because it’s the only thing that matters.’
And I thought – seventy-odd years as a disciple, an apostle, an evangelist, a bishop, all boiled down to those three words: ‘Love one another’.
And then, we have a whole Bible to unpack what that actually means in practice. But it’s a very good start.
And he says (and I do believe that it was him who wrote this letter) ‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life’. The NRSV has just that ‘We know love’. Others have perhaps ‘We know how to love’, or ‘we know what love is’, but the NRSV simply translates it, as it’s written: ‘we know love’ – who laid down his life for us. And I think that’s a really good way of looking at it, it gives a really good perspective on it – we’re to know Love, as a person. Relate to love like we relate to a person.
Not as we relate to a rule-book – x, y and z actions are love, these actions are not love. No, it’s more dynamic than that. It’s more responsive than that. It actually pays attention to what’s happening around you. You don’t know love like a rule-book.
You don’t know love like a textbook. You don’t do an assessment at the end of chapter 2, you don’t get an NVQ Level 2 in love.
You don’t relate to it like it’s an impersonal force like gravity or magnetism – something that operates whether or not 6:57 we’re there. Whether or not we’re taking part, whether or not we’re involved, gravity happens no matter what we do. Magnetism happens regardless of our intentions, but love we have to get involved in.
And we don’t relate to it as an emotion or a feeling, things that rise and fall according to how well we’re feeling, or what we ate, or our circumstances, or the weather and the seasons. Because these things affect the emotions that we sometimes like to call love, but love, we relate to like a person, it’s in how we treat each other.
And he emphasises, like James in his letter, that that is what love is, it’s in actions. It’s not in saying ‘I love you’, it’s in showing I love you. ‘How does God’s love abide if we have the world’s goods and see our fellow-human in need and refuse to help?’ We might say we feel deep love, but if it doesn’t translate into something that happens, then that was an emotion, but it wasn’t love as Jesus shows it.
It might be easier to try and love God by rule or by rote, or as a force of the universe – in theory. But we don’t love in theory, we love in truth and action. And there’s no get-out-clause to that kind of love. It’s real. It’s messy. It’s complicated. It’s why our Saviour-Messiah is a human being, not a book, not an angel, not an Elemental. Flesh and blood. Someone who lived this life just the way we’re living it. All the way to a very flesh and blood ending.
And John knows this very well. Alone of the Twelve, he watched Jesus die right up close, at the foot of the Cross. He knows that this isn’t some airy theory. He watched it happen. He knows what it means to lay down your life.
Which may be a bit scary, and rather a lot to ask, actually. And yet John says, straight after that: ‘so we reassure our hearts before God, whenever our hearts try to condemn us, because God is greater than our hearts, and knows everything.’ In a very different way from Paul, and in a different and equally true way to the Psalmist last week, he’s saying the same thing. Our reassurance, our peace, our trust, our salvation comes not from being good enough for God, but by letting God be good enough for us.
Because no amount of trying to be good will ever reassure my heart. If I think I’m still trying to earn the love of the Good Shepherd, who already made it clear that I belong and am loved, my heart is going to be anxious for ever. And it is anxious an awful lot of the time: ‘Did I do enough? Did I love as much as I could have done? Have I followed my Shepherd, been the image of my Creator, enough?’
And the simple answer, is No. And Yes.
No, because I’m not God. I’m a very imperfect human being. I will always be making mistakes, I will always be falling over my own feet. I will always, yes, have been selfish, have been thoughtless. I will never have been as good as I could have been. I’m a human being.
On the other hand, yes, I did enough. I was good enough the moment I opened my eyes. I will continue to be god enough. Because God doesn’t ask for perfect.
God doesn’t ask me to be perfect before God loves me, God asks me to love because God loves me. And you. And everyone else. Just as we ask ‘What did I do wrong, why is God mad at me?’ when things go pear-shaped, and the answer is ‘Nothing. This is just the world being the way the world is’, so we constantly ask ‘Have I done right? Is God pleased with me?’ Like a child who can never be sure that they’ve pleased their parent. And I know that’s a weakness in me, that I’m always like a child who is never quite sure that they’ve done enough to please the Heavenly Parent. But that’s not the way it works.
Love isn’t earned. Human love isn’t earned, so Divine love certainly isn’t. It’s just given. But love can be returned. And John, and Jesus are quite clear that to Love God is to love one another, and to love one another is to love God. And if we’re trying to do that, John says, then that is proof enough that God’s Spirit is in us. And if God’s Spirit is within us, then it’s all alright, and our hearts can be reassured.
My heart, perhaps, condemns me a lot. God doesn’t. Every time I mess up, six times before breakfast in general, my heart condemns me. But God doesn’t. So when I have those anxious moments and I’m worrying: ‘Have I done enough? Is God pleased with me?’ the short answer, for all of us, is: ‘Yes. Now stop worrying about it, get out there, and share the love. There’s plenty of it to go around!’