More About Love (a sermon on 1 John 3:11-24)

My old friend Ken Burningham and I were having a conversation once, toward the end of his life, and he surprised me by saying, “I’ve come to the conclusion that I no longer need to learn anything new”. This was so out of character for Ken that I didn’t know what to say, I was so surprised. But then he went on to explain what he meant; he said, “I’ve come to the conclusion that my problem isn’t that I don’t know enough to live well. My problem is that I’m not putting into practice the things I already know”. And then he looked around at all the books on his bookshelves and said, “How many ways can there possibly be to say, ‘Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself’?”

When he explained it like that, I immediately realized that I agreed with him. I love reading, especially novels and good poetry, and I like good biblical scholarship too. But do I expect my new reading to make a huge difference to the basic principles by which I live my life? Not really. I suspect that the old commandments, the old principles that I learned from the beginning, will continue to be my guiding light as I move toward old age.

The author of the First Letter of John obviously feels the same way. When he sat down to write this letter, he was probably an old man, and he had been a leader in the Christian movement for many years. Very likely, he was writing for churches which were facing some persecution because of their commitment to Jesus as God’s Son; the Roman emperor already claimed that title, and Romans didn’t take kindly to people claiming the emperor’s titles. But his way of encouraging his young Christian friends was not by giving them some new instruction, but by reminding them of the gospel message they had heard right from the beginning. All through the letter he focuses on what we might call ‘Christian essentials’, and especially four things. First: Jesus the Son of God really came to us in the flesh. Second, we are called to believe in him and obey his commandments. Third, the most important commandment is the command to love one another, and if we don’t obey that, we don’t really know God. Fourth, we shouldn’t be surprised if the world hates us, because Jesus is the light of the world, and the darkness will always resist the light.

John comes back to these themes in our reading for today, but he starts off with a strange story: the story of Cain and Abel from the Old Testament. Do you remember Cain and Abel? In the book of Genesis they are the children of Adam and Eve. Their parents are the first to disobey God by taking the forbidden fruit, with the result that they are banished from the Garden of Eden and sent out to live in a dark and dangerous world. The consequences of their choice begin to be seen in the next generation. We’re told that Cain was a tiller of the ground, but Abel was a shepherd. They both brought offerings to God: Cain brought some of the fruit of the ground, and Abel offered some of the firstlings of his flock, presumably in an animal sacrifice. Genesis says, ‘And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard’ (Genesis 4:4-5).

We’re not told why this is so, but we are told that Cain is angry with God and with his brother. God calls him on this: he says,

“Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:6-7).

Cain says nothing, but the resentment grows and festers in his heart. Eventually he invites his brother to go for a walk into the field with him, ‘and when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him’ (v.8). So we see that anger leads inexorably to murder, and the human rebellion against God leads inexorably to conflict and violence against one another, brother to brother.

In our passage for today, this is the story John starts with. He says,

‘For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We must not be like Cain, who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous’ (vv.11-12).

And he then goes on to say, ‘Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you’ (v.13).

Where’s he going with this? The point he’s trying to make is that it isn’t surprising that the world isn’t always jumping for joy because you and I have decided to become followers of Jesus. After all, Jesus is leading a Kingdom of God movement; he’s calling the world to account because of its love for power, and its greed and injustice and oppression and violence. He’s announcing a kingdom of justice and compassion, a kingdom where the first will be last and the last first. Of course, the people who benefit from the present arrangements aren’t going to be cheering for this new kingdom! Herod wasn’t very happy about it; neither was Pontius Pilate, and neither were the leaders of the religious establishment.

We’ve seen this recently in our own city, when the Salvation Army tried to rebuild their old church on Alberta Avenue so that they could minister to the poor and homeless in that area. Prosperous local citizens complained about this; all these prostitutes and junkies and street people hanging around the church were going to negatively impact their property values! Of course, when we read the gospels, it’s unquestionable that Jesus is far more interested in helping drug addicts and prostitutes and street people than in my property values, but of course, if you’re a landowner you might not see it that way! But as Jesus said,

“Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master’. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me” (John 15:20-21).

In other words, don’t be surprised if you run into opposition when you try to be faithful to Jesus. After all, people weren’t always wildly enthusiastic about him either!

But here’s the point: it shouldn’t be a surprise to us to run into opposition, and even hatred, from the world around us, but it should be a surprise – it should strike us as completely incongruous – if we run into the same thing from our brothers and sisters in Christ. The horror of Cain’s murder of Abel is that they were brothers: Cain murdered someone who had emerged from the same womb as he had. And John underlines this point in the language he uses.

‘All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them’ (v.15).

This is what happened with Cain and Abel, he says: Cain was angry with Abel, and his anger hardened into resentment, and then eventually the result was fratricide.

Jesus makes the same connection in the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’, and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgement’. But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool’, you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22).

And we may also remember that Jesus’ brother James writes these words:

‘You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness’ (James 1:19-20).

So at this point we should probably stop and ask ourselves, how am I doing with this teaching of John and Jesus and James? John is quite clear that hate is morally equivalent to murder, and Jesus says the same thing about anger. John is especially concerned with anger in the Christian community. It’s as if he’s saying, ‘Brothers and sisters, you’re going to get enough of that from the world outside. When you come into this church family, make sure it doesn’t happen there too. Make sure that what you give each other is compassion and gentleness and love’.

And yet we know that it does happen in the Christian community. People in churches rub each other up the wrong way; we attack our sisters and brothers because we disagree with their opinions; we resent it when others get more attention than we do; and, of course, when that happens, instead of going to the other person and talking it over, we tell our friends about it, and we get the gossip machine going. Churches are communities of sinners and so we shouldn’t be surprised if sometimes those sinners sin against each other. But that doesn’t mean we should be content with the situation.

So in verses 16-18 John reminds us of the central Christian commandment:

‘We know love by this, that (Jesus) laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’.

These verses are packed full of essential teaching about love. Yes, it seems like a truism that we ought to love one another, but these days we so often misunderstand what Christian love is meant to be all about. So let’s say it again: this love that we’re commanded to give to each other has nothing to do with fine-sounding words, nothing to do with whether or not we like each other, and nothing to do with feelings. ‘Love’ is almost always a feeling word these days, but in the New Testament it’s not; it’s almost always about actions.

Which actions? Well, let’s take the cross for starters:

‘We know love by this, that (Jesus) laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ (v.16).

The cross was Jesus’ ultimate act of love for the whole world: stretching out his arms and giving his life as a sacrifice for sin, so that we could be forgiven and reconciled to God. In John 15:13 Jesus says “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”. But of course Jesus goes even further than this. He says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you”, but when he gave his life for the human race, we weren’t exactly exerting ourselves to obey God’s commands! Far from it! But his act of love on the cross reaches beyond his friends to the whole human race, whether or not they love him.

In the Roman world there was a saying: “See how these Christians love one another!” The Romans didn’t say that because they noticed that the Christians gushed all over each other and gave each other warm hugs; they said it because, over and over, they had seen Christians willingly give their lives for each other. And Jesus said, “By this” – this kind of sacrificial love, that is – “everyone will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:35).

I’m reminded of the story of Father Maximilian Kolbe, a priest who was imprisoned in Auschwitz. There had been an escape, and so now the word came down that ten prisoners were to be starved to death to pay for the crime of the one who had gotten away. Ten men were randomly chosen from a line, but the tenth cried out, “Oh, my wife and children!” Father Maximilian stepped forward and said, “I will take his place”. “Who are you?” asked the commandant. “I am no one – just a Catholic priest”, he replied. The commandant shrugged and said, “If you want it, so be it”. So Father Maximilian was taken with the other nine, and over the next few weeks they were all starved to death. He prayed with the others and comforted them, and he himself was the last to die.

Father Maximilian was following the way of Jesus. ‘We know love by this’, John says, ‘that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ (v.16).

But you and I probably won’t be called on to do something like that. It might happen, of course, but the probability isn’t very high. It is, however, very likely that we will be called on to practice the next verse; in fact, this is probably where the rubber hits the road for most of us:

‘How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?’ (v.17)

This is where I get very encouraged about being the pastor of St. Margaret’s. Our recent visit from Tim Schultz from World Vision, in which we not only sponsored two new children as a congregation but had another seven or eight taken by individuals or families in the parish, was just the most recent example of the generosity of people in this community, for which I’m very thankful. And we need to stay the course with this and not get deflected from it.

Let’s remind ourselves of what John is saying here: love is the evidence that we have come to know God. ‘We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another’ (v.14). And this love we’re talking about isn’t words or feelings but practical actions. So if I claim to be a follower of Jesus but I grudge every cent I give to the poor, how can the love of God really live in me? If I’m spending all my time trying to find excuses not to be generous – “They’ll just waste it, you know” – “It all goes to overhead, doesn’t it?” – then how has my heart really been touched by the love of Christ? If my use of my money and possessions is no different from the person next door who doesn’t claim to be a Christian, then how am I really following Jesus?

No, one of the central differences the gospel makes in a person’s life is the transformation from selfishness and greed to love and generosity. Jesus told us that our heavenly Father showers his blessings on good and bad alike, and loves to give good gifts to those who ask him. Well then, Jesus would say to us, ‘Go and do likewise’.

And of course, this isn’t just about money; for many of us, our time is a far more precious commodity. Really, the greatest gift of love we can ever give to another person is to spend time with them. Did you notice that phrase? ‘Spend time’. Truly, time is something we spend; every hour of our life that passes is an hour we’ll never get back. God calls us to be generous with our time as well as our money, and yet we all know that churches and other community organizations are finding it harder and harder to get enough volunteers to offer the kind of services they’d like to provide to those who need them. This is love, too, a very practical and demanding form of love, and if we close our hearts to those who need it, how does the love of God live in us?

Well, it’s time to bring this sermon to a close, and as I do so, I’d just like to say that I’m well aware that I’ve had the easy part this morning. I get to talk about love. Talk is fine, but as my brother Mike likes to say, “Christianity isn’t meant to be a talking religion, it’s meant to be a doing religion”.

I started out this morning by telling you about my old friend Ken Burningham. After he died, there was a conversation amongst some of us about what scripture verse ought to be used for his memorial. For myself, I had no doubt about the answer to that question, because I knew which verse meant the most to him: it was verse 18 from today’s reading:

‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’.

Or, as the New Living Translation puts it,

‘Dear children let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions’.

Right: time to stop talking, and start practicing what I preach. But I should warn you – when we come together again next week, old St. John will have more to say to us about love!

Right: time to stop talking, and start practicing what I preach. But I should warn you – when we come together again next week, old St. John will have more to say to us about love!

Posted in Following Jesus, Love, Sermons | Leave a comment

Initial sermon thoughts on 1 John 3:11-24

This is not a sermon; it’s simply the beginning of the sermon preparation process. Hopefully these thoughts might trigger some of your own, if you are preaching on this passage this coming Sunday – or help you to get ready, if you will be listening to someone else.

Text (NRSV)

11For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you. 14We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. 16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

23And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

So it seems as if these first century Christians have begun to encounter some real hatred from the world around them (well, may be they haven’t just ‘begun to’ – maybe it’s been going on for a long time). Possibly they are asking questions about why this should be the case, and John addresses this issue in verse 13: ‘Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you’. This seems to follow on from verse 12, where he points out that Cain murdered his brother ‘because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous’. His point seems to be that a similar thing is going on for his readers: they are living righteous lives, the people around them are irritated by this (does the light show up their own darkness, perhaps?) and so the result is hatred, not admiration.

This is perhaps a useful correction to the romantic idea that if we just live good lives this will be enough to spread our faith, because people won’t be able to help admiring us for our good deeds. Sometimes this is true, but at other times it’s not. “Why are you being so honest with your expense account: you’re making the rest of us look bad!” Christians who insist on caring for the poor when so many other people think they’re freeloaders, and Christians who insist on loving their enemies rather than reviling them, often attract irritation and anger, not admiration. Of course, in this letter John is following on from the words of Jesus as he recorded them:

“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master’. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also” (John 15:18-20).

The rest of the passage continues in much the same vein. So for Jesus it is not a surprise that he and his followers face persecution; he knows that the announcement that the Kingdom of God is at hand is not good news to those who profit from the kingdom of evil. We are participating in a counter-cultural movement, and we must expect that not everyone in the prevailing culture will be jumping for joy.

These first century Christians were encountering some hatred from the non-Christian world around them; John, however, is interested in what they are encountering from each other. Loving one another is part of the message they heard from the beginning (11); it is how they know they have passed from death to life (14); it is exemplified in Jesus laying down his life for us, and we are to follow his example (16) and by using the world’s goods to help sisters or brothers in need (17). It’s not just speech, but action (18). It’s one of the two main things God asks of us: believing in Jesus and loving one another (23). So John is saying to his readers, “You get enough hatred from the world around you; make sure you don’t get hatred from one another. Make sure you love one another”. So the heart of John’s message is the call for Christians to love each other sacrificially and practically, because this is the commandment that God has given us through Jesus.

The Cain and Abel story is interesting, because it is a story of hatred from one brother to another. Abel should reasonably have expected that his brother would love him (that’s what brothers are supposed to do), but instead he got hatred and murder. John seems to be saying ‘Don’t be surprised if the world hates you, but do be surprised – be very surprised – if hatred shows up in the Christian community. This is not the way Jesus has taught us to live’. Of course, we know that we are all works in progress, and we won’t be instantly transformed into examples of perfect love. This is why John has to remind people of the centrality of love, and that hatred is equivalent to murder (see Matthew 5:21-22).

So what are my ‘Cain-like’ attitudes? Do I feel shown-up or threatened when others succeed where I am failing? If my church’s growth has stalled and others seem to be doing well, do I see this as a threat rather than rejoicing in it? I think I can honestly say that I don’t feel angry at others’ good deeds, but I know there are times when I speak and think hatefully toward fellow-Christians. So verses 14-15 are sobering words for me:

14We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.

So John identifies love as the centre of the life of the Christian community, but he’s also careful about how he defines it. I don’t think he would agree with John Lennon that ‘All you need is love’ (he makes this clear in verse 23: ‘And this is his (i.e. God’s) commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he (i.e. Jesus) has commanded us’. Our love for each other flows from our belief in Jesus). And ‘love’ for John doesn’t mean a feeling, or an attitude that ‘anything goes’.

Christian love is rooted in the example of Jesus. We remember in John 13 how Jesus told his disciples to love one another ‘as I have loved you’. This command was sandwiched between two actions: his washing of his disciples feet in practical service, and his offering his life for the sins of the world – a sacrificial act, not in the sense of ‘making sacrifices’ but of being a sacrifice. Interestingly, John makes these same two points here. How do we identify true love?

‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ (v.16).

What would laying down our lives for one another mean in a situation where Christians were being persecuted (genuinely persecuted) for their faith? Undoubtedly John is not using figurative language here; if I can save the life of my brother or sister by offering my own life. He expects that Christian discipleship requires me to do it. In the context of this week’s news about more beheadings of Christians by ISIS, this gospel imperative seems all the more relevant.

However, it isn’t likely to be something I’m called on to do every day. In my daily experience, the second part of John’s definition of love is likely to be more telling:

17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

‘Word or speech’ is what preachers deal in, and in an age of mass communication through social media the world is full of word and speech. I use Facebook and blogging, and day by day interact with people all over the world by means of word and speech. John is reminding me here that there’s more to Christianity than that. Love means that if we see a brother or sister in need and we have enough to live on, we should give to the one who doesn’t. That’s it. It’s as simple as that. And if we refuse to do that, John asks ‘How does God’s love abide in you?’ Of course, we should have got the message from Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, or his commands to give to those who ask from us. As Billy Bragg paraphrases Jesus:

‘So just lift up your eyes, don’t pass by on the other side
Don’t be bound by what you think others may do.
Just a little bit of faith – that’s all it really takes,
Do unto others as you would have them do to you’.
(‘Do Unto Others’ on the album ‘Tooth and Nail’).

So Christian love is sacrificial (willing to pay the ultimate price) and also practical (giving to help those in need if we are able to do so). What it is not is emotional. At no point in this passage is John remotely interested in the feeling of love; it’s actions that are significant to him.

So love is the centre of the Christian life, follows on from believing in Jesus, was vital in a world where Christians faced so much non-love from those on the outside (a situation that is very real to some of our brothers and sisters around the world today), and is essentially sacrificial and practical – not just words, but actions. But John also points out that love gives us assurance of our new life in Christ. ‘We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another’ (v.14). ‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything’ (vv.18-20). In John 13 Jesus had said that the world would be able to tell that we are followers of Jesus because we love one another; now in this letter John tells us that we will be able to make the same judgement ourselves.

This seems a little weird; why are we judging ourselves, one way or the other? But we do, of course. We second-guess ourselves, we evaluate our progress, we look for important things to work on. What John is saying is ‘If you’re looking for an important thing to work on, this is the most important one of all. As C.S. Lewis says somewhere, ‘Nothing gives us a more spuriously good conscience than keeping rules, even if there has been a total lack of love and charity’. Rule keeping (whether we’re talking about conventions, liturgical directions, or whatever) doesn’t cut it; transformation from people who hate and murder to people who love and help one another is what counts.

Finally, John also connects love and answered prayer. He says,

‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him’ (vv.18-22).

I take this to mean, not that love gives us a magic token that automatically guarantees that we get anything we want from God (this is definitely not true to Christian experience – many very loving people have not received everything they ask for, including Jesus – “Let this cup pass from me”), but rather, that if love is the centre of my life then I am more likely to ask for things that are in line with God’s will. If I am living my life in rebellion against God, hating my sister or brother as Cain did, why would I think that my prayers would be pleasing to God? Prayers that God would break the teeth of the wicked may be honest, but we’ve got to hope that god doesn’t give us literal answers to them (as Gandhi pointed out, ‘Eye for an eye’ makes the whole world blind). But prayers that come from a life shaped by love – that’s a different story altogether.

Where does this passage hit home for me? The money quote, as far as I’m concerned, is verses 16-18:

‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’.

I am very good at ‘passing by on the other side’. I’ve got plans for how I’m going to use my money, and they are too often shaped by my own selfish agenda. I don’t especially live by Paul’s wise words in 1 Timothy 6:6-10:

‘Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains’.

I have plans for my money; I want to be rich, so that I can afford to own expensive musical instruments and computer equipment, lots of CDs and books and good clothes, and go on nice holidays and so on. I do not live a contented life, and the culture around me does not encourage me to live a contented life (in fact, it would definitely have a negative effect on our country’s economic growth if its citizens lived a contented life! But then again, we wouldn’t need such high incomes if we wanted less!). And because of all this discontent, when I see brothers and sisters in need, I think I can’t afford to help them.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to money; it applies to time too. Just as with money so with time, I have my own plans and I know what I want to do. And then along comes someone who’s asking for some of my precious time (and it is precious – every moment of my life brings me closer to my death, and the time I give away to others is time I will never get back – we must never ignore this reality). The call of the gospel to me is to see that every moment of my life belongs to the God who made me, not to me, and that it is his will for me to use it in loving others, not in selfishness and self-centredness. This is possibly an even bigger growing edge for me than my use of money. Lots to think about and pray about here; at the moment ‘my heart is condemning me’ (v.20), but I don’t think I’m quite ready to move on to ‘but God is greater than our hearts’ yet; first, there are changes that need to be made.

Posted in Following Jesus, Sermon preparation | Leave a comment

Praying for our enemies – when the rubber hits the road

image.phpBishop Angaelos is the General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United
Kingdom. This is his outstanding statement regarding the most recent brutal murders of Christians by ISIS in the Middle East. All I can say is, this man is showing us how to follow Jesus. Our prayers and thoughts are with those who have been martyred for their faith, and with their families, their friends, and their churches.

Statement by HG Bishop Angaelos following the murder of Ethiopian Christians in Libya

The confirmation of the murder of Ethiopian Christians by Daesh (IS) in Libya has been received with deep sadness. These executions that unnecessarily and unjustifiably claim the lives of innocent people, wholly undeserving of this brutality, have unfortunately become far too familiar. Once again we see innocent Christians murdered purely for refusing to renounce their Faith.

The Christians of Egypt and Ethiopia have had a shared heritage for centuries. Being predominantly Orthodox Christian communities with a mutual understanding of life and witness, and a common origin in the Coptic Orthodox Church, they now also share an even greater connection through the blood of these contemporary martyrs.

This sad news came on the day that His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury visited His Holiness Pope Tawadros II in Egypt to personally express his condolences following the similar brutal murder of 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians in Libya by Daesh in February of this year.

These horrific murders have not only touched the lives of those in the Middle East and Africa, but have led to a greater sense of solidarity among people and communities around the world. I am thankful, in the midst of this pain, that the ghastly nature of these crimes is bringing a greater rejection of them, and of any ideology that sanctions, justifies or glorifies brutality and murder.

As people of faith and none who respect humanity and life, we must continue to speak out against such appalling and senseless violence. As Christians, we remain committed to our initial instinct following the murder of our 21 Coptic brothers in Libya, that it is not only for our own good, but indeed our duty to ourselves, the world, and even those who see themselves as our enemies, to forgive and pray for the perpetrators of this and similar crimes. We pray for these men and women, self-confessed religious people, that they may be reminded of the sacred and precious nature of every life created by God.

Acts such as these do not only cause insurmountable pain to so many around the world, especially the families and communities of the victims, but can also create an even greater desensitisation in those perpetrating them to the suffering and pain which they cause. The will of God, Who created us in His own Image and likeness, can most certainly not be that we feel each other’s pain less or become desensitised to each other’s suffering.

We pray repose for the souls of these innocent men, a change of heart for those who took their lives, but above all we pray comfort and strength for their families and communities, and the many around the world who may not have known them, yet are left to mourn such a tragic and unnecessary loss of precious life.

Having seen the courageous response of the families of the Coptic martyrs in Libya, we pray similar strength, courage and peace for all those suffering as a result of this brutal act, reassured that their loved ones will never be forgotten, having died as true martyrs and paying the ultimate price, hearing the joyful promise “Well done, good and faithful servant…enter into the joy of your Lord.”

Posted in Current events, Following Jesus, News | 3 Comments

A School for Saints and a Hospital for Sinners (a sermon on 1 John 3:1-7)

Back in the nineteenth century, the great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon once attended a conference at which the keynote speaker began to proclaim what was called the doctrine of sinless perfection. This belief has cropped up in Christian history from time to time; basically what it says is that the work of holiness that God does in the life of a Christian can be completed in this life, right now. You and I can be filled with the Holy Spirit to such an extent that all trace of sin is removed from us. We will no longer feel any desire to sin; all we will want to do is love God and love our neighbour. All selfishness, all pride, all self-centredness, all anger and lust and greed and all that other bad stuff will be taken away from us, and we will be made perfect in love and holiness and goodness and truth. This is the idea that this conference speaker was teaching in Charles Spurgeon’s hearing. “Brothers and sisters”, he said, “I can testify that this is true. The Lord has taken away my desire to sin; he has made me perfect in holiness and love, and he can do it for you too, if you ask him”.

Spurgeon’s response to this preacher was typical of him. Years later, telling the story, he said, “The next morning, at breakfast, I happened to be sitting beside this man, and I took a jug of milk and poured it over him. His response, I can confidently say, disproved the doctrine of sinless perfection!” When I read about that incident, I must admit that I couldn’t help feeling some sympathy for the conference speaker; I have no doubt that if Spurgeon had poured a jug of milk over me while I was quietly eating my breakfast, I’d probably have lost my temper too!

But the dilemma that this story illustrates is a very real one for readers of the first letter of John. We don’t know very much about the circumstances in which this letter was written; if it was indeed written by the Apostle John, it was likely when he was a very old man. Over and over again in the letter, he points to love as the centre of the Christian life:

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (4:7-8).

But the trouble is that John doesn’t stop there. In today’s reading he says,

‘Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that (Jesus) was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as (Jesus) is righteous. Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil’ (1 John 3:4-8).

Now if you’re like me, and if you were listening closely while these verses were being read this morning, I expect you felt some confusion about this. ‘Wait a minute’, you might have thought; ‘What does John mean, “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him”. But John, I sin; I sin every day, in fact! Every day I fail to love God with my whole heart and soul and mind and strength, and I fail to love my neighbour as myself. So according to this passage, does that mean that I’m not a true Christian? Does it mean that I can’t really call myself a Christian – I can’t really claim to know Christ – until I’ve been successful in completely removing sin from my life?’

Today’s passage is not alone in this letter. In chapter two John says,

‘Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him”, but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist’ (2:3-5).

In chapter three his words are even stronger:

Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters (3:8-10).

Now at this point we may be tempted to throw up our hands in despair and think, ‘What on earth does he mean, they cannot sin? What sort of universe is he living in?’ If we take these verses literally, the only possible conclusion we can come to is that none of us are true Christians.

The interesting thing is, John appears to be fully aware of this. Earlier on in chapter one he says this:

‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world’ (1:8 – 2:2).

So John appears to contradict himself. In chapter three he says that a person who has been born of God does not sin; it’s impossible for them to sin, because they have been born of God. But back in chapter one he says that if we claim we haven’t sinned, we’re deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us, and we’re even making God out to be a liar. At this point we might find ourselves asking if the old guy has started to lose it; can’t he even remember what he himself wrote two chapters before?

No, that’s not what’s going on. I think that John is using exaggerated language to make two very important points. I think he wants to remind us that, in the plan of God, the Church is both ‘a School for Saints’ and ‘a Hospital for Sinners’. Balancing those two callings from God is not easy; in fact, I’d guess that there is no church that does it perfectly.

Because we’re a School for Saints, it’s our responsibility to uphold the high ideals that Jesus taught his followers. He taught us to love our neighbour as ourselves; to love our enemies, bless those who persecute us, and pray for those who despitefully use us. He told us that it’s not enough for us not to murder anyone; we have to root anger and vengeance out of our lives to. It’s not enough for us to be faithful to our marriage vows in body; we have to avoid even looking at another person in lust. We’re not to store up for ourselves treasures on earth because, as Jesus says in Luke’s gospel, no one can be a disciple of Jesus unless they give up all that they have. All that they have!

And so the list goes on, getting higher and higher and higher, until it’s so high that we feel like Jesus is far above the clouds and we’re stuck on the earth, with our boots six inches below ground. But let’s be clear: these aren’t just the words of John, they’re the words of Jesus. He taught these things. He’s the one who said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). That’s his goal for us.

So who is it that especially needs to hear this teaching of Jesus and his old apostle John? I’ll tell you: it’s the old, jaded Christian like me, who has made peace with their own selfishness and sin. People like us, who’ve been following Christ for decades, tend to have gotten the stuffing knocked out of us too many times; we’ve lost our youthful idealism, we’ve gotten used to the idea that Jesus forgives us seventy times seven, and maybe we’ve even started to take that for granted. No, not ‘maybe’ – we have certainly taken it for granted; we started doing that a long time ago!

Maybe we used to think that we should live simple lives, uncluttered by luxuries and too many material possessions, but we’ve gotten older and we’ve come to enjoy the good things that life can offer, and now we comfort ourselves by saying, ‘moderation in all things’. Maybe we used to at least make an effort to give to everyone who asks of us, but now we’ve learned how to walk by on the other side, because ‘You’ve got to be sensible about these things’. Maybe there used to be some things we wouldn’t watch on TV, but now a little skin, a little sex, a little brutal murder – we’ve gotten used to it and it doesn’t bother us any more. We used to set the bar pretty high, but now we’ve got it set so low we can step over it with no problem at all. “What do you want from me?” we say to God. “Why can’t you be satisfied if I come to church once or twice a month and drop a little tip into the plate? Lots of people don’t even do that! Why are you asking so much of me?”

If that’s me, then I need to hear what John is saying; I need to recover the high ideals that Jesus sets out for us in the gospels, and that John testifies to so faithfully in his letter. The Christian life has a goal, and the goal isn’t just that I would keep a pew warm on Sunday mornings. The goal is that the world would be filled with people who live like Christ, and in this way, it would be healed of hatred and selfishness and greed and fear, and become a place of love and compassion and justice and truth. And this is accomplished as Christians become more and more like Jesus, in their words and in their actions. As we heard in today’s reading,

‘Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when (Jesus) is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in them purify themselves, just as he is pure’ (3:2-3).

So let me ask you, if the Christian life is a road that we walk toward the goal of greater Christlikeness, is it possible that you have sat down on the road and said, “This is far enough”? Have you said to yourself, “Surely God can’t ask any more of me than this. Being just a little Christlike is enough, isn’t it? After all, it’s better than nothing!”

If that’s me, then John’s letter is encouraging me this morning to get up, dust myself off, and start walking toward the goal again. John is encouraging me to think and pray and ask God the question, “What’s the next step for me? What’s the next piece of my character that I need to work on? What habit, what practice of mine, is the next one I need to ask the Holy Spirit to transform? What’s that you say, God? It’s my greed for nicer and nicer guitars, is it? Gulp. I rather like that one! Okay, okay, I can understand how it’s a never ending treadmill, and it’s best to get off it right now, but it’s hard, it’s really hard. Yes, I know, you’ll help me if I try. Okay, God, you win; let’s make a plan for change here. What’s the first step?”

How long has it been since you’ve had a conversation like that with God? If you can’t remember, then maybe John is speaking to you this morning, reminding you of our goal: ‘Whoever says, “I abide in (Jesus)”, ought to walk just as he walked’ (2:6). Set the bar a little higher, Tim, and exert yourself a little more, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to get to it.

That’s what it means for the church to be a ‘School for Saints’. But now we need to turn to the second point John is making; we need to think briefly about what it means to be a ‘Hospital for Sinners’.

Maybe we’re in a different situation. Maybe we’ve heard the hard teachings of Jesus loud and clear. Maybe we’ve tried and tried and tried to live our lives like Christ. We’ve read the words of Jesus and meditated on them; we’ve tried to root out anger and vengeance, hatred and contempt, lust and selfishness and lying and laziness and all those other sins that spoil the life that is God’s dream for us. We’ve tried hard, we really have, and we know that sometimes the Holy Spirit has helped us, but overall, what we’re most conscious of is our failures. We know how far we’ve fallen short of God’s standards for us. And maybe, just maybe, deep down inside, we’ve been tempted to despair. “How many times can God forgive?” we ask ourselves. “I’ve confessed these sins so many times, and told him I’m done with them, but then I’ve turned around and gone right back to them again. It’s like they’ve worn a deep rut in my life, and I just can’t seem to get out of that rut. Is there no hope for me? Or am I just showing conclusively that I’m not a child of God, that I’ve never been born again of God, because if I was, I’d be able to get the victory over this stuff?”

If that’s me, then I need to go back to the gospels again for the other side of the story. Because of course, the same Jesus who taught these very high ideals for his disciples was also the Jesus who loved hanging around with sinners. When the religious leaders brought him a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery, he didn’t join in the universal judgement and condemnation. “Neither do I condemn you”, he said; “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 8:11). The whole of Jericho condemned Zacchaeus the tax collector as a sinner, but Jesus went to his house for a meal, with the result that Zacchaeus turned back to God and changed his whole way of life. He loved people who were honest enough to admit that they had messed up their lives in a big way; the people he had a hard time with were the hypocrites who pretended to be spiritual giants when really they were far from it.

C.S. Lewis says somewhere that real Christianity is both hard and gentle; it’s not either/or, but both/and. That rings true when we read about Jesus in the gospels, and it rings true in John’s first letter as well. The same John who sets out those impossibly high standards for us also says this:

‘My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 2:1-2a). 

‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:8-9).

Truly, grace and love are at the heart of the Gospel. The Gospel shows us a God who loves his enemies, who forgives those who are conscious of their failures, and only rejects those who are so sure of their own goodness that they refuse to admit their need of him. So we can trust his promise: if we have tried and failed, and tried and failed again, to the point that we’re sure that there’s a particularly toasty corner of hell specially reserved for us, God would say to us, “Not so! You are my child, and I know how hard you’ve tried, and even though you feel like you’ve failed, you’ve kept on trying and you haven’t given up, and I’m pleased with you. So go in peace, be healed of your guilt and freed of your burden. Your sins are forgiven, seventy times seven. Now go and love others in the same way you have been loved, because that, of course, is what the gospel is all about”.

A School for Saints, and a Hospital for Sinners: that’s what Gospel Christianity is all about. Sometimes we need to be reminded of the call to be saints and the high ideals that involves. Sometimes, when we’re discouraged by our failure, we need to be reminded of the gospel medicine of forgiveness for sinners. Wherever you are in your own spiritual journey this morning, this letter from John has a message to speak to your heart and soul. And it’s not a long letter; it’s only four or five pages! So later on today, why not get alone, read the whole thing through, and ask the Holy Spirit to highlight for you the message that you particularly need to hear at this point in your Christian journey? That’s a prayer he will be very glad to answer!

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Remember the Gospel

Surely one of the most frightening and disorienting experiences we can have as human beings is to begin to be aware that we are losing our memory. How do I know who I am, if I’m not sure where I’ve come from? How do I know who I can trust, or who loves me, or who my family members are? Truly, memory is one of God’s most important and most precious gifts to us.

In our first scripture reading this morning, the apostle Paul has some words to say to a group of Christians who were in danger of losing their memory. This reading comes from a letter Paul wrote to the Christians living in the Greek city of Corinth, probably around 58 A.D. In those days, of course, they weren’t meeting in public buildings as we do today; they were probably meeting in small groups in private houses. Those little house churches in Corinth had all sorts of problems, and Paul spends the first fourteen chapters of this letter dealing with them. But in chapter fifteen he comes back to the central issue, and he begins in verse 1 with these words: ‘Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which you also stand’.

If I feel that it’s necessary to remind someone of something, it would usually be because I think they are in danger of forgetting it. For instance, when my youngest son was still living at home I didn’t feel the need to remind him to go out and spend time with his friends, because he never seemed to be in danger of forgetting them! However, I did think it was important to remind him to take his house key with him when he went out, because from time to time he did forget that rather important item, and then he would ring my doorbell at two in the morning so that he could get back into the house! So if Paul feels it necessary to remind the Christians in Corinth about the good news, or gospel, that he proclaimed to them, it must be because he thinks they are in danger of forgetting it.

How could that be? How could a Christian church forget the good news of Jesus Christ, the ‘gospel’ as we call it, which is the central Christian message? Sadly, it happens all the time; churches easily get distracted. They get caught up in the maintenance of old traditions, or they become obsessed with divisive issues like homosexuality, or they get caught up in buildings and liturgies and theological controversies. Individual Christians can forget the gospel as well; in fact, maybe they’ve never even really heard it. I’ve explained the good news of Jesus to hundreds of people down through the years of my ministry, and I’ve stopped being surprised at the number of church people who tell me they’re hearing it for the first time.

So, what is this good news that Paul proclaimed to the Corinthians? Let’s look a little more closely at this; you might like to turn to 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, on page 176 in the New Testament in our church bibles.

Read the rest here.

Posted in Easter, Gospel, Jesus, Sermons | Leave a comment

This Joyful Eastertide

My favourite Easter hymn. Christ is risen! Happy Easter, everyone!

Posted in Christian Year, Easter, Jesus, Music | 2 Comments

Into the wilderness with Jesus

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, and Lent will begin – an annual season for going out into the desert, metaphorically speaking, away from distractions, in order to pay attention to what God is saying. A season for silence and self-examination, for prayer, self-discipine and renewed generosity, for meditating on the Word of the Lord and for being more intentional about learning the Jesus Way.

This blog will be going silent for Lent, and I will not be reading or commenting on other blogs either. This has been a Lenten custom for me for a few years now, and for me it’s a very beneficial discipline (not necessarily for anyone else, of course; we all need to decide for ourselves about these things).

So: time for me to shut up for a while. Have a holy Lent everyone. I’ll talk to you again after Easter.

Posted in Blogging, Following Jesus, Lent | Leave a comment