Does God Love Me? (a sermon on John 3:16-17)

I want to start this morning by telling you a true story.

Many years ago, a bishop named Maurice Wood was fast asleep in his house at about three o’clock in the morning when the phone rang beside his bed. He reached for it and put it to his ear, and said a rather sleepy ‘Hello?’ And the voice of the man on the other end of the line said, “Is this the Bishop’s house?” “Yes”, Maurice replied. “Is this the Bishop?” “Yes it is”. “Bishop, can I ask you a question?”

For a moment Maurice didn’t reply, and then he said, “Have you any idea what time it is?” “Yes – it’s about three o’clock in the morning”. “Oh – right! What’s the question?” “Bishop – does God love me?”

And then Maurice realized that for this man at this moment in his life, this was the question – the question that was so important that it didn’t matter that he had to wake the Bishop up at three o’clock in the morning to ask it.

“Does God love me?” I suspect that, deep down inside, many of us have that same nagging question. Do I matter to God? Does God know my name? Does God love me?

Let me take you to two verses from our gospel reading for today, two verses in which we hear the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. Here they are:

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have everlasting life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (John 3:16-17 NRSV).

So the fundamental truth that these verses announce to us is the truth of God’s love. God’s love led him to decide not to condemn the world. Instead, God’s love led him to give a gift – a free gift – the gift of ‘being saved’ through Jesus Christ. God offers this gift to each person, and God invites each of us to receive it.

What is this love like? It’s not a conditional love. We don’t have to earn it or deserve it. It’s not a reward for performance. The word John uses in the original language is ‘agapé’, which is a very unusual word in ancient Greek. It’s like the Old Testament word that’s translated in our NRSV Bibles as ‘steadfast love’. It’s not primarily a feeling, and it’s not based on feelings. It’s a decision that God makes to pour out his love on us, not because we are lovable but because God is love. It’s the love Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “God makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). Another word often used for it in the Bible is charis, which is usually translated ‘grace’; it means a free gift, with no strings attached.

This is where we start with God. Philip Yancey says that what grace means is that there’s absolutely nothing we can do to make God love us more, and there’s absolutely nothing we can do to make God love us less. God already loves us infinitely, and nothing is ever going to change that.

So let me ask you – do you believe that?

If we really believe that, we can let go of the everlasting burden of having to win God’s approval. We can let go of the anxiety that if we put even one foot wrong it’s all up for us. We can have the sense that instead of standing over us with a big stick waiting to beat us up for our failures, God is standing beside us in Jesus to lift us up when we fall down. More than that, God is living in us through the Holy Spirit – the one Jesus describes earlier in John 3 as the ‘wind’ or ‘breath’ of God – giving us the oxygen of grace that we need to live the Jesus Way. If we really believe that God loves us, we can go home from church today in the sure knowledge, not just that God lives in our hearts, but that God holds us in his heart – which is surely the safest place in the world to be, now and through eternity.

So how do we know this is true? How do we know God loves us?

Our verse says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’. This doesn’t just mean ‘God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son’ – although that surely is good news! But it doesn’t give us the full range of meanings in the original. ‘God so loved the world’ is an archaic construction, which actually means ‘God loved the world in this way’. In other words, we’re not just taking about how much God loves us; we’re also talking about the form his love took on this one occasion, or the method he chose to show us his love.

‘Tim so loved his wife that he took her out for dinner on their anniversary’. Well done me! But what does that actually mean? Yes, of course, it means “I loved her so much that I wanted to give her a wonderful evening out” (and I hoped very much that her definition of ‘wonder’ included an evening with me!). But it also says something about the form my love took on this occasion: ‘I loved her in this way: I took her out for dinner on our anniversary’.

So what form did God’s love for us take? ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’. The gift of God to the world was to send his Son into the world, ‘not…to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (v.17).

We can think of this as describing the mission of Jesus in all its fullness – the mission that began when ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). This ‘Word’ of God, according to John, was somehow at the same time God himself, and was also ‘with God’ – obviously John’s trying to describe a mystery far above our understanding. But what a gift God gives to the world! To come and live among us himself in the person of his Son, as one of us – to share our human life in all its frailty – all out of love for us. If God cared enough about the inhabitants of this planet to actually make himself vulnerable and be born as one of us, then surely that would be compelling evidence that ‘God loved the world’.

But in fact, our text is going further than that. Earlier in the passage, it refers to the story we read in our Old Testament reading today – the story of the bronze serpent in the wilderness. The people are wandering in the wilderness, grumbling and complaining to God about having nothing but manna to eat all day long, and suddenly they find themselves being attacked by poisonous snakes. They’re being bitten, and some of them are dying. So Moses prays for the people, and God tells him what to do: ‘“Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live”. So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it up on a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live’ (8-9).

Verses 14-15 of our gospel refer to this story: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life”. When Jesus uses the ‘lifted up’ language, he’s referring to his cross. The parallels with the text from Numbers are actually quite striking. The thing the people feared most of all was the snakes that were biting them and causing them to die, but Moses made an image of the very thing that they feared, and it became for them a means of salvation. And in the same way, in the time of Jesus the cross was a symbol of cruel and violent death, but it became for us Christians a means of forgiveness and salvation. And just as the Israelites had to personally appropriate the salvation God was offering them – they had to ‘look to’ the bronze serpent – so now people are called to personally appropriate what Jesus has done for them by looking to him in faith, by ‘believing’ in him, or ‘putting their trust in him’.

This is ‘how’ God loved the world so much – he loved us by coming in the person of his Son, allowing human beings to do their worst to him – rejecting him, whipping him, mocking him, driving spikes through his wrists and feet and hanging him up on a cross until he died. He did not judge the people who did this to him. He didn’t blast them with thunderbolts or call on twelve legions of angels to wipe them out. Instead, he forgave them: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”.

So the Cross became the most vivid demonstration imaginable of God’s love for the whole world. God loves the world in this way: when we reject him and mock him and scourge him and kill him, he rejects our rejection. He does not overcome evil with evil; he loves his enemies and continues to love them. The arms of Jesus are open wide on the Cross in welcome to all: Come to me – whoever you are, whatever you’ve done – come to me, and I will give you rest.

That’s how we know God loves us; we know because of Jesus.

But there’s still more. To what end does God love us? What’s his goal for us? The text says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’. ‘Eternal life’ doesn’t just mean ‘life that goes on forever’; it means ‘life as God dreamed it for us when he first created us’.

We sometimes tell people ‘Get a life!’ Most of the people we say that to are, in fact, biologically alive! But we all understand instinctively that it’s possible to be biologically alive and yet still miss out on the deepest meaning of life, life in all its fullness. The writers of the New Testament all believed that the way to ‘get a life’ in the fullest possible sense is to put your faith in Jesus and follow him. God becomes human in Jesus, not just to reveal God to us, but to reveal our humanity to us as well. As we look at him, as we follow him, we discover the life we were originally created to live.

It’s important to keep focussed on this; if we don’t, we’re going to be tricked into thinking that Christianity is all about the things we’re not allowed to do! ‘You shall not do this!’ ‘You shall not do that!’ ‘Don’t touch!’ ‘Wet paint!’ ‘Keep off the grass!’ From time to time, Christians have fallen into this trap of overemphasizing the things Christians are asked to avoid, but not focusing enough on the amazing and wonderful things we’re promised. A friend of mine used to say, “I want to introduce you to a God who loves you more than you can possibly imagine, and who created you for the sheer joy of knowing you!” Does that sound like life to you? I know it does to me!

So we’ve talked about the central, bedrock truth of God’s indestructible love for us – for each one of us. We’ve talked about how God demonstrated it: God loved the world in this way, by giving us his Son to live out his love for us, even to the point of death on a Cross. We’ve talked about God’s goal in this process: that we should receive life in all its fullness, which is what the Bible means by ‘eternal life’.

One last question: how do we tap into this for ourselves? How does it become part of our personal experience?

Our verse says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’. It’s by believing in him that we move into that abundant life that he promises us.

This is not just an intellectual thing. I might say, “I believe that Bishop Jane exists”, and very few of us here would disagree with that proposition! But it’s an entirely different thing for us to say, “I believe in Bishop Jane”. It means we trust her, we have confidence in the direction she’s leading, and we’re willing to go along with her on that journey.

So to believe in Jesus is not just to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. It means that we’re willing to put our life on the line for him. I think of Jesus walking on the water and calling out to Peter, “Come”. Believing in Jesus, for Peter, meant getting out of the boat and walking toward him. It was an act of commitment.

For many of us, faith is a journey, but I would like to suggest that sometimes it’s also a decision. When two people love each other they obviously experience love as a journey, but traditionally we’ve also believed that there comes a point where the journey is strengthened as people make commitments to each other, to love each other for the rest of their lives. We call that a marriage, and we still believe it’s a hugely important step in a love relationship.

When I was thirteen I made a commitment of faith to Jesus. The language I used was ‘giving my life to Jesus’. Did I understand at the time everything that would imply? Of course not. But the decision I made that day – in response to the good news I had heard – that decision shaped the course of the rest of my life.

People make these decisions in a thousand different ways, and no one really should dare to lay down a single pattern. Even in our baptism services we ask people to articulate that decision. When parents bring children for baptism we ask them ‘Do you turn away from sin and evil? Do you accept Jesus as your Saviour, and will you obey him as your Lord?’ Of course, the problem is that no one ever says ‘No’ in a baptism or confirmation service! We’d have to stop the service if they did! And so it’s easy for people to read words off a page just because the service tells them too. That’s why it’s sometimes helpful for Anglicans, who have read these words from service sheets for years, to be challenged to pray them from the heart, at a time when no one’s listening. ‘Yes, Lord, I will turn away from evil and sin. Yes, I will put my life in your hands. Help me to trust you and follow you’.

My friend Harold Percy used to say that the Gospel is an invitation from God to us: ‘The kingdom of God is at hand: RSVP!’ If we understand that invitation – if we can even imagine Jesus giving us that invitation – sometimes the most powerful prayer in the world is the simple word ‘Yes’.

So let me close by asking you: Can you hear that invitation today? Can you hear, in your heart, the voice of Christ saying ‘Follow me?’ Have you perhaps heard the good news of God’s love in a fresh way today – a way that’s tugging at you inside. “I want to be part of that in a way I never have before”?

If so, listen to that voice. Take time today to get alone with God and pray. You don’t have to use any particular form of words; God knows what’s on your heart. Simply thank him for the free gift of love he’s given you, and give yourself back to him in return, in faith and love.

Let us pray.

God, you loved the world in this way: you gave your only son, so that each one who believes in him may not perish, but may have life in all its fullness. Help each one of us today to put our faith in you, whether for the first time or the thousandth time, and to put our lives in your hands, so that we may ‘get a life’ – the life that you long so much to give us. This we ask in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Adopted and Adapted (a sermon on 1 John 3.1-3)

I heard a story once about a minister and his wife who had tried for years to have children, and eventually had decided to go the adoption route. So they adopted a little girl and they were very glad to have her in their family. As she got older they told her she was adopted, but she couldn’t always remember the right words to use when she was telling her friends about this. One day the minister was sitting in his study working on his sermon, and his daughter ran into the room with the friend she’d been playing with. “Daddy”, she said, “I forget – was I adopted or adapted?” “Adopted, my dear”, he replied; “We’re still working on the adapting part!”

I’d like to suggest that we Christians are in a similar situation, and our epistle for today gives us both sides of that story: we’ve been ‘adopted’ into the family of God as his dearly loved children, and God is now working on the ‘adapting’ process – the process of becoming like our older brother in the family, the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is an appropriate theme for us today, as we baptize Sophia Lynn into the family of God. In the Church Year November 1st is All Saints’ Day and it’s such a wonderful festival that when it doesn’t fall on Sunday, we celebrate it on the following Sunday so we won’t miss it! So today we remember all the people of God through all the ages, the saints who belong to him. But we’re thinking about ourselves, too, because part of the message of ‘All Saints’ Day’ is that we are indeed ‘all saints’ – all of us are the people who belong to God, which is what the word ‘saint’ means. All who believe and are baptized are adopted into God’s family and become one of his saints; Sophia joins that family today. And then comes the ‘adapting’, which will last for the rest of her life, and our lives too.

So let’s start by thinking about adoption. Let me read two verses from our epistle reading for today; these words may well have been written by the apostle John when he was a very old man.

‘See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are! (1 John 3:1, New Living Translation).

I’m blessed to be the uncle of two adopted children, Elizabeth and Stephen. My brother and his wife adopted them when they were babies, a couple of years apart; now, of course, they’re young adults, and we enjoy watching their exploits from afar on Facebook! I’ve known families where adopted children are seen as second class, but that’s emphatically not the case in our family: Ellie and Stee are full members just the same as our own kids. And it’s the same for us in the family of God. We have been adopted into the greatest family possible, as children of the High King of Heaven.

Now some will ask, “But why do we need to be adopted? Aren’t we born the children of God? Aren’t all people God’s children?”

I would answer that question by saying that we all know terms that change their meaning depending on how they’re being used. ‘Child of God’ is a term like that. It’s used in several different ways in the Bible. The most important one for us as Christians is its use to describe Jesus: he’s the ‘Son of God’ by nature, what later theologians came to call ‘the second person of the Trinity’, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, three persons in one God. In the truest sense of all, Jesus is the Child of God. So if you mean ‘a son like Jesus’, it’s true to say ‘God the Father only has one Son’.

But a second usage includes everyone God has made. In the Old Testament book of Malachi the prophet says ‘Are we not all children of the same Father? Are we not all created by the same God?’ (Malachi 2:10 NLT). This passage clearly teaches that all people, by virtue of their creation, can call themselves the children of God – whether they know it or not.

But there’s a third sense which is common in the New Testament. People who are children of God by virtue of their creation can also enter into a more intimate child-to-parent relationship with God because of Jesus. In the introduction to his Gospel, John says ‘But to all who believed (Jesus) and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn – not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God’ (John 1:12-13 NLT). So God comes to us in Jesus with the offer of reconciliation and new life. We accept the offer in faith and commit ourselves to following him as his dearly loved children. And baptism is the sign and symbol of that adoption.

Later on, of course, children like Sophia have to make their own decisions about what to do about their baptism. Are they going to continue as followers of Jesus or not? No one can force that decision on them. Wise Christian parents will teach their kids what it’s all about in such a way as to whet their appetite for more, but in the end the decision will lie with the child themselves. I was baptized at the age of six weeks, in late December 1958. Later on, at the age of 13, I made a conscious commitment of my life to Jesus, which was my own personal moment of spiritual awakening. It was as if, in my baptism, God said to me “You are my beloved child”, and thirteen years later I nodded my head and said, “Yes I am, and I’m glad about that; thank you!”

It’s an amazing thing to see yourself first and foremost as a child of the God who made the universe. There’s a phrase out there that people use from time to time that I find really offensive: “How much is he worth?” What they mean is “How much money does he have?” but no Christian can be happy when that’s expressed in terms of worth, as if someone who has a million dollars is worth more than someone who has nothing. God has an entirely different measure of our significance and worth: we are his children by creation, and we have also become his children by adoption into his family. When you know this about yourself it doesn’t matter so much what others think or say about you. God says to us what he said to Jesus at the moment of his baptism: “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy” (Mark 1:11 NLT).

So that’s the first thing – the adoption. Now let’s move on the the second part – the adaptation. Let me read verses 2-3 to you; I’m reading again from the New Living Translation which is a bit different from the pew Bibles:

“Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure” (I John 3:2-3).

When I read a mystery novel I sometimes find I’m being tempted to turn to the last page to find out ‘who done it?’ Of course, that’s not a good idea – it spoils the suspense of the book. But in other situations, looking ahead is good – when we’re planning a route for a trip, for instance, it’s good to know what destination we’re aiming for, because those who aim at nothing usually hit it! So old John has looked ahead and seen the destination we’re aiming for as Christians: “But we do know that we will be like (Jesus), for we will see him as he really is” (2b). This is our destination: to see Jesus face to face, and to be transformed into his likeness.

The Old Testament tells a story of Moses coming down a mountain to meet the Israelites after he had been talking with God face to face. He didn’t realize that the prolonged time with God had had a physical effect on him – his face was shining. When the people saw it they were afraid, and Moses had to put a veil over his face to lay their fears to rest.

That’s a parable of what a meeting with God does to us, if it’s a genuine meeting. We can’t emerge from it unchanged; we meet him, and we’re transformed by the meeting.

John says this is what will happen to us when we see Christ face to face at the end of our journey: “We will be like him, for we will see him as he really is” (v.2). We will be ‘like’ him in two senses: first, we will enjoy the same glorified resurrection body that he currently enjoys. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, we will be transformed on the inside, so that we are thoroughly good, holy, loving people, just as Jesus is.

So that’s the destination. Now – what’s the route like? How do we get there from here?

Sometimes on a long journey the terrain and the climate can change dramatically in the space of a few short miles. In southern Alberta you can be driving on the bald prairie for a long time, but then when you get near Drumheller you suddenly find yourself dropping down into the badlands, surrounded by cliffs and hoodoos. It’s a very quick transition! But most transitions are more gradual than that; it’s a long time before we notice the difference.

In John’s vision, that’s the sort of journey we embark on when we become Christians – a journey of gradual transformation. He says in verse 3 “And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he (that is, Jesus) is pure”.

What does he mean, “keep themselves pure”? Well, back in chapter 2:6 he says “those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did”. This is how we purify ourselves: by living day by day as Jesus lived, so that gradually we become like him. We learn Christ-like habits, and those habits help us become Christ-like people. One day we will be ‘like’ him in an absolute sense; but for now, we’re on a journey of gradual transformation toward that goal.

In order for us to develop those Christ-like habits it’s important for us to come face to face with the Jesus of the Gospels on a regular basis. Every Sunday we have a gospel reading – this morning it was the Beatitudes – and as we listen, we see once again the kind of person Jesus is, the things that are important to him, the priorities he sets, the way of life he teaches his followers. But we shouldn’t be content with just Sunday reading. We’re privileged to have Bibles in English available to us in many translations. Bible reading should be a regular part of our Christian life, and in that reading the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John should have a central place. And as we read, we can pray for God’s help: “Loving God, help me today to see life as Jesus sees it and to live life as he taught it”.

There’s no guarantee that this will be easy; in fact, Jesus warns us that it will be difficult, and that not everyone in our lives will be jumping for joy when they see us doing it. Nonetheless, this is our call as baptized Christians. It’s the call that Sophia will need to hear as she grows up. It’s the call that Andrea and James and Deb accept today as they bring her to baptism: the call to “live their lives as Jesus did”.

We know what’s involved. We’re called to seek first the Kingdom of God as our highest value, above everything else. We’re called to turn away from greed and live simple lives, uncluttered with a lot of luxuries. We’re called to care for the poor and needy. We’re called to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us, to speak and live by the truth at all times, to love God with our whole heart and love our neighbour as ourselves – even when the neighbour is of a different race or religion or socio-economic background than we are. And we do all this with the help of the Holy Spirit, who fills us each day and gives us strength to follow Jesus. This is the process of adaptation as members of the family of God.

It’s important to be patient with ourselves on this journey. We live in an instant world where we want everything now, if not sooner. But the Scriptures are full of stories of people who had to wait for God to work in their lives – and that process of waiting molded them into patient people. In the Parable of the Sower Jesus says, “And the seeds that fell on good soil represent honest, good-hearted people who hear God’s word, cling to it, and patiently produce a huge harvest” (Luke 8:15). When we read that verse, we tend to notice the ‘huge harvest’ part, but miss out on the word that comes first: patiently!

So, sisters and brothers, we are baptized Christians, and so we are God’s saints. We are children of God by creation and also by adoption. Our destination is to see Jesus face to face and be transformed into his likeness, and we’re on our way to that destination. While we’re on the way, our call is to do our best, with the Holy Spirit’s help, to ‘live our lives as Jesus did’ (1 John 2:6). So let’s pray that the Holy Spirit will help us to be faithful to what our baptism is all about, so that every day people will see the way we live our lives and be reminded of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Heart of the Gospel

We are told in several places in the New Testament to follow the example of Jesus, to be ‘imitators of Christ’. This includes attitudes such as humility (eg. Philippians 2:1-11), but if we ask the question, ‘How specifically should I practice that?’ only one concrete behavioural example is given: Don’t retaliate when you are mistreated, but love your enemies (1 Peter 2.21-23).

Why is this spelled out? Because this behaviour is at the heart of the Gospel. The heart of the Gospel is the story of a God who loves his enemies, forgives those who murder him, and reaches out to those who reject him. We are told to ‘Go and do likewise’.

Unlimited Forgiveness (a sermon on Matthew 18:21-35)

We’ve been getting some lessons in honesty, reconciliation and forgiveness from Jesus in the past few weeks. Last Sunday’s gospel, immediately before this one, told us that if we have something against a brother or sister in Christ, instead of telling the world about it we should go to them quietly, raise the issue and work to resolve it. If the other person doesn’t respond positively, there’s a process Jesus tells us to follow – you can read it all in last week’s gospel.

Today’s gospel follows hard on the heels of last week’s; Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” (v.21). Probably what’s in view here is a situation where we’ve gone through the process Jesus outlined in last week’s story; we’ve confronted our sister or brother, they’ve admitted their guilt and asked our forgiveness. What then?

Before we dive into the story in detail I want to get a couple of definitions out of the way. First, who’s in view here? Our NRSV pew bibles say, ‘Another member of the church’; the Greek says ‘my brother’, but the NRSV wants to avoid gender-specific language like ‘brother’ and ‘he’. Unfortunately, it opts for an institutional metaphor rather than a family one; it would have done better to say “If my brother or sister sins against me”. Early Christians called each other ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ and treated the disciple community as a family. It’s a member of that family who is in view here.

The second item of definition is what we mean by the word ‘Forgive’. So many times I hear people say, “I just can’t forgive him for what he did to me”. When I start to ask them questions about what they mean by that, what it boils down to is this: “I can’t make the pain go away”. They’ve tried, and they think they’ve done it, but the next day they think about what was done to them and the pain and anger and resentment come bubbling back.

But this isn’t what Jesus is talking about. In the Bible, forgiveness is not about our emotions. We think it is, because in verse 35 Jesus tells us we have to forgive our sister or brother ‘from our heart’. Nowadays ‘the heart’ is a metaphor for the emotions, but that wasn’t the case in Bible times. When the Bible talks about the emotions it talks about the ‘bowels’; in the King James Version the word ‘compassion’ is sometimes translated as ‘having bowels of mercy for someone’. The ‘heart’ is often a metaphor for the choices, the will – the decisions we make about how we are going to act in our lives.

Forgiveness is not first of all about healing. Forgiveness is a decision not to take revenge on the other person for what they’ve done to us, but to act in a loving way toward them, whether we feel like it or not. This is not an act of hypocrisy, because we aren’t pretending to like them. It’s an act of obedience to Jesus.

What does it look like? Well, Paul spells it out for us in Romans: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink” (Romans 12:17, 20). This is what forgiveness is; it’s a decision not to take revenge but to continue to act in a loving and caring way toward the one who has hurt us – to be a blessing to them, and not a curse – whether we feel like it or not.

So Peter’s question is “How many times should I forgive? As many as seven?” I’m sure he thought he was being very generous. After all, the most common human response to attack is escalation. “You burn my house down, and I’ll burn your village down in response”; each party resolves to hit back so hard that the other party will not be able to hit them again. But over and over again, the other party comes back with an even more devastating response, which of course requires an even more devastating response, and so on, and so on.

Give Peter credit – he was suggesting a reversal of this policy. My brother or sister sins against me, we’ve gone through the process outlined in the previous verses, the offender has repented and asked for forgiveness, and I’ve given it to them. But then a week later, they do the same thing. So I grit my teeth, confront them with it again, they readily admit their guilt and say, “You’re right, I’m sorry, and I’m determined never to do it again, please forgive me”. So we grant them the requested forgiveness, and then a couple of days later they do it again. Now we’ve reached the seventh time and the anger in our soul is rising to boiling point. Surely seven times is enough; any reasonable person would agree.

Jesus’ response to Peter is to tell the parable of the unforgiving slave. ‘Slaves’ in those days often had a lot of responsibility and it is quite possible, for instance, that the minister of finance of a country would in fact be a king’s slave. Somehow this slave has gotten himself into enormous debt to his master the king. Ten thousand talents was a lot of money. A talent was more than fifteen year’s wages for a day labourer; we are talking about a sum of money that would have taken a day labourer 150,000 years to pay off. It was approximately a thousand times the annual tax revenue of the provinces of Judea, Samaria, Galilee and Idumaea put together. Jesus is trying to paint a true picture of the position in which you and I stand before the King of all the universe, the creator of all.

Let’s think about this for a minute. The great commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, but every day, in many different ways, I break it: I make myself the centre of my universe, and I see others as simply supporting characters in my story. In other words, I make myself the idol that I worship, rather than worshipping the one true God. I love other idols too – money and the things it can buy, my own selfish ease, the good opinion of others. And I don’t love my neighbour as myself; I would far rather live an easy life and come home to rest and relaxation than put myself out to help someone else. I live in luxury while the majority of the world lives in grinding poverty. I walk past beggars on the street on a regular basis, and not only do I not give them a handout, but I don’t take the time to find better and more effective ways of helping them either.

Or think of what Jesus has to say in the Sermon on the Mount. I regularly commit spiritual murder against my brother or sister by nursing anger and hatred against them. I commit adultery by looking upon women with lust on a regular basis. I’m not always conscientious about keeping my word. I don’t reach out and love my enemies. And so on, and so on. It’s overwhelming, and paralyzing, to think of the number of times, in an ordinary day, in which I sin.

Except that it isn’t. Most of the time I don’t even think about it. I just take it for granted that God will forgive me. And, according to the parable, that’s exactly what happens. “And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt” (v. 27). Did you notice, by the way, that the master didn’t give the slave what he asked for. The slave begged “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything”. In other words, he asked for more time to pay off the debt.

Think about this for a minute. How could the slave possibly repay a debt the value of 150,000 years wages for a labourer? It’s a ridiculous idea, and the master knew it. So instead of answering his prayer, the master did what the slave had not asked – he forgave him the whole debt.

What does this mean for us today? So often, we’re so in love with the illusion of our own respectability that we just can’t contemplate putting ourselves into the position where we’re debtors to grace forever. And so, when we come to God and ask for his forgiveness, I wonder if what we’re really asking is, “Lord, please give me more time, and I really, really will change!”

Except that it doesn’t work. How many times have I told God one day in my prayers that I repent of a particular sin, only to go back the next day and do the very same thing again, with my eyes wide open, knowing exactly what I’m doing? We humans have an incredible capacity to mess things up! The reality is that change is very hard, almost as hard as paying off a ten thousand talent debt. Yes, change is possible by the help of the Holy Spirit – but it isn’t going to be finished by the time I kick the bucket!

But this is the wonder of the Christian gospel: God doesn’t answer my prayer! He doesn’t give me more time to pay off the debt, because he knows that for the rest of my life I will never be able to pay it all off. Some of it, yes, but not all of it. And so I ask God to forgive me, over and over and over again.

And I expect him to do it. I can never remember, in all my life, praying to God a prayer like this: “God, I think I’ve probably used up all my get out of jail free cards on this one. If you forgive me again, you’re just going to be reinforcing my bad behaviour. If I were you, I wouldn’t forgive this time”. I have never prayed a prayer like that! Have you? No – every day, up to seventy times seven and beyond, I ask God to forgive me – and I expect he will. And given the fact that he continues to give me the gift of his presence, his love, and his help on a daily basis, that prayer seems to have been answered. That’s what ‘grace’ means: love that we don’t deserve, and that we don’t have to deserve – God just showers it on us as a free gift, because it’s his nature to do that. Grace is at the heart of the Christian gospel.

Very well – what does that mean for how we treat one another? The story goes on to deal with a situation where the same slave, who had been forgiven such an enormous sum, refused to forgive a paltry little debt owed him by a fellow-slave. A hundred denarii was a tiny sum in comparison to the ten thousand talents; it was still substantial, about three or four months’ wages, but nothing in comparison to the astronomical debt the first slave had been forgiven.

Jesus’ point is obvious. ‘Yes, you certainly have a case against your brother or sister; the offences they have committed against you are real. However, when you stack that list up against the list of offences you have committed – and continue to commit – against God every day, it’s not hard to see which list is longer”.

Why would the slave refuse to forgive in this way, after he himself had been forgiven so much? I suspect that he did what I do so often – he kept these two items in two hermetically sealed compartments in his soul. Compartment number one reads: “God has forgiven me more than I can possibly imagine, and he continues to forgive me day by day. I must never forget that”. Compartment number two reads, “That SOB sitting two pews in front of me is going out of his way to hurt me. He does it on a regular basis. It’s time for him to get what he deserves!”

Whoa! Wait a minute! “What he deserves?” If we’re going to move back into the realm of what people deserve, we’ve left the gospel behind, because the gospel tells us that God doesn’t give us what we deserve – he gives us what we need. If we want to move back into the realm of what we deserve, we’ve moved back from the gospel to the law. And that has terrifying implications for us.

What are the consequences of not forgiving? Look at what Jesus says in verses 34-35:

“And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart”.

Remember, we’re not talking about the healing of hurts here; we’re not talking about feeling good toward the offender. We’re talking about Jesus’ command to love our enemies in action, to be a blessing to them. Jesus doesn’t specify what form the love should take in a given situation. He doesn’t say, for instance, that a woman being abused by her husband should remain in a situation where her life and safety are in danger. What he does say is that revenge is not an option. ‘An eye for an eye’ is not an option. Love may be a struggle, but it is the command of Jesus.

I want to say that if you struggle with this, you probably don’t have anything to worry about. God knows that the person who says “I know I should forgive, and I’m doing my best, but there are days when I find it very hard” is in a very different spiritual position from the person who says “That SOB has it coming to him; he knew exactly what he was doing to me, and I will never, ever forgive him, no matter what the Gospel says. I want revenge, and it’s my right”. The first person is trying hard to do what Jesus commands, and often failing. The second person is refusing even to try. Those are two entirely different attitudes.

Remember the Lord’s Prayer? “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. It is only because of God’s forgiveness that I can have any hope of eternal life. Day by day I’m in debt to God’s amazing grace. May God help all of us to love others as Jesus loved us, and to forgive not just seven times, but seventy times seven, just as we expect God to forgive us.

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

Who is my neighbour?

When I was young I understood the word ‘neighbour’ to have a very specific meaning: the person who lives next door.

Occasionally it would be extended a bit. In a small village of a few hundred people, many of them related to each other, the term ‘neighbour’ might reasonably be applied to everyone in the community. Or in the inner-city (like Woodland Road in Leicester, where I spent the first few years of my life), it might mean other people who lived on the same street. 

But ‘neighbour’ always implied proximity. And usually (although this was rarely spelled out) it also involved similarity: neighbours are people like us.

Jesus, however, had a different definition. Let me quote it to you in full:

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ (Luke 10:25-37, NRSV)

Let me point out two things about this passage.

First, Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’. That’s because it’s the wrong question. The lawyer thinks the commandments are an entrance exam he has to pass in order to receive eternal life. He wants to know what the pass mark is: what’s the least he can get away with? That being the case, if there are fifty people in his village and only twenty of them qualify as his ‘neighbours’, why would he waste time loving the other thirty? There’s nothing in it for him!

Jesus, however, sees things differently. To him, the commandments are not an entrance exam, they are a description of what eternal life looks like. Growing in joyful obedience to those commandments is what our life is going to be about, now and forever, until we are reshaped into people who obey them not out of obligation, but out of delight. They aren’t an exam that we will complete: they are our new way of life.

So Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question because he doesn’t accept the premise it’s based on. And this leads to the second thing: Jesus’ redefinition of the word  ‘neighbour’. ‘Neighbour’ isn’t a description of a person who lives near us and who looks like us; it’s a description of the relationship between a person in need and the person who stops to help them. A person in need, whether I know them or not, is my neighbour. When I stop to help them, I am behaving like a true neighbour to them.

And it’s not an accident that Jesus chooses to make this an inter-racial story. The Samaritans were mixed-bloods, with centuries of animosity between them and the ‘pure’ Jews of Judea. But a Samaritan was the one who stopped to help this (presumably Jewish) victim of a mugging, while the priest and the Levite (also Jewish) refused to do so. They refused to be neighbours to the man in need; the Samaritan chose to be a neighbour.

In recent weeks we have seen shocking racial hatred, especially today in Charlottesville, Virginia. This hatred is antithetical to the message of Jesus Christ. Jesus recognizes no boundaries; he crosses borders, reaches out to all people, treats Samaritans and Roman soldiers (and women, children, tax collectors and prostitutes) with respect, and tells us that we are even required to love our enemies. There is no escape from the command to love, because it is the nature of the God we believe in, a God who loves his enemies.

I want to say as clearly as I can that any kind of racism – against aboriginal people, against black folks, against Asians, against Jewish people or Muslims (although ‘Muslim’ is a religion, not a race) or anyone else – is totally antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The God Jesus taught us about is the God who created everyone and loves everyone. The Church must stand clearly for the message, and live it out in its daily life. 

I would be the first to admit that we in the Church have often fallen short of this. We have allowed our governments to tells us it’s okay to hate and kill people it calls our enemies. We have colluded with the state in the sinfully misguided and wicked institution of the Residential Schools. And we continue to drag our feet on recognizing the rights of the original inhabitants of this country. So yes, we have a lot to repent of.

But let’s not fail to name the goal we’re aiming for. Let’s be clear: Jesus calls us to be neighbours to one another, to love one another, to help those in need whether they are ‘like us’ or not. One of his early followers, Saul of Tarsus, taught that in Christ ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). 

All one. The Church is called to demonstrate before the watching world what a reconciled humanity looks like. The Church is called to live this love, and then to share it with others and invite them into it. And we cannot do that if we allow ourselves to be divided along lines of race. To allow that would be a complete betrayal of our message.

We are one family. So let us do our best to live as one family, and refuse to let the power of evil divide us.

‘The Steadfast Love of the Lord Never Ceases’ (a sermon on Genesis 24)

I want to begin this morning by making a confession; there are times when I get very annoyed at the institutional church.

Shocking, but true! I’m a priest, I work for the institutional church, but at times it irritates me intensely. I look at its structures, its more elaborate buildings, its traditions and procedures, and its tendency to get anal-retentive about things that don’t seem to appear on Jesus’ radar screen at all, and I ask myself, “How did we get from the Sermon on the Mount to here?” I suspect I’m not alone in asking that!

Actually, throughout Christian history people have often asked this question – in fact, it was the driving force behind the Protestant Reformation, which is five hundred years old this year. Christians have often gotten discouraged about the state of the church. We’ve often looked back wistfully to a day when it was simpler, smaller, and less institutional. The Book of Acts has been very attractive to us: we notice that in Acts there seems to be very little structure and planning and organisation and tradition, and yet the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work, the gospel spreads around the ancient world like wildfire, and thousands of people turn to Christ.

Of course, when we actually read the Book of Acts we find that all was not rosy in that particular garden either. Christian missionaries quarreled with each other and parted company. Jewish and Gentile Christians couldn’t agree on whether or not you needed to be Jewish in order to be Christian. People pretended they’d given all their possessions to God when secretly they’d kept something back. And we haven’t even mentioned the uncomfortable fact that Christians were always getting arrested and punished because of their loyalty to Jesus!

That’s the way it is with idealism. Idealism is important to us – it inspires us not to be satisfied with the status quo – but sometimes it can present us with an overly simplistic view of reality. Genuine reality is always more messy.

I want to suggest to you this morning that the Book of Genesis is to the Old Testament as the Book of Acts is to the New Testament. Later on in the Old Testament we get the story of the nation of Israel, which becomes a mighty empire with kings, armies, and bureaucrats, and a huge expensive temple with priesthood and sacrifices and laws about who’s in and who’s out. But in Genesis, all of that is still in the future. In Genesis, God chooses a single family – the family of Abraham – and guides its development over three or four generations. There’s a promise of much larger things to come – God tells Abraham his descendants will be more numerous than the grains of sand on the seashore – but none of that has happened yet. There’s no priesthood, no written law, no traditions. There’s just God speaking, God calling, and people listening and responding.

Or ‘not’. Actually, often ‘not’. The people described in the Book of Genesis are every bit as stubborn and cantankerous as we are. They refuse to listen to God, they have feuds, they take moral short-cuts, and their family arrangements are very colourful by our modern Christian standards. And I’m glad about that. I’m all for a life of simple faith in God, but let’s be clear that no-one’s ever practiced it perfectly. No one’s even come near. Not even in the Bible. And especially not in Genesis or Acts!

Today in our Old Testament reading we have a rather confusing set of excerpts from the story of Abraham’s son, Isaac. Let me quickly put them in context for you by filling you in on the rest of the story.

Isaac’s mom and dad, Abraham and Sarah, were childless. Well, Sarah was, anyway; the Book of Genesis quietly admits later on that Abraham had concubines and had children by them, but none of them counted when it came to legal descendants. And this was a problem, because God’s founding promise to Abraham was that he would make of him a great nation, and ‘in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3). Later on God told him his descendants would be more than the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore.

But Abraham had to wait twenty-five years, until he was nearly a hundred years old, for that promise to be fulfilled. By the time Isaac was born, Sarah was well past the years of natural child-bearing; this birth was nothing short of a biological miracle. Those twenty-five years had not been easy for Abraham and Sarah. At one point, in a moment of desperation, Sarah had given her slave girl to Abraham so he could have a child by her; in Sarah’s view, God obviously needed a bit of help!

But eventually, against all the odds, Isaac was born, and it didn’t take long for things to turn ugly. The slave-girl’s son Ishmael was now a problem to Sarah, and she made sure he was driven out of the family home; no one was going to take precedence over her boy! Sarah conveniently forgot that the whole ‘sleeping with the slave girl’ idea had been hers in the first place!

And so we come to today’s story. Isaac has grown up and he needs a wife. Abraham’s family aren’t originally from Canaan; they’re from Ur of the Chaldees, near modern Iraq, and they came to Canaan by way of Haran, where Abraham’s brother and other members of his extended family still live. Abraham wants his son to marry someone in the family, not one of the local girls. And so he sends his servant back to Haran; he’s confident God will guide him to the girl he has in mind for Isaac.

It’s a long journey in the ancient world; four hundred miles by camel. On the way we can imagine Abraham’s servant doing a lot of praying. He prayed when he got to Haran, too:

“O Yahweh, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink’, and who will say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’ – let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master” (Genesis 24:12-14).

And that’s exactly how it worked out. The girl who came down to the spring was actually Rebekah, the daughter of Abraham’s nephew Bethuel. Just as the servant had prayed, she offered to water his camels, and when he asked her about her family he discovered she was his master’s grandniece. She took him to meet the family, he explained his mission, and they agreed that she should go back with him and marry Isaac – marriage to a first cousin once removed being quite acceptable in those days. None of this nonsense about falling in love first, of course – in the ancient world, that expectation was frowned on!

If we carry the story on a bit, we discover that the basic family weirdness continues into the next generation. Like her mother in law Sarah, Rebekah has difficulty conceiving a child. Eventually Isaac prays for her, and she gives birth to twin boys, Esau and Jacob. Esau’s a few minutes older, and when he grows up he becomes his dad’s favourite, because he’s a great hunter and Isaac enjoys the wild meat he brings home. But Rebekah has a soft spot for the younger one, Jacob, and eventually she manipulates her husband and deceives him into mistakenly giving his parental blessing to the younger son, not the older. This leads to anger and the threat of violence, and Jacob has to run away from home and go back to Haran for twenty years, where he can be safe from his brother. But more about that in the next few weeks.

What’s this got to do with us today?

Well, let’s go back to what I said a few minutes ago: Genesis is the Book of Acts of the Old Testament. Those were the days before Israel became a nation or an empire, just like Acts describes the days when the church was a movement and a community rather than an organization. Those were the days when the fire of personal faith burned hot and pure. Or so it seems to us, anyway.

We actually have no idea how Abraham heard the voice of the one true God, Yahweh, speaking to him. We don’t even know whether Abraham believed that there was only one true god; it seems unlikely, given that most people in his day believed in many gods. But we do know that Abraham and his family would have been a minority in worshipping Yahweh, and especially in not using idols in their worship. In the same way, the people in Acts would have been a minority; this message about Jesus was new, and most people didn’t believe it. The church consisted of small house fellowships scattered around the cities of the Mediterranean world. It wasn’t the majority world religion, like it is today. It was a lot more fragile than that.

And perhaps that fragility is where we can connect. Just in the stories I’ve told you this morning we’ve seen two instances where the community almost died. It was necessary for both Sarah and Rebekah to have children, so that the community of faith could continue. But it proved impossible, humanly speaking, for them to give birth to those kids. They needed a miracle to help them do it. The entire continuing existence of this tiny community of faith was a miracle from God. Without God, it could not have happened.

When he arrived in Haran Abraham’s servant prayed “O Yahweh, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham” (24:12). That phrase ‘steadfast love’ translates the Hebrew word ‘chesed’; the King James Version has ‘loving kindness’, but ‘loyalty’ would also be a good translation. It’s not just that God loves Abraham and his family; it’s that he has committed himself to loving them, through thick and thin, whether they’re lovable or not. That’s what this little community of faith is based on: not human fertility or wisdom or achievement or organization or skill, but God’s steadfast love.

And that’s true of us as well. There are times when our community of faith feels very fragile. Lots of churches seem to be closing down these days, especially in small rural communities. Only two or three generations ago, that would have been unthinkable; we were building solid buildings to last for a century or more. No one expected that within a few years, barely anyone would be attending them any more. And even in our church, which is younger than most, when we look around on Sunday morning we oldsters seem to be rather better represented that you youngsters!

That worries us. And we certainly need to think about it and work to change it and make good and wise plans to address it. But let’s remind ourselves of this one fact: the continuing existence of the church is ultimately based on God’s steadfast love, not any human plan or wisdom or strength. God had to make it possible for wrinkled old Sarah to have a baby. God had to give supernatural guidance to Abraham’s servant so that he would meet the right girl at the right time. Yes, God’s people have to be faithful, but we also have to be full of faith – faith in the steadfast love of God!

And that love is steadfast, even when we’re not! The church is not made up of super-spiritual types – it never has been. Genesis tells us that when Abraham was afraid that the folks around him would kill him to steal his wife, he asked her to pretend she was his sister. Later on Sarah suggested her husband sleep with her slave girl to raise up children for her – and then when her own son was born, she drove out the slave girl’s son. Rebekah favoured her son Jacob, but Isaac favoured Esau. And Jacob didn’t learn; when he grew up and had kids, he had a favourite too, Joseph – with the result that his family was split apart by the resentment of Joseph’s siblings.

These are the kind of people God works with: flawed, imperfect people. He has no choice; there are no other kinds of people. God doesn’t only work with traditional families with two opposite-sex parents and 2.1 kids. He works with families like Abraham’s and Isaac’s and Jacob’s. He works with blended families and single parent families, and single people, and gay couples, and those whose marriages are in trouble and who don’t dare admit it to their church friends. It’s perfectly possible to be full of faith and struggling with weaknesses and sins and failings at the same time. We all do it. But God is patient and steadfast, and he never abandons us.

Brendan Manning calls this ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’ – the idea that we’re all ragamuffins, but God loves us anyway. But Genesis goes further: God loves ragamuffins, and uses them to build his church. The community of faith is made up of ragamuffins. I’m one of them. So are you. And that’s why we need to be gentle with one another. As Paul says, ‘Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you’ (Ephesians 4:31-32).

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). One translation says, ‘Blessed are those who know their need of God’. That’s what Abraham and Isaac, in all their flawed humanity, can teach us. They did all kinds of things wrong – they made plenty of mistakes – but they knew without a shadow of doubt that they needed God. They could not exist without God. Without God, the people of Israel would have died out after one generation. And without God, the Church of Jesus Christ will die from the inside out, even if for a while it still looks like a prosperous institution.

Fortunately for us, we never need to be without God, because the God we need has promised never to abandon us. Let me close with this wonderful promise from the book of Lamentations, written at a time when the city of Jerusalem had just been destroyed by its enemies, and many of its people taken away into exile. It was certainly not a time of great hope, and yet the author of Lamentations isn’t ready to give up on God just yet. Here’s what he says:

‘The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness’ (Lamentations 3:22-23).

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