Saturday, 5 May 2012

Sermon - Opoho Church, Dunedin Sunday 6th May 2012. Easter 5

Readings: 1 John 4:11-21, John 15:1-8

Let us pray:  O God, may your word challenge us and your challenges move us to live more deeply and prayerfully as your love in this world.  Amen.
I remember someone saying to me once that all this talk about ‘God is love’ is simply encouraging a wishy washy understanding of God, all sweet and light, warm fuzzies and benign leadership.  And I agree, if that is what we understand the definition of the word love to be.  Many do – and I have to wonder how we have gotten to that - a sense of love being perfect only in a sparkling pristine fair-weather kind of way – no edges or depth to it.  It immediately reminded me of the period of child rearing that Mike and I were part of as parents – where some of the current wisdom suggested that you didn’t lay any boundaries on a baby because love meant letting them tell you what they wanted, when they wanted fed or to go to sleep, love meant never you dictating routine to them.  Fortunately we were older and wiser - or possibly some of our own parenting rubbed off on us! 
Love is way more than a general sense of bliss and benevolence, or an avoidance of conflict, whether it be in family, in friendship, in marriage or in faith.  It’s way more than the absence of hate or exploitation or suffering.  Our readings today suggest that love has serious impact and I suspect we all know that - we know that love hurts as well as heals, love disciplines as well as delighting, love shakes us to the core and delivers the most wonderful gift to all whom it touches. 
Maybe some of our confusions comes from not always recognising that Love is a doing word not a noun.  Christ didn’t invite us to look on him and know love – he drew us instead into his acts of love and asks us to live out love in action.  It is not so much about recognising that we mustn’t hurt people so much as showing how much we love them.
I was sent this week a quote from GK Chesterton[1] that, for me anyway, spoke of how the love we find in Christ should be known – found in his essay ‘A piece of Chalk’. 
He had set out on a beautiful summer’s day with brown paper and a variety of chalks to draw, to sketch whatever he might see.  But he found, of all the chalks he had taken with him – he had forgotten the most important one – the white chalk - to draw with:
"Now, those who are acquainted with all the philosophy (nay, religion) which is typified in the art of drawing on brown paper, know that white is positive and essential. I cannot avoid remarking here upon a moral significance. One of the wise and awful truths which this brown-paper art reveals, is this, that white is a colour. It is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black. When, so to speak, your pencil grows red-hot, it draws roses; when it grows white-hot, it draws stars. “
And he goes on to talk about how virtue is not the absence of vices but a vivid and separate thing, identifiable in its own right – just as we can see love as a burning passionate white-hot act of living, not just the absence of all that prevents it. 
Is this not a way of understanding Christian love – not just a desire to take away the bad, the evil things in life but to instil a passion for love in us all, one that sees past the unlovely and the conditional and the selective to a way of living that sweeps all that is divisive and unjust and cruel before it.  It doesn’t mean an absence of pain – all here would know this – but it does suggest that love sees us through when we are at our lowest and transforms us and the world at its most generous.
And we as Christians believe this sustenance, this transformation is possible is because we abide in God and God abides in us.  Or as the NIV translation says ‘that we live in God and God lives in us’.  This is a core message from the readings – that the love of God is made visible in us and through us into the world because we abide in God’s love for us.  For anyone who is looking for the reality of God in this world – look for acts of love and there you will find God.  This is what takes our understanding of love out of the somewhat dispassionate place that is the absence of evil and into the white-hot burning passionate way of living.
And here’s a thing – in this world that seems so flawed, so hope-less, we are told by the author of 1 John, that this love, when known, is perfect.  That is some claim – we all know that nothing is perfect, well apart from fleeting moments in time – and what is more this is not some eschatological perfection – something to come in the end days – but it is a hope, a possibility, a reality in fact for today, here and now.  Perfect love is ours to give not because we feel we should but because it simply is who we are in Christ.  Now there is a challenge – we certainly don’t always get it right, we do begrudge, detour,  avoid, with-hold love – so how can it be perfect? 
Maybe because love is given perfectly to us, as in given unconditionally, freely, forever – and when we touch that love we are in God and God in us.  Even though we make choices that sometimes withhold that love, we can be confident that every moment when love is present, so is the kingdom of heaven perfectly made known here on earth. 

The power of that love is strong enough to drive out fear says the author of 1 John.  I am sure that we have all heard stories of, if not experienced it ourselves, when love overcomes fear – and that doesn’t mean it ignores or deletes fear but rather that it encompasses it with a greater power – the power to love.  One of the many stories – a family in Morrinsville – who have given up health, income and any hope of a ‘normal life’, whatever that might be, to care for their third child – a boy with Down Syndrome who is also profoundly autistic.  His destructive behaviour has driven the family to the very edges of despair – but their love for their son is a powerful force that holds the family together and helps them plan for a future that is not going to be ever easy.  Love drives out fear.
And for a last thought – we hear that love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment.  We love because God first of all loved us, not because we fear punishment, or reward for that matter.  So how did we get to put so many buffers, so many fears of punishment, between us and God, to believe that we needed someone to pay all our debts, that we are not good enough for the church, for God, that we have to be a baptised saved Christian to receive God’s love, that it is all about eternal life somewhere in the future and the now is something to be endured, that hell and eternal damnation is the lot of the perpetual sinner – God will indeed be lonely in heaven. 
So no, the love of God made known in Jesus Christ is not wishy washy benevolence, it is not simply the absence of evil, it is a powerful, perfect and fearless, white-hot passion it is the piece of white chalk, the part of life and faith that we cannot do without – for we abide in God and God is love and abides in us.  Thanks be to God who loves us forever and always.  Amen

Margaret Garland

[1] A Piece of Chalk by G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

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