Readings: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21: 25-36
Let us pray: Open our hearts and minds, our ears and our eyes to your word for each of us this day O God. May our listening and our response be held in the presence of your Spirit, in Jesus name. Amen.
“And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.” Thessalonians 3:12
We have a rather abrupt beginning to the reading today from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians and it is worth going back a little to pick up the strands of the story so far. Paul had founded a new congregation after leaving Philippi, then has left and been quite frustrated in his inability to get back. So he had sent Timothy to find out how they are and report back. And they are well. More than well really, Paul is overjoyed to hear they are thriving and writes back to tell them so. And he emphasises two things in particular that he is thrilled about. One is their continuing faith in adverse conditions. Paul knows, more than most, about how difficult it can be to walk in faith when all around you are intent on dissing you and bringing you down - and he had foreseen that this would be a big issue for this fledgling congregation. So he congratulated them on their faith: ‘constancy and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’ were the actual words. And along with their hope in Christ, Paul, as we heard today, emphasises that they continue to love one another, ‘to increase and abound in love for one another and for all’ are the words used in my bible translation. These are the two things, their faith, their hope in Christ, and the love they have for each other, that the congregation is strong on and that he applauds them in. But it is interesting in his choice of comparison that he then uses to inspire them: it is not God’s love for them he quotes but rather his own love for them – ‘to increase and abound in love for one another and for all: just as we abound in love for you.’ Paul is firmly and quite extravagantly reassuring them of his love, almost going overboard in his need to reaffirm to the readers of his letter that he really cares about them and wants to be with them. He is relationship building - and with good reason: he is aware that things have been a bit tricky so far –that people have accused him of lacking integrity, of being a manipulator and a bludger, of usurping authority that is not his to have, or pushing them too hard. He realises that people easily believe this kind of stuff and, because of it, damage their relationship not just with him but with Christ. At the same time Paul doesn’t really get how people can say that they love God and be so downright mean to him - because for him hope in Christ translated instantaneously, unequivocally into love and care for others. Responding to Christ, for Paul, means passing on his generosity and openness to others and he gets quite cross when people withhold that gifting from himself and others. For this is Paul’s understanding of mission – the expansion of love to all – being one with a God of love and each other.
So yet again Paul is drawing a picture of the absolute reality of life in Christ, as he exemplifies the pain and the joy of being big-hearted in love – pain because you are more vulnerable to hurtful rejection when you give fully of yourself - and joy because you see the amazing fruits of love given freely and openly.
So is big hearted love the way to go? Should we all be like Paul, larger than life, absolutely focussed, boundless energy and answers for everything? It is what he seems like sometimes, isn’t it? Well I think he would be horrified at at any suggestion of cloning in that way. He would say ‘stop looking to me but look to Christ – look to Jesus example and teaching’. What would he say and do, do you think?
The Gospel reading for today comes at this concept of gifted unconditional love in a slightly different way – we hear words like ‘be on guard’ and ‘be alert’ for that which prevents you living in the light of Christ’s example and teaching. In the passage from Luke we are drawn into what the kingdom of God here on earth is to be and our place in it – we are called to hold up our heads so that when the signs of the kingdom begin to show we can know that we have our place in that kingdom. It seems to me there is a very real prod here for us to examine our choices, evaluate our past, present and future in the light of this coming kingdom of peace and justice and hope for all. And I think that this too is what Paul is talking about – that we can’t segment our lives, apply love to just some people and some things and not to others. Paul too is asking us to be able to hold up our heads and be counted for the love of the world in every part of our lives. Not to save it for the easy and the familiar but also to lay it out there in situations where it might just mean huge impact on our lives, might affect who we are, might even make us unpopular and the object of ridicule.
How about, right at this time, each one of us were to lose some equity in our land/our houses in order that others might know the security of being a property owner, gifting a bit of your backyard to someone who is homeless. That is out there! How about we buy only free or fair trade goods, always, or own only what is locally and/or seasonally produced - that means we lose a whole bunch of useful gadgets and tasty foods from our lives. Might not go down too well in the house? How about we seriously challenge this economic system we live under - that applauds individual and corporate greed, encourages debt and equates poverty with failure? Might not do much for our status in our community? How about we go down to the night shelter to help out or invite strangers to our long-anticipated family Christmas dinner or give half our clothing to those who have none? Because the coming of the kingdom will only happen here in this world if we invest in this big-hearted love in a big way, if we decide in ourselves that the gifting of the Christ child is a gift of new beginnings not just for ourselves but for all people everywhere, that fair treatment, justice and compassion is not just something we enjoy but that all people are entitled to. It is then that we will be able to say that we have ‘increased and abounded in our love for one another and for all’ so that the kingdom of God might be known.
As we gather at the table Christ has prepared for us today, may we remember the costly gift to the world of the Christ child, and let us be reminded of all others who stand in need of the tangible gifting of costly love in their lives. Amen.