Sermon - 10th May 2015
The spirit of God's love
Scripture - Acts 10:24-26, 34-35. 44-48; John 15:9-17
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
In our first reading we hear about an episode in Peter’s ministry during which the Spirit descends on the people listening to him. It sounds very similar to the event which occurred at Pentecost, but this is yet another event where God’s spirit is poured out on all kinds of people. many of them gentiles - or “pagans” as some translations have it.
Both readings from today speak without reservation about the inclusion of all people in God’s gift, and on the unconditional giving of God’s love in Jesus and through the Spirit. And yet there are times when we might think that some people who claim the Christian tradition as their rule of life must have never heard this teaching.
So today is our opportunity to look at how we, as individuals and as a church community, not only hear the teaching but actually respond to the idea that God loves us, celebrates our diversity, and sustains our unique gifts in his world.
I think many of us can follow the arguments that prove that God does not have favourites; that God’s love is universally available; that Jesus offers a relationship with each of us. But then what? How do we cross the gulf between understanding the argument and making some kind of response to the invitation.
If, completely out of the blue, I were to say to a stranger “God loves you”, among the range of responses I would expect might be “So what?”
If someone with whom I am friendly unexpectedly says “I feel love towards you”, I will probably feel embarrassed, uneasy, cornered, and not in control of the situation.
In both cases, the recipient of the love has no frame of reference in which to deal with the revelation. It is rare to have the sudden blinding insight, or to be gripped by the Spirit like the gentiles in Caesarea in our first reading, so that you just know something is true and right and a suitable response just bubbles up from inside.
In most cases, we need to compare what we’re being told with the real world we’re familiar with. We need that frame of reference to help us interpret what our relationships with God and with each other actually mean - and what our options are.
We will probably each have different experiences of how God acts in our lives. In my case, I tend to see it after it’s happened!
If I reflect on my life I can see occasions and situations where there has been a guiding hand, where I can see that the course of action I followed seemed to bring me closer to what I perceive as God’s plan for my life.
One of those was the decision to come here to this congregation, where I have been blessed with more spiritual nourishment than I could ever have imagined in my previous church. That’s not to say I was in the wrong place before - I probably needed to be there before coming here.
If I were better at prayer I might have a clearer understanding of God’s plan for me: but, as I said, I tend to see the road out the back of the bus, aware of where I’ve been, not always aware of where I’m going spiritually. But I am fortunate to be able to discern God in my life - and perhaps this discernment - or awareness - of God touching my life in some way is one of the important responses to God’s love for me, and helps build part of the frame of reference.
I mentioned prayer, and for some people a deeply spiritual prayer life is a way of responding to God’s love for them. I imagine it’s deeply satisfying: I can’t do it! I can’t, or won’t, get quiet enough to pray from my innermost depths. God sometimes has to fight to get in, and only occasionally succeeds.
It is said that the ideal for prayer is that kind of contemplation which eventually allows God to speak to your innermost being; but not all of us are gifted with the skills of contemplation and this isn’t always going be easily within our grasp.
On the other hand, it isn’t always best for us to set the prayer agenda and expect God to follow our priorities and deliver what we want when we want it - inclined as we are to do just that! We probably need to find our own balance between contemplative prayer and active, intercessory prayer.
I find that my most satisfying style of prayer is to recognise that all my thoughts, worries, quandaries, and fears are effectively prayers shared with God by the very act of my thinking about them. They don’t always need parcelling up into a self-contained unit and sending up to the throne of grace, because God is already in amongst them.
And God’s influence comes into those thoughts through conscience, a sense of justice, a respect for others, - things we might identify as the values within the message of Jesus. But prayer, in the sense of our spiritual communication with God, can often develop the framework for our response to God.
Perhaps those values within Jesus’s message are also part of the frame of reference we need to enable us to respond to God’s love. In the reading from Acts, Cornelius, the Roman Centurion in whose house the scene takes place, is earlier described as devout and God-fearing, giving generously to good causes, and praying constantly to God. And we are told it is these prayers and charitable gifts which cause God to choose him to act as host for Peter’s visit.
There is something in this description which suggests that attuning our lives to the Gospel values helps build the right framework for a loving relationship with God. The gospel of Jesus, more than anything else, puts into perspective God in our lives. We absorb that gospel from scripture, from teaching, and from the experience of being in community with others: and these are what a church should offer.
If we can take away with us a healthy and inspiring encounter with the gospel of Jesus into our personal relationship with God, then our church is doing its job. It might turn our frame of reference upside down and inside out, but it will vitalise our response to God’s love.
At the core of Jesus’s teaching in today’s reading from the Gospel of John, is the simplest phrase with the biggest challenge: “Love one another, as I have loved you.” This opens wide the whole subject of our response to God, because it is no longer enough for the two of us - God and me - to have a cosy little relationship. According to Jesus, I have to love others as well! How can I fit all that into my frame of reference?
Perhaps the answer is that we don’t know what we can do until we try.
I don’t know whether in any given set of circumstances I can be relied upon to show love, or act lovingly to a fellow human being. I know I’ve often failed, and I suspect I’ll fail again and again. But perhaps the point of the teaching is to realise that this what we should be aiming for. Every time we respond to someone else in a way which is motivated by love we respond to God’s love for us.
If we take our liberation from the belief that God has no favourites, then we must accept that we ourselves are favoured over no-one else, and anything less than a loving response to our neighbour in this world falls short of our goal - the commandment of Jesus to love one another.
Probably, the only productive way to make a response to the fact that God loves us is to show love to others. All the other signposts I’ve mentioned - discernment of God’s activity in our lives, prayer, just and honest values, the gospel and the ministry of the church, - all support us in our response, and each may offer different help to us at various times on our faith journey. But they all point to the same truth: the essence of God is love, and the essence of love is God. So the commandment of Jesus to his disciples just before his arrest, and to his church, and to all who follow him is “Love one another”.
I don’t know whether I’ve convinced the stranger who said “So what?”. But you might: you might be the one who talks her out of suicide; or the one who supports the scheme which enables a mother and her children to find a safe place to live; the one who gives money to feed a homeless man, or to provide a water tap in a remote village, or to restore a blind person’s eyesight; or you might be the one who comes alongside as medical therapy brings the depressive’s mind and emotions back under her own control, or the one whose quiet, reassuring presence eases the passing of the friend approaching the end of his life.
In those ways - and in 1001 others - there is love. Because, if we take the things which Jesus did, and make them a reality in the framework of today’s world, are we not loving one another as he loved us?