2nd January 2022
God is Love?
A sermon preached by Revd Maggie Guillebaud.
The Eucharist, Sunday 2 January, The Second Sunday of Christmas
(1 John: 7-21)
Please scroll to the bottom of this page for a video of this sermon
On this first Sunday of the New Year may I wish you all a very happy New Year, a year filled with possibilities and good health. A year, as far as is possible, quite unlike the past two years. A year filled with hope.
The first letter of John is not a particularly easy read. It is a bit repetitive, aimed at a particular audience at a particular time in the development of the early church, and at times a bit confusing. It does not have the clarity of even Paul, who can at times feel exceedingly opaque. But through its serpentine pronouncements we can deduce a clear message: ‘beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God.’
We are told many times in the Bible, and indeed in this letter, that God is love. We can readily, I believe, accept that. But what do we mean when we say ‘God is love’? I would suggest that in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, two answers emerge: first, an experiential love, a love which is experienced by Jesus’ followers. And second, a healing love, which takes his followers straight into the kingdom of God.
We have just emerged from the period of Advent and Christmas, when we recall that ‘love all lovely, love divine’, as the hymn has it, came down to us. We experience God’s love in the form of a child, his only Son, coming to earth to live an earthly life and experience success as a preacher and miracle worker, but also the pain and suffering of betrayal, abandonment, and a horrifying death. In the person of Jesus we experience both divinity and suffering. God with us. God experienced by those fortunate enough to have met Jesus. God experienced by us today.
Jesus’ ministry was relatively short – perhaps as short as 3 years. And yet at every point in the many stories remembered and told and re-told after his death by his followers, there remains the experiential element. Every healing, every argument with the Temple authorities, every meal, every calling of disciples, every conversation – women at wells, at dinners with undesirables such as tax collectors, heated discussions with his twelve closest friends – you can fill in the gaps – what we hear are not just morally edifying tales set out for our instruction, though there may be an element of that too, but an experience of the love of God so intense that He became real to those who followed Jesus, even to the point of death. That is what drove his followers on, and it is what drives us on 2000 years later, that all- encompassing love which anchors and sustains our lives.
For St. Augustine, 1 John Chapter 4 encapsulates everything that human beings can know of God. He says this in his commentary on this letter:
‘If nothing else were said in praise of love in all the pages of this epistle, nothing else whatever in all other pages of scripture, and this were the only thing we heard from the voice of the Spirit – ‘For God is love’- we should ask for nothing more.’
That is a high claim indeed, but I think Augustine hits the nail on the head. Once we have understood this central tenet of our faith, everything else begins to fall into place.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the healing miracles, and his encounters with those on the fringes of society.
We remember the numerous healings – of lepers, paraplegics, of the mentally ill, many of these people looked at askance by their own society, left to beg at the gate of the Temple, or thrown out of the towns if they were infectious. People at the fringes of society. No one was too lowly, or indeed too highly placed – think of Jairus’s daughter – to be healed.
And then there were the tax collectors, those hated stooges of the Roman Empire who collected tax on their behalf. Who would want to be friends with them? And what about women with dubious pasts, or indeed a Samaritan woman, the Samaritans being anathema to upright Jews, as well as all other kinds of riff raff? Who in his right mind would want to spend time with them?
The answer is, of course, Jesus would want to spend time with them.
And the reason for this is that Jesus was building the Kingdom. Through every miracle he lifts up the afflicted not just to health, but by healing them enables them to re-join the ranks of their own society on an equal footing. And in doing they are also welcomed too into the new Kingdom Jesus begins to build here on earth. Today we are invited to do the same.
So too with the undesirables. Everyone is welcomed into this new Kingdom, whatever their past, when they begin to follow Jesus. We remember the parable of everyone being too busy to dine with the King, who promptly sends out his servants to scour the hedgerows and by-ways for anyone who would care to join his great feast. You build the kingdom, it would seem, from the bottom up.
Love is an intangible thing: we cannot measure it, or weigh it. We cannot define its edges, or say this is where it begins and this is where it ends. In his great hymn to love in Corinthians 13 Paul defines love against what it is not: rude, resentful, etc. But in the end he too has simply to draw the conclusion that of the three great Christian virtues –faith, hope, and love – ‘the greatest of these is love.’
I think that is a good place to begin the New Year. Against all the uncertainties, difficulties, and the feeling of sands shifting beneath our feet, God’s message is clear: God’s love for us never ends. The love which loved the whole of creation into being, will never end. And because of this, it is incumbent upon us to love one another, because in doing so, we too help to build the Kingdom. Amen