Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Heart of the Gospel: A sermon for May 3rd on 1 John 4:7-21

You’ve heard me say many times from this pulpit that the Christian message is fundamentally an announcement of good news. That’s what the word ‘gospel’ means – the joyful announcement of good news that makes a difference in the lives of its hearers. The early Christian missionaries went out with a message about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit that they saw as the best news the world had ever heard: the God of love had raised Jesus from the dead and made him Lord of all, and he was now sending his Holy Spirit into the lives of ordinary men and women to give them power to change and become new people, remade in the image of Jesus. The writers of the New Testament believed that the world is a different place because of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and our lives can be different too. So they went out and shared this message with everyone who would listen to them, and thousands of people believed it and committed themselves to it. Rich people gave away their wealth to the poor, and women and slaves found a fresh sense of hope and dignity in Christ. People trapped in lives of sin found a strange new power to change, and lonely and isolated people found a loving community of Christian brothers and sisters. People looking on from the outside shook their heads in amazement and said, “These people…have been turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

Unfortunately these days the words ‘good news’ don’t always come to mind when people think about the Christian message. Outsiders who are asked for their impression of Christians often use terms like ‘judgemental’, ‘bigoted’, ‘out of touch with reality’, and the modern world’s favourite ‘f-word’, ‘fundamentalist’. Even people in the church have lost their sense that our message is first of all an announcement of good news. As I’ve said to you before, when I ask church people to sum up the Christian message, people will often say things like ‘Do as you would be done by’ and ‘love your neighbour’ and so on. But these things can’t possibly be the centre of the Christian message, because they’re not good news, they’re good advice! Excellent advice, actually, and I don’t have a word to say against them, but the early Christians didn’t go out into the world preaching good advice; they went announcing good news.

Old John has been giving us a lot of good advice in his first letter, which we’ve been following together through the Easter season. He’s told us how important it is to keep the commandments of Jesus and to love one another; he’s help up very high standards for us to aim at, and we might even be forgiven for thinking that there’s no way we can possibly come up to his expectations. Jesus did the same thing, of course, when he told his followers to ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48). Fortunately for us, we know from other stories in the gospels that Jesus was a friend of sinners and loved nothing better than spending time with people society looked on as outcasts; as someone once said, he ‘loved the unlovely into lovableness’ – and, thank God, he does the same for us today.

But in today’s reading John takes us back to the heart of the gospel. Here are the words we heard at the beginning of the reading:
‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love’ (1 John 4:7-8).

God is love’; this is probably one of the best-known statements in the entire New Testament. We’ve heard it so many times that we take it for granted, but for much of human history people would not have seen God, or the gods, in this way, and there are many people around the world today, and even here in Edmonton, who do not see God in this way. Many stories of God or the gods in the ancient world focused on power, and on how important it was to avoid annoying the gods, because they were capricious characters who could easily lose their tempers and make bad things happen to you. And of course, in the modern world, there are many people who seem to think that God is the sort of God who is pleased when his followers kill and maim other people in his name. Many people have a view of God that sees him as an angry deity holding a big stick in his hand, waiting for an excuse to beat people up with it.

So how do we know? How do we know that God is love? Old Testament people would have answered that question by pointing to the story of the Exodus. “Our ancestors were slaves in Egypt”, they would have said, “but God came to rescue us and set us free. He sent us Moses as our leader, led us out through the desert, gave us wise commandments to guide our life, and then brought us into the promised land, which he gave to us as our inheritance”. Of course, if you know the Old Testament story you will know that in later years many bad things happened to God’s people, but they always looked back on that story of the Exodus as evidence of God’s love for them, and they used a lovely Hebrew word to describe it: chesed. Our NRSV Bible translates chesed as ‘steadfast love’ – love that’s committed to you, love that rolls up its sleeves and gets busy helping you, love that you can rely on, love that will always be there for you.

How do we New Testament believers know that God is love? John spells it out for us in verses 9-10 of our reading for today:
‘God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 4:9-10).

John looks back on the events of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and he sees an enormous significance in them. He takes it for granted that his readers will know that Jesus is not just an ordinary man: in Jesus, in some sense, God has come to live among us. In the Gospel of John, which may well have been written by the same person as this letter, we hear the familiar words,
‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being…And 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 1:1-3, 14).
And the gospel writer goes on to say,
‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ (John 1:18).

So this is the grand miracle, the reason above all reasons that we know that God is love. God, the almighty creator of all that exists, is not far away from us. At a certain point in the history of this planet, God came to live among us in the person of his Word, or his Son, the man Jesus of Nazareth. In his life and teaching, his death and resurrection, we see the most accurate possible revelation of the character of God. Jesus, as one of my old teachers used to say, is ‘God with a human face’, and when we read his story in the New Testament, it’s the loving face of God that stands out in Jesus.

Not that the love of Jesus is sentimental; far from it. Yes, he reaches out to outcasts and sinners, he heals the sick, he treats women and children as first-class human beings, and so on. But he also rebukes hypocrites, encourages sinners to ‘sin no more’, and is so annoyed by the presence of traders in the temple that he overturns their tables and drives out the animals they were selling with a whip. This is not a sentimental love that will let us get away with anything; this is a love that will always forgive, yes, but will also always encourage us to stretch, and to grow closer to God’s dream for us. As someone once said, ‘God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us there’.

So this is the joyful announcement that John is making: God is love, and we know that God is love because he has come among us in Jesus to give us life, going so far as to stretch out his arms on the cross and die for our sins, so that we could be forgiven and restored to fellowship with him. And note that this love is not primarily a feeling. Nowadays when we use the word ‘love’ we usually refer to a feeling of love, but in the New Testament ‘love’ is primarily an action word. John is not saying ‘God showed us how much love he felt for us by sending his Son to die for us’, as if the real love was the feeling, and the cross was what God did as a result of that feeling. No – the action of dying for us was in itself an act of love: God loved us by living among us in Jesus and dying for us.

This love comes first. As John says, ‘In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us’ (v.10), and later on in verse 19 he says, ‘We love because he first loved us’. Before the Christian message asks us to do anything for God, first of all it celebrates what God has done for us. God does not love us because we love him; it’s the other way around. God loved us first, before we had done anything to deserve it; in fact, you could argue that it’s only his love for us that is keeping any one of us alive at any given time, since every breath of air we take is a gift from him. God created us in love; God sustains our life in love; God loved us by coming among us in Jesus and living and dying and rising again for us. God’s love for us is chesed: steadfast love, love that never goes away, love that you can count on. This is the heart of the gospel.

But God’s love is also transformational: it has the power to change selfish, self-centred lives into lives lived in compassion and generosity. And so John goes on to say,
‘Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us’ (vv.11-12).
And in verse 16 he adds,
‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them’.

There’s a well-known story of this in the gospels: it’s the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector. Zacchaeus is described as a ‘chief tax collector and rich’ (Luke 19:2), but the citizens of his town of Jericho all condemn him as a sinner (v.7). Jesus however, does not condemn him; he singles him out for special attention and invites himself to his house for a meal. We’re not told what happened at that meal, but it must have made an impression on Zacchaeus, because after the meal was over he stood up and said to Jesus,
“Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (v.8).
Jesus obviously sees this as a genuine conversion experience; he says,
“Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (vv.9-10).

No doubt Zacchaeus would have echoed the words of John Newton, “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see”. And what did he see? He saw a love that reached out to him and assured him that he too was a child of God. And he also saw that a life lived in selfishness and greed was no longer an option for him; already, in a very short time, he had begun to learn that compassion and generosity are at the heart of God’s dream for us.

So the good news tells us that before we ever loved God, God loved us with a steadfast, sure love. He loved us by coming and living as one of us, showing us what he is like, and dying and rising again for us. Now he sends the Holy Spirit into our lives, and that Spirit gives us the strength to imitate the love of our heavenly Father: as God has loved us, so we learn to love others. I’ve seen that good news in action many, many times. I’ve seen the gospel change the hearts of people, and the result is an incredible outpouring of love and generosity.

And this is how people see the face of God today. In John’s Gospel, which we quoted earlier, the author says,
‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ (John 1:18).
To which we might well respond, ‘But Jesus lived two thousand years ago, and we can’t see him today, so it’s too bad for us, isn’t it? When people say to us, “We’d like to see God”, how are we supposed to respond?’

John gives us the answer in our reading for today:
‘No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us’ (1 John 4:12).
In other words, this is God’s vision for the local church: a community where people can see God in the love that Christians demonstrate for each other and the world around us. No one can see God loving his enemies, but when Christians love their enemies and reach out to those who hate them, people can see what God is like. No one can see God comforting the mourners or supporting the depressed or giving to the poor and needy, but when Christians do those things, people can see what God is like by their actions. No one can see God being patient with difficult people and making space for people no one else has time for, but when we do those things, God is at work among us, and people can see it.

You get the point. This is where the good news is leading: to a new community that lives the life of God in the world. God has loved us with an unbelievable, unconditional, steadfast love, which Jesus has lived out for us. That love touches our lives and transforms us into a people who are characterized by love. And if we as a community live that love together, people will see it. And when they do, they will no longer say, ‘Religion poisons everything, because it makes people hate and judge and murder each other’. Rather, they will say, ‘There’s got to be something in this Christian message; after all, look at all the good these Christians are doing’.

And you know what? People are already saying that. Many of you will know that I’m a big fan of the British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg. Billy is a well-known socialist and social activist, and he is not a Christian, but he always defends people of faith in his concerts. He says, “When I go down to the food bank and look at who the volunteers are, I notice that most of them aren’t motivated by socialism – they’re motivated by their faith. And I have to respect that”. And last year when the mayor of Edmonton spoke at our Anglican university chaplaincy dinner, he commented on how many people in the room he recognized because of the good that they were doing around our city.

Billy Bragg and Don Iveson are just two voices, but imagine if hundreds of voices were saying that? That’s what will happen when Christians rediscover this incredible good news: God is love, and his love has the power to transform us into people of love too. Do you believe that? Has that good news touched your heart? Is it giving you a fresh vision of every human being as loved by God, and deserving of your love and care too? I know it is, because I know the way many of you are living that love in your daily lives. I pray that it will be our joy and delight to continue on that way of love; as John puts it,
‘In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another’ (1 John 4:10-11).

I pray that this will be the story of our lives, today and every day. Amen.

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