A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on Sunday, April 29, 2012
Sermon for Easter IV (B)
April 29, 2012
Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
There have been a number of occasions when I have gone to clergy gatherings around the country and when I’m asked my name, the person asking does a double-take. Jeff Gill was the name of another priest, now deceased several years ago, whom some of our colleagues knew in seminary or as colleagues in the Diocese of New York. I was calling a certain parish in New York a few years ago to get a reference on a certain music minister here in our parish, and when I said it was Jeff Gill calling, the secretary answering the phone got very silent for a minute. It was a parish he had served in as an assistant just a few years before. I never knew him myself, but I’ve heard stories about him. He was apparently a somewhat flamboyant character. One person told me that Jeff had only one sermon in him (that’s really true for almost all of us, however) – but with Jeff it was something that you knew you would always hear when he preached. It was always about the love of Jesus. Yes, the love of Jesus. If you have to hear only one sermon over and over, this is probably about as good as it gets.
The same could probably be said for the apostle John. Often referred to as the Beloved disciple, John speaks often of the love of God in Christ, as he does in our epistle reading today, and in today’s gospel – from the Gospel of John. “Little children,” he writes, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
In the late fourth or early fifth century, Jerome, a theologian and Doctor of the Church, wrote this about John:
When the venerable John could no longer walk to the meetings of the Church but was borne thither by his disciples, he always uttered the same address to the Church; he reminded them of that one commandment which he had received from Christ Himself, as comprising all the rest, and forming the distinction of the new covenant, "My little children, love one another." When the brethren present, wearied of hearing the same thing so often, asked why he always repeated the same thing, he replied, "Because it is the commandment of the Lord, and if this one thing be attained, it is enough" [Jerome].
Jesus, indeed, summed up all of his own teaching and the whole of Israel’s law, in his message of love when he gave this response to the question about what the greatest commandment is. When you boil it all down, he says, here’s what you get: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Now there’s no question that this message of love can become a little bit, well, shall we say, mushy? We’re so used to its messages in the popular culture. Love, love, love – it’s all about love. It can sound a little 60s-ish. How many of you were around in the late 60s and early 70s and were part of the Jesus movement – the Jesus People? Hippies who loved Jesus! Come on now – admit it! Some of you were Jesus People, I know! Love, love, love – it’s all about love. And it sounds so simple, doesn’t it?!
But the popularity of this counter-cultural movement was a reaction to a time in our culture that had run amok with violence and deception. The Vietnam War was in full swing and images of napalm were on our television screens every night. We were seeing war up close and personal for the first time.
Couldn’t we just have a little bit of love?! Wouldn’t love solve our problems?!
It seems so obvious at first – and yet, perhaps a bit naïve from our perspective today. We’ve become cynical – even about love, it seems. We want to parse it further, because we’re suspicious that “too much love” can make people soft, or even be counter-productive – so that if you give to someone who doesn’t have anything, out of the purest of motives and a sense of love, you just might be creating dependency on the part of the one to whom you give. Or you could be being taken advantage of! Or you could be enabling someone by providing resources for their unhealthy addictions.
We talk about “tough love” that holds people – or especially our children – accountable. You want to help someone who is in a bad way, but in order not to contribute to their bad behavior, you cut them loose so that they can learn what it means to work hard, earn their own way – as a gesture of love.
There are all sorts of variations in this modern-day parsing of love – and I’m not making light of them – they may really be the best way for us to show love at times.
They can also become an excuse for holding onto what we have, or refusing to do what love really does call us to do. We seem as a culture to have adopted a “tough love” approach to the social safety net. “Let poor people just get a job! That’s the best way for them to learn how to be self-sufficient!” – without much thought to how difficult that can be, or to the disproportionate effects of race, and how lack of access to quality education can adversely affect opportunities to “just get a job.” Maybe we’re beginning to get it now that it has become hard even for people who do have a good education and who are otherwise privileged in society to find work.
Tough love can be an excuse, when what we’re really saying is “tough luck.”
If we’re finding it hard in our own time to know exactly what the demands of love are, it might be good for us to take another look at what we see in Jesus’ own example. That, after all, is the standard to which John appeals, and the standard by which we are ultimately judged.
John uses a word we don’t like very much – sacrifice. We don’t mind showing love if it just means having lots of warm, fuzzy feelings. But love, it turns out, is not primarily about feelings – it’s about actions. And sacrifice is at the very heart of John’s understanding of Christ’s love, and of the love to which we aspire as followers of Christ.
John’s first epistle is written to a community of Christian believers, and here is what he has to say to them as they seek to live out this love in their life with one another. And I’m using here Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message:
1 John 3:16-24 – The Message (MSG)
16-17This is how we've come to understand and experience love: Christ sacrificed his life for us. This is why we ought to live sacrificially for our fellow believers, and not just be out for ourselves. If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God's love? It disappears. And you made it disappear.
John seems also to anticipate another of our modern reasons for skepticism about this whole idea of love as self-denial and sacrifice, which is the importance of a good healthy ego. We often say, you can’t love someone else as you love yourself, unless you love yourself first. Here’s the way John put it:
18-20My dear children, let's not just talk about love; let's practice real love. This is the only way we'll know we're living truly, living in God's reality. It's also the way to shut down debilitating self-criticism, even when there is something to it. For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves.
21-24And friends, once that's taken care of and we're no longer accusing or condemning ourselves, we're bold and free before God! We're able to stretch our hands out and receive what we asked for because we're doing what he said, doing what pleases him. Again, this is God's command: to believe in his personally named Son, Jesus Christ. He told us to love each other, in line with the original command. As we keep his commands, we live deeply and surely in him, and he lives in us. And this is how we experience his deep and abiding presence in us: by the Spirit he gave us.
The life we live together right here in the fellowship of this Christian community – right here at Christ Church – is our opportunity to practice the life of sacrificial love that Christ taught us to live – and to do it in ways that bring life to us all. The church, in a funny kind of way, is the laboratory for learning to live in love – our place to experiment with healthy and life-giving ways to do that – so that we can then take that love out into the world and share it more broadly with the world that God loves so much.
I hear in these words today, and in the gospel story of the Good Shepherd, a challenge to us as the church – a challenge to learn how we live sacrificially for the sake of one another. And I simply pose them today as questions for us to ponder.
· What sacrifice have I made for a fellow member of the church? And that could be a sacrificial offering of my time, or a particular talent, or my treasure in one form or another.
· How have I sought to embody Christ’s love in my own life toward fellow members of the body of Christ?
· How is my giving to the collective body of the church a reflection of the call to sacrifice?
· Have I ever given (whether my time, my talents, or my financial resources) to the extent that I really was giving up something else that was important to me?
Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” And then Jesus says something very important that we should not ignore. “I lay down my life in order to take it up again.” Laying down our lives for others is not the losing side of a zero sum game: “We lose, they gain.” Jesus reveals in this mysterious statement, and in his own example, that the way to really gain our life is to give it away; that in giving ourselves in love for the sake of others, we find the key to the abundant life. Self-protection and self-preservation lead us only to death. But in giving ourselves for others, we find the secret to life.
We have a wonderful opportunity to practice that in our life together – to learn the secret to the kingdom of God, and then to go out and live it in the world.
John Wesley wrote that, “From this truth believed, from this blessing enjoyed, the love of our [brothers and sisters] takes its rise, which may very justly be admitted as an evidence that our faith is no delusion.”
Tertullian, the 3rd century Church Father, noticed that the pagans of his time were able to pick out the Christians in the crowd – because they had love for one another.
The Jesus People had that piece right – “they will know we are Christians by our love, by our love. They will know we are Christians by our love.”