Reading: 1 John 4:7-21
Sermon preached on Sunday 5th July by Rev Dr Phil Wall
As most of you know, last weekend I was back in Orpington, preaching at the wedding of two good friends of mine, Chris and Toria. And being asked to preach at a friend’s wedding is always a great privilege…and occasionally a little challenging. First of all, some of my friends have certain expectations of me. A couple of years ago, I was asked to preach at the wedding of a childhood friend who kept on telling me that he had told his friends and family to expect a ‘funny speech’. Now, as you know, I think laughing in church is a healthy thing to do – for we do believe we have good news to tell, joy to share – but I did have to remind my friend that my address would take the form of a reflection on the Bible passages chosen and not a best man’s speech from the pulpit!
Then there are the challenges of the readings themselves…a popular choice is often the passage from Ecclesiastes which reads thus:
“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone?”…it goes on.
Now, it may be a perfectly nice passage…and some of you here might well have had it read at your own wedding…but it does kind of stand as a slap in the face to those who are single, divorced or perhaps struggling in their marriage. At the most recent wedding that included these lines, my friends, ever the empathetic, caring sort, spent the rest of the reception laughing at me, reminding me if I fall, there will be no one there to pick me up…and have since given me various gifts that include this passage on them!
Well, at last week’s wedding, there was no articulated pressure ‘to be funny’, nor did I have to preach on the ‘calamity’ of being single. Instead, I got to reflect on the wonderful few verses that the wonderful Viviane read for us – a passage which I know is a favourite of one or two people here this evening. And it’s a passage that is perhaps best known for three little words spoken twice in a few verses – God. Is. Love. God’s very being, at God’s very core – is love. Not a bad place to start, eh? As soundbites or slogans go…it’s a pretty good one…but, then again, no soundbite could ever capture the essence of God and soon, we’re asking questions like ‘so who is this God?’ or ‘what is love?’…questions which John goes on to suggest answers to such as in verse 9 where he explains that:
“9 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.”
God is love, John says, and such love is not simply some ethereal, transcendent force, nor is it some wishy-washy, Hallmark sentiment. Rather, it’s the kind of love that saw the God of all creation take the form of a vulnerable baby, born in a dirty stable. The kind of love that saw the son of God embrace lepers, welcome children, speak up for the outcast and serve those who would come to betray, abandon or deny him. The kind of love that saw a man on a cross in Jerusalem ask God to forgive those who had put him there. God is love, John says, and such radical, extravagant, self-sacrificial love was revealed to us in the God-man, Jesus the Christ. Such is the foundation of our faith and such is the encouragement for us to love one another, for, as John continues:
“Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; yet if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
‘Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another’. These were the words read out at the wedding, the day on which the church sang, families danced and a union of love was celebrated.
‘Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another’. These were the words read out at the wedding, the day after a man was beheaded in France, a Shia mosque was bombed in Kuwait and 38 holidaymakers were gunned down on a beach in Tunisia, all in the name of God.
‘Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another’. These were the words read out at the wedding, the same day as the funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of the 9 victims of the racially motivated church massacre in Charleston; the same day a Christian radio presenter in the United States compared the legalisation of same sex marriage to the attack on the twin towers; the same day that children, homosexuals and divorcees, were excluded from God’s table in thousands of churches across the globe.
Today, it appears to many people – both inside the church and out of it – that the more religious someone claims to be, the more narrow-minded, stubborn or aggressive they are. Acts of discrimination and violence are daily committed in God’s name and yet, in John’s letter, we are told that is neither power nor purity that reveals God’s presence but love. For when we love one another, God lives in us. When we seek justice for the oppressed, offer compassion to the vulnerable, God lives in us. When we encourage, strengthen, delight in one another, God lives in us.
We have been called to show and share God’s love…and this isn’t only to be seen in big, sweeping gestures of sacrifice and self-denial, but also in small, quiet acts of kindness. So this week, perhaps God will live in you when you pick up the phone to a friend who you know is going to talk your ear off. Perhaps God will live in you as you strive to speak praise rather than judgment about people you find hard to love. Perhaps God will live in you as you ask for the strength to forgive someone who has wronged you.
Whilst human brokenness is daily witnessed in our clinging to power, in our desire to control and coerce, in our belief that God’s will is made known in acts of violence and discrimination, it is through acts of love – radical and revolutionary, small and simple – that God’s compassion is glimpsed, God’s whisper is heard, God’s presence is revealed.
God loves us, let us love one another. A simple message but a daily challenge. And John isn’t quite finished. He continues…
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”
Today, we are fed a narrative of fear by religious groups, politicians and much of the media. Fear of the immigrant and asylum seeker; fear of the hoodie and the chav; fear of anyone and anything that might upset our way of living, threaten our power, or challenge the way we do things. Such fear can influence our outlook, leaving us despondent or depressed. But John says that there is another, more powerful, story to be told. A story of good news, of God’s love, of scandalous grace. A story that does not ignore a hurting world but seeks to transform it. A story which might dispel our fears and inspire hope.
So as we start another week here at St. David’s, may we delight in the story of the God who is love. May God live in us as we strive to love one another through our thoughts, words and deeds. And may we reject the narrative of fear offered us, heeding instead the words of Brother Roger, founder of the Taize community who said; ‘Hope is a path of light that opens up in our depths…Where is the source of this hope? It is in God, a God who simply loves and can do nothing else’. Amen.