Scripture: John 15:9-17
So, Farage warned us of foreigners with Aids; Leanne Wood slapped him down whilst Natalie Bennett threatened to put the Queen in a council house. Nicola Sturgeon was branded the most dangerous woman in Britain, Nick Clegg cast himself as the wizard of Oz, Ed Milliband tried to convince us that ‘Hell yes, he’s tough enough’ and David Cameron urged us to support West Ham even though he claims to be a lifelong Aston Villa supporter! And for the purposes of fairness and equality, I’m sure Socialist Labour, the DUP, the Communist Party and yes, even the Church of the Militant Elvis Party, have uttered both the profound and the preposterous over the last few weeks. However we might feel about the outcome of the election, the weeks of posturing and campaigning, polling and hustings are over for the time being. And personally, even though I’ve moved from one safe seat to another, albeit of a different hue, I found the run-up to the election rather exciting, the supposed unpredictability of the outcome reminding me of the importance of the democratic process and I was having a chat about this with a friend in London last week when he agreed that the outcome couldn’t be second-guessed this year but said that he didn’t know who to vote for because he just couldn’t trust any of the politicians. “None of them say what they really think,” he suggested. He went on to argue that politicians make promises they don’t keep, they eat hot dogs, feed lambs, kiss babies in an effort to look normal or human and offer banal or shallow soundbites that don’t really reveal what they’re about. Some of us here might think that he had a point.
The very next day, Suzanne, another good friend of mine and member of my sending church sent me an email with a photograph she quickly took as she passed by a local church. It’s very blurry so you may well not be able to read it but it says ‘Your name is on a bottle of Coke but is it in the book of life?’. Suzanne wasn’t very impressed with this, suggesting that, like many of the political posters and soundbites of the last few weeks, it seemed smug, shallow and based on fear. Besides which, how many non church-goers…or attendants for that matter…have an understanding of what the Book of Life even is?
And whatever you think of such signs [see slide], from the offensive to the slightly amusing, we can all be tempted to resort to platitudes, clichés and soundbites in out talk about God. ‘Jesus is my friend’; ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’, or ‘God needed another angel in heaven’ may be innocent, well-meaning words to say but can so often leave others feeling confused or cold. A fact that I witnessed last week when another friend of mine (that’s right, I have three!) confessed of her temptation to deflate a ball her daughter was given that read ‘smile, God loves you’ for in her context, caring for her two young children and for her husband who is younger than me and who faces a horrendous time as a brain tumour takes away his independence, his identity, and within months, his very life…the phrase ‘smile, God loves you’ wasn’t something she could hear.
And, at first glance, Jesus’ words at the last supper in this morning’s reading might seem equally unhelpful or confusing. First, he speaks of the disciples having complete joy just a few hours before they will watch their friend and leader be tortured and killed. I’m sure they felt a number of different emotions the next day – fear, guilt, anger, distress – but I very much doubt that complete joy was one of them. Next Jesus goes on to give some pithy soundbites about love before some words about friendship – ‘you are my friends now if you do what I command’…suggesting that friendship might mean an imbalanced relationship where one friend’s attitude to the other is based upon whether they follow certain commands. Is that really a healthy outlook on friendship? Can you imagine turning round to one of your good friends and saying ‘I’ll consider you my friend if you obey the following instructions?”
Taken out of context; stuck on billboards or used as soundbites, the verses of the Bible, even the words of Jesus, can seem confusing or confused, shallow or impenetrable.
And yet, I would want to say, the Bible can open us up to the wonders of the universe. And yet, scripture can cast light on each period of history, manifesting what God is saying to us in the here and now. And yet, the words of Jesus are grace-filled, life-giving treasures which can help us to explore God’s love and our response to such love, when we read them in context, in community and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
So what might all of this mean for us today? Well, firstly, perhaps we might be reminded that the verses of the Bible and the words of Jesus are never meant to be used as a weapon, soundbite or platitude. It is our duty to spread the good news of Christ, the great news of God’s love, to our neighbours and strangers but I do not believe that we can do this by becoming slick marketing salespeople. Just as with politicians, much of society is suspicious, or at least sceptical of what Christians have to say. For we often talk about unity but squabble over petty differences. We’re seen to preach about God’s love for all but don’t always show it. We’re heard speaking of peace whilst starting wars and of serving the poor whilst getting richer. Of course, many of us would want to cry out that that’s not me, that’s not the whole Church, that’s not all Christians…and whilst that may well be true, we’re not without fault and this is the story that many outside of the Church have been told and accept. I do not believe that we can counter this with cheap soundbites and banal clichés, whether on church posters or from our own lips. Perhaps, instead, it is about getting alongside people, journeying together, asking for their tale before offering our own. Partnerships, not platitudes. Sharing stories, rather than selling salvation.
Secondly, unlike many politicians during a pre-election campaign who will say anything, promise anything to get your vote and then won’t always live up to such promises in the long-term, Jesus really did practice what he preached. “Love each other as I have loved you,” we read. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And that is what he did. In his life and death and resurrection, Jesus lived out the way of love that he encouraged his friends to follow. He welcomed the child, spoke up for the voiceless, gave food to the hungry; he visited the sick, comforted the bereaved, gave hope to the hopeless; broke bread with the outcast, died for all, and even prayed for his persecutors whilst doing so. God came to us. Christ came on a mission of love. Jesus laid down his life for his friends and even his enemies. Greater love has no one than this. And we are called to help such scandalous love continue to cascade down to those around us. Love from the Father to the Son; from the Son to his friends; from his friends to the ends of the Earth.
This love isn’t just some nice, fluffy thing. It isn’t a Hallmark love or even a groovy kind of love. Rather, it’s a love that led Christ to the cross. And so, we too are asked to lay down our lives for one another. To make sacrifices, big and small, for one another. And I see glimpses of such love at St David’s week by week. The laying down of our hold on buildings, that all may feel welcomed to worship. The laying down of past hurts, that others may be forgiven and loved. The laying aside of time to collect for Christian Aid or to make welcome packages for those without a home, that those poorest and most vulnerable might be cared for. We have much to celebrate. We also have much more to do. For we are invited to live out God’s love in ever-fresh, ever more radical ways. This might mean laying aside our personal preferences for the benefit of others. It might mean needing to pause and ask ‘is this the most loving way of doing this?’ in more of our decisions. It might mean laying down past projects, taking on new campaigns or very intentionally putting people before process. It won’t be easy. Laying down your life for others isn’t. There will be times when we stumble. Times when we retreat back into ourselves, times when we feel too tired, too hurt or too scared to live out a sacrificial love. But with the blessing of the Creator, the example of the son and the encouragement of the spirit, we will try, we will forgive and be forgiven, we will love.
So may we immerse ourselves in scripture and not isolate or idolize it; may we seek to show God’s love in sacrificial acts, not limit it in platitudes and soundbites; may we gladly take on Christ’s command to love one another, rejoicing in the knowledge that we may love because, first, we have been loved by the God of constant compassion and ever-flowing grace. Amen.