Sunday, April 29, 2018

Abiding in Love: Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Easter, Year B

“There's nothing you can do that can't be done;
Nothing you can sing that can't be sung;
Nothing you can say, but you can learn how to play the game;
It's easy!
Nothing you can make that can't be made;
No one you can save that can't be saved;
Nothing you can do, but you can learn how to be you in time; 
It's easy!
All you need is love. All you need is love.
All you need is love, love. Love is all you need.”(1)

Our readings today remind us that John the Beatle’s message overlaps heavily with John the Evangelist’s message. Both were trying to address the question of how we live our best life—our most authentic life. And our readings today remind us that they both arrived at the same conclusion:
Love IS all you need.
John the Beatle just added catchy music. But the message remains the same. Love is all we need. And all we need is love.

In both our epistle and our gospel from John the Evangelist, we see two words used repeatedly: “love,” and “abide.” “Abide” is an old word; in the Old English, it means to remain, to wait for, and to dwell. As the word developed over time, its meaning broadened, to mean to live with and remain in the service of someone. The repeated use of these two words reminds us that, in God, the way of life IS the way of love.

What does this mean for us? To put it plainly: As children of God, we are made to love, to abide in love, as present as each breath we take. To “abide with,” as we see it here, is to open ourselves to trust in God’s love, fully, and without fear. It is to be able to depend upon God completely, as in the words of the old hymn, number 662 in our hymnal:
Abide with me: fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

The next verse of that hymn makes clear how much we can depend upon such as enduring sense of love and presence with God dwelling in us, and with us dwelling with God:
I need your presence every passing hour.
What but your grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who like yourself my guide and strength can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me.(2)

Our epistle states it clearly: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” And we hear almost the same phrasing in John 15:4-10, much of which is covered in our gospel passage today: 
Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

This is where we turn from our personal relationship with God, to our relationship with others. We aren’t meant to simply absorb God’s love for ourselves, but to reflect that love so that our lives are a testimony for the world Jesus came to save through love. We are made to abide with God, and open ourselves so that God abides within us, but that love also changes our orientation from an inward direction to an outward direction. We are not meant to try to keep that love for ourselves, but to share the joy that it brings us with those around us. Through this sharing, God’s love becomes most visible to the world, especially to those who do not know God.

Again and again, Jesus reminds us that love is the core of our mission in the world. The full expression of the love we experience in God empowers us to fully participate as partners in the life of God. That’s what we mean when we live fully into the Eucharistic life we celebrate together, all of us together as ministers of Christ. Every time we gather around this altar, we are empowered to act as Christ’s body in the world. All for love.

And that love is not a passive thing, not just an emotion or an attitude. The love we are called to embody is rooted in action. Concrete, deliberate, self-giving action that is the foundation of the life that is fully human and fully faithful, which perhaps could also be pronounced “faith-filled.” Because it’s also important to remember that the love that draws us to be sustained by God also calls us to sustain each other.

The Christian life is not a life lived for ourselves, but a life lived FOR God and FOR others. If we are to abide in God, we are made partners with God in the work of bringing God’s creative power and love alive for those who do not yet know it.

Our readings and our experience with God through Christ convince us of this: that sharing in the love of God is sharing in God’s very being. That means that what we do and how we love or do not love will be the most visible means for those who do not know God to see God in action.

As Christians, we ARE the branches of Jesus, the true vine. That’s a heady responsibility. We are made branches of the vine through the love that God has for us through Christ, who is fully human and fully God all at once. Jesus is the Incarnation of God in human form to try to show us the way in which we are called to go to get back to our true natures as children of the Most High.

How do we live a good life—an authentic life? By understanding that Jesus calls us to remake our lives so that we are focused outside ourselves, but that in conceding everything that we believe matters, we gain all that actually does matter.

It starts with turning rank and privilege and honor and prerogative upside-down.
It starts with embodying kindness when we could respond with disdain; listening when we could turn away; honoring the dignity and worth of those society casts aside.

And it starts with not kidding ourselves that this is easy. We begin this journey of love by understanding that we can’t take the hand of Christ until we unclench the fists and the hearts that world sometimes scares us into making, and relax into the light and love of God, for our sakes, yes—but for the sake of the world as well.

The greatest way the world will come to know Christ as we who call ourselves Christians do is through our actions. Our actions, especially as Christians, as those who “wear” the name of Christ out into the world, is often the only testimony the world has as to who Jesus is. This is the challenge facing us each day.

What, exactly, DO our actions tell the outside world about who Jesus is, and how Jesus forms and shapes our lives? Jesus shows us, again and again, that we understand who we truly are as children beloved of God by loving beyond ourselves. By loving each other, and thereby loving God. Love is the ultimate act of bravery and faith, because it requires so much of us.

And yet it requires so little of us, because God has given us God’s utmost first. God has made the first move for us, by holding nothing back. That’s made clear when we hear this: “God’s love is revealed among us in this way: God sent God’s only Son into the world so that we might live and know God through Jesus.” It is God’s love first that draws from us the response of love. Just as the song says, “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.” In calling us to abide in love, God doesn’t ask us to do anything we aren’t made to be capable of. We are reminded of that in Matthew 11:30 when Jesus assures us: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Since “no one has ever seen God,” but “God is love,” the only way for people to actually see God is to see the visible acts of love we Christians bear not just for each other, but for people beyond our own circle.

As we know, that circle seems to keep constricting and getting smaller and smaller in the last several decades here in the West. One wonders how much Christian infighting has had to do with that, or, even, worse, since it is more visible, what role Christian condemnation of those we perceive to be outside the circle of salvation has played in the alienation of so many from belief in God. If God is love, and we can’t be loving to those who do not know God, how can we be surprised if the number of people who confess belief in God is not also contracting rather than growing?

The wonderful words of Madeleine L’Engle bring this issue into sharp relief when she wrote,
“We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong the are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”(3)

As we were reminded a few weeks ago, Jesus did not come into the world to condemn it, but to save it through love, mercy, healing, and compassion. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to imitate our teacher and Savior, who showed us there is no one who can’t be saved through love, right now. Jesus embodied love in action. We are therefore called and charged with the holiest of charges, to do exactly the same, in our speaking, acting, and the way that we see each other. God’s abundant love and mercy, that we taste and see and share here around this altar, does not exist merely to comfort us, but to fill us to overflowing so that we then show the world in our own actions a light so lovely that those around us want with all their hearts to know that light too.

This community exists to prepare us for discipleship. The mission of the Church is not just to take care of our own needs and concerns. The mission of the Church is, as the motto of our diocese so succinctly puts it, is to “make disciples for the life of the world.” No limits. That love we embody can have no boundaries.

William Temple, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury during the last years of World War II, composed a beautiful prayer for love, even as the world was engulfed in the rise of fear, unrest, and even terror. It is times such as that that it is good to be reminded that love IS all we need. Will you join me in praying this prayer?

O God of love, we pray thee to give us love:
Love in our thinking, love in our speaking,
Love in our doing, and love in the hidden places of our souls; 
Love of our neighbours near and far;
Love of our friends, old and new;
Love of those with whom we find it hard to bear,
And love of those who find it hard to bear with us;
Love of those with whom we work,
And love of those with whom we take our ease;
Love in joy, love in sorrow;
Love in life and love in death;
That so at length we may be worthy to dwell with thee,
Who art eternal love.(4)


Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Rolla, on April 29, 2018 at 8:00 and 10:00 am.

Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:24-30
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

(1) "All You Need Is Love," by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, written for the Our World program, the first live global television link, 1967.
(2) "Abide With Me," words by Henry Francis Lyte, hymn 662 in Hymnal 1982.
(3) Madeleine L'Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, 1980, p. 112.
(4) William Temple, 1888-1944.

(1) Vineyard, Paso Robles.
(2) John, Paul, George, and Yoda. Of course.
(3) The Communion of the Saints.
(4) The front line in the march to Selma.
(5) Chapel of the Apostles, Sewanee.

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