A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
Year B – May 6, 2012
David Hathaway Knight, Priest Associate
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God… Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” (1st John 4:7 ff)
In the Name of God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sometimes, things we may have heard a long time ago can remain etched in our memory forever. I remember vividly something that David Evans, rector of St. Paul’s in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where I began my parish ministry, told me some 40 years ago when I was his assistant, or curate, as they called us in those days. He was a great mentor to me. He and I sometimes would sit in his study at the end of the day and he would share his thoughts of a long and faithful ministry. It’s interesting now as I am on this end of the spectrum of my ministry, I sometimes have similar conversations with John or with Eleanor. I continue to learn so much from them as well. One afternoon that many years ago, David Evans and I were talking about preaching. What he said was this: he said that most preachers have but one sermon throughout their ministry. They may use different illustrations in different settings, yet they have but one basic message that finds its way into most of their sermons. That’s probably true. Apparently it was thought to be true of one of the great bishops of our church, the late William Appleton Lawrence. Bishop Lawrence served as the third bishop of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts from 1937 until 1957. (Believe it or not, there have been some great bishops in the Church outside the Diocese of Virginia!) A church leader, he was also known as a faithful pastor and fine preacher. But it was apparently noted once by an upstart seminarian in Cambridge that there was only problem with Bishop Lawrence’s preaching. You see, it was that he had only one sermon, “God is love.” Whenever he preached, somehow, the message inevitably got out, “God is Love.” But if that be the case one could argue that “God is Love” was not all that bad a topic.
In the first letter of John that we heard this morning, we hear with stunning brevity what God is and what God is not:
Sometimes, in our insecurity, even our fear for ourselves and for those whom we love, we long for protection. We yearn for a God who can control the elements of nature, who will keep us safe on the highway, a God who will protect us from all harm, a God who can prevent disease, a God who can stop or even prevent violence.
We live in a world of increasing moral and ethical confusion. We might yearn for a God who will somehow lay down the law with complete clarity and who will hold everyone accountable, a God who will catch the cheaters and all those immoral people, and who will reward the faithful who obey God’s statutes as they perceive them to be.
We live in a culture with an insatiable hunger to be successful and to possess things. We all, of course you understand, have our wants. For me, for example, with already four very nice bicycles, I dream of owning a fifth bicycle, a Trek Madone 3.1 Apex carbon frame bicycle that I have seen at a local bike shop and on the Internet. In its understated, luxurious dark metallic blue finish with white accents and high end components, capable of precise handling, this bicycle is the apple of my eye. The look on Jeannie’s face, however, when I mention that I might just take a test ride on one, is enough to cause me to put such a fantasy aside, at least until a more opportune time. Some yearn for a God who will make them prosperous if they simply obey and follow a few of God’s principles. Recently, I walked into a Barnes and Noble bookstore and saw a display of books by one such promoter of that concept of God.
Nowhere in the Gospels, however, are we promised physical safety from harm or illness or violence, nor are we promised law that is laid down with complete clarity, nor are we promised prosperity. In his letter we hear today, John avoids all these descriptions of God. Instead, he uses one word, one word only, to describe the nature of God. The one word is “love.” Perhaps Bishop Lawrence was not so far off after all. Indeed, not power, not law, not the promise of prosperity, but rather self-sacrificing love is what is at the heart of the truth about the nature of God. When, for example, our worst fears come true and we suffer great loss, God is love. Is it not Paul who reminds us that nothing can separate us from the love of God? “For I am persuaded,” he says, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come… will be able to separate us from the love of God.” As we sang a few moments ago in the second stanza of that hymn:
God is Love; and love enfolds us, all the world in one embrace:
with unfailing grasp God holds us, every child of every race.
And when human hearts are breaking under sorrow’s iron rod,
then we find that self-same aching deep within the heart of God.
How do we know that God is love? God’s love is not something left to our imaginations. We only have to look back at what God has done in the course of human history. John’s point to us this morning is as clear and simple as it is powerful. It is that we know God first through the record of that community around Jesus, through those who, for example, stood at the foot of the cross and watched the suffering of outstretched love. We know that God is love through those in the community of the faithful who prepared Jesus’ body for burial, seeing first hand wounds that were caused by betrayal and violence yet wounds that were met with love. We know that God is love through those in the community like Thomas who doubted only to have their doubts transformed by the presence of a love that simply will not die.
What those in the early Church would come to experience, you and I too have come to know, for God is around us at every side. If God’s love was to be present in the lives of people then, so it continues to be present now in the lives of each of us. You and I are never alone. That is not to say that there are times when one can feel lonely, times when one cannot pray, times when one does not feel God’s presence. That reminds me of a story some time ago of a couple, married for many years, out riding in their car. Remember how most cars back a few years had that wide bench front seat? This was before the days when virtually all cars came to have bucket seats. The front bench seat would allow couples who were dating and newly married to sit close to each other. When he was driving, she would snuggle up to him with her arm around him in a loving embrace. Well, it seems that years later while this couple was riding in their Buick, one of the last cars to offer a bench front seat, this wife looked over at her husband and lamented, “You know, Honey, we used to sit close when we’d be out driving in the car, but now I feel so far away from you, me sitting over here, on the right, next to the window, with all that space between us, and you over there on the left. What’s happened?” Her husband, sitting behind the wheel responded lovingly to his wife as he kept his eyes on the road ahead. He said, “My beloved, (and notice that he used the word “beloved”) “I haven’t moved.”
Even, you see, when you and I feel far from God, God has not moved. God is still there unseen, still there with us.
Sometimes the witness of one person will remind us once again of how God has been present. Jeannie and I shall always remember one Sunday morning in the winter of 1971 at Christ Church in Alexandria where I was doing my field education while in Seminary. The preacher that Sunday was Bishop Madinda, the newly enthroned Bishop of the Diocese of Western Tanganyika. He was speaking of the hardship and of all that was happening in his land, much of what was horrific, yet he kept repeating the refrain, and I can still remember his pronunciation of the words: He would say, “Christ is in our middist, Christ is in our middist.” God’s presence as he kept saying those words was palpable throughout the congregation that morning. He knew something that is true for all of us: God is with us. God is Love, no matter what we may be experiencing. How many times over the years, I have recalled what Bishop Madinda said that Sunday morning. The impact of his witness was profound and lasting.
The psalmist even before Jesus came to us knew well of the presence and of the love of God when he wrote:
Where can I go then from your spirit?
where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand will lead me
and your right hand will hold me fast.
John also writes, “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” And note that he doesn’t write, “Dear friends,” but rather, “Beloved.” That word “beloved” is significant. To be beloved puts our relationship with God in its perspective. And herein lies the challenge as well as the imperative for us as we profess to love the God who loves us. God’s love for us is perfect, unqualified love while ours is always flawed in some way. Yet even so, we should not be held back by our own imperfection. One thing we cannot do is make the claim that we can love God while at the same time refuse to love others with whom we may have our difficulties. It is in the natural order of things that we can have serious differences with others. We have a model, however, in God’s love for each one of us. All of what God does, God does in love. If God creates, God creates in love. It is that if God judges us, God judges us with love. God’s response to our fear, our anxiety, to our sense of meaninglessness, to our mortality is love. It is a love that casts out fear. Can we then, strive to do anything less for one another? How might God’s love for you and for me, for example, transform our cherished resentments toward another into a loving response, for it is not possible to love God as we nurse grudges and as we seek revenge, or as we are careless with the feelings of others. Love is not simply an emotion that is shaped by how we might feel. Love is a decision that shapes our actions and how we treat one another. Since you and I are beloved, God calls us to love one another. And the truth is that you and I know the difference when we do that. Imperfectly as we might do it, we will know the difference, and it will be a blessing. It will be good.
As you and I live each day of this coming week, there will come before us along the path of our day an opportunity for each of us to act in love in some encounter with another person. It might be our spouse, our child, someone with whom we work. It could be a stranger. It could be something, perhaps as simple as giving someone the right of way at a crowded intersection even when we are in a rush. In any event, you and I will in this coming week face an opportunity to respond to John’s words in today’s reading, “Beloved, since God loves us so much, we also ought to love one another.” What will our decision be?
Bishop Lawrence of Western Massachusetts may have had only one sermon, “God is Love”, but with that one sermon, perhaps he was on the right track after all.
“Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” Amen.