In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
It’s a startling fact that one billion people around the world will go hungry tonight. I think that’s a scandal, an outrage. And it’s hard to believe that much of the violence and hatreds we see around us today are the result of the fact that so many people live in such extreme poverty- or that they fear they might have to live in such poverty. And when so many millions are starving or suffering, how can we speak today of love?
But today the Bible does speak to us of love. Jesus says to his disciples, ‘I love you just as the Father loves me’ (remember last week, we read that ‘God is love’). For us, comfortable, well-fed, it’s nice to know that Jesus and his Father loves us. If we are feeling kind of lucky in life, that seems to make sense. But what if you are a disciple of Jesus, and one of the one billion who will go to bed hungry tonight? What would you think then, if you heard Jesus saying, ‘I love you just as the Father loves me’? If you could not get to sleep for the hunger pangs, would you feel loved by God and Jesus?
For some people, the presence of suffering is often an excuse to dismiss God. Those persons are, however, often people like us- people who don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. They have the time and leisure to philosophise. They don’t consider the many people who, even when they suffer from poverty or starvation, nevertheless feel themselves loved by God. There are many Christians among the millions who will go to bed hungry tonight- and others who also believe that they are, nevertheless, loved by God. I wonder whether if they do think about God, they wonder… not about the love of God, and whether that is real? Do they, instead, wonder about the love of their fellow-Christians, about others in the world who could do something for them? Do they ask, not whether God’s love is real, but whether our love is real?
For in the passage we read from the Gospel of John, Jesus is speaking of love… but this is no empty, abstract word. For Jesus, love is not a nice feeling, but something you do. Love is not something to simply speak of- it is only real when we out it into action. Which is what God did. We did not know that God loved us until he acted out his love for us in Jesus: ‘For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life’, says Jesus, elsewhere in John’s Gospel (3.16). And the author of the Gospel writer elsewhere, ‘Dear friends, if this is how God loved us, then we should love one another’ (1 John 4.11). There’s no point in just talking about love. Love is not just talk, or thinking, or feeling. Love is something you do.
Jesus makes this clear in the Gospel reading: ‘I love you just as the Father loves me’- so there are the words of assurance. You are loved by God in Christ. That’s what we acted out when we brought Corbyn to the font today- for the Sacrament of Baptism is all about God’s unmerited and generous love for each of us, shown in the life of Jesus. So today, Jesus has said to Corbyn, and said again to all who want to be his disciples: ‘I love you’. If we believe that is really true, then what is to stop us being baptised, like the people we heard about in the reading from the Book of Acts? In baptism, God through Jesus tells us that he loves us. And we are then brought into the circle of God’s love.
But we can forget it, dismiss it- we can ignore the love of God, try to live as if there were no God who loved us. So Jesus urges his disciples, ‘remain in my love’. Last Sunday, we spoke of how in order to remain fruitful for Jesus, we needed to remain connected to Christ. If not, we’re like branches of a vine which have been cut off- we’re cut off from the source of love, from the source of our life, when we cut ourselves off from Christ. Any fruit on such a branch quickly withers and dies. So we need to continue to remain in Christ’s love. And one of the ways that we remain united to Christ is by taking seriously what he teaches us.
And so Christ says to us, ‘If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love’. You see, it isn’t enough just to say that you believe that God loves you in Jesus. When faith is genuine, it is shown by what we do. Faith comes alive when it turns into love- that’s what Jesus means here. Obeying Christ’s commands, following Christ’s way- however you put it- that’s what someone will willingly do when they have faith in Christ, when they know themselves loved by God in Christ. ‘My commandment is this’, says Jesus: ‘love one another, just as I love you’. When we love, we live our faith, and make our baptism real.
For some people, serving others, doing good for other people, can be simply something they do dutifully. But sharing Christ’s love is something which brings joy- both to the person who shares, and the person who receives. ‘I have told you this’, says Jesus, ‘so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete’. People today are always looking for happiness. Many of us miss out, because we think happiness is something that can be bought. We think that if we do things for ourselves, we can be happy. Our selfish, ‘me culture’ has forgotten that it is only when we open ourselves up to other people that we can be truly happy. There is no deeper joy than doing something out of love- doing something which will help another person.
Sierra Leone is recovering from a terrible civil war (which you may remember at one point had British troops involved in peacekeeping duties). In post-war Sierra Leone, the displacement of people and the loss of life means that even in rural areas like Gbap, many traditional agricultural skills have been lost. One of the things the Methodist Church of Sierra Leone has done is to appoint agricultural advisers to work with local people to improve their skills and learn new techniques. Samking is the agricultural adviser in Gbap. He believes it is important for him to live in Gbap, in the midst of the community. He says, ‘Living with people within a community goes a long way to help you understand their problems. You… see their way of life and you know what challenges are facing them.’ He has worked with the community to develop techniques for farming the flood plain, where the community had only been cultivating a tiny fraction of the available land. There has now been a dramatic increase in food production. None of this would have been possible unless the community had worked together.
And so often its the wee things which help. Christian Aid’s funds from Britain has provided the tools- literally-for the job- simple farming implements with which people have been able to make such a difference to their lives. It’s interesting to me that the folks of Gbap have achieved so much when they worked together as a community. Only by working together could they make increase the yield of their crops. Only by working together could they achieve their new school.
Sometimes in our culture, the word community has become almost meaningless for some people. It’s difficult to motivate people to do work together for the sake of the greater good. Our selfishness has made us suspicious of community, and cynical about working with other people. But it seems to me that if we are to take Jesus seriously, we Christians are called to be people who will reach out beyond themselves. The Church itself is not an organisation- the Church ought to be a true community, where we really live out the command to love one another. And when we run a coffee morning for Christian Aid, when we knock on the doors of our parish: these things are a sign that we believe in something beyond just ourselves, or just our families. For God calls us to live in community, to live in love for the sake of one others.
So that’s why we ran a coffee morning, and will pound the streets this Christian Aid Week. It’s why some of our members have themselves gone abroad to work on projects which help others. It’s why many of you volunteer and give to charities here at home as well. And it’s what should govern our relationships with one another- that we do what we can for people, out of love. This is why, in Luke’s Gospel, after telling us that the greatest of his commandments are to love God and our neighbour, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan- a man whose love for someone unknown to him personally, and makes him put himself out in order to help someone, just because he met him on the road and has compassion for him.
Christian Aid brings relief to people in disaster. And after the war is over, they are bringing tools to the folks in Sierra Leone so that they can help themselves. But just those things alone are not enough. Still we have the scandal of a billion people worldwide who are hungry. That’s a moral scandal, and we ought to be telling the politicians and the powerful how we feel about that. In recent years, churches got the Jubilee debt relief campaign underway, and now many millions of people around the world are benefitting from the ending of the crippling debts which their nations had to bear. Now Christian Aid is turning it’s attention to another campaign.
Tax is something we don’t much like to think about- unless, as is happening to a lot of us at the moment, we get annoyed at paying more! But if you get annoyed at paying your taxes, it can be even more annoying hearing about those who do not pay their fair share. In this country, the super rich seem to find all kinds of ways of avoiding paying their share. At a time when the rest of us are told that ‘we are all in this together’, there are those who agree with American businesswoman and fraudster Leona Helmsley, who once said, ‘We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes…’
But it’s not just individuals. In this country, and around the world, big business corporations use tax havens to avoid paying tax in the countries they operate. Christian Aid estimates that tax dodging costs poor countries $160 billion a year. This is money that should be spent building schools and hospitals. It’s an enormous scandal, but it’s a complex issue. Nevertheless, Christian Aid is working on it, campaigning to inform the public about it, and quietly bu persistently nagging some of the British-based companies who are sometimes responsible for the worst abuses. Campaigning like this is, I suggest, another way Christian people can live out their vocation to love.
Jesus command to his disciples was just about the last thing he taught them before he went to the cross. On the cross, we see the depth, and the cost, of God’s boundless love for us and all humanity. And in his resurrection, we see hope for a world reborn, remade- a world in which love triumphs over hate, and justice is done. So as Christian people, let us learn once again to be people who find deep, lasting joy in loving one another, and in loving all the people whom Christ died for. Jesus has called us his friends- so how can we not be filled with joy and hope as we love, as God in Christ has loved us? There are lot’s of different ways for us to live out Christ’s command to love. Out of love, people in Britain fundraiser and gave money so that folks in Sierra Leone would have the tools to feed themselves. And now a community is changed for the better- changed by love!
Ascription of Praise
Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2012 Peter W Nimmo