18 May 2003


God Is Love


Once upon a time,

Jane was going to get married,

and her friend Jemima decided to send them a text message wishing the happy couple well.
She thought of the verse that we had in our first reading,

ďThere is no fear in love.
But perfect love drives out fearĒ,

but, text messages being what they are,

she decided just to send the reference:
1 John 4:18.
Unfortunately, in her haste, she omitted the ď1Ē,

showing that it was Johnís letter rather than Johnís Gospel,

and the verse Jane found when she looked it up in the Gospel read:
ďFor you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.Ē




An unfortunate coincidence!
But, seriously, that is a wonderful passage from Johnís letter that we have just heard read.
Reminding us, over and over again how much we are loved,

and how that love works out in us through love for others.
Godís love is not static nor stagnant,

but flows through us and out to other people.

And in that other reading,

which was from Johnís Gospel

but not, perhaps fortunately, from chapter 4,

Jesus reminds us that Godís love will flow through us as long as we remain in Jesus,

rather like sap in a vine flows through to the branches.

They are lovely readings.

But the trouble is, all too often they have the opposite effect from what was intended.
They make us feel guilty.
We start to worry

that we are not allowing Godís love to flow through us,

or that we are not remaining in Jesus,

or that God is going to ďpruneĒ us

and cause us endless suffering if we do try to trust him.


Then, of course, we start to feel that we must be really terrible Christians compared to all those faithful ones down the centuries.
And we end up getting our knickers in a right old twist and,

as often as not, feeling guilty whenever we think about God,

and about being a Christian.
So we rather stop,

apart from perhaps the outward appearance Ė
going to Church on Sundays,

maybe even reading our Bibles at home.
But we find we tend to value our worth as Christians by how well or how badly we managed to concentrate on our ďQuiet TimeĒ that day,
or on whether or not we have been to Church this week,

or made our Communion this month.
Or, worst of all, on how many people we have managed to speak to about Jesus in the last few weeks Ė
it doesnít, of course, matter whether we have put them off totally, just so long as we told themÖ..


In short, we carry on as though our salvation depended on us,

and if we didnít do things absolutely right,

we would be cast out as a branch that does not bear fruit.

At which point, some people give up altogether,

reckoning they need to jump before they get pushed.
And others of us soldier on as best we know how,

often very unhappy, and reckoning vaguely that there must be more to Christianity than this!




Well, of course there is!
What Iíve described is really rather a travesty of Christianity.
As John makes clear, and as the John who wrote the Epistle makes clear Ė
they may or may not be the same John, I wouldnít know Ė
being Christian is all Godís idea, not ours.
It was God who first loved us;
it is God whose love is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
All we are asked to do is to remain in Jesus Ė
the older translations use the word ďabideĒ,

which might be clearer.
Stay there.
Stay put.
Stop trying to do Godís work for him!


So okay, we perhaps arenít aware that Godís love is flowing through us to our neighbours Ė
in fact, rather the reverse!
Itís not always easy to get on with people,

and that, too, can make us feel guilty.
We feel that if we were truly Christian,

weíd like everybody, and find people easy to get on with,

and not feel hurt if they were rude or let us down, or whatever.


I donít think thatís whatís meant, though.
Obviously when people hurt us, our duty is to forgive them Ė
the Bible makes that abundantly clear.
But it really isnít always easy,

especially when the wound is fresh and raw.
What we want is for the other person to grovel,

to apologise,

and half the time they donít even realise we were offended!
I remember being terribly worried once,

when I was upset by something someone had said,

and thinking I must be a terrible Christian to mind.


But then I remembered something Ė
Jesus hadnít really let people walk all over him!
He did allow himself to be put to death,

but that was for an excellent reason.
The rest of the time, if you read the Gospel,

he more than holds his own,

and sometimes comes right back at his accusers.
Itís okay to feel hurt when someone upsets you.
Itís also okay not to let yourself be used as a general dogsbody!


Then what about forgiveness and love?
Well, there is a difference between feeling hurt when someone has been rude to you,

and allowing yourself to go on nurturing that grudge!
You know yourself how after a few days you forget about it,

and things stop looming quite so large.
And thatís the time to let it go,

and forgive that person Ė
you can always, if you have scruples,

pray that God will bless them while you wait to be able to let it go!
The thing not to do is to go on brooding about it.

As for love, isnít that something you do, rather than nice feelings?
Weíre never going to like everybody Ė
some people are always going to be more compatible than others.
But the point is, we donít turn away from anybody because they are not ďpeople like usĒ.
We might not seek their company,

we might not choose to spend hours on the telephone with them,

but we greet them cheerfully when we meet them in the street,

and we certainly do what we can to help them when theyíre in need.



But I think the main thing is not to stress if you find you arenít perfect!
This thing is a process.
Becoming a Christian may take a moment Ė
although it can take a lot longer than that when you take all other factors into consideration Ė
but being one is a life-long process.
Jesus said we had to remain in him in order for God to help us bear fruit.
John said that if we were afraid,

we hadnít yet been made perfect in love Ė
you notice itís ďnot yet been made perfectĒ.
Passive voice.
Someone else is doing the making.


Itís the difference between what, technically, is called justification,

and what is called sanctification.
Now, these are jargon words, and itís not a good idea to use them to people who donít know anything about Christianity.
When we become Christians, we are justified.
This is a gift of God that we can only access through faith,

and we canít do anything to help it along ourselves.
What it basically means is, no matter how messed up and horrible we are, God still accepts us and welcomes us and loves us into the Kingdom.
Now, God loves us and welcomes us

and would accept us even if we didnít have faith Ė
itís we who refuse Ė
but when we turn to God in faith,

God reckons us as perfect, even though we arenít.
Itís all to do with what happened on the Cross,

and what happened at the Resurrection.

Anyway, the rest of our lives are spent becoming sanctified,

made whole,

made holy,

made wholly Godís, if you like.

Thatís where all the abiding and remaining comes in,

staying as close to Jesus as we possibly can Ė
and donít forget, he wants us to stay close, too,

so itís not all down to us Ė
and then God can help us grow and change and become fruitful.
Thatís when all that love starts flowing through us and out towards other people.

Someone once described the difference between justification and sanctification like this.
Suppose there was a law against jumping in mud puddles,

and you went out and jumped in the mud anyway.
Not only would you be guilty of breaking the law,

you would also be covered in mud.
When you are justified, you are declared ďnot guiltyĒ of jumping in the puddles,

and when you are sanctified, you have got the mud washed off!


And this all takes its time.
You canít rush into being perfect, or it will never last.
It would be something that you are doing, not something that God is doing.
We have to allow it to take its time.
We know that when we screw up Ė
and we all will screw up, weíre human Ė
that God forgives us.
And gradually we learn to extend that forgiveness to other people,

and to extend the love weíve received from God to other people.
But itís a gradual process, and no need to sweat if you havenít got there.


After all, look at vines.
Jesus likens us to the branches on a vine, and these have to grow.
When you see a vine in winter, itís cut right back down to the rootstock;
it takes all spring and summer for the branches to grow,

and then quite a lot of the autumn for the grapes to ripen and be ready for the harvest.
The branch doesnít have to grow itself,

it doesnít have to expend any effort to bear fruit,

it doesnít have to beat itself up for not being a good branchÖ.

All the branch has to do is remain in the vine.


And all we have to do is to stay close to Jesus.
Just as long as we are committed to being Jesusí person,

then all these things will follow.
We neednít feel guilty.
We neednít feel that we are a hopeless Christian,

or a rotten human being.
All we need know is that we are loved.
For God is love.