18 May 2003
God Is Love
Once upon a time,
Jane was going to get married,
her friend Jemima decided to send them a text message wishing the happy couple
She thought of the verse that we had in our first reading,
is no fear in love.
But perfect love drives out fear”,
but, text messages being what they are,
decided just to send the reference:
1 John 4:18.
Unfortunately, in her haste, she omitted the “1”,
showing that it was John’s letter rather than John’s Gospel,
the verse Jane found when she looked it up in the Gospel read:
“For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”
But, seriously, that is a wonderful passage from John’s letter that we have just heard read.
Reminding us, over and over again how much we are loved,
how that love works out in us through love for others.
God’s love is not static nor stagnant,
flows through us and out to other people.
And in that other reading,
which was from John’s Gospel
but not, perhaps fortunately, from chapter 4,
Jesus reminds us that God’s love will flow through us as long as we remain in Jesus,
like sap in a vine flows through to the branches.
are lovely readings.
the trouble is, all too often they have the opposite effect from what was
They make us feel guilty.
We start to worry
that we are not allowing God’s love to flow through us,
or that we are not remaining in Jesus,
or that God is going to “prune” us
and cause us endless suffering if we do try to trust him.
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,
about being a Christian.
So we rather stop,
from perhaps the outward appearance –
going to Church on Sundays,
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 “Quiet Time” that day,
or on whether or not we have been to Church this week,
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 –
it doesn’t, of course, matter whether we have put them off totally, just so long as we told them…..
In short, we carry on as though our salvation depended on us,
and if we didn’t do things absolutely right,
would be cast out as a branch that does not bear fruit.
At which point, some people give up altogether,
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!
of course there is!
What I’ve described is really rather a travesty of Christianity.
As John makes clear, and as the John who wrote the Epistle makes clear –
they may or may not be the same John, I wouldn’t know –
being Christian is all God’s 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 –
the older translations use the word “abide”,
might be clearer.
Stop trying to do God’s work for him!
okay, we perhaps aren’t aware that God’s love is flowing through us to our
in fact, rather the reverse!
It’s not always easy to get on with people,
that, too, can make us feel guilty.
We feel that if we were truly Christian,
we’d like everybody, and find people easy to get on with,
and not feel hurt if they were rude or let us down, or whatever.
don’t think that’s what’s meant, though.
Obviously when people hurt us, our duty is to forgive them –
the Bible makes that abundantly clear.
But it really isn’t always easy,
when the wound is fresh and raw.
What we want is for the other person to grovel,
half the time they don’t 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.
then I remembered something –
Jesus hadn’t really let people walk all over him!
He did allow himself to be put to death,
that was for an excellent reason.
The rest of the time, if you read the Gospel,
he more than holds his own,
sometimes comes right back at his accusers.
It’s okay to feel hurt when someone upsets you.
It’s also okay not to let yourself be used as a general dogsbody!
what about forgiveness and love?
Well, there is a difference between feeling hurt when someone has been rude to you,
allowing yourself to go on nurturing that grudge!
You know yourself how after a few days you forget about it,
things stop looming quite so large.
And that’s the time to let it go,
forgive that person –
you can always, if you have scruples,
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.
for love, isn’t that something you do, rather than nice feelings?
We’re never going to like everybody –
some people are always going to be more compatible than others.
But the point is, we don’t turn away from anybody because they are not “people like us”.
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,
we certainly do what we can to help them when they’re in need.
I think the main thing is not to stress if you find you aren’t perfect!
This thing is a process.
Becoming a Christian may take a moment –
although it can take a lot longer than that when you take all other factors into consideration –
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,
hadn’t yet been made perfect in love –
you notice it’s “not yet been made perfect”.
Someone else is doing the making.
It’s the difference between what, technically, is called justification,
what is called sanctification.
Now, these are jargon words, and it’s not a good idea to use them to people who don’t know anything about Christianity.
When we become Christians, we are justified.
This is a gift of God that we can only access through faith,
we can’t 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
would accept us even if we didn’t have faith –
it’s we who refuse –
but when we turn to God in faith,
reckons us as perfect, even though we aren’t.
It’s all to do with what happened on the Cross,
what happened at the Resurrection.
Anyway, the rest of our lives are spent becoming sanctified,
made wholly God’s, if you like.
That’s where all the abiding and remaining comes in,
as close to Jesus as we possibly can –
and don’t forget, he wants us to stay close, too,
it’s not all down to us –
and then God can help us grow and change and become fruitful.
That’s when all that love starts flowing through us and out towards other people.
once described the difference between justification and sanctification like
Suppose there was a law against jumping in mud puddles,
you went out and jumped in the mud anyway.
Not only would you be guilty of breaking the law,
would also be covered in mud.
When you are justified, you are declared “not guilty” of jumping in the puddles,
and when you are sanctified, you have got the mud washed off!
this all takes its time.
You can’t 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 –
and we all will screw up, we’re human –
that God forgives us.
And gradually we learn to extend that forgiveness to other people,
to extend the love we’ve received from God to other people.
But it’s a gradual process, and no need to sweat if you haven’t got there.
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, it’s cut right back down to the rootstock;
it takes all spring and summer for the branches to grow,
then quite a lot of the autumn for the grapes to ripen and be ready for the
The branch doesn’t have to grow itself,
it doesn’t have to expend any effort to bear fruit,
it doesn’t have to beat itself up for not being a good branch….
All the branch has to do is remain in the vine.
all we have to do is to stay close to Jesus.
Just as long as we are committed to being Jesus’ person,
all these things will follow.
We needn’t feel guilty.
We needn’t feel that we are a hopeless Christian,
a rotten human being.
All we need know is that we are loved.
For God is love.