The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r063.htm
s063e02 Lockleys 27/10/02 Sunday 30
"You accepted (the word) not as a human word but as what it really is, God's word" 1 Thess 2.12
Later this evening our nine candidates for Confirmation will solemnly affirm before our Archbishop that they "turn to Christ", "repent of (their) sins", "reject selfish living, and all that is false and unjust", "renounce Satan and all evil", and that they will "strive to live as a disciple of Christ, loving God with (their) whole heart, and (their) neighbours as (themselves)." They will, of course, not attempt to do all these things by themselves. We, as the congregation will be asked to affirm that we will support them as they try. Finally they will affirm as theirs the faith of the Church in the words of the Creed.
And I have no doubt that as a congregation, we will look on with some pride and joy, as these fine young individuals take this important step on their Christian journey. If we are parents or grandparents our pride and joy will be even greater as we realise that our children and grandchildren are moving a step closer towards maturity and independence - a goal for us all. A little part of our task in life is complete.
These affirmations, which of course echo the first part of our gospel reading, are good and right and proper. They are contained in the words of the new form of Confirmation service in our A Prayer Book for Australia (1996 page 56), but probably few noticed, these are in fact somewhat expanded from the affirmations made in the service of confirmation in the 1978 An Australian Prayer Book. There the candidates simply affirmed that they turned to Christ, repented of their sins, renounced evil and that they would strive to keep God's holy will. (page 536)
The obvious additions are that people are now asked to affirm are: to reject selfish living and all that is false and unjust, and Satan gets a guernsey by name. And I wonder: Are we making it harder for people to be Christians? Our our standards getting higher? This of course begs the question: Can we afford to raise our standards of membership? And, rather more importantly, is this what God would have us do?
Now I would not want to be taken as suggesting that we should not be asked to live in this way, but my perverse mind asks why these particular aspects of Christian living are specially selected as worthy of inclusion. To illustrate what I mean, I might personally suggest that candidates be asked to affirm that they will forgive themselves as readily as God forgives them - that they will forgive themselves when they can't forgive themselves as they know God would desire for them. For these are actually the things I find hardest to do myself.
When I was in New York it was suggested to me that I try to attend a particular Church to hear a particular minister preach. In the course of my finding out the times of the services at the church, I found out that the text of his sermon for the coming Sunday was "Called to be philosophers and philanthropists" and again my perverse mind responded, well God will have to have me just as I am! I went elsewhere and enjoyed the words of a female Professor as she wrestled with the theodicy of God. I particularly appreciated her statement that Christ frees us from the eternal cycle of grace, apostasy, destruction and restoration which is evident in the pages of the Old Testament.
Again I was speaking to one of the hostel residents who said that she should be more assertive. I confessed that I don't find it easy to be anyone other than who I am, with all my faults and foibles. We were watching "Shrek" the other day, and the story ends up with the princess accepting she was loved as she was, not as the beautiful princess she had always thought she was.
I find it interesting, in our first lesson from Leviticus today that the command to "be holy" is immediately explained in terms - not of our religious devotion towards God - but in the way we get on with other people - to pick out just one - not being partial to the poor or deferring to the great. Did you pick the description of Jesus that the scribes and pharisees tried to flatter him with in last weeks readings? "You defer to no one". Their real gripe with Jesus was that he deferred to everyone, even the tax collectors and sinners.
I also find it interesting that Jesus answers the question about who is the Messiah, with a question in return. Neither God, nor Jesus, nor the Bible are there to answer all our questions. They are there for us to do something, to act in a certain way, and particularly to act is a specific way towards those around us.
Of course it is quite impossible to obey a command to love. Love cannot, by it's very nature, be forced. Love is freely given or it isn't love at all. Properly an act of love done in a spirit of compulsion would properly be called obedience, and of course there is nothing wrong with obedience or the good things that are done in this spirit. I actually think that many blessings come when one does things one would actually prefer not to. But the old horrey story of the "shotgun wedding" was never true. Such a wedding would be automatically invalid precisely because one of the parties were not making a free decision.
Love is different from obedience - indeed a command to love is an oxymoron - entirely self defeating. As soon as we love because we have to - it is no longer love.
So this goes some way to answer how we can possibly "love" the terrorists who flew those planes into the towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, or those responsible for the bombs in Bali. It is too much of an ask and we ought to make this plain. Christians are human after all, well at least I am :-)
If we come to Church because we *have to* we will still benefit, but it is not an act of love. So there is no point whatsoever in saying to society "out there" that they should love God and come to Church - or they will suffer in eternal damnation. This is to entirely miss the point about love, and will make it impossible for anyone to attain.
Love comes in response to grace.
It is interesting that young people "in love" are often "in love" not just with the person of their affection, but with the whole world. They see everyone and everything through "rose coloured glasses". I was reflecting on the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, recently. This focusses only initially on the grace she has received personally, but moves immediately to all of God's acts of grace towards everyone. "He has mercy on those who fear him, from generation to generation". There should be more of this, not less.
I am sorry if anyone thinks that I am criticising Jesus, for I am not. The word to love is not a command to obey, but the same as the creative word of God in the beginning, where God spoke and things came into being. So as Jesus speaks this word, again and again - love comes into our lives and love is created in us. As we hear the words of grace and as we take the body and blood of our Lord, this word becomes effective in our lives. As we find love continually reawakening in us, the rose coloured glasses also become ours, and we see the world with different eyes. We see others as people - not as individuals with faults to rectify - both the individuals who are the immediate objects of our affection - as well as others.
Seeing the command to love in this way means that we have no grounds for boasting. The love that God asks of us is entirely supplied by God. We are no better than others - others are there to love as we are able. No comparisons between people are possible.
I was interested to have a brief discussion with someone who described the bombers in Bali as "evil" and, while I probably would not disagree, I guess I rankled at the continuing paradigm of the Church and white Anglo-Saxon civilisation being portrayed as good and others being evil. The reality is that the bombers, whoever they are are, most likely to be motivated by religious as much as any other considerations. And then I thought of those very stark words of Jesus: "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Matthew 7:11). Of course the Mafia are extremely good at looking after their own. Even evil people look after their own, and don't look beyond self delineated boundaries, whether those boundaries be determined by colour, race, gender, faith, sexuality or whatever. God is quite different. God gives good things to those who ask him - whoever they are - and never to the detriment of anyone else - again, whoever they are.
And I would have to say that the Church has often reinforced precisely these boundaries and in doing so cannot escape the charge of not being much different from evil persons. I think it is precisely here that we find the truth of those other rather uncomfortable words of Jesus: "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26).
So today's message is that the command to love is impossible to achieve. If we are to love, it is because we know that God first loved us and others as well. God's love is given primarily that we love others, whoever they are, without discrimination and without boundaries, for evil people regularly love those who fit in to their perceptions of "normality".
And I want to suggest that as we do this, our love for God will also grow as we find God working to bring the possibility of peace and respect for the whole of humanity. God is no longer an ogre, measuring how frequently we are in Church or how often we are on our knees. God has both a message of peace for the world and has done something about it, in Jesus, who also loved beyond the boundaries as he sat down and ate with people other than the religious authorities, and of course was killed for doing so.
But the message of Easter is that Christ is raised, and we will still find Jesus where he always has been - blessing with his presence the lives of others. And as we see this blessing in others we too will be blessed and we will know God's word of peace.
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