s101g^97 9/3/97 Somerton Park Lent 4 Mothering Sunday

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. John 3:16

In this world we are so used to the scientific and mathematical logic taught these days that we think that because 1+1 always equal 2, the opposite is always true 2-1=1. While that works in mathematics all the time, it does not work with spiritual truths.

Let me take a couple of examples. We are told by St Paul: "God loves a cheerful giver". (2 Cor 9:7.) Turning that around we might be tempted to say "God hates those who give begrudgingly" - but that is not true. God loves everyone - he sent Jesus to die and to rise again for one and for all.

Similarly, the Book of Common Prayer (1662) at the end of the service of baptism of Infants says: "It is certain by God's Word, that children which are baptised, dying before they commit actual sin, are undoubtedly saved." This follows the teaching of St Augustine of Hippo who died in 430 AD. So generations of the faithful have rushed off after the birth of a child to have the baby baptised lest death strike and the opposite happen - that the child die unbaptised, without committing actual sin, so are undoubtedly damned".

Some of the devotion of past generations was nothing short of heroic. So "on the morning of November the 25th 1881, a child was born to Giovani Battista Roncalli and his wife Marianna, a first son after three daughters. By midafternoon, although the wind still raged and cold rain fell steadily, the mother had risen from her bed and with her husband, prepared to set out for the parish church ... if the Lord summoned (the child) this very day, he would go to the heavenly father properly baptised ... they marched out into the storm ... to the little Church of Santa Maria of Brusico ... to learn that the parish priest was in the neighbouring village visiting the sick ... there was no question of returning home ... late in the evening the priest returned" and the child was duly baptised. ("I will be called John" Lawrence Elliott p11-13)

The spiritual truth given by the Church to offer some comfort to parents bereaved of young children is so turned around that God can only be described as monstrous. Please note that I am not criticising the parents of those who bring children to baptism, even in the difficult circumstances described above. It is the turning around of the spiritual statement which causes real problems. Incidentally the child baptised was to become Pope John the 23rd, a person whose life epitomised the word "catholic" - embracing all.

So too with today's quotation - it cannot be turned around. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." This cannot be turned around to imply that anyone who doesn't believe in Jesus will perish. This would make our faith into a "work" about which we could boast and God into a person who damned anyone who wasn't sufficiently gullible and/or compliant. That is simply not true. God loves everyone, and everyone equally.

Indeed Jesus does continue to talk about condemnation for those who do not believe, but we need to ask what this condemnation is.

Again we assume condemnation is the opposite of being saved. And being saved is most importantly a future reality. Whatever our present state, and however salvation impinges on our present reality, we have been conditioned to think primarily of salvation as the hope offered by God through the Church that we will "get into heaven". We don't ask that we sit on Jesus' left or right hand - to give him eternal pins and needles - just as long as we are there somewhere.

So being condemned is the opposite of this - not making the grade finally.

Yet we are told that: "those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God". There can lead us to a soft option, we can say - well Jesus doesn't actually condemn anyone himself - people condemn themselves. God (and hence the Church herself) bears no responsibility if people choose not to believe. They alone are responsible.

How easy it is to retain the barriers. How much would we (I myself as much as anyone else) prefer to retain our faith as a "work" so we can boast and turn God into a person who damned anyone who wasn't gullible and/or compliant. We start to value and proclaim our gullibility and compliance rather than the graciousness of God, and we end up remarkably like the Pharisee in the Temple who prayed: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. (Luke 18:11).

Perhaps we could think about how much other people would love to believe in the God who has touched our hearts so, but for whom life has not dealt such an easy hand. Perhaps we could ponder life without our faith and what that might actually mean in practical terms. We too might join the scramble for the top, climbing over everyone else, in the "survival of the fittest" mentality that (I suppose) Darwin would credit humanity as the supreme example. Indeed it could be worth pondering - for if our faith makes no difference to our actions, perhaps we might question what we believe. If our universe is still centred on me, my success, my comfort, my "getting into heaven" - what has the touch of God actually lead me to do?

It is wonderful that this reading occurs on the Anglican Church's celebration of Mothering Sunday. If the following words are sexist, I apologise, at least they are sexist in reverse. May the love most particularly associated with a mother, that love which is completely illogical, which loves not "in return" but simply because the child is - be our model here. Lets put aside the male logic, which sadly has so often lead to fear and domination.

Jesus later in the readings says: "For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God." (John 3:21).

Perhaps these can be put alongside the (perhaps) lesser truth that William Shakespeare said in the "Merchant of Venice" II vi 36 "Love is blind and lovers cannot see The pretty follies that they themselves commit." In this sense God is blind. Certainly God could see if he was to concentrate on all our faults and failings, but loving us, he sees beyond these "pretty follies" to the real person we are.

Of course if we proclaim an all-seeing all-powerful sin-hating God - people will hate the light and will avoid it like the plague. What sort of God do we think God is? What sort of God do we proclaim to others? If we have simply replaced material success (replaced and thus sanctified) by spiritual success, how does that God differ from the unbeliever?

In the Old Testament, I am told that the root meaning of the word "salvation" is "to be wide" "spacious", to be able to "develop without hindrance" (F J Taylor in "The Theological Word Book of the Bible" ed Alan Richardson p219) Salvation (and condemnation) are present realities, they describe our present existence. Salvation means we are open to others with the blindness of which William Shakespeare speaks. Condemnation means we are focussed on ourselves, and (being so often our own worst enemies) not liking what we see.

God indeed looks at us and all of humanity and sees that it, as he did in the beginning of time - "very good" - that we are "very good". May we find the same eyes, for others and for ourselves, and be blind to the "pretty follies" in ourselves and others.

I could finish a sermon for Mothering Sunday no better than quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah: "Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you." (Isaiah 49:15).




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