Sermon: Easter 4, 22 April 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 22nd April 2018

 Rev. Paul Weaver

THE POWER OF SACRIFICIAL LOVE

(Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18)

“There is no greater love than this: that a person lays down their life for those they love.” Famous words that naturally come to mind as Anzac Day draws near. And in Australia, where we have so many of the good things of life, we are right to be thankful, and to honour the memory of those who served and who risked their lives for our country. So many of them came back injured or changed, and so many died in the service of our country and its allies. Let us never forget, or take for granted, those who have served us at such great cost.

Of course those famous words I quoted come from Jesus, as he spoke to his followers the night before his death for us on the cross. Jesus, the good shepherd, as we heard in our Gospel just a moment ago. The true shepherd, the one who really cares for the sheep, is not just a hired hand who simply wants to get through the day without trouble and get his pay at the end of the day. If danger comes, the hired hand isn’t going to risk his life. The sheep don’t matter that much!

But the good shepherd is not only ready to risk his life for the sheep: he is willing to give his life for the sheep. Surely that is beyond the call of duty!

And yet the good shepherd does it willingly. He does it not because he is forced to, but because that is what is needed. We joined together this morning in perhaps the best-known and most-loved of all the Psalms: Psalm 23 – “the Lord’s my shepherd”. God our shepherd cares for us: he provides for our needs, he is with us when life is tough, and as his people we are assured that we shall always be at home in his presence.

Jesus the Good Shepherd adds another dimension to that beautiful picture. No longer is our loving shepherd the unseen God, for God has come among us in person to demonstrate his love. Jesus is the Lord, the Good Shepherd, whose sacrificial love brings us salvation, and who has saved us from our spiritual enemies of sin and evil and death. The good shepherd shows us divine sacrificial love. The good shepherd also guides us along the path of life, as Psalm 23 reminds us. And the path of life is also the path of love.

In his first letter, John wanted to help his readers to stay on the right path. He knew that his readers – and us too – so easily stray off the track, and go off in the wrong direction.

Reading this letter, as our lectionary has us doing these Sundays after Easter, we find a number of ideas that keep on reappearing. It’s a lovely and interesting letter, but to some people it must be a bit frustrating. It’s not a neatly organized letter, like those of Paul for example. It has important things to say, but seems to keep going round in circles.

In the letter John has some themes that he keeps coming back to. We can think of them as right belief or faith, real obedience and genuine love.

Belief, obedience and love. John points out that they all matter, and they have much more to do with each other than people might think. Indeed they are all mentioned in today’s reading, and they are all essential parts of a true Christian life.

John wants us to belong to the truth: trusting in Jesus the Messiah, the fulfilment of God’s wonderful promises, the great Saviour and King, and indeed God incarnate: God coming among us to live – and to die for us. John is concerned that if we invent our own version of Jesus, we will indeed wander off the track and turn away from the blessings that come because of who Jesus is and because of what he has done for us. We need to hold onto the truth about Jesus.

But John wants us also to be serious about obedience to God’s commands. It is disobedience to God that got us into our human mess in the first place. In his commandments God showed us the way to live. By rejecting God’s call and setting our own standards, we separated ourselves from God’s blessings and God’s promises.

But God did not give up on us: coming amongst us in the person of Jesus, he again showed us how to live; but more than that, he took care of our moral and spiritual debt, so that he could forgive us without trivializing our sinfulness and without compromising his standards of righteousness. As forgiven people we have not yet spiritually or morally arrived, as we were reminded a couple of weeks ago when John emphasized the importance of admitting and confessing our sins. But confession is not merely about setting the count at zero so that we can start sinning again.

I guess we are right now concerned that all these confessions from bank executives mean nothing – unless there is a real determination to change their banks’ dishonest ways. So it is to be with us. As John says, we open up to God’s blessings as we seek to obey God’s commandments and do what pleases him. It is not about perfection here and now, but it is about the direction of our lives.

Right belief and true obedience, and then genuine love. We receive the blessings of God’s love, and he commands us to reflect that love in our lives. As John writes: “this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another just as he has commanded us”. And love is not just a matter of nice feelings: love is active. We see someone in need, and we are in a position to help. Love is not just about feeling sorry for them or even saying a prayer for them: it means actually doing what we can to help. God did not just feel sad that we had turned away from him: he acted in love to deal with our problem of sin. That is what love does: it does.

And love can be costly: it can involve effort, generosity, inconvenience, and it can involve overcoming our feelings. There are people whom we find it easy to love, but sometimes God calls us to show love to people whom we find it hard to love: it may be something about their appearance or background or manner, it may be something they have done which has put up barriers between us. As John puts it: “let us love, not in words and speech, but in truth and action.”

Obeying God and loving others may not be something which puts our life at risk here in Australia, but it certainly can have its costs. In our reading from Acts, Peter had healed a man lame from birth. He and John had found themselves under arrest and under questioning by the local authorities, who obviously realized their connection with Jesus, and who also would have been aware of claims that he has risen from the dead.

It would be natural for Peter and John to soft-pedal and try to keep themselves out of further trouble. But Peter – being Peter of course – went straight to the point. A wonderful healing had indeed taken place. How? It was “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead…and there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name….by which we must be saved.”

For Peter, being open about Jesus and the message of Jesus was part of his obedience; it was an expression of his faith and of his love for Jesus. And it expressed his love for other people, for he wanted others to receive the salvation which he had received, and which is offered to all who trust in Jesus.

Many of you will be aware of the Christian footballer Israel Falou, who has got into a good deal of trouble for his comments on homosexuality on Instagram. His comments have been seen as homophobic and have been widely condemned, but he believes that he was being true to his Christian faith and to the message of the scriptures. He also believes that he was being loving to the person who contacted him on the web about the subject, by explaining the implications of the Gospel message.

I think I see where he is coming from, although I am not sure that he has been wise. Giving simple answers on social media is not the same as having a personal conversation with someone. Difficult issues have to be handled with sensitivity and understanding, and generally they are best addressed personally, not through the megaphone of social media. And I also think there are aspects of scripture that he has missed in trying to give a clear answer to the questioner. But I do have to acknowledge that he is following in Peter’s footsteps in being open about the message of Jesus as he understands it. And his experience reminds us that the Christian message for all sorts of reasons does not have the social acceptance that it once had.

It is a message of grace and love, but it is also a message of clarity, which is not a popular thing today. People want religion to be warm and fuzzy and vague, and preferably undemanding. To challenge this misunderstanding is to risk unpopularity!

This week then we remember those who have made great sacrifices. Those who have served our nation and people in time of war. And our Saviour Jesus who gave his life to bring us forgiveness and hope. And we also remember those who have given their lives or made other great sacrifices in faithfulness to Jesus.

The demands of faith are not always easy: right belief, real obedience and genuine love can be very demanding. But our true shepherd has shown us the way, and when it is hard, he is with us – even in the darkest valley, that valley of the shadow of death. Amen.                                       Paul Weaver