Sermon: Pentecost 13, 3September 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 3rd September 2017

 Reverend Paul Weaver

LOVE BRINGS PEOPLE TOGETHER

 (Ex 3:1-15; Ps 105:1-6,23-26; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28)

Five weeks ago this morning Sarah and I were at the Sunday morning service in the ancient abbey of Iona, off the coast of Scotland.  The liturgy and music were stimulating and involving. The sermon was given by a young leader of the youth program, and he was preaching on Romans 12:9-21, which I knew was our passage for this morning’s services. I of course listened with particular interest, to see what he would bring out of the passage, with its emphasis on practical love.

The question he got us to think about was this: whom do we exclude from the sort of love Paul is talking about? Whom wouldn’t we treat that way?

It’s not such an unfamiliar question: a young man asked Jesus the question in a different way when he asked Jesus: “Who is my neighbour?” Behind that question was the real question: “Who isn’t my neighbour? Who am I not required to love as myself?”

Today, we live in a world and a society where we are encouraged to draw boundaries. There are people whom we would accept, people to whom we might show love: and then there are people whom we easily exclude from that sort of love and consideration.

Our politicians want us to exclude many refugees and asylum seekers from that sort of love. Indeed, one of the sad things about the world today is the trend of suspicion and division that rejects and even demonizes people who are “not like us”, with the aim of supposedly protecting ourselves against them. We saw it in the Brexit campaign and the American election, and we see it in so much of the violence which seems to be increasing in our world today.

Although I have been out of Australia for five weeks, I get the impression that it has also been happening as the plebiscite gets closer. I gather that people speaking against same-sex marriage have sometimes been saying cruel and untrue things against gay people. I gather also that others have been making unfair accusations against those who believe that same-sex marriage should not be legalized.

To many people, the case for legalizing same-sex marriage seems fairly obvious. I suspect that much of the active opposition to it comes from Christians who have considered the issues carefully and have come to believe that same-sex marriage is contrary to principles taught in scripture, and also believe that legalizing it will lead to a range of results which will be harmful to society, as well as the Christian church. Of course, not all Christians have come to that conclusion.

I am not going to argue the case one way or another. You can find plenty of material on both sides, including some websites which have been indicated in our bulletin. I would however point out that whatever our views, and however strongly we hold them,we need to express them in a way which reflects the principles that Paul spells out in this passage. Such a personal and powerful issue needs to be handled with particular grace if it is not going to cause unnecessary hurt to many people – people on both sides of the debate. It is obvious that people can express opposition to same-sex marriage in a way which is very hurtful to gay people. It is also true that those who honestly and thoughtfully feel they must oppose it can be vilified and ridiculed for their expressions of concern. We need to remember that those with whom we disagree, however strongly, are still our neighbours.

In today’s passage, Paul spells out some of the practical aspects of what it means to live a truly Christian life. He writes about those personal qualities which are so important to a healthy Christian life: that zeal or commitment which sees our faith as something which must affect our whole life, and is far more than a bit of a hobby; that hope which guides us forward towards God’s call and God’s promises; that patience or perseverance which keeps us going when we might be tempted to take it easy or even to give up.

And he writes of that holiness which seeks to obey God and reflect his goodness and righteousness, even when current values are different from God’s ways; and that commitment to prayer which keeps us personally in touch with our heavenly Father.

But Paul’s message here is not just about our individual Christian lives: it is also about the life of Christ’s church and our contribution to it. Christ’s church is Christ’s family, and Paul calls us to treat each other as brothers and sisters, loving each other, supporting each other, caring for each other.

We are to show respect and honour to each other. We are to be hospitable to each other.

One side of that hospitality is the way we welcome people to St.Alban’s. Yes, we are often good at welcoming visitors and new people: but particularly at morning tea and other informal occasions, do we keep an eye out for the newcomer, making sure that they are included, and not just left on their own? Do people think of St.Alban’s as a congregation where people truly love one another? Do people think of St.Alban’s as a congregation which is welcoming to the visitor and the newcomer? Do we see someone on their own, and make the effort to include them?

And Paul also calls us to be generous to one another, not just financially but in giving of our time and our efforts, especially to Christians in difficult situations, and to projects which reach out to people in Christ’s name.

But Paul also calls us to reach out in love beyond the life of the church, to people who may or may not be like us, to people of other churches and others faiths, and of no faith. Like Jesus himself, we are to bless those who hurt us: we are to bless rather than curse them or lash out, or to nurse anger and resentment. We are to be willing to forgive.

And we are to be humble: not putting ourselves down, but acknowledging the humanity and the significance of those people we might be tempted to put down or to judge. We are to seek good relations with people, especially those with whom we disagree. So many of us easily reject people and their ideas and their arguments, without really trying to understand them at all. Of course we will not agree with all people on all things: truly seeking to understand others doesn’t get rid of all the differences, but it does give us a chance to truly consider different ideas, and to treat people fairly and with grace. And we might still disagree, but we will do it with respect, and even with love.

Politicians and the media thrive on divisions: we will thrive on love and understanding, humility and respect. And again, we are to be forgiving people: it is so natural to hold onto anger, but we need to seek God’s help to let love play its role when we are hurting and when other people are hurting. Forgiveness makes things better: the refusal to forgive, and especially the attempts to get back at someone who has hurt us, only make it worse.

In Romans 1-11, Paul has explained the Gospel message. Some of his doctrine is complex and challenging, but at its heart it is all about God’s grace: God’s willingness to forgive us when we deserve his judgement – his generosity to us who do not deserve it. From this chapter on, the focus is on how we live our lives as Christ’s followers. If God has treated us with grace, we must reflect that grace in the way we treat each other, and the way we treat all people.

At this time of division and potential hurt in our society, we must express our ideas with grace and humility. We must recognize the humanity of those with whom we disagree. We need to express our views with respect and courtesy. The person we might not naturally love is one of those we are called to love.

And in our own church we must keep seeking to show love to each other. Yes, there is much for which we can be thankful at St.Alban’s, but we still have a way to go, and things we need to work on, lessons to learn.

As Christians and as a church, we are still on a journey, we are certainly not there yet. We will still fall short. We will still make mistakes. We will sometimes need to apologize, and to see what we can learn. And we will sometimes need to forgive.

God graciously brings us to himself through the Gospel. Let us then keep seeking to grow in love and humility and understanding, reaching out with grace to one another and to our neighbours: whoever they may be, no matter how different they may be. As God has done for us, we are not to push people apart, but to play our part in bringing people together, in love. Amen.

Paul Weaver