Sermon: The Third Sunday of Easter (B) – 19th April 2015

St Aidan’s Anglican Church, West Epping  8.30am

Readings:   Acts 3:12-20; Psalm 4; 1 John 2:15-17 & 3:1-6; Luke 24:36-48

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.” Some of the best-known and best-loved words of the Bible: words which really sum up the whole Christian message. They come from the Gospel of John, written by the same person as the writer of 1 John, part of which we read this morning.

And yet, what were the first words of todays reading from that letter? “Do not love the world.” How strange! If God loves the world, should not we love the world? How do these apparent contradictions fit together?

It all depends! It all depends on what you mean by “the world”, and what you mean by “love”.

When we think of the world, we might think of creation, or our particular part of creation, planet earth. This is God’s creation, and God values this world and wants us to care for it. Yes, we use its resources, but we are to use them responsibly, according to his purposes: at the moment, it seems to me that short term economic gains seem to be getting priority over responsible care for this world, and the needs of future generations who will also have their place in the world are often being sidelined.

But I don’t think that is what John is talking about here. When we hear those words “God so loved the world…” we know that it is not the planet itself that is referred to. It is the people who live on this planet: people made in the image of God, people valued by God, people beloved of God – despite our sins and failings. God loves people. God loves us!

And so it follows that Jesus tells us to love others: to love one another, to love our Christian brothers and sisters, to love our parents and children and families, to love our neighbour – who can be anyone, even to love our enemy. Loving people is part of following Jesus.

But just as we know that many words have different meanings or different shades of meaning, so it is with some words in the Bible. Hence “the world” can refer to the people of the world, beloved by God: but it can also have a rather different meaning.

The world can also be seen as the system of human activity which is opposed to God and to his purposes. Ultimately it is humanity under the control of Satan, rejecting God’s purposes for us and the world. You might remember that Jesus described Satan as the ruler of this world. This is the world, the distorted world if you like, that John refers to in our passage.

So we have a different connotation for the word “world”.

But we also need to think about the word “to love”. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbour, he is calling us to genuine concern for the well-being of others, a readiness to act for their good, a willingness to help them when they are in need, to act sacrificially in their interests if that is required.

That is of course how God loved the world according to John 3:16. But we recognize different shades of meaning in the way people use the word “love” today: people can love their family, they can love going on holidays, they can make love, they can love pizza, they may love their country, they may love their partner in life.

And when John tells us not to love the world, we need to see his shade of meaning. To love the world, as John refers to it here, is not about acting in the best interests of its people: it is to get caught up in its desires and priorities and attractions. The world encourages us to get more and more money and possessions and comfort; to look after Number 1; to seek more and more pleasures and new experiences; to get ahead of other people. The world says it is OK to use people rather than truly love others. The world says that it is normal to hate and to exclude those who aren’t our kind of people, or may even be a threat to our comfort.

What the world offers seems attractive, but it can be like a drug that sucks us in and destroys us. To love the world is to get caught up in the priorities and desires that belong to this world, so that they become too important. To love things instead of people. To love the things that this world offers instead of loving God. The world encourages us to put God second or third or last, and ultimately it stifles real spiritual life out of us.

We are not to love the world this way. We are not to place so much value on the things that this world offers that they get in the way of God. In a sense, Paul says much the same thing when he says that covetousness, literally the desire for more and more, is idolatry. It places something other than God in first place instead of God.

Yes, there is much that is attractive and enjoyable, and fine in itself, in this world – things we might well enjoy and appreciate – but they can become too important; they can take first place over God and his ways and his purposes for us.

John warns us against “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches”. It is not unlike the story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. The serpent showed Eve the tree whose fruit was good for food; it was a delight to the eyes; and it was to be desired to make one wise. It would feel good; it looked good; and it appealed to her pride.

And so Eve and Adam were sucked into what became the ways of the world. But as John points out, the world and its priorities are passing away: any pleasure and advantage is temporary. Ultimately the things that this world offers will not last. They will have no value in God’s kingdom. So we might appreciate many things in this world, but we need to keep a true perspective: appreciating what is good, but not being dominated by these things, and being able to let them go when that is required.

After all, what really matters is loving God, loving people, following Jesus and living his way. As John says, we are God’s children: not just made by him, not even just made in his image: but related to our heavenly Father is a unique way. We are called to live as God’s children: reflecting something of the goodness and love of our heavenly Father.

Of course we will fall short. And John seems to set us an impossibly high standard. “No one who abide in him sins”, he writes. “No one who sins has either seen him or known him.” No sin! Perfection? How can we possibly have any hope if perfection is the standard?

But we can miss John’s point. John is not talking about our falls and failures. He is talking about our way of life, our direction in life. The person he is describing here, grammatically speaking, is the one who keeps on sinning, the one who sees sinning as the normal way to live. If we abide in Jesus, sin will not be the direction of our life, sin will not be the defining characteristic of our life. Yes, we shall continue to fall short, we shall still commit sin, but we shall keep going basically along the path of obedience as followers of Christ, even with our slips and mistakes. Remember that as Christians, we take sin seriously: we seek to live God’s way. But we don’t get obsessed by sin, because Christ has died to bring us forgiveness and assurance.

Our knowledge of God and our knowledge of Jesus is incomplete. We have not yet arrived. But we are on the path, as followers of Christ.

So here we are, God’s children living in this world with its traps and temptations. And yes, perhaps some of the temptations that were once significant don’t seem so important to us in our current stage of life! But there is still the temptation to put things ahead of people, to put comfort and security ahead of trusting God, to take the safe and easy way when we could reach out to others.

Let’s keep seeking to love God, to love others, to follow Jesus, and live God’s way: let’s keep going along that path to the kingdom to which we belong. And let’s do it with trust and confidence in God’s purposes, his forgiveness and his faithfulness. After all, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” Amen.

Reverend Paul Weaver