As you'll see, I went in the end for a straight-forward sermon about the love of God. Here it is:
There is no doubt that both our readings have a lot to say about love.
Perhaps the greatest statement is that of Jesus, saying ‘There is no greater love than this, that someone should lay down his life for his friends’.
To give your life is the ultimate in self-sacrifice, it is true. It would be a faithful friend indeed who would offer their life for another. Just yesterday on the radio there was a programme giving the result of a survey that the average Briton has 3 really close friends. You might like to think about your own friends, and wonder whether any of them would give their life for you – or whether you would give your life for them.
But of course the symbol of Christ’s death on the cross is not only a symbol of a man laying down his life for his friends, but the ultimate symbol of God’s
vast love for us. We might sing or talk of Jesus stretching out his arms in love for the world on the cross – and not pause to consider how profound this sacrifice really is. This is not just the death of a man – this is the creator of all that is… become flesh and submitting to the worst that human beings can do. We need poets and hymn-writers to help us to marvel at this love.
Betjeman’s description of “The maker of the stars and sea, become a child on earth for me”; or Graham Kendrick’s description of “Hands that flung stars into space, to cruel nails surrendered”.
This is why for so many centuries, Christians have chosen to look at depictions of Christ on the cross, and to see not just awful torture, but immense love. God’s love for everyone – for you, for me.
Sometimes people have asked me why I feel that God loves me, where this sense of being loved comes from. I have to reply that I begin with the wonder of creation, and cannot help but believe in God as creator. The faithful people of God tells me that this God chooses to relate to people, and that ultimately God chooses to become human in Jesus Christ. The historical evidence is that this Jesus Christ died on a cross. This is the depth of the love of God – to die for us; and to rise again to show us the power of the love of God. This makes me – makes everyone who chooses to accept it - a loved child of God.
Flowing from this realisation of God’s love for each one of us is the command of Jesus – love one another as I have loved you.
It may seem strange to be commanded to love. I’m reminded of the often-heard parting shot given to children by adults ‘be nice’. It seems to me that each of us may have a tendency to be nice, or quite nice, or really rather nasty – but that largely it’s a character trait we can do very little about. But of course the adult isn’t telling the child to change the way they intrinsically are – what they really mean is ‘behave yourself’ - perhaps not ‘be nice’ but ‘act nice’ would be more accurate.
When Jesus commands us to love one another, he is not expecting us to magic up soppy feelings about other people that really aren’t there at all – he is telling us to act lovingly, and by reminding us that we are all children of God he is reminding us of what it is that makes the other person lovable – not their appearance or behaviour, but that fact that they are as precious to God as a beloved child – as precious as a friend for whom you would lay down your life.
Jesus knows his disciples – over 3 years he’s heard them bicker and compete and argue – but he wants them to see each other in a different light after his sacrifice for them – to see one another as the ones for whom God lays down his life.
This love – this sacrifice – changes the way we see God and changes the way we see each other – but it should also change the way we see ourselves.
God loves us. Absolutely, wonderfully, sacrificially.
There was a time in my life when I saw this love of God as being the thing I needed to help me live with the things I disliked about myself. My thinking went something like ‘I don’t think I’m a very nice person – but it’s Ok because God loves me anyway’.
But the love of Jesus on the cross is not that sort of ‘anyway’ kind of love – it is deep and sure and complete.
God loves me - each one of us – lock stock and barrel. This love doesn’t paper over the faults or overlook the foibles, it is a love which knows us to our core – and loves what it has made. It is a love which wants to see us flourish as loved children – growing into the people we were made to be.
Because when we can accept that we are so deeply loved we can grow in that love – becoming more like Jesus each day, loving others as precious children of God and as our brothers and sisters in Christ, and so learning more about what it means to love God.
May that love fill us and transform us and free us to love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.