Reverend Rebecca Newland
21st May 2006 Easter 6
When I was in the Philippines I reckon David and I met a saint. His name is Benito and he is a rice farmer who we met in one of the villages we visited. He is a father of five who are now all grown up. Not long ago he decided he wanted to be of service to people in his wider community and he obtained a job in the Department of Indigenous Affairs. His children asked him: Why do you want to do this work? His reply was that for many years he had brought them up, devoted his lie to them, and now it was time for him to help others. His job entails trying to help the Agta people, the nomadic hunter-gatherers of the Sierra Madre Mountains. Due to logging both legal and illegal, the Agtas traditional hunting grounds have almost totally gone and Benito is trying to find a way to help them survive.
On one of his trips to the mountains Benito came across illegal loggers hauling a large rainforest tree up a creek embankment. He confronted the loggers and took their number plate and details. With the help of another low ranking official he basically made a citizens arrest. He put in his reports and waited to see what would happen. It turned out that the loggers were in cahoots with the upper officials in the department of indigenous affairs, the department of natural resources and the military.
What this means is that Benito's life is now in danger. His friends have all begged him to leave it alone and let the matter slip. His children are horrified. But his answer is this: If I do not do anything then many more people will suffer. If I do not do this then evil has won. If I do not do this I am living in fear, not with love for others.
In all of this and in his daily life Benito is no boaster who blows his own trumpet. He is a devoted Christian, quiet and humble. Behind the scenes he goes about helping many, many people and he smiles gently throughout it all. He has that presence that radiates love and good will. When I read the gospel for today I immediately thought of Benito. Here is a person who for me is truly following Jesus command that we love one another has he has loved us.
It is said that this command of Jesus "to love one another as he as loved us" sums up the whole Old Testament and the whole New Testament. Those eight words, summarize all 1189 chapters in the Bible. The words summarize the purpose of our lives: to love one another as Christ has loved us. Other religions teachers say "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you". Jesus alone says "Do unto to others as I do unto others". He sets a new benchmark, a new ethical example.
People often talk about being confused by Jesus' command, confused about this call on their lives. We know too that these words are followed by the phrase "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends". And after all our reflections on Easter we know what that can mean. It seems to become an enormous hurdle to surmount, an impossible ideal and quite frankly frightening.
But Jesus commands are not at all confusing. They are starkly simple.
The steps are:
I want to look at the first two, I am going to leave the last for another time! The first one—fall completely, hopelessly and recklessly in love with God. That is what Jesus did. That is the reality he lived out of. All he did, all he taught, all he sacrificed came from that place. Do you remember what it was like to fall in love? Can you remember how your whole body and being was directed to the person you loved? Can you remember how nothing in the world mattered except that person? How you were consumed with love? There is nothing terribly rational about loving God. All the atheists in the world would certainly agree. Yet love is not rational. Not logical. Not sensible.
What Benito did for the Agta people does not seem sensible in the face of what it could mean for his future wellbeing. Jesus dying on the cross does not seem terribly bright either. As Paul says that is the foolishness of God. That is the love of God. And all the arguments of the materialists, atheists, post-modern theologians and die hard cynics cannot stand against that love.
John's gospel tells us over and over again, one way or another that God is love. Jesus dwelt in that love. That is the abiding bit we have been talking about. That is the bedrock of our journey as followers of Christ. It is the soil that nourishes our soul and our life together. It nourishes the vine and the branches. Oswald Chambers, whom some of you might know of, is a spiritual writer I turn to again and again. He was writing almost 100 years ago. He wrote this:
"Jesus says that there is only one way to develop spiritually, and that is by concentration on God. Pay attention to the source and out of you will flow rivers of living water. So often we mar God's designed influence through us by our self-conscious effort to be consistent and useful"
So do not be obsessively worried about being useful, logical and sensible. They are important but don't put them first. Instead fall completely, hopelessly and recklessly in love with God.
The next step in the simple commands of Jesus was to extravagantly love those within your influence. There is nothing more extravagant than laying down ones life for ones friends. Yet it need not mean literally dying. In the Greek the term for "to lay down" would also be used for laying down one's weapons. It could also mean to ordain or consecrate someone or something for a specific purpose. The person who lays down their life for another literally ordains their life or consecrates their life to serving others as an act of supreme service to God.
When you talk to Benito that is what he hopes he is doing. Laying down our life could mean consecrating everything we do each day for the service of God, for the service of others. Now that is not easy. That type of love is crucifying as well.
When we are in a "frank discussion" with our partner about the finances, to stay and stick it out is difficult when it would be a whole lot easier to take all the money and go far away — to stay takes guts, commitment and sacrifice. When your child no matter how old, 10, 16 or 40 has for the umpteenth time misinterpreted what you have said and you stay on the phone and patiently be present to them and their fears takes self -sacrifice.
When the last thing you want to do is get up and get everyone out the door in the morning and you do it anyway takes selfless giving. When you rightly believe you deserve a quiet stress free time in the twilight of you life but you keep caring for others, you keep listening to their stories that you have heard in many different forms throughout you life, you keep offering your wisdom and love, even when no one thinks you know anything, takes self sacrifice—and a great sense of humour. When you have loved and loved someone and still it all turned sour or bad and yet be able to forgive and move on takes extraordinary love — and extraordinary inner freedom.
So friends, go for it, fall completely, hopelessly and recklessly in love with God. Love God with the depths of you being every minute of every day. Extravagantly love those around you and within your influence. Take the leap into love and hold on as you produce bucket loads of good things for God. Don't expect the ride to be easy or without struggle. Don't expect to know all the answers, to be cosmically enlightened or convince anyone else you've got it together. Expect there to be a confrontation with your inner doubts and demons. Expect to have to forgive and work for reconciliation in the process. And do expect Joy. As Jesus told us through today's gospel " I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete".
May the week ahead and our celebration of communion be filled with love and joy. Amen.