Reverend Rebecca Newland
Sixth Sunday of Easter (using readings of the fifth Sunday) — 13 May 2012
Acts 8.26-40, Psalm 22.26-32, 1 John 4.7-21, John 15.1-8
One of the questions that have always intrigued me is why there are so many religions and different pathways to enlightenment, countless ways to go. My mother says, "Well they are all the same really, all heading up the same mountain." But are they really all just the same thing, heading in the same direction? Over my life I have done some serious exploring of some of these, plus toyed with atheism and at the very least agnosticism. There are similarities of course. They are all concerned with similar questions about reality and what it means to be human. They all offer guidelines for ethical behaviour. They all have a creed, ritual and community. (The New Atheism is like a religion, too, with creed, rivals and community.)
However, what becomes obvious, when you begin to dig, is that each of the religions begins from a different place and offers a different solution and often a different goal. For example:
|Hinduism||samasara (*)||Moksha (+)|
|(*) An endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth. (+) The way of escape from the cycle.|
Of course all these terms need pulling apart more, but let me just focus on sin and salvation, the one I know the most about both theologically and personally. It has been said that sin is the only Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable! Generally speaking sins, in our understanding, are thoughts and actions that cause separation from God, each other and creation. The ancient story of Adam and Eve is a story of sin and separation. They broke themselves away from the good God of love who walked with them in the Garden of Eden. By their actions they became conscious of their separateness and their connection with reality, their oneness with it was broken. That is why Paul says that the wages of sin is death. Death is ultimate separation.
We just have to look around us at the consequences of sin in the world, the consequences of hatred, resentment, greed, envy and violence. Sin causes fragmentation, grief and loss. It destroys what was and makes it difficult to heal what was broken. We can probably all think of circumstances where someone's actions have wounded and broken something in our lives, perhaps something we held dearly. Relationships of all types are put under immense pressure by sin and sometimes they crumble under the strain: relationships between husband and wife, child and mother, between friends and between tribe and nation, between God and human creature. With this brokenness comes despair, grief, resentment, loneliness, resentment and fear. The common good is no longer common. One has just to look at countries like Sudan or Palestine to see where sin can take us. Or one can just look into one's own heart.
And so, the answer, according to the Christian understanding of this problem, is salvation. Salvation is actually a complex term and it means more than getting to heaven. In fact I would argue that heaven as a destination is actually pretty low down on the list. If we are just trying to get to heaven, then we have misunderstood both the problem and the solution and the biblical understanding of reality. Throughout the New Testament the words 'save', 'saved', and 'salvation' have their root in the Greek sozo, which means to rescue, to protect, to heal, and to make whole. Salvation, then, means to be healed from the effects of sin, those thoughts and actions that bring separation and suffering, and to be made whole; that is, to come back into relationship and connection with God, each other and all Reality.
So when we come to today's Gospel reading, we can see that Jesus' metaphor of the vine is so apt. Jesus teaches that he is the vine and that, as we abide in him, he abides in us, and ipso facto, God abides in us and we abide in God. The word translated as 'abide' is also a rich word full of meaning. It means remaining in, dwelling in, lasting, enduring and continuing. It is continuous present tense; we continue to abide in God. From this place of abiding we bear fruit, blessed fruit for God's glory and service. And so the question to ask is, "How do we get to this place of fruitful abiding? How are we saved, as in made whole once more?"
Instead of offering the stock-standard answer straight up, let me begin again with the first words of scripture we read this morning, our sentence for today. It came from the first letter of John and you can find it on front of your bulletin. John writes:
"In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another". This action by God is the beginning and end of our salvation. I have a favourite story that illustrates the nature of God's salvation.
A man dies and goes to heaven. Of course, St Peter meets him at the pearly gates. St Peter says, "Here's how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you've done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in."
"Okay," the man says, "I was married to the same woman for 50 years and never cheated on her, even in my heart."
"That's wonderful," says St Peter, "that's worth three points!"
"Three points?" he says. "Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithe and service."
"Terrific!" says St Peter, "that's certainly worth a point."
"One point? Golly. How about this: I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans."
"Fantastic, that's good for two more points," he says.
"TWO POINTS!!" the man cries, "At this rate the only way I get into heaven is by the grace of God!"
And Peter says, "Come on in!"
That is it, you see — it is not that we are good, do all the right things or reach out to God. It is that, at the very first, God loves us. God yearns for us to be in a whole, healed, fruitful relationship with him. God's love is creative and powerful and of its very nature it reaches out to the other. Mothers' love, which we remember today, is sometimes like this type of love. Our mothers loved us first before we had any idea what that was even about. God's Word says you are worthy of his love solely because it is his desire to love you. There is nothing we can do to win more of God's love. In fact there is absolutely no way that you can get God to love you anymore than he does right this very second. (So stop trying!)
John's letter makes it clear that God's love is revealed in, by, and through Jesus Christ. In and through Jesus, God makes it possible for each one of us to enter into a deep love relationship with God. John goes on to make it abundantly clear that since God loves us so much then we ought to love one another. Surely that is our obvious response. If God is abiding in us and we are abiding in God then we cannot help but love our neighbours.
Or can we? It must have been evident to us all that people who call themselves followers of Jesus do not act in loving ways towards others. The New Testament letters are full of exhortations to love one another, to put love first, to mend divisions through love. Those verses would not be in there if there were no reason. I think those early Christian communities were as strife filled, divided and messy as ours. It has been said that the miracle of our passage today is that it even exists at all. The historical context of John's letter is that it was written by and for a community that was experiencing hatred persecution and oppression — hatred in action, sin in action. Yet despite the hate, the author never advocates hatred in return. Instead the example of Jesus' love is set up for us to follow.
This love is incredibly and embarrassingly concrete. If you were to ask some Christian folk, "Do you love God, with your heart and soul and mind?" I suspect the vast majority would say, "Well yes, sure! Of course I love God, or at least I try to." But if you got specific and asked those same people if they love the homeless, the hungry, the illegal immigrant, the poor, the shiftless, and the ignorant, you'd likely get a different answer. There was always concreteness, to Jesus' ministry. He didn't go about 'saving' people in some abstract sense; he saved people from specific sins. He saved Zacchaeus from greed, James and John from self-centered ambition, the woman at the well from meaningless relationships, Peter from elitist religion and Paul from legalism. He turned all those lives around; he did it through grace offered and grace received; most of all he met their specific needs through specific grace that yielded specific salvations. For Jesus, love was not an abstract noun but an active verb.
As a follower of Christ, my experience has been that this type of concrete loving is only possible through the presence of Christ in my heart. I have heard of many wonderful non-Christians — and met them too — who live lives of extraordinary love and self-sacrifice. I am not sure how they do it but I believe they do. But I know myself and frankly I need the presence of God in my life. I need to be consciously abiding in God so that I can love others. Left to my own devices and in isolation from divine love, I am a fairly self-centered, lazy little sod.
I am like one of those unproductive branches that Jesus talks about in the Gospel. But if you or I remain in this love, our love can be as powerful as God's. God creates in us and sustains in us a capacity for love beyond our imagining that is truly transformative.
Amen to that! Thank God for that!
Jesus Christ is Risen, Alleluia, Alleluia! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!