“By this, all will know that you are my disciples…”

love one another

Sermon for St Mary’s Whitkirk – Easter 5 – 19th May

I recently watched a great programme about death…’Miriam Margolyes’ dead good adventure’…watch it if you have chance. Some of it was seriously bizarre…

There were, though, some beautiful interviews with a woman dying of cancer. She was worried about her daughter – only in her twenties – being left without a Mum to turn to. As well as spending time together, she was making recordings – advice for when she was no longer there. It was very poignant, seeing her choose what to say, knowing time was running out.

That’s exactly what Jesus is doing in today’s gospel. It’s part of the ‘farewell discourse’…Jesus, knowing he will die tomorrow, passes on to his disciples the stuff he really wants them to remember. This is his last chance to teach them…it’s too late for parables or paradoxes…there’s just a simple command. “Love one another as I have loved you. By this will everyone know you are my disciples.”

A simple command…”love one another…as I have loved you.”…that second part rather changes everything…to love as Jesus loved…

Jesus loved everyone he came across…but most obviously the ones others dismissed or found difficult…

…Zacchaeus, tax collector and cheat; lepers…

…Mary Magdalene possessed by seven demons when she first met Jesus. I’m guessing she didn’t sit quietly listening to his sermons, she’d be one of those embarrassing, unpredictable people we never quite know what to do with.

…children brought by parents who didn’t seem to understand the disciples’ suggestion that Jesus was far too important to bother with boisterous, uncontrolled little ones.

Anyone who reached out to Jesus was offered the same love. That’s the challenge about being disciples of Jesus…that might be the only thing we have in common. We’re here because we want to be friends of Jesus. Fine, he says, but that means you’ve got to love all my others friends too. That’s how people will know you’re my disciples…because you love my awkward, different friends just like I do.

“Love one another as I have loved you.”

Jesus loved people even when they messed up. There was Peter, well meaning but so often putting his foot in it, speaking without thinking; desperate to be the perfect disciple, making grand promises, then failing because he wasn’t quite brave enough…Jesus loved what he intended to do even if it didn’t quite come off.

And the Rich young man, wanting to know the right thing to do…but perhaps not quite able to part with his fortune…Jesus looked at him and loved him knowing how hard it was.

We’re not always quite so good at loving despite people’s faults or failings. We forget there might be things in their lives we know nothing about which make keeping that promise difficult. We forget that Jesus loved all his followers whatever their imperfections…and calls us to do the same.

“Love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus loved even those who wronged him…he shared his last supper with Judas knowing Judas would betray him…as he suffered on the cross he prayed…”Father forgive them”.

Having Jesus’ love as a standard removes all the limits…loving as Jesus loves means loving despite everything. That was the thing Jesus was desperate to share when he knew time was running out. That is how people will know we are his followers.

So even when we’re pretty sure something hurtful has been said or done…even when we can’t find any excuse for how someone has acted…we’re still asked to love them.

“By this shall all know that you are my disciples”

Easy to sing…oh so hard to do, and yet this is the thing Jesus wanted to share just before he died.

So we, the followers of Jesus in this place, are challenged today to love the ones we find difficult, the ones who mess things up…even the ones who’ve hurt us.

I don’t think that means we accept anything, never point out mistakes, never get upset…but if we try to love the person behind the actions I think we deal with problems differently.

If we love the person whose wheelchair’s in the way, whose hearing aids whistle, who gets confused and questions loudly, who’s pursuing a noisy toddler around the church…all common distractions to worship…if we love those people, we’ll love the fact that despite the challenges they face, they’ve made the effort to worship with us.

Maybe then we’ll just be pleased to cope with the distraction. Or maybe we’ll find a loving way to look together for a solution that helps us both to worship.

If we love the person who messes up, who promised enthusiastically but didn’t deliver…then we might think to find out whether anything’s wrong. Or we’ll find a loving way to help the person to succeed next time.

Loving the person who’s wronged us might seem a step too far…but we can pray for them…I’ve found from personal experience that it’s hard to stay really angry with someone you’re praying for.

“Love one another as I have loved you. By this will people know that you’re my disciples.” A command even more important now than when it was first given.

The life of the parish church in England is precarious – we need more members if we are to keep the word of God alive. We who come every week, who’ve come for years, forget how hard it is to step over the threshold of a church. If those who make the step don’t see us loving each other, if they aren’t welcomed with love – they won’t come back.

But here’s the good news – as I read recently:

“When we allow the love of Christ to take deep root in us – so that it flourishes in what we say and do to each other – we give witness to what no purely verbal argument can ever accomplish – the glory of God breathing through a Christ centered community.”

“Always winter but never Christmas…”

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Sermon for Christian Aid week – St Mary’s Whitkirk

‘It was winter’.

A curious detail in today’s gospel, which has stuck with me this week. ‘It was winter’, I wonder why John mentions this. For us the word often suggests difficult times. In ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, with the witch ruling Narnia, it was ‘always winter and never Christmas’…and it wasn’t a good place to be.

I got to thinking about people around the world for whom it is ‘always winter and never Christmas’. The people of Syria – crushed, displaced, exhausted by years of war…those in the Yemen – where war means no education, no medical help and virtually no food for millions…Rohingya Muslims on the Bangladeshi border…the millions who lost everything in cyclone Idai…and those whose stories we rarely hear who exist in grinding poverty.

And I wondered…how might they hear today’s gospel?

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

Do they, do we, hear this merely as a promise for the next life…that if this life is awful, at least we can look forward to heaven? In my bible, this passage is headed ‘Jesus is rejected by the Jews’…we could read it simply as saying ‘believe in Jesus and you’ll get eternal life.’

But that seems to me to ignore the rounded, life-giving Jesus of the rest of the gospels. ‘My sheep hear my voice’…what voice? One that speaks most frequently of a different way of life, a different type of kingdom; a kingdom of good news for the poor, freedom for the oppressed; a kingdom where the last shall be first.

I trust this is a picture of heaven – but in this Easter season we are reminded that by his death and resurrection Jesus showed God’s kingdom has already begun. ‘I give them eternal life, and they will never perish’ is not just about life beyond death – but life now.

So what? The gospel talks about Christ’s sheep being ‘in his hands’. I suppose being in Christ’s hands, means we’re not in anyone else’s hands…for example the world’s hands. We don’t have to work for a world of constantly larger economies, of demanding cheaper goods regardless of what this does to producers. If we’re Christ’s sheep who hear his voice – we do have to work for God’s kingdom, where the hungry are fed, the captives freed, and there’s justice for all.

The trouble is – when we think of all those millions for whom life seems ‘always winter’ it’s just overwhelming. We can (and should) pray for them…but otherwise it can be hard to know where to start…so how about Christian Aid?

I’m sure between us we support hundreds of charities. Perhaps it’s wrong of me to use my privileged position to plug a particular one – but I’m afraid I’m going to anyway…because I think it’s one way of responding to Christ’s voice.

This week is Christian Aid week. Christian Aid – a charity whose motto is “we believe in life before death”. The Kingdom of God – already begun. Here are three reasons I’m happy to give them some of my money.

Firstly, their work isn’t based on unfocussed compassion, but on building the Kingdom of God, now. They recognise that when relationships between communities, corporations and nations are distorted, inequality becomes greater, oppression stronger, and poverty persists…and they do something about it.

Tax dodging by large corporations takes $200 million out of developing countries. Christian Aid campaigns for tax justice. Climate change is already adversely affecting the poorest in the world. Christian Aid campaigns for government and church policies to limit the damage done.

The unequal distribution of power causes poverty. One of the biggest inequalities in the world is between men and women. Christian Aid works for gender justice in many countries.

Secondly, they don’t wait for disasters to happen and then respond. They work to build resilience, so that the poorest countries can cope better when floods, crop failures or other disasters strike. They work with the poorest people all around the world, helping them to help themselves.

Thirdly – they do respond when disaster strikes. And they are still responding when the world’s media has packed up and gone. Remember the tsunami in Indonesia? Cyclone Idai? The war in Syria? Christian Aid is still responding to those and many other disasters…helping people to begin rebuilding their lives.

Finally though – they do this work because they are Christians…because they believe all people are created in the image of God…because as Christians they have hope that relationships distorted by discrimination and oppression can and should be changed…because Jesus taught us to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

‘It was winter’, for me, this week, it’s been a reminder that Jesus never promised a life free of suffering…he promised to be with us in the suffering. And he told us to look for him in the victims of the world…”whatever you do for the least of these – you do for me.”

“The father and I are one”, Jesus also says in today’s gospel. In other words – what Jesus does is a glimpse of God. God seeks out and cares for the hungry, the destitute, the oppressed – and calls us to do the same.

There are many ways to answer this call. I offer you Christian Aid as an easy place to start. Fill an envelope, better still, take some to the people in your street, and explain why it is so important.

“Always winter and never Christmas”…as Christians we are called to deliver Christmas…to bring the love of God who became man, into the wintry places of the world. Amen