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Sunday 9 May 2021: Sixth Sunday of Easter

Costly love

Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; John 15:9-17

By Adrian Cassidy

Elder; former (lay) Church Leader, Twickenham United Reformed Church

Context: Morning Service (possibly by Zoom) in a smallish but lively community-orientated church with a mainly middle-aged and elderly Sunday congregation

Aim: to encourage and support mission in difficult times

Is God a God of love, or a God of judgment and vengeance? Does the answer depend on what you read, when you read it, an article of faith, or on personal experience?

Today’s Psalm invites us to ‘praise the Lord in a new song because he has done marvellous things’, yet it concludes that God will be the judge of the world and its peoples, but with righteousness and equity. So perhaps it is not inappropriate that on this Sunday in spring we should sing Isaac Watts’ metrical version of this Psalm, the Advent hymn ‘Joy to the world’?

But elsewhere in the Old Testament, writers are more forthright in their understanding of God as judge. Moses declares before the whole assembly of Israel that God says, ‘Vengeance is mine … doom comes swiftly’ (Deuteronomy 32:35). During the first lockdown I was due to lead a service when no singing or shouting was to be permitted. This prompted a minister friend to caution me ‘so no hell fire and damnation preaching then?’

Many bad things in this world are brought about by the free choice of human beings, but not all – coronavirus and its mutations could be considered a case in point. Erupting volcanoes cause great destruction and loss of life, yet without them life itself would not exist. Such, and other, occurrences regularly raise the question ‘If God is a God of love, why does he allow suffering caused by the natural world or human evil or folly?’ The response could be perhaps a sermon, with selected biblical quotations, ‘Behave yourself or be damned.’

In facing these questions, we might conclude that the God of the Old Covenant is superseded by the God of the New. So, let us look at Jesus’s words in today’s gospel reading. What are they really saying about love?

For every statement about the very nature of God being love – ‘as the Father has loved me’ – there is following detail as to how the followers of Jesus should model their lives. We are ‘commanded’ so to do; if we keep to that command, we ourselves will abide – be imbued, totally immersed – in God’s love and experience great joy. It seems that there is no place for resentment or anger through, say, a lack of forgiveness. Judgment and vengeance are blown away, for as in the Old Testament that should be left to God to sort out.

 

But this love is costly. ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ as Jesus himself did. In enacting this costly love, former servants become friends, disciples become partners who work together to achieve enduring results.

It’s easy to see how this should apply to our everyday lives: cooperation rather than confrontation, championing the rights of others rather than our own, acceptance of ridicule or the danger of being exploited. We acknowledge that we fall down through lack of thought or consistency, the simultaneous coping with our own needs, and the counting of the cost; but these cannot be excuses for abandonment.

What of the collective body of Christ’s disciples, his friends, partners, the church? Our reading from Acts is the conclusion of Peter’s encounter with the centurion Cornelius and his family. The realisation is the Good News for all equally, Gentiles and Jews. This led to a continuing dispute: should the laws of the Old Covenant apply to Gentiles before gaining acceptance? Had there been no resolution, and non-Jews excluded, we may safely assume that Christianity would not exist today. It raises the question. Who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’? Who makes the decision – yes, we can leave that to God – but what sort of God do we present, a God of costly love or a God of judgment? Who might we, perhaps unwittingly, exclude? What image does the church create in its public perception? One of ‘Love thy neighbour as Christ loves us’, active in the community? Or as a body solely making pronouncements on say the rights and wrongs of homosexuality or a political issue? In the coronavirus pandemic, we have been able to take care of each other, but much of our community engagement has been set back, and we seek new means of restoration.

We are, as individuals and as church, in a new Covid situation. The New Covenant is unchanged. Jesus calls us his friends. There are no exclusions. Together may we ‘sing a new song’ as we share his costly love.

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