A sermon by Margaret Hall
Recently I read an article which claimed that love is a deception – a mere word that’s not seen in action. The writer maintained that philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle talked about love, but didn’t actually live it. They were condescending towards others and overly critical of them. They consistently sabotaged their own relationships.
On the page opposite that article – which was itself a little over-critical, perhaps – was an article about an orphanage in Tanzania, run by volunteers who give their time and money to meet the needs of children bereft of family. It was an account of love in action – people acting for the good of others, at some cost to themselves.
In a world of broken relationships and indifference to others, it’s surprising how love persists, in the face of the human instinct to put ourselves first. Where does this love come from – love that’s about serving and honouring others?
We all long for good relationships – a longing that’s been described as a signpost pointing us to God, whose image we bear. In his eternal being he is perfect relationship – which we are to reflect, as we honour and serve each other. That’s the God Christians believe in – one God in three Persons – the Father who loves us, the Son who gave himself for us, and the Spirit who’s with us now to restore God’s image in us.
One God existing in three persons? Our finite minds struggle with that. It’s defies all attempts to explain it. So why do Christians believe it?
We believe it because it’s how Jesus spoke about God. Like all Jewish people, Jesus affirmed the ancient belief in one God. But he also filled out the picture that had begun to form faintly over many centuries, with hints of God appearing and his Spirit coming on people. That picture emerged more clearly the day Jesus walked into the waters of the River Jordan to be baptized, and a voice from a cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love.” John the Baptizer’s account of that day is this: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove, and remain on him. I wouldn’t have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ “I have seen,” said John, “and testify that he is the Son of God.”
At various points in Jesus’ teaching, quite matter-of-factly and without any attempt to explain, Jesus spoke of God the Father, the Holy Spirit, and himself as the Son of the Father, all working together. Take, for example, the promise Jesus made that his Father in heaven will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. When people suggested that the power at work through him was from Satan, Jesus warned that God will not forgive anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit. His final command to his followers was to take to the nations what he’d taught them, and baptize everyone who believed it in the name – the one name – of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
In conversation with his disciples Jesus spoke more fully about his relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit. He said he’d be going away, but he wouldn’t be leaving them by themselves. He would send from the Father the Spirit of truth, who would bear witness to him. When Philip asked Jesus to show them the Father, he said, “How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ Don’t you know that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. It’s the Father living in me who’s doing his work.”
Working together, honouring and serving the other, trusting and praising one another. That’s the pattern for relating to each other, which we have from the God whose image we bear – who contains, within himself, what perfect relationship is.
Belief in the one God in whom love continually flows between Father, Son and Spirit is not merely a statement we repeat. The truth of it changes the way we live. So often we find ourselves groping blindly in the fog of humanity’s lack of love. But the God, who contains within himself an eternal relationship of love, reaches out to us through his one and only Son, and by the power of the Spirit draws us to himself.
Here’s some of what Jesus said about how the relationship at God’s very heart can touch and transform us:
As my Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands you will remain in my love, just as I’ve obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I’ve told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: love each other, as I’ve loved you.
Those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them. The Father himself loves you, because you’ve loved me and believe that I came from God. All that belongs to the Father is mine. The Spirit will bring glory to me, by taking from what is mine, and making it known to you.
Paul said in his letter to the Galatians, that ‘God sent his Son, born of a woman’. He went on to say, ‘God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out “Abba, Father!”’ What a glorious thing that is – that we can be part of all that mutual knowing and trusting and loving and honouring and serving. We can taste its satisfactions and delights, its freedoms and fruitfulness.
We do long for the joy and peace of good relationships, but the reality is that relationships can be difficult – damaged or even broken. At one time the apostle Paul experienced the pain of a difficult relationship with his fellow-believers in the city of Corinth. This is how he responded to their criticisms of the kind of person he was and what he was doing:
Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, with integrity and godly sincerity. We have done so, relying not on worldly wisdom but on God’s grace.
In our difficult relationships, what do we rely on? What do we bring to them – worldly wisdom – our own judgements about what’s best? Or God’s grace – mercy that’s undeserved?
The poet Elizabeth Barrett’s wedding to Robert Browning was held in secret because of her father’s disapproval. But even though her parents disowned her, Elizabeth didn’t give up on them. Almost weekly she wrote them letters. Not once did they reply. After ten years, she received a large box in the mail. Inside, she found all her letters; not one had been opened! Worldly wisdom might say it had been pointless to keep reaching out to them. Grace kept on reaching out.
Belief in the God who relates eternally and perfectly within himself bears fruit in the way we relate to others. However difficult a relationship might be, we can rely on God’s grace – the grace he’s extended to us through his only Son’s death and resurrection, and through the Holy Spirit, given as Jesus promised, to those who believe in him.
Suppose we’re offended by something someone says, or something they’ve failed to do. Worldly wisdom might say, ‘They need a few things pointed out to them, and I’m just in the mood to do it.’ God’s grace says, ‘Let it go.’ Worldly wisdom might well question the way the next generation is bringing up its children. Grace might remember that we weren’t always as brilliant at that as we’d like to have been.
Most of us have a lot of stuff. Worldly wisdom might tell us to hang on to it – we never know when we might need it. God’s grace says, ‘Perhaps some of it’s worth giving to others who might actually need it.’
Worldly wisdom might not have condemned Paul for withdrawing from his fellow-believers in Corinth. After all, he did have plenty of others on whom to spend his time and emotional energy. Yet in spite of the pain the Corinthian Christians caused him, Paul yearned over them, prayed for them, wrote long letters to them. Perhaps he remembered God hadn’t given up on him, when he was on the wrong track. And he knew that when our worldly wisdom leads us astray, God’s grace is always there, waiting for us.
The worldly wisdom Paul learned not to rely on is often about our rights. We all want justice. We want truth to prevail. And both are very important. Yet God doesn’t confine himself to truth and justice, when it comes to us. The truth about us is that we routinely choose our way over God’s way. We give in to the voice inside that tells us to do what suits us. As for justice, what we deserve is that very distance from God, which we ourselves have created.
But God doesn’t treat us as we deserve. Paul made that clear to the Ephesian Christians: Because of his great love for us, God who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ even when we were dead in sin. It is by grace you have been saved. And to Titus, Paul wrote: Having been justified by his grace, we are heirs to eternal life.
No relationship has been more difficult, in terms of the havoc it’s caused, than humankind’s broken relationship with God. By God’s grace it can be healed, as we receive the forgiveness Jesus won for us by his death, and as we trust the power of the Holy Spirit to work in us, restoring the image of the God who’s made himself known as one God in three persons, relating together perfectly.
The three Persons of the one God, eternally expressing love to each other, have poured out that love on a world in desperate need of it.
A very troubled four-year-old was once brought to a day-care centre. Her mum was a drug addict who’d been on drugs throughout her pregnancy. The little girl refused to speak, and when approached would become violent for long periods, ending up in a fetal position on the floor. One carer was praying for her, and slowly the two of them began to bond. They would sit together in the big rocking chair, with the carer singing Jesus loves me as they rocked.
One day after a very long battle, the carer sat with her special girl in the rocking chair, holding her in silence as they rocked back and forth, back and forth. At last the little girl looked up with tears in her eyes and spoke for the first time, “Sing to me about that man who loves me.”
All glory to you, Three-in-One God, for the love from you that transforms our lives. Amen.