Rev. Tom Mumford
‘This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you’
I pray that I may speak to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What would it look like to love each other as God loves us? Because if there is one question a church community should be asking itself, it’s this one. What would that love look like? How can we make it so? How can we live out this commandment of Jesus Christ, to love each other as God in Christ loves us? Really, this ought to be the question we ask ourselves every Sunday in church…in fact every day when we wake up.
Because what else is it we’re doing here? Why else are we even coming to church? This love, this purest, best and ultimate love…this is our end, this is our goal. This is why, for me, church is…well it’s the school of love. Church for me is the gym where our fitness to love is improved. This is the place where (when it’s at its best), we are shown and we practice the way to live, the way to love. …And why? Because as Christians, we are called to live out that love we receive, to give that gift back. And in doing so, we become the very thing we are called to be, the Body of Christ, we become Christ-like, which in turn helps establish the kingdom of God here on earth. This is what that part ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done’ in the Lord’s Prayer means.
In our reading from Acts today, we get just a quick glimpse of what that love looks like…and how the earliest Christians began to understand it, though that in itself wasn’t straightforward. As we often do in our modern world, the earliest followers had their boundaries up to people who didn’t look or think like them. or the first followers, the gift of God as Holy Spirit was only available for a special few.It was for their people, the circumcised as Acts puts it (which really is just to say Jewish people like them). It wasn’t for anyone different anyway. Certainly no one outside their cultural or religious groups. …But thankfully God isn’t really like us or them. His love, his inclusion, well it’s radical, its unbounded, it pours out for and onto, all who are simply open to getting in the way. It overpours like a waterfall. And so as we see in Acts, that means the Gentiles, not just the circumcised Jewish people, are in God’s fold. They too are worthy of God’s abundant love.
And this fact ought to make us think. When we are faced with the choice of loving or shunning a neighbour or a friend, perhaps because they’re different from us, we really ought to stop and think: ‘is this what God’s love looks like?’ Because, just to be clear, it doesn’t matter what race or sexuality someone is. It doesn’t matter what their political persuasion, choice of supermarket or newspaper is. God’s love is freely available for them. And so should ours be too.
It’s in our gospel reading that we hear this commandment to love so clearly. ‘This is my commandment’ Jesus says. ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ …I could go through absolutely tonnes of stories in the New Testament when the love ofChrist is shown. We could do Bible study after Bible study on it (and perhaps we should), but so as not to make you burn your roast beef and ruin your Sunday lunch, there are just a couple of things I want to focus on about the way Christ loves.
Firstly, the love Christ lives is fundamentally about flourishing, it is about life in all its fullness. It is about loving others into the fullest versions of themselves.And there is something about this love that means no one and nothing is diminished as a result. For example, for us now, it means that for me to become the fullest and best version of Tom I am called to be, it cannot be at the cost of X being less than what they’re called to be too. To me to be fully me, X needs to be fully X – it can’t come any other way in God’s world. And so that search for fullness for oneself, must mean the search for fullness in others. The other place I want to point to, when it comes to learning about how Christ loves…well I want to point to the cross. And I want to point to the cross because that is where God in Christ has most reason NOT to love. his is the place where we drive him to death, nail him to a tree, and leave him to die. And yet, this is where his love is thrown the widest. He forgives those who torture and kill him. He becomes the place where violence and anger and pain stop.
This tells us that to love as Christ loves us, we must love when it is hardest to do so.And to end, I want to tell you a story I heard once that demonstrates this love most incredibly. It is in the words of a young Christian reflecting on a visit to South Africa in the mid 1990s.‘
I am sitting in a civic hall in Guguletu, a Cape Town township community, in November 1996. A 70 year old woman has been called to testify before South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission concerning the activities of a policeman in her township. It transpires that he had come one night, with some others, and in front of the woman had shot her son at point blank range. Two years later the same officer had returned to arrest her husband, whom she supposed subsequently to have been executed. Sometime later the policeman came yet again. This time he took her to a place where he showed her her husband, still alive. But as her spirits lifted, the policeman doused her husband with gasoline, set him on fire, and killed him.As the woman concludes her testimony, the presiding officer addresses her: ‘what would you like the outcome to be of this hearing?’ After a long pause, the woman answers, ‘I would like three things. First, I want to be taken to the place where my husband was burned, so I can gather up the dust and give his remains a decent burial. Second, my son and my husband were my only family. Therefore, I want this police officer to become my son, to come twice a month to my home and spend a day with me so I can pour out on him whatever love I still have remaining inside me. Finally, I want this officer to know that I offer him forgiveness, because on his cross Jesus Christ forgave me. Please would someone lead him across the hall so that I can embrace him and let him know that he is truly forgiven.’ As people lead the woman across the room, the police officer, completely overwhelmed, faints. Officials help him, whilst the woman’s friends and neighbours, most of them victims of the same sort of violence, begin to sing softly, ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, to save a wretch like me…’
This woman, somehow, loved as God in Christ loves her and loves us. It wasn’t easy, it required work, it required bravery…but the results…well, that was the kingdom of God right there.
I pray that I, we, all of us, can learn to love the same.