I read that agreeing with a woman is like reading the software licence agreement. In the end, you ignore everything and click “I Agree”. The reason why I mentioned that is because it is similar to the terms and conditions for being a Christian. We click and agree, because we think we are Christians, we go to church and everything else. But the terms and conditions for being a Christian is something that we need to unravel. It is easy to click "I agree", but if we actually look at the words, it is far more difficult and complex than that.
Today's readings, especially in John, is about love. I am going to express something that I hope does not receive your displeasure: before the world began, there was love. God operates outside time, space and matter. In fact, God created them, therefore, he cannot be confined to our understandings of the concepts. In Genesis 1:1, when it says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” God created time, space and matter. So, who created God? What was there before God created the earth? God has to be love, and it is from this love that the universe was created. There has to be, alongside cause and effects, physics and so on, a prime mover, the very first start. Scientists look into the Big Bang and discover all sorts of wonderful things, but God created in the beginning, so God is love.
Now, if God is an emotion, that helps us with a few things. The first thing is, how does God possibly hear our prayer? Does God speak perfect English? Does God know all the 6,500 different languages around the world? But if God is love, God will respond to emotion. Have you ever been moved by a piece of music, for example, played on an organ in church? Sometimes music warms our hearts, creating emotion rather than words. So when we pray, God does not care what words we use, but what God will know is the emotion and feeling we are putting into that prayer. It is the emotion that is expressed that goes to God, and God is, therefore, able to cope with all the various prayers that come up from us because God responds to the emotions that are behind them. Words do not matter, it is the emotion and the motive behind them.
God created the world, and it was wonderful. God took six periods of time to create it, and in the seventh period, God rested. It is quite important to remember that God incorporated rest in the seven days. We need to rest as well.
Jesus was radical. Last week, if you follow the lectionary, you would have read John 15:1-8: “I am the true vine.” For generation after generation since Adam and Eve, the people of Israel had failed to live up to God’s word. Prophets, such as Amos, pointed out where they were going wrong, but they did not listen. Jesus has now arrived saying, I am God enfleshed, I am the Son of God, therefore, you must follow me, not Israel.
Jesus is a radical being saying all sorts of amazing things. He says he will forgive sins. This is very radical. Let us say that I argue with my wife, who has done something wrong. I am feeling aggrieved and my wife is feeling aggrieved. Suddenly, a neighbour, who has overheard, comes round and says, “I forgive you.” What gave that neighbour the right to forgive us, when it should be my wife and I doing the forgiving? Yet, that is what Jesus was saying. He said he can forgive sins, that he has the authority to do so.
In John, Jesus says seven “I am” sentences. I am the bread. I am the light. I am the narrow door. I am the gate. I am the true life. I am the resurrection. I am the true vine. The words “I am” in Hebrew sound very much like “Yahweh”, which is the Jewish for God. People were not allowed to say that, or else they will be punished by death. Yet, according to John, Jesus said “I am” seven times. That is seven times Jesus claims he is the same as God. That is how radical he is, and I think we have to understand that, in our terms and conditions, we do not follow a God who sticks to the rules. Jesus breaks rules. For example, Jesus broke the Sabbath by healing people on that day of rest.
So, Jesus is a radical person, claiming the most amazing things. Judaism, in itself, is an amazing thing because it only has one God. In Greek and Roman times, the more gods you had, the better. This monotheistic religion claims you only need one God; you do not need Zeus or Jupiter, you do not need the God of War, you do not need the God of the Sea, you only need to have one true God. At the time, that was a revolutionary concept, which Jesus was behind. Jesus was a Jew saying radical things, making people rethink what they believe.
In John 15:9-7, what Jesus is talking about is love. Not just any love, but “as I have loved you.” The way he has loved us is sacrificial. There are eight translations of love in Jesus’ time, of which C.S. Lewis has identified four: a child/parent love, a friend’s love, lust, and Agape, which is self-sacrificing love. The latter is very hard to achieve, so it was not very popular before Jesus arrived. But this is what Jesus is asking us to do, to love one another as he has loved us. This is Agape, self-sacrificial love. It is putting other people before yourself.
Not only was Jesus radical, but the Holy Spirit is radical as well. The reading in Acts is very radical. It says you no longer need to worry about the rules concerning clean and unclean food given in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. That is another pillar of Judaism taken away. Another was the rule about circumcision. Gentiles were not circumcised, but the Holy Spirit was using the gift of Jesus to pay for the sins of those who ate the wrong foods and were even circumcised. This is a radical God, but it is the God you have signed up to in your terms and conditions.
We may think to ourselves, those challenges were then, what challenges do we have now? A hundred years ago, our challenge was determining women’s place in the church. This groundbreaking discussion meant the Congregational Church became the first to allow female ministers. We saw that the love of Jesus could not stop at these boundaries we put in place. So, it was only right and fair that women should know the love of the Holy Spirit and be ministers.
In the 21st century, the debate has turned to the LGBTQ+ community. Lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender, queers and others who do not identify as heterosexual - what is their place within the Christian church? This is something we have to work out. The radical Holy Spirit is allowing us both free will and free-thinking. There is a radical God who wants everybody to know the love of Jesus Christ, and we have to start thinking about how we make that a reality. Whilst we say that what is in the Bible is true, perhaps the LGBTQ+ community does not get a fair look. We often cite Leviticus, but if we look at the Bible through the eyes of Jesus, perhaps that community deserves a warmer welcome. We live in a world where we sometimes have to be counter-intuitive. We live in a world where we have to have a distinctive voice. Some people use the Bible as a way of being distinctive, believing that by excluding people, they are keeping the truth of Jesus. But perhaps that is not right?
I want to leave you with this: God's love is for everybody. God’s love is self-sacrificial. Jesus said, “I am the shepherd”, and just as the shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, Jesus laid down his life for us. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus knew he was going to die, so tells his disciples to “Love one another as I have loved you”. He did not mean to love one another by doing nice things but lay down your life for one another. That is the radical love for that our Terms and Conditions have signed us up. Amen.
This sermon was preached at Wanstead URC by Rev'd Martin Wheadon on 9/5/21
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon