SERMON - Easter 6B

SERMON – Easter 6B

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Clare Hayns on 5th May 2024

Acts 10. 44-end
1 John 5. 1-6
John 15. 9-17

Love one another as I have loved you. No-one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’. (John 15.13)

A few months ago, I had a spare day in the City of London and had some time to wander round all the old churches and parks. I was with a Methodist friend, and we decided to find the spot where Wesley had his conversion moment in Aldersgate.[1]  

We found it, but also stumbled across another striking memorial in Postman’s Park. It was the Memorial of Heroic Sacrifice[2]. It was built in 1900 and there are 54 plaques commemorating ‘everyday heroes’ and each plaque has their name and a detail on how they died saving someone else.

There was Thomas Griffin, a fitters labourer who died in 1899 when a boiler exploded and he went to search for his workmate.

There is Elizabeth Boxall of Bethnal Green who died trying to save a child from a runaway horse.

And Sarah Smith, a Pantomime Artiste, who died at the Prince’s Theatre ‘when attempting in her inflammable dress to extinguish the flames which enveloped her companion’.

The wall not only shows the dangers of Victorian England and so is a fascinating historical snippet, but it also reveals some acts of true courage and bravery.

Love one another as I have loved you. No-one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for ones friends’.

These words of Jesus are a continuation of the final teaching he gives to his disciples before he has to leave them. Last week we looked at his words, ‘abide in me as I abide in you’ and reflected on the image of the vine and the branches.

And now we have, ‘love one another, as I have loved you’. Love one another. Simple?

I think there are several traps we fall into when we look at passages like this. Traps to do with our misunderstanding of what love means here. Passages like this can be deceptive in their simplicity.

Firstly, we can think that the love Jesus is talking about is the heroic acts of self-sacrifice like our wall of heroes in Postman’s Park. This passage is often used at Remembrance Sunday, and been used to remember those who died in the first world war. At the risk of being controversial here, this is a misuse of this text. It is not a call to arms in war at all. If you read Jesus’ teaching in context it’s a stretch to think that this is what Jesus meant when he told his disciples to love one another.  

If we are honest, most of us probably aren’t heroes. I’m not sure I’d tackle a runaway horse, or a burning performer on a stage! I have rarely come across moments of crises but when I do my instinctive reaction is to run away as fast as possible. Does that mean I am not loving as Jesus loved?

Another trap we fall into is we can think that it’s all just about being nice to one another. If we work really hard at being nice, then this will make God happy. The problem is we can then get utterly burnt out ourselves, we can start to feel resentful that our niceness isn’t being reciprocated, and we find it hard to sustain.

The other trap we can fall into is feeling we fail miserably at this loving one another command, because often people are really, very difficult to love! I’m sure all of us have people in our lives who frustrate us, who push our buttons, who take advantage of us. And we may even have people in our lives who have hurt us and done us great harm. What does it mean to ‘love one another as I have loved you’, when it comes to the ones who are hard to like, let alone love?

I wonder if we often come to passages like these from the wrong angle entirely.

We focus on ourselves and our ability or inability to love.

We focus on ‘this is my commandment, that you love one another’ and forget the bit after it …. ‘as I have loved you’.

I wonder if the word command gets in the way as we think of it as an order. If we think of God as an old judgy man in the sky who orders us to love each other, and will meet us at the heavenly gates with a big list of all the times we’ve not been nice or kind, or loving, and cast us out, then we’re in trouble.

The Abbot Christopher Jameson, Prior of Worth Abbey told someone who was struggling with this kind of image of God (in the BBC programme ‘The Big Silence’ said:

‘the God you don’t believe in doesn’t exist’.[3]

God is love, those who live in love live in God and God lives in them. (1 John 4.16)

God is love. We know what God’s love is like most fully by looking at Jesus.

If we start from this place, then we won’t go far wrong living out the command to love one another. We start from the place of being loved by God. Jesus knows his disciples are about to be tested beyond anything they’ve experienced. He will soon be arrested. They will be asked if they know him. They will be persuaded to betray him. Their own lives will be at risk. He’s leaving them with the reminder that they need to remember how he has loved them whist he’s been with them.

So, what did Jesus’ love look like? Let’s start which what it wasn’t.

Jesus certainly wasn’t ‘nice’ all the time. Jesus challenged and rebuked his disciples – he told Peter off several times and was often exasperated with them, and let them know.

He went to sleep when they were struggling with a storm to teach them to have faith.

He regularly left them to pray on his own, even when they were looking for him.

Jesus’ love was tough at times. It was boundaried. His love sometimes involved him being angry at injustice and turning over tables.

And the ultimate sign of love was shown through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. This was what love looked like. This is what is meant by the words:

Noone has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for ones friends’.

Jesus was about to lay down his life for his friends. We are not called to do this. Jesus has already done it. But we are chosen and called to love one another, and to bear fruits of this love in our own lives.

Loving one another flows from being first loved by God.

This doesn’t necessarily mean being everyday heroes, although some of you may well be.

It doesn’t mean being nice all the time, although many of you are very nice indeed.

We can’t do everything, or even love everyone. But God can love others through us, even if it’s just one person we come into contact with. And this kind of love isn’t burdensome (1 John 5.3), and is unlikely to involve runaway horses or burning performers.

But loving like Jesus loved might involve us feeling the need to speak up against injustice.

Or spending time on our own in prayer.

Or challenging someone’s bad behaviour.

Or spending time with someone who is lonely. 

We are just starting Christian Aid month in the Church, and this is a very practical way to show love to those most at need, this year the focus is on Burundi and supporting people to push back against poverty through small businesses. [4]

 ‘As the father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my father’s commandments and abide in his love’.

If we abide in God, the promise is that his love will flow through us, and loving one another will be a joy not a burden.

And we abide in God’s love by keeping his commands to love one another. It’s a glorious cycle of love.

‘Love one another, as I have loved you’.