SERMON: The Abounding Love of God

A Sermon on the Abounding Love of God preached by Graham Low at St Mary’s Iffley on 6 May 2018.

In the midst of the busyness and complexity of life, for us, and around us, it can be helpful to try and stand back and find a word that describes the essence of something or some situation. Today we have been challenged once again with words from John’ gospel. A key word to describe how this richly complex and profound gospel describes the ministry of Jesus is the word abiding. And our other readings today share something of the theme of abiding, and the linked themes of abundance and abode, and of overflowing generosity of God.

Thus we have heard how Peter, having been compelled to come to Caesarea after a dream, has spoken to gentiles about the primacy of God and of Jesus. Then, suddenly, he finds the Holy Spirit falling as a gift upon all who are listening to him. As far as we can tell this intervention is completely unexpected. The gentiles are astounded that the Holy Spirit might be poured upon them, people who are not Jews, and so neither circumcised nor baptised. This momentous event must be quite scandalous to the established Jewish people of Caesarea. The Holy Spirit simply interrupts Peter, as it so often does. And we are told that the Holy Spirit is poured upon the people – not just a gentle touch, but in abundance. So Peter, as astonished as anyone else by this happening, gathers his wits and follows the new Christian practice by baptising the people there and then.

Until this intervention by the Holy Spirit, Peter seems to have been teaching in a structured and traditional way. The shock of this intervention is to some extent lost on most of us today. The suddenness with which the Holy Spirit may act reminds us that as humans we tend to create seemingly logical systems and structures for all that we deal with. The church has also tried very hard down the ages to formulate structures of thinking and action called doctrine and dogma. It has tried to create certainties. In the process God’s love has been narrowed by false boundaries of our own. Sudden shocks are not part of this. But God counters our attempts to be organised and systematic with nothing less than reckless freedom – not structured and not tidy at all. And when God acts in this way we come to see that God has already been,and is, and always will be abiding in us, at the very centre of our being. Indeed, creating tidiness and structure can so easily hinder God’s work within us. The call of the Holy Spirit may not be intrusive. In fact it may be waiting patiently to be heard – sometimes, as I have found myself, even for years. The call for us is to listen to and look for God’s abundant activity, and to respond with gratitude.

Some years ago when I was a hospital chaplain, a patient in a secure mental health unit came to our Eucharist on Maundy Thursday in the hospital chapel. Afterwards she asked to talk to me about her spiritual life. I knew that she was well on the way to recovering from a serious mental health problem. I also sensedfor the first time that she had quite a mature Christian faith, and I had a feeling that she abided in God, and God in her. But she went on to say that she had never been baptised, but deeply wished to be. Could I baptise her there and then, she asked? Being awfully Anglican I immediately thought of the teaching and process that I had been instructed to follow before the baptism of adults, and also I remembered that adults were normally baptised by a bishop and not by a mere parish priest and Chaplain. And then I began to think of all the organisational difficulties and approval that the hospital might make, because she was still a patient. But it seemed very clear that the Holy Spirit was intervening and said: go on, baptise her. So three days later at our dawn Vigil and first Mass of Easter in my church, Jean came from the hospital, with a guardian, and I was able to baptise her. It was a highlight of her life and that of our church, and of my ministry. Jean was discharged from the hospital soon afterwards and became a welcomed and active member of our church congregation. And Jean said repeatedly over the following years that baptism had made her whole again. She felt and said that our loving God was abiding in her. She felt able to give and to receive love, rather than to have it rejected, as had painfully happened for her in the past. Furthermore, Jean felt that her sense of sin as she endured her illness was completely lifted. God’s abiding love had overcome the darkness of some years of severe depression.

In a way this story about Jean is an illustration of our Gospel reading today. Here in part of Jesus’ farewell discourses to his disciples, Jesus is teaching about the deepest aspect of a fruitful life: friendship that is expressed in loving others as Jesus has loved us. It is about allowing ourselves to abide in Jesus and to allow him to abide in us. It is a daily matter, a long-term matter of abiding, which in turn gives us strength to love other people, just as he loves us.

There is something both simple and profound about all he is saying. Here Jesus is sharing with his closest friends the essence of what he is. There is nothing authoritarian about it. There is no demand of blind obedience. But there is an implicit desire for us to think deeply about who he is, and what he asks of us. Here we are encouraged to grasp more and more of his way, and his abounding love, as we pray, read and reflect on his call to us, in the company of our friends. The quality of this abiding friendship is eventually to be found in his call, indeed his commandment to us, that we love one another as he has loved us.

Let us pray that we may have the grace to open our arms wider to embrace more of the overwhelming abundance of God’s love for us. And may we have the grace to offer it abundantly to everyone. Amen.