Sermon: Love in truth and action, not word or speech

Sermon for Williamstown
26th of April 2015

John 10:11-18; 1 John 3:16-24

Earlier this week, on the ABC program Q&A, Australia’s Trade Minister, Andrew Robb, argued that Muslim clerics weren’t doing enough to prevent the radicalisation of Muslim youth. He said: “The leadership of the Muslim community, the imams in particular, I think should be doing a lot more to look after their community in Australia … You’ve got to show the leadership and we’ve got to do whatever we can to help you in that regard.” Since then there’s been discussion in the media about how much authority Muslim clerics actually have, and whether they’re making enough use of that authority to prevent Muslims turning to violence.

As a ‘Christian cleric’ I’ve been pondering this idea of religious responsibility. How responsible are people like me for the actions of Christians? If Christians turn to violence, as some have, is that at least partly the responsibility of their ministers and priests? Last week, at the ANZAC service, I quoted some of the sermons and articles delivered by clergy during the First World War, and in that case I think church leaders absolutely had some responsibility for the vast number of soldiers who went to war, to kill and to die. But what about today?

I’ve been wondering about this because of another news item that caught my attention this week. It was about the report released by the “Committee for Economic Development of Australia which found that between 4 and 6 per cent of the population – or between 1 and 1.5 million people – is classed as being in poverty, ‘with little to no hope of getting out of that situation’.” If that report is right, at least one million people currently live in poverty in Australia! At the same time I’ve been part of the Campaign for Australian Aid, which includes groups like Act for Peace and our own Synod, asking Treasurer Joe Hockey to reverse the cuts made to overseas aid in last year’s budget, cuts of billions of dollars that will hurt some of the poorest people in the world.

The majority of Australians identify as Christians. Quite a number of Australian politicians do as well. If Christian clerics were doing our jobs in the way that Muslim clerics are asked to do theirs, surely this acceptance of poverty and the cuts to aid couldn’t happen. Because as we heard in today’s scripture readings, caring for the poor is an essential part of being Christian.

The writings of the Apostle John make up only ten percent of the New Testament, but they provide one-third of its references to love. The first letter of John, which we’re reading our way through in these weeks after Easter, offers us both an absolute command to love and a description of what love looks like. It’s notable that John uses the word ‘love’ as a verb more often than he uses it as a noun. He doesn’t write about love as an emotion. He writes about love as commitment in action.

“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” How does God’s love abide in Australians when we are happy to accept cuts in overseas aid that will affect the world’s poorest people? How does God’s love abide in a country that seems to accept that between 4 to 6 per cent of its population live in poverty? Australia is not a Christian nation, but we are a nation in which the majority of people identify as Christian. In that case, surely there should be more sharing of the world’s goods happening in Australia than we see at the moment.

Of course, for us, who don’t simply identify as Christian by ticking a box on the census, but actually seek to live out our Christian commitment, John’s question is even more immediate. But we’re lucky. For one thing, each week we can bring offerings from our share of the world’s goods here for those in need. For another, we often hear from church and other groups of ways in which we can share with others. Opportunities to help our brothers and sisters in need are constantly before us.

“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” On the night before his death Jesus told his disciples: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) Our faith can only be known by our love. And our love can only be known by the actions it prompts. As the author of the Letter to James writes: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:15-16) I have to say here that Martin Luther absolutely hated the Letter of James, and called it an epistle of straw, but that’s a discussion for another time.

In writing to his community about love, John is drawing on the teaching of Jesus, whose message was always one of love. Just as the apostle talks about love as an activity, rather than a feeling, as something that can be hard work rather than something warm and fuzzy, so Jesus’ words about love are challenging.

Fifth century mosaic, Ravenna

Fifth century mosaic, Ravenna

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Over the past month, leading up to ANZAC Day, we have heard a lot in the media about soldiers killed in war ‘laying down their lives for others’. It is seen to be extraordinary and exceptional for people to do this, even when it happens as part of battles in which soldiers are willing to kill others as well as die themselves. But for Christians, laying down our lives is meant to be an everyday activity. Usually not literally, although in certain times and places Christians have been called to die for others. But at the very least we Christians are called to lay our lives down through sacrifices that enable others around us to live life in all its fullness. And we do this in imitation of the God who does that for us.

Love always begins with the God who loved us so much. In Jesus, God chose to enter history and love us. In love, Jesus welcomes us into a community whose life is marked by a mutual love; the sheep cared for by the good shepherd. We then love others in response to the love that God offers us. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God,” John writes to his community. Love creates love, and our love is a response to the great love of God for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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