April 29, 2018

2018 April29

Easter 5 - Year B

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger
For  those of you who have family and friends who are not Christians, what  goes through your mind and through your emotions when you hear “Whoever  does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers, such  branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”? Jesus’ clear  message of what will happen to believers and to non-believers is so  firmly recorded by John, it may bring all sorts of inner conflicts for  many.  


We  all know a person who has expressed their concern for a family member  who isn’t a Christian; we may have had that concern ourselves. I’m sure  we all know someone who has expressed concern for a loved one who has  married someone of a different Christian denomination or of a  different faith! A friend from summer camp was dating a Roman Catholic,  and her Lutheran mother didn’t speak to her for the duration of that  relationship. I’m not sure where that sort of behavior would fit into  the context of today’s readings. But these behaviors are born out of a  genuine conviction of faith, and guided – rightly or wrongly – by a deep concern for being right in one’s faith.


If  we do NOT have some conviction of faith, we are reduced to nothing but a  social club, and we all know of social clubs that meet at more  reasonable hours! Even social clubs are held together by a particular ethos  or reason for them coming together. Bud & Linda play bridge…if they  wanted to play cribbage, then the bridge club wouldn’t be for them. And  for sure, both social clubs and churches have split over such  ideological differences, sometimes undermining their stated purposes.


Instead of being a social club, we
are a community of believers
who share a common faith in
Jesus who made this analogy
between the Vine and the Love of
God. A social club cannot offer
the depth of love the Jesus is
describing with the analogy of
the True Vine.


As described in our second  lesson, this “Love has been perfected among us,” the believers, so  “that we may have boldness on the day of judgment.” This is a type and  depth of love that we cannot find on earth, and therefore cannot find in  a social club. Of course, our social clubs are important and valuable. They actually provide a type of personal interaction that the Church cannot necessarily provide. While  many of our interests are or have been provided by Church social groups  in the past, it is not the function of the Church, nor is it the  requirement of the believer to nurture one’s social life. We gather to  help one another along our spiritual journeys as we worship the God of  Love.
John, in the Epistle, writes:


“By  this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us  of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent  his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess  that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.”


Will those we love who are not believers miss out on this? After all, what  we hear Jesus talking about in the Bible points toward and exclusive  religion, that following Christ and being a Christian excludes all  others. Certainly, there is a point to be made about that, and many people in the Church now and in the the past have believed that. There have been many who have believed it  so strongly that they feel that it is better for others to die than to  not know Jesus Christ. Great examples of that might be the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition – secondary, of course, to the political and economic drivers of those points in history. But many of us, including me, do not believe that because you don't believe you will be “thrown away like a branch, thrown into the fire, and burned.”


You see, even though these are the words of Jesus, they are also contextual, and these words are written using earthly concepts for divine truths so that human beings can begin to understand that which surpasses all understanding. We have to remember that salvation is not up to us, it is up to God! Jesus, more or less, makes  this assertion in this Gospel reading. He makes it a little tougher for  us by stating the negative. But some of us choose to focus on the  positive, on the positive for us as believers that we are in the love of  God, and on the positive that there is indeed the existence of the Love of God.


It is important to remember when contemplating the Love of God:  


Firstly, it is not human and
does not come from us.

Secondly, it’s up to God
whom God loves and offers
salvation, not up to us.


Look at the second lesson again: our boldness at the Day of Judgment. If the Day of Judgment is to happen, it will be for all people, not just a few – all people throughout time. “What IS the Day of Judgment” is for a different sermon, so let’s just take it for face value today. The Day of Judgment will be true for every single person on this Earth, whether devout Christian who takes Communion every day and says their sacramental confession three times a year, or for the person who has never known God or has rejected God. The Day of Judgment comes for all of us when we meet Jesus Christ face-to-face. And it is God who will make the decision who receives salvation. Is this Universalism? No! It is just the basic theology of the Christian faith. And this stems from God’s love.


In the Epistle, John re-states the John 3:16:


“Love  is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever  does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was  revealed among us in this way: God sent His only Son into the world so  that we might live through Him.”


Let’s use another earthly example and consider human love. There is always enough love to go around. I’m sure all of you have heard of the concept of compassion fatigue. People  are asked to have compassion towards people who are in bad situations,  those suffering from natural disasters, and all sorts of other types of  situations which require  us to dig into our well of compassion and offer that out to and for  others. There becomes a point when some people have given so much of  their well of compassion that they are tired. The next natural disaster or the next death in the family becomes overwhelming, and the person’s  response maybe one that is not consistent with either their behavior or  the behavior one would expect from someone upon hearing devastating  news. That is what is called compassion fatigue.


There is no such thing as love fatigue! I doubt that anyone of you has been unable to love someone or  show your love to someone because you love too many people. This is a  dynamic that happens in families. Sure, parents have different  relationships with each child; their love for each child manifests itself differently. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t love yet another child or yet another person. There is no such thing as love fatigue.


This  is the love that John is telling us about in the second lesson. It is  also the love that Jesus is describing through his analogy of the True  Vine. John talks about love that is there that was brought to us by  Jesus Christ. That love is the love of God that is so deep that the  billions and trillions of people who have ever lived on this planet have been, are, and will always be loved by God. Jesus puts that love into a concept that humans can understand. He uses Himself as the True Vine, the stock, the trunk, the anchor of the love that comes from God who is Love. We Believers are extensions of that love. We know the love because we are attached to it as believers as the branches. But we also bear fruit, which is to share that love with others.


This weekend, in the Church of England rag called The Church times, my old personal tutor wrote a commentary on evangelicals and evangelism. Angela Tilby was excoriating an initiative by the Archbishops to grow the Church. She writes:


"...The  underlying theology remains that of individuals’ letting Jesus into  their hearts and lives one by one. There is nothing wrong with that, of  course; but it worries me that the Church of England is being driven by  the assumption that there is simply no other way of speaking of the  Christian faith."


What Angela is concerned about is a narrow understanding of evangelism, a  narrow understanding of what it means to be a Christian, and a narrow  understanding of what the Love of God is and how that love works. What some in the Church believe is that the bearing fruit that Jesus speaks of is solely to gain new members. Of course, there is strong evidence for that in the New Testament and in the words of Jesus. But looking at the two readings together, it is clearer to me that bearing fruit is to express God’s love to more people, to people who do not know or have not known God’s love. So, when you hear Skip Parks and I talk to you about Episcopal evangelism, we are calling upon each of us to show the love of God to others. We are not threatening those people with being chopped up and tossed into the Fire. We are calling upon ourselves to show God’s love to other people so that they may also know God’s love and perhaps want to nurture that love with us here at St Stephen’s.


With this Episcopal evangelism that the Presiding Bishop is encouraging us to engage in, we are also not drawing them into what Angela describes so cringingly and aptly:


“Too often in church, people in distress are patronized by the saved and the certain, infantilized by a faux inclusivity that has them playing with tea lights and cutting out little paper flames, while they are jollied along to find Jesus over (excellent) coffee.”


We are here this morning to have an experience of the Love of God that is given to us freely – in prayers and song and scripture and the Sacrament. It is not ours to contain and to distribute to whomever we deem fit. It is for us to enjoy and to share with whomever we meet.  John’s Epistle explains why there is no such thing as love fatigue:


“If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us."


Therefore,  my brothers and sisters of St Stephen’s, do not worry about the fate of  your friends and family who do not profess the Christian faith.


Our  call today, and every day, is
to love them as God loves us.

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