Sunday, May 13, 2012

Six Easter
Acts 10:44-48
Psalm 98
1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

Hereby we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and do his commandments.

The passages from John’s Gospel and Epistle use the words “obey” and “command” several times. It is so easy from our human perspective to embrace those words but miss the message of these lessons. We like to know that we have done something good, that we’ve had an impact on the world. We live in a time when we expect people to make a difference, to leave a legacy.

Based on the text above, we proudly list our good deeds as proof of our love for God. We justify this attitude with today’s scriptures by saying, “See, this is how God told us to live!” That’s the way it was for the Jews in Jesus’ day. They believed that if they lived according to the Law, if they were good enough, gave enough, did enough, then they would be children of God. The trouble is this: we can’t be good enough. Those who thought they could be of God by their own works were blind to their own sin, hiding behind a facade of self-righteousness and justification by excuse. They pointed their fingers at others while denying their own inability to live rightly before God. They saw themselves as greater than the others and had no mercy on those they deemed as sinners. They aren’t much different than us.

We have an advantage, though. We know that God sent Jesus to reveal the reality: we are saved by God’s grace, not our works. God does not love us because we have done good things or because we have obeyed all the rules. He loves us and because He does we can love. When John tells us that we can be assured that we love our brothers in sisters in God by loving God and obeying His commandments. But are we to obey? John tells us in the gospel lesson. “This is my commandment, that ye love one another, even as I have loved you.” We know we love by obeying, and the commandment is to love. It is a circle of love and the circle begins and ends with God. It’s a lot easier to do good works than to show love.

Sometimes love is obvious. Sunday is Mother’s Day. A mother’s love is obvious. Mothers glow with a special light even when they are still pregnant with their child. Even on the birthing table, disheveled from hours of hard labor, a mother looks on her newborn with a face full of joy, twinkling eyes and unconditional love. Mothers are proud of every accomplishment, from the first giggle to the college degree. Mothers sacrifice for their children, choosing to buy $12 sneakers so that her child can have dance lessons or go to camp. Mothers lay down their lives for their children; they do so willingly and happily out of love.

Sometimes love isn’t so obvious, even for mothers. Love does not mean giving in to every want and demand of a child. It means sometimes saying “No.” Some children need a harder kind of love. True love isn’t proud of the sins of the child, but does what is necessary to guide the child back on the right path. Tough love is probably the hardest thing a mother has to do; tough love is the kind of love that allows a child to suffer the consequences of their poor decisions. The love of a mother punishes a child so that they will learn the lessons that will help them grow and mature. That kind of love isn’t quite so obvious. As a matter of fact, it sometimes looks less like love and more like hate. The response from the child is often the dreaded, “I hate you.” But the love of a mother forgives and continues to do what is best for the child.

The love of a mother lets the child go. This is also not so obvious, after all, how can love release a daughter into the mean world or a son to fend for himself? But love does not just embrace; true love sets free. There is no greater love than that of God, who loves us so much He has given us the freedom to reject Him. A mother goes on being a mother even when her child says, “I hate you;” despite our failure to love Him, Jesus died for us.

In dying, Jesus set loose the Holy Spirit, through whom we can believe and love. Jesus says, “Ye did not choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that ye should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should abide: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.” Faith is a personal gift and that we live in a direct and intimate relationship with God, our Father. We are His children. He loves each of us, gifts us with our own gifts: He calls us personally and separately. We are His friends, not because we have an individual and intimate relationship with Him, but because we are chosen to live in love with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

In the passage from Acts we see what happens when we love beyond our own little corner of the world. Peter went to Cornelius and his community to share the message of Christ. They all gathered around to hear what Peter had to say. As he was speaking the Holy Spirit came upon the entire community. God touched each person and changed the whole family. It was particularly surprising to those who had traveled with Peter because that community was not Jewish. The people were Gentiles, but God showered them with His love just as He had showered the community in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost.

It was a sacrifice for Peter to go to the house of the Gentile centurion named Cornelius. It was a sacrifice for him to go in to a room filled with Gentiles and speak a message he thought had been given solely to His people. It was a sacrifice for the community to welcome these new believers into their midst, knowing that their whole world could be turned upside down by the message. Peter decided to be obedient and take the risk. He decided to follow God’s vision for the Gospel.

God decided to adopt the community around Cornelius into His family. John writes, “Everyone who loves the parent loves the child.” We know that this refers to God as the parent and those who have been born of God through faith—His children. If we love God, we will also love His kids. Yet, we all know people who have had kids that are impossible to be loved. What makes it hard to love them? My experience suggests that disobedience makes some kids hard to love. We do not like the child because he or she shows no respect to their mother or father. We do not love them because they do not seem to love their parents.

So, we have trouble loving when our brothers and sisters in Christ don’t live up to our expectations. I imagine that those present with Peter wondered what would happen with these new Christians. Living in community with Cornelius and his family would go against many of the rules by which they had traditionally lived. Some even suggested that the Gentiles had to become Jewish before they could become Christian. What do we do when those who claim to be Christian do not live according to the rules and practices we have established? We put conditions on the love we know we are supposed to share. We say, “If you love me you will do what I say.” These commands are burdensome; they are demands that separate people from each other and from God. The love we are willing to share is dependent on obedience to our expectations. God does not demand this of us, so how can we demand it of others? We don’t choose those whom God calls into the family. We are just called to love His children.

With Christ the command to love is not burdensome because the love is not dependent on obedience. Rather, obedience is dependent on the love. It is in faith that we abide in the love of Christ, obeying His command to love one another with a sacrificial love while bearing fruit that will last. Faith and community are connected. Christ loved us, chose us and calls us friends so that we will obey His command to love one another. In love He has made us part of a family, calling us to love everyone in that family. As we love one another, we will see the fruit God calls us to bear and that fruit that is the witness to our love for God. The love we have for God and for His children becomes obvious in the joy we have and in the praise we sing.

Today’s psalm is a song of praise and thanksgiving for the good things God has done. The psalmist tells us about those things: about how God has won the victory over Israel’s oppressors and how He has saved them from exile. The psalmist sings about God’s faithfulness and His love for His people that is lasting. Telling others about the great things God has done is just one of the many ways we can sing His praise. Peter praised God by telling Cornelius and his family about Jesus. Peter loved God by doing what God called him to do.

The psalmist tells us other ways to praise God. We can sing a new song. We can sing praises with a harp. We can sound trumpets. The creation even gets involved with the heavens and earth joining in the noise of praise. The sea roars, the floods clap their hands, the hills sing. Most of all, today we learn that we can praise God and love Him by living as He has set us free to live, by loving God’s children in word and deed.

Our works will never be proof that we love God, but when we love like God loves, our lives will be manifest with sacrifices that help others become children of God. It is a never ending circle that begins and ends with God. That might not make sense, for how it is possible for a circle to have a beginning and end? This is a matter of trusting God, just as we trust Him to help us love the children of His family even when it seems like an impossible task. He will give us more than enough love and grace to share, and we will know that we are truly children of God because we’ll see His love transforming the world.

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