Fifth Sunday in Easter
Scripture: I John 4: 7- 21
Dear Christian friends, I’m an old man who now lisps through his false teeth. As you can hear, I can’t even say lisps without lisping. In spite of that I trust our great and kind God will grant that, during our exchange through the next few minutes, His own gracious Word might be both spoken and heard.
The passage we read from the first letter of John a few minutes ago begins with words that we are familiar with and comfortable with. “Beloved, let us love one another, because 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.” As I say, we have heard such words quite often before, and they may challenge us, but are within our comfort zone. I want to suggest, though, that the affirmation that God is love is not the unique good news of the Christian faith. The good news is about what God’s love led Him to do. And that’s what is spelled out by John in the words directly following. “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. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” And here we have words that do make a good many in our denomination uncomfortable. Any of you who are watching the service today, who have been regular readers of the United Church Observer, and its successor Broadview, will have encountered quite a few articles over the years condemning in fairly strong words the idea that Jesus died for our sins. He may have died because of our sins, those articles maintain, or at least because of some people’s sins, but not for our sins. They make it clear the idea that a loving God would require a victim as a condition for His forgiveness is reprehensible, and will have nothing to do with it.
But instead of offering an alternative interpretation of Jesus death, that somehow helps us understand the many passages about the cross in the New Testament — like Paul’s saying to the Corinthians that “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” — instead, I say, of offering alternative interpretations of Jesus’ death that help us work within the New Testament frame, the writers of these articles leave us with a Christian faith that has Jesus’ death simply as the sad fate of a wonderful person who made the political leaders of the time uneasy. Jesus becomes a martyr whose death could have been avoided, and should have been avoided. It may be unfair for me to feel as I do in reading most of those articles, which is the impression of the authors’ conviction that Jesus’ death would have been avoided had they been in charge at the time.
It’s important for me to say, though, that I too believe the idea that God would require a victim as a condition for His forgiveness is reprehensible, and we should have nothing to do with it. And it’s true that some expressions of atonement theology that we can find in Christian books and sermons go down that line. But regarding the New Testament testimony, I point to the telling fact that nowhere in it can we find a sense that in Jesus’ death a young man was cut off in his prime before he could fulfil his potential. No, the New Testament writers believe that in His death Jesus did fulfil His potential! So it was not just Jesus’ resurrection, but also His death, that was shouted above the roof tops as being a saving event. And we should add that nowhere in the New Testament is it suggested that He was God’s scape-goat. It’s quite true that He is referred to as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin the world, but those words come in John’s Gospel where Jesus makes it clear that He is the one who has chosen the path to His death. He Himself has chosen to be the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.
It is assumed in the New Testament, though, that God also has chosen that path for Him. We’ll let some words in Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost provide an illustration of that conviction: “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know — this Jesus, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law….” Here Peter has God’s decision and human decisions intertwined. Those who demanded his crucifixion were amazingly enough actually fulfilling God’s intentions!
This seems to bring us back to God choosing a victim. But this is where we need to take a look at the Father/Son language that is used throughout the New Testament in connection with Jesus. Though the New Testament is dealing with divine things there is no such thing as divine language. There is only human language. Our human language is being stretched in the New Testament, it is enriched, it is enhanced, but it is still human. In the human world a father comes first and a son second, sometimes many years late into the father’s life. And the son may not be much like the father. Indeed the father might be salt of the earth and the son turn out to be a scoundrel.
In the case of the Father/Son relationship referred to with Jesus’ bond with God the Father there is no such separation of time and character. We see this stated in John’s Gospel, where Jesus says “I and the Father are one,” and where He says “Those who have seen me have seen the Father.” In spite of the familiar words “Like father, like son” no human son could refer to his father and say “Those who have seen me have seen my father.” They each have their own individuality. But that’s not the case with Jesus as Son of God the Father. Which is where the doctrine of the Trinity shines light on the issue. Jesus the Son is not only entirely human, He is also fully God in His own way, as the Father is God. So what happens in the crucifixion is not God imposing a dreadful and undeserved death on someone who is not God, but is God the Son giving Himself to death on our behalf.
So Isaac Watts didn’t write a Christmas hymn that says “Joy to the world, God’s victim has arrived!” No, it says “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” His Good Friday hymn doesn’t begin with “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the scape-goat is nailed.” No, it begins “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died.” And we can think of Audrey Assad’s haunting Christmas song: “I wonder as I wander out under the sky, How Jesus my Saviour did come for to die.” He did, of course, come for to teach, and He did come for to heal, but above all He did come for to die.
In the New Testament we repeatedly hear that Jesus’ death is connected with the forgiveness of sins. But His death is not the condition for us to be forgiven. No, the cross is the form that God’s forgiveness takes. So forgiveness is not cheap. It cost God everything. But it is freely and gladly given by Him, because of His everlasting love for us. It costs us nothing — except of course our heart, our whole heart, and nothing less than our whole grateful heart.
And that brings us to the other part of the message in the passage from I John. “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another…. We love because he first loved us.” Sometimes words like these are referred to at weddings. But the love spoken about here is not the love felt between a couple getting married. The love between wedding partners is all about feelings. The love spoken about here, and in so many other parts of the New Testament, is about a commitment to the well being of others no matter how we feel about them. Our feelings differ greatly with one person and another. We are drawn to some and not to others. When St. Paul, or St. John, urge their hearers to love one another they aren’t in effect telling them to like one another. We can’t control our feelings. But we can to some extent control our actions, and Paul and John are urging their readers to act toward one another for the well being of each. As Paul says a couple of times in his writings, “The whole law is summed up in these words: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’.” Care about your neighbour as you care about yourself.
But, we shouldn’t in all this forget feelings. God’s ultimate intention for us is that we will one day feel the love for others that Paul talks about in his letter to the Corinthians: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
We all know by heart the petition that Jesus included in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” I think God’s will in heaven is done from the heart and not just from the will. I believe, indeed, that it is done with glad hearts. So in praying those words we are asking God that such a change might eventually come about with us in the here and now. And we can see hints of it here and there, in people who have been serving faithfully, and whose hearts are warm. And God is there all the time waiting to give us far more than we are ready to receive. I see in myself an unreadiness to take what God is offering because I don’t want to lose control. And I say to you, as I say to myself, God is there waiting, hoping to pour into our hearts the love that can then flow out toward others.
We all know the saying that love makes the world go round. But Christian faith says it is the love of God in Jesus Christ that literally makes the whole world go round. In a document that came out of the last General Council of the United Church there is to be found the phrase, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.” That is an echo of something St. Paul says, but an incomplete echo. What Paul actually says is that he is persuaded that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God, as it is in Christ Jesus our Lord. I pray that we can be persuaded of that too. Amen.