May 9, 2021, “Love Conquers”
Acts 10: 44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5: 1-6, John 15: 9-17
In this morning’s Scripture readings, we have heard, from the Book of Psalms and St. John’s first letter, words about God’s power to conquer:
In Psalm 98 we hear:
1 O sing to the LORD a new song,
for he has done marvelous things.
His right hand and his holy arm
have gotten him victory.
2 The LORD has made known his victory;
he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.
As well, at 1 John 5: 4 we hear:
4 for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. 5 Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
These verses, taken on their own, and separated from the context of Christ’s unique mission, do not sound like Good News to most of the world:
There is a God with a strong right hand and a holy arm
This God has secured victory for his people
This God will conquer the nations
Even those who merely believe in God are also conquerors
Those with faith; those who know the name Jesus are apparently equipped to conquer the whole world
As I said, this idea of a conquering God has not been Good News for those who received it. We do not have to look far back in our history, in this part of the world or elsewhere to find evidence of this.
Centuries of conquistadors and settlers, pioneers and missionaries have left a history marked not only by the success of the church but also by the misery and loss of those who remembered life before it.
This era of expansion and conquering has been neatly summarized by the South African theologian Desmond Tutu who said:
“When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. [then] They said “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”
That is a reality of our church history. One we are called to wrestle with and learn from.
Here in Canada, in Saskatchewan, we have our own story to learn from:
A story of colonialism, of residential schools, of harm done, and the lives which became forever changed or lost.
Part of being a Christian in the 21st Century means that we are not excused by the excuses of the past.
We cannot claim ignorance
We cannot claim “good intentions”
We cannot claim anything other than the truth: as ugly and as painful and as confusing as it may be
As 21st Century Christians we have the difficult task of carrying on “being the church,” carrying on with our call to “follow Christ” to “love our God and our neighbour” and to serve one another, while being (rightfully) expected not to remake the mistakes of the past, or to forget them in our words or our actions.
This is a difficult task, my friends.
I do have Good News for you this morning, but we need to understand our current age and persevere in our faith in order to reach it.
Friends, part of what makes our task so difficult is that for all of the signs of hope; for all of the signs and people who are taking that image of God-as-Conqueror; for all of the Desmond Tutus, Martin Brokenlegs, and Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenzas out there using their voices as people formerly left out of the church to encourage a more thoughtful and faithful church, there are still wrongs being committed in the name of this God.
There are still wrongs being committed.
For as much as we like to think the days of oppression, racism, and colonialism are over, sadly they are not. Not completely. And there are still those who perpetrate hatred in the name of Christ (Christ who taught us only to love).
Being a Christian in the 21st Century means knowing these things:
Knowing the mistakes of the past
Knowing the stubborn ugliness of the present
Knowing that there are people all around us wearing scars and bandages from their experiences with so-called Christian conquerors and yet remaining steadfast that THE Gospel, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is still true
And this last piece is just as important as the previous two:
We, as 21st Century Christians, need to be steadfast in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of the Scriptures, the Gospel of life-saving love, and truth, and salvation.
It may be tempting to forsake these things.
It may be tempting to look at the Scriptures, to look at the wrongs perpetrated (including those currently being perpetrated) in their name, and to give up on God’s Word, but that is not the answer.
Without God, without God’s guidance, without Christ’s path and the Holy Spirit’s beckoning we are nothing.
Without grounding in our God and His Word the church is nothing more than a social club, a political party, and as much doomed to fail THE true Gospel as any thing constructed with human hands.
And yes, being a Christian in this time, in this place, means knowing that too; that there is a thin line between the church as a human institution and the church as a divine one and not always knowing which is which, that is the risk we take in following Christ to love God and neighbour.
It’s easy to love God on our own, it’s easy to read Scripture and pray on our own.
It’s much harder and much riskier to join with our neighbours and to follow Christ together, and yet that is what Christ calls us to do.
If you have been watching online this year. If you have never been to this church (or maybe any church) and find yourself wondering if perhaps you should join in when we are able to be together in person, this is the invitation I give you:
Being a Christian in the 21st Century is not easy.
There are walls to run into, ditches to fall into; you will be misunderstood, you will be judged, you will be associated with people you don’t intend to be, but if you have been following the story of Jesus Christ, you already know that.
I have mentioned a few times recently that I myself am an adult convert to Christ and His church. I started following Jesus and serving the church in my early twenties and went off to seminary to study to be a minister just a few years after that.
When I first arrived at seminary back in 2013 one of the questions I was asked early on was this: “If you couldn’t work in the church, if someone told you one day ‘ministry just isn’t for you, go and find something else to do’ what would you do instead?”
To my own surprise, I heard the words coming out of my mouth before I even thought them through: “I guess I’d volunteer in the church.”
If you are called to follow Christ, to love Him and Your Neighbour, and to call His church your home you know being a Christian is not much of a choice at all.
Or as Christ Himself says this morning: “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15: 16)
So then, who have we been chosen by?
Who is the Christ that bids us to follow Him?
I mentioned earlier in this message that for as destructive as the image of the conquering God has been, it actually cannot exist in the proper context of Scripture and Christ.
If we go back to our reading from St. John’s first letter (where he talks about Christ’s followers as conquerors) and read it in context, this is what we hear:
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.
(That is to say, if we love the world, our neighbours, then we will follow God’s commandments, His Scriptures)
3 For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome,
(Even in the 21st Century)
4 for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.
(That is to say: God’s commandments do not burden us because they are stronger than whatever politics or ideology the world can offer)
5 Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
(And this is the crucial part:)
6 This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.
“Not with water only but with the water and the blood.”
Friends, water is easy. For important as the waters of baptism are, for as important as it is for us to be baptized and to remember our baptism, the waters are only a symbol or a shadow of what Christ has accomplished for us by His blood.
Blood, as the old saying goes, is thicker than water.
It is thicker and costlier, it is dearer, and it is not poured out easily or without care, and yet, for us, for the world He loves, Christ poured out His blood on the cross, to His death.
How can we understand this, except by looking to the cross?
Well, once in a while we hear a story that is almost as impactful.
Because it is Mother’s Day, it reminded me of this beautiful story I heard recently about a Mother’s love and the difference between water and blood:
Recently, I was listening to a story by someone who used to fight forest fires, and he was telling the story of the worst forest fire he had ever encountered, it was so destructive, it was so hot, that he and the rest of the fire fighters could do little else but watch it burn and then go in later to assess the damage; water was no match at all for this fire.
So after the fire had burnt its way through the forest, this man was walking along and there was just nothing left, the trees had all either exploded into splinters from the heat or else had burnt down to mere nubs, there were no bushes, no plants, no animals, until he came across the charred remains of a bird.
He couldn’t make out the species or the type of bird it was but the sight of it made him so upset and broke his heart so much that he kicked it away with his boot.
The charred bird blew away like dust, but after it was gone he could hear the tiny chirps and cheeps of its babies, who had survived the fire because of their mother’s sacrifice.
Friends, that is how Christ loves us.
That is how Christ’s death saves our life.
That if the whole world were burning, He would shelter us, and protect us with his last drop of blood.
That is how Christ’s love conquers.
Not by the sword, not by conquering the world, but by conquering the flames and the destruction and the death of this world with His self-giving love.
That is what the commandments are for, that is what the Scriptures are for, not to hurt one another, or to conquer one another, or to hold one higher than another, but in order that we may know the whole story of Jesus’ loving salvation for the world.
Or, as Christ Himself says:
13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Friends, when we, who have heard the Good News, witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we do so in the name of the one who conquers (not with the sword or with hate) but with love, with a love that pours itself out for others.
That is the Christ who calls us to go and ‘do likewise’.
To go out into the world with the confidence and joy of one whose mission cannot fail, not because we have physical or political strength on our side, but because we know that the lamb who was slain in for us love for us sits on the only throne that matters.
As 21st Century Christians, let us embrace this love, this hope, this joy.
As 21st Century Christians, as Christians who are here by the Grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, let us pursue the task Christ calls us to, but let us remember:
Let us remember the wrongs of the past
Let us remember that there are still wrongs being committed today
So that when we meet that neighbour, that friend, that brother or sister who has been hurt by the church, we can respond in love.
And so that as we do so, we can hold fast to the God of love, the God who conquers not by the sword but by the blood of His own Son poured out.
Let us hold fast then…
To our neighbour by giving of ourselves to protect them
To the stranger by giving of ourselves freely for them
To God by remembering His commandments
Commandments which have been given to us for one reason, as told to us by Christ our Lord:
17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.