Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Easter
All Saints' Church

I’m not sure how many of you caught the number of times the word “love” or one of its cognates appeared in our Collect, Epistle, and Gospel this morning, but the actual number was 41 times. When a word appears that many times over, one might begin to think that the author is trying to get across a particular point, and in fact, this is clearly the case. Also, one might think when something like this comes up for a preacher it would be natural to think that the sermon would revolve around this one word, and that is partially true this morning. Yes, I am going to speak about God’s love toward us, our love towards God and the completion of that trinity of ideas, our love toward mankind. However, one point that I want to weave into this sermon is something that might get lost when we examine passages such as these.

In addition to the 41 times that love appears in the Propers for the day, another theme, a bit more subtle comes through and that is the notion of perfection, completeness, or fullness. One of God’s promises to us is that we are inheritors of something larger, more grand, more glorious, more spectacular than we can ever imagine. The collect this morning solidifies that thought twice over when the opening petition declares that God has prepared good things that surpass all of our understanding for those who love Him. We also receive the assurance that what we are to obtain exceeds everything that we could ever want or desire. One of the joys of knowing what lies ahead is the freedom that it allows us here and now. Baptist minister John Piper once said, “…don't make the mistake of thinking that future-oriented, future-sustained joy limits present usefulness. It doesn't limit it. It liberates it. If your future is glorious and sure (which it is in Christ!), you don't live for money or power or fame. You don't have to grasp and snatch and chase pleasures that are slipping through your aging fingers. You are free to live for others now. You are free to be another kind of person than the kind that lives for this world. If your hope is glorious and sure, you will seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these other basic things will be added to you (Matthew 6:33). Your love will be genuine. It will be radical, risk-taking, sacrificial because of the joy set before you.”

John makes an important link between love and perfection in our Epistle lesson. Twice he speaks of love being perfected, and I think the critical piece is the manner in which this happens. In both cases, the only way that the love of God within us is perfected is when it pertains to our love toward others. Certainly the first piece is that we love God, but John makes it clear that the only way that love is made perfect is if we share it. Personal piety is wonderful, but if it doesn’t manifest itself toward others, then it is incomplete and imperfect.

The other time in this morning’s Epistle that John uses the word perfect is in relation to fear. We are living in fearful times. In worldly terms, there is more uncertainty, more apprehension, more hopelessness than seemingly ever before. Just this past Thursday and Friday, General Motors and Chrysler Corporation announced that they would not be renewing the franchise agreements with over 2,000 car dealerships. We’ve been hearing stories such as these for months now. Everyone in this church this morning who had saved for the future in the Stock Market has noticeably less than they did two years ago. We are sending forth from our parish three young people who have completed their High School education, and have a future that lies ahead of them. Are we sending them forth fearful, or hopeful? How should we be sending them forth?

St. John is not giving us some nice platitudes to rest our fears upon when he writes, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth our fear; because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.” How do we flesh out these words? When things begin to collapse around us, how do we put these words into practice?

The message of the Bible is a constant reminder that we are called to be radically reoriented toward God, and all that He gives us. Far too often our hopes and sense of security rest in the things of this world, and as we know all too realistically those things are temporal, and can never provide us perfect security. Our true freedom comes when we can truly grasp that all that we have has been given to us on loan from God.

Job understood this completely when everything was taken from him. When the messengers reported to Job that his flocks, his servants, his home, and his children had all been destroyed, Scripture says that, “Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.” I can assure you with 100% confidence that when my IRA statements come in over the past year and a half, the last thing I’ve done is worship, or declare “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” I can think of other thoughts going through my head, but words of thanksgiving were not some of them.

That’s because in that instance I’ve gotten my priorities wrong. Rather than being thankful for what I still have I cursed what I had lost. And yet, I’ve still never lost what’s truly important, what’s perfect, and will ultimately last forever!

Again, this is all a part of reorientation, and changing our mindset toward that which is perfect.

Jesus’ words as recorded in John’s Gospel this morning continue to push us toward a type of love that seems so foreign and incredibly challenging – which of course, it is. One of the attributes that Jesus speaks about is completeness and being made whole and full. The text says, “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.” Even at the end of his life, Jesus is establishing a foundation that we are intended to build our lives upon. He is making clear that his desire is that the joy that He already knows and embodies might remain with us forever, so that we might taste and see that joy as well. And He doesn’t just want it to be enough to get by, he wants it to be full and complete. The word that Jesus uses here when he speaks of our joy being full has the connotation of “bringing to completion that which was already begun.” There is a sense of that fullness being the end-result or consummation of something that lies outside of ourselves – which in fact it really is.

All this discussion of perfection and being made perfect and our joy being full and complete brings me ultimately, and as it rightfully should, back to the cross. If we think back to the readings for Holy Week when we hear again the words of our Lord from the cross, the last word that Jesus speaks tie all of this together. John is the only Gospel writer to record the one word in Greek which is normally translated, “It is finished.” The curious thing about that word in Greek is its remarkable similarity to the words John uses in our lesson this morning which speaks about love being perfected in us. It is no stretch at all to render the words of Jesus from the cross as “It is perfected” as easily as it would be to translate them “It is completed” or “It is accomplished.” All of those possibilities are available, and look what light that sheds on our texts this morning.

Jesus’ work on the cross is what makes all of this possible. The love that Jesus exhibited when he shed his blood, died in our stead, and bore our sins brings everything back to perfection. Our Lenten journey a few months ago began with the words, “Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made.” We pray those same words in the third collect for Good Friday as well. The fingerprints of perfection are still there underneath all of the dirt, grit, and grime that we’ve heaped on through our manifold sin and wickedness. Thanks be to God that at the last judgment, God will see us not by what we done and left imperfect, but rather through the perfection of the work of His Son.

I’m not sure where I heard this, but it certainly makes sense. A person was asked how he would define Heaven and Hell, and he answered with the following words, “My idea of Hell is spending eternity face-to-face with God. My idea of Heaven is spending eternity face-to-face with God with Jesus standing in between.” I hope you see the difference.

We are left with the charge and mandate to embody and live out what we have heard this morning. We are called to take that joy that we have received from Jesus Christ and not bottle it up, and hoard it for ourselves, but allow it to permeate all that we say or do. The only natural response to that type of love is to give thanks to God for that gift through our worship of Him, and then share it with others.

Then, and only then can we truly know what it means to have his love perfected in us, to comprehend the notion that perfect love casts out all fear, and that what God has given us is intended to fill us to overflowing. I leave you with a rhetorical question that I hope you will truly ponder – both as you approach this altar to receive the Blessed Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, and as you depart from this service this morning:

What would the world begin to look like if we received this love to the fullest, and then shared it with our fellow man each and every day of our lives?

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