Acts 8:26-40, John 15:1-8
As I mentioned earlier, May is mission month in many Baptist churches and this May we are exploring what authentic mission looks like. We looked at authentic relationships last week, we’ll look at following Jesus in new ways on the 23rd, and today’s theme is authentic love.
My understanding of God’s authentic love began by singing songs about that love as we have done this morning – singing songs like Jesus loves me this I know…
We would sit, in Sunday School, in small wooden chairs around a small wooden table and after we had pasted cut out pictures of Jesus and his friends onto sheets of paper with the wonderfully aromatic Perkins Paste, we would pull our chairs around our teacher, Mrs Robson, and she would tell us stories about Jesus and how much he loved us.
I loved Mrs Robson. I’ve told you before how, when I was four, I decided – because it was boring to play at church where dad was supposed to be watching me (poor man, he was probably trying to write a sermon) – to make my way, all by myself, through the streets to Mrs Robson’s house. Mrs Robson loved me. I had no doubt of that. And if she said that Jesus loved me, that Jesus was my friend, then it was true, and I wanted it to be true.
I also learnt at church that one day God would punish me for all the things I’d done wrong. That made sense because that was always happened; when I stole plasticine from Sunday School by hiding it up my nose and the doctor had to take it out; or when I tried to take one small snowy white cube of bread from the church kitchen before church; or when I didn’t tell anyone about my plan to visit Mrs Robson’s house especially as I told her – when she opened her door and looked so surprised to see me standing there alone – that mum and dad had dropped me off and it took them hours of searching and calling the police and ringing church members asking for prayer– including Mrs Robson – before I was located. Yes, God would one day punish me, but because Jesus was my friend – because he loved me – I could run to him and he would hide me when that day came.
Some of my understanding of God, some of my understanding of the work of salvation has changed over the years. I no longer hold a theology in which Jesus lays down his life to meet the requirements of an angry God. Instead, I see here in the love between Jesus and the Father, in Jesus and the Father abiding together in this love, that when Jesus goes to the cross, it is also God there on the cross. God suffering with us and for us. God choosing a very different direction to punishment and retribution. God choosing love.
This is the God who loves me, who chooses me as a friend. This is authentic love.
And authentic love is characterised by authentic friendship.
Friendship might seem an inadequate word to describe our relationship with God. The Danish theologian, Soren Kierkegaard argued that friendship was morally inadequate and even opposite to Christianity, “Friendship belongs to paganism,” he wrote. Atheists often ridicule Christians as believing in an “invisible friend”, and I have shared the critique of certain kinds of music from certain parts of the church as “Jesus as my boyfriend” music.
But friendship also has a long and wonderful tradition in the Bible. Both Abraham and Moses are called the friends of God. Isaiah 41:8 refers to, “you descendants of Abraham my friend.” And Exodus 33:1 says, “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” And in our passage from John this morning, Jesus calls us, his disciples, friends.
This picture of face-to-face dealing, of intimacy, openness and honesty from Exodus, is picked up here in Jesus’ words in verse 15: “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I heard from my Father.” The fourth century theologian Ambrose describes this verse this way: “Let us reveal our bosom to [a friend], and let him reveal his to us. Therefore, he said, I have called you friends, because all that I have heard from the father, I have made known to you. Therefore a friend hides nothing, if he is true: he pours forth his mind, just as the Lord Jesus poured forth the mysteries of his Father.”
Jesus invites us into the authentic love, the authentic friendship relationship that he shares with God. We too are invited into the confidence, the companionship of God.
It might seem odd to us then that this passage in Acts so frequently used the language of command, “if you keep my commandments you will abide in my love,” “this is my commandment that you love one another,” “you are my friends if you do what I command you”…”I am giving you these commands, so that you may love one another”. What kind of friendship is so conditional, so command driven?
Perhaps what this language hints at, is how powerful this authentic relationship of love and friendship with God is, how it binds us to God and to others and to God’s way of being with others, how it will transform us and others through us and the world around us. These commandments acknowledge a new reality: that we too abide in God’s love and the nature of that love is to keep on giving. And after all, though they may be called commandments, they are, very simply, the command ‘to love’.
And this authentic love and authentic friendship does change our world. It keeps on giving.
I came across a wonderful illustration of this over the Anzac Day weekend. I was reading another book by Diana Butler Bass who wrote Christianity for the Rest of Us that we read as a church a few years ago, in which she speaks about discovering she is descended from Quakers. “Quakers” is the nickname for the Society of Friends, a group founded in the mid-1600’s, who believed in ‘inner light’, in Christ’s direct (face to face) working in the soul. “Because of this,” she writes, “there was no need for clergy or even a church. The Friends met together to encourage one another to listen to and experience the light. [There is a connection here with Baptists. We too emphasise the priesthood of all believers, the authority of Scripture as it points us to Christ – not church endorsed creeds or statements of faith – that our gathering is a community of friends who practice faith together, and that, as friends, we have freedom of conscience.] As a result [of these beliefs, Quakers] formed distinctive egalitarian communities, with shared responsibilities between men and women, and rejected class divisions….
The idea that Quakers were quaint came from their practice of addressing people as ‘thou’ or ‘thee’, words we consider old fashioned today. However, ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ were once familiar forms of address, used for intimates and friends in place of the more formal ‘you’….
Such practices of friendship – based on the belief that since we are friends of God, we are all friends of one another – were deemed radical, heretical, and a threat to the good order of society. [It sounds odd coming from an American, but she speaks of how the local squire did not appreciate being addressed as ‘thou’ – the equivalent of calling him ‘mate’.] Thus, the Quakers found themselves at odds with authorities, sentenced to prison, and exiled for the crime of being friends. As the movement spread, Friends advocated for all sorts of social justice causes, including abolition and women’s rights. It all seemed pretty obvious to them: friends did not let friends be held in slavery. Friendship expanded naturally from the most profound inner experiences to the world of social relations and politics….”
(This is yet another good reason, I believe, to cling to our Baptist heritage, to defend it, rather than let it be eroded by the motions at the Special Assembly. We want to hang onto our heritage of being friends of God who are friends to one another and friends to others.)
In our lives of faith, in the practicing of faith in our lives, we are brought into a circle of love; from God to Jesus, from Jesus to us, from us to others, and from all of us back to God, and yet the source of this great movement of authentic love, authentic friendship, is the endless, unlimited, all-giving love of God.
We see this in our Acts passage this morning where the role of Peter and the other believers is downplayed in the coming of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and those in his household, “While Peter was still speaking…” it says. It wasn’t that Peter was asking something of them or for them. It is clearly the movement of the Spirit, the great sweep of the love of God.
We see that in reading from John which contains a little ‘inclusio’ (a literary device based on the concentric principle in case you are wondering!) where we arc, we go round in a circle from one verse, “This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you…” to another containing similar material, “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” And it was not planned intentionally, but by singing two rounds this morning – God is love and You are my all in all – we are enacting the same concentric principal. The authentic love of God goes around and come around.
And we see that in the work of Global Interaction. In 2020, Global Interaction personnel met together and prayed together about their 2021 – 2025 Strategic Roadmap. As they looked at the big picture of their ministry priorities and strategies for the next season, they asked themselves the question ‘why’. Why do we do what we do? And the answer, the simple statement they articulated to answer that important question was, “Because nothing matters more than sharing God’s love for the world.”
“Nothing matters more than sharing God’s love for the world.” We are caught up in a great movement of love. We are loved and we share that love with others. We are friends and we share that friendship with others. We begin with God’s love and we end with God’s love. In other words, the authentic love of God keeps giving and going and growing.
So, to make this sermon too an inclusio, let me end where I began with a story many of you will know of one of the significant figures in twentieth century theology, Karl Barth, which I believe – to bring things around in another arc to Canberra Baptist – was verified by Noel Vose, the founding principal of Vose Seminary in Western Australia, whose memorial plaque is there. At the end of lecture at the University of Chicago in 1962, Barth was asked if he could summarise his whole life’s work, all his theological writing, in one sentence. “Yes,” he said, “I can, in the words of a song I learned at my mother’s knee, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so…”