As children we tended to accept the values and practices of our parents or other significant figures responsible for our care and nurture. If being part of a religious community was important to them, it became important to us. It was part of the fabric of our life. For many of us, the teenage years were times for the establishing of our own personality and development of our own personal ethic and compass. We may have found ourselves questioning the choices that our parents or caregivers had made and perhaps even choosing to reject or pull back from the formal practices associated with the particular religious community of which our family unit were a part. No doubt these caused some turmoil in our family unit and maybe even some strong words about what our choice would mean to us personally and to the family in general. Perhaps though, you never were part of a religious community as a child or a teen and have come in later years to a place where you have desired to express your faith in the context of a religious community.
Regardless of our journey to this point, we all find ourselves here in this place, part of this recognized religious community. Our practice is to gather on this day and this time for worship, study and encouragement. Throughout the week, we will come together for other times that can involve service, outreach or study.
Over the last few months, we explored ideas from John Philip Newell’s book which encouraged us to reconnect with our faith – in effect, to be participants in the rebirthing of God in our time. It became clear as we moved through the book that every reconnection that we were to make was a reconnection of our life with the vision of God for the human race. We found ourselves challenged to once again recognize the sacredness of all life and to think beyond the limits of our religious expression to a vision of life that embraced all humanity. We were challenged to see ourselves as more than male or female but to recognize the oneness of creation – to seek to overcome the divisions and fragmentation of life as we sought to discover a wholeness to life. We were challenged to see the light of God in every person and to spend our time not in judgment or condemnation of those with whom we discovered differences but rather working for a justice that sought for the dignity and respect of all persons. We were challenged to think of compassion not as a duty or obligation but rather a responsibility to be shared. We were encouraged to see our life as a journey with God and to seek for ways to deepen and heighten our relationship with God and, as a consequence, with each other. We were challenged to once again embrace the path of peacemakers by seeking to follow the path of non-violence. This did not involve a false seeking for peace but the willingness to listen and to respond to one another in a way that would maintain an open dialogue. Finally we were encouraged to reconnect with love.
You will notice that throughout the series and in many more of the messages I have shared with you, there is the recurring theme of love as the ultimate expression of the life we have been granted by God and the quality that is to be expressed to God and to one another. God so loved the world, John says, that he sent his only begotten Son – indeed he sent himself – into the world not condemn the world but to save it. Remember also that I spoke to you of how the words from the beginning of John’s gospel speaking about the word of God could also substitute the word love. In the beginning was the Love and the Love was with God and the Love was God. Love was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In Love was life, and the life was the light of humanity. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
The intermingling of these words – love, life and light – gives us a picture of God that is too often overshadowed by the structure, organization and functioning of our religious communities. Now I am not saying that rules and organization are not helpful or necessary within our communities of faith but we are never to allow such rules and organization to cloud, hide or subvert the ultimate reason for the existence of our communities. Of course, I am talking about the ideal community, the ideal follower, the ideal relationship. But it is important that we not lose sight of the ideal. If God had lost sight of the vision of our creation, there would never have been an opportunity to us to experience the love of God as expressed through the one we have learned about and have experience of – Jesus Christ.
I have told you before that the Gospel of John is a relational gospel. It is the gospel that most clearly speaks not of things to be followed and things to be avoided; it does not keep a list of what we are to do and the consequences for failing to do those things; it does not speak of judgment and condemnation; it expresses most clearly the vision of God from the beginning of time and gives clear evidence that the ultimate concern of God is to draw us into a place where we can experience in every way and every part of our being the true nature of God.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus is speaking to the disciples at the time before his arrest and subsequent death on the cross. He has come to a place and time where he knows that the people in the world who are challenged by his words and actions will seek to silence him. But his firm hope is that the message he has brought from God will live on in the hearts and lives of the people who have chosen to believe. But that message is not to be lived out of a fear of punishment for failure but is to be lived out of a true devotion, a true love of the one who has shared the message.
Keeping the commandments of God – while often seen as a way of avoiding penalties – is really to be a way of receiving blessings. It is not to express our fear of God but rather express our love of God. For the disciples to keep the commandments out of fear would be to keep God as a cold, detached tyrant whose intention is to rule our lives with judgment and condemnation – constantly looking for ways to shame us and devalue us. Rather the disciples are to keep the commandments out of love, emulating as close as they can the love with which Jesus loved them and others. In this way they would reveal to others in the world that God is not a cold, detached tyrant seeking for people to fail but a God who is kind and tender-hearted, an involved caregiver whose intention is to have us discover and live lives that will bring peace, healing, hope and restoration to us in mind, body and spirit.
What would Jesus do was a popular catchphrase a number of years ago. But it is more than action; it is about motive. Love is what motivated God to create; love is what motivated God to come in Christ; love is what motivated Jesus’ ministry; and our response to that love is to let our love for God motivate us in our life within this community of faith and in the wider community of the world in which we live.