Readings: Psalm 67, John 14:23-29, Revelation 21:1-6, 21:10
“And now faith[fullness], hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (after 1 Cor 13:13)
Of course that isn’t quite what 1 Cor 13:13 says (it talks about faith not faithfulness) – and 1 Cor 13 isn’t my text for today. But, unusually, I have a three point sermon and the points are faithfulness, hope, and love. They’re based on the lectionary readings for last Sunday when most churches marked Christian Aid Sunday but when we celebrated the visit of Alan & Eleanor Kreider and others who have been important in the story of the church.
So for us today is Christian Aid Sunday, a day to be reminded, as we asked in our opening prayer, of the reality of the world and the voices of those who are unheard.
So let’s take faithfulness, hope, and love in that order and start with faithfulness.
In our reading from John, Jesus tells his disciples “those who love me will keep my word” and “whoever does not love me does not keep my words”. And let’s remember that this passage comes from the time just before his death when Jesus is beginning to take leave of his disciples because he knows where his own keeping of the Father’s words will take him.
So at once we are faced with the challenge to be faithful, not just to say we love God, not even just to love God but to be faithful disciples, keeping the word of Jesus. If we love Jesus we will love God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength, we will love our neighbour as ourself and we will love our enemies. We will seek to do what Jesus did and what Jesus said. As we remember God’s love for the poor in Christian Aid week, if we love God we will let ourselves be challenged, in the words of our opening prayer, to respond with compassion to what we hear from Christian Aid, in the news and from those we encounter face to face who have stories of struggle, and we will let ourselves be challenged to try to learn how to walk alongside the poor.
As Chris observed to me when he was preparing to lead this service, to some extent all of us have some awareness of this challenge whether at home or abroad – Matt and Emily have been experiencing this very vividly in Haiti, some work in the thick of deprivation here in London – and I think it is one of the strengths of the Mennonite tradition that the call to faithfulness and discipleship, to keep Jesus’ word, is woven right through its fabric.
So I’m going to move on from faithfulness to my next point and from John’s gospel to our next passage in Revelation which brings us a vision of hope.
Now of course over the centuries some Christians have been so focused on anticipating the new heaven and the new earth that they’ve felt free not to bother so much with praying and working for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, because one day God will bring in the kingdom himself, regardless of what we do. Jim Wallis has written about how Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God has been defused by a number of misunderstandings, one of which he call “futurising”. (The others are individualizing and spiritualizing.) Futurising focuses so much on the future end of time that it ignores the call to bring in the kingdom now. So the wonderful vision of these verses from Revelation can become a reason – or even an excuse – not to pursue God’s kingdom.
So in some ways I understand why today other Christians are reluctant to dwell on Revelation’s vision, in which this earth and this heaven pass away and are renewed in the coming of the new heaven and the new earth and a wonderful new order. They fear that this can feed complacency – “I don’t have to look after the planet, I don’t have to offer care and support to individuals who are struggling, I don’t have to bother about campaigns which can tackle the causes of some of those struggles. God will sort it all out in the end.”
But I think we need this vision for at least two reasons. Firstly these visions from Revelation and prophets like Isaiah are significant in shaping my view of what it would look like for God’s kingdom to come on earth as we so often pray that it will. Just last Sunday, for instance, we heard in the passage from Isaiah 65 about a Jerusalem where cries of distress and the sound of weeping will never be heard, where people will live such long healthy lives that “one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed”. In Isaiah’s vision there will be material comfort and security too - “they shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat”. And there will be no war, the cause of so much poverty and displacement throughout the world: “they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 65:18-25).
In Micah 4 we find the same vision of peace where each household has the means to feed itself, neither starving nor depending on aid, where in the mountain of the Lord “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid”.
So, as the Christian Aid notes for today’s sermon remind us, in the Revelation passage “we see the completion of the perfect kingdom that Christ’s redemption work has made possible – the kingdom that is both now and yet to come. The city is a perfect society – vast and open to all, without pain, death or suffering. God and people dwell together because there is nothing to mar their relationship, or the relationships between people. And the city is full of abundant health,” with the spring of the water of life, the river of life, and the tree with leaves for the healing of the nations.
And I think these verses, these visions of the future fullness of God’s kingdom which now we see only in part, tell us so much about what God dreams of and what we can join with God in dreaming of. Alan and Eleanor Kreider talked last week about spotting where God is at work and joining with God in that. These passages give us important clues as to what it looks like when God is at work and they help us imagine how we can join with God in that work. Reading these passages we know even more keenly that Haiti’s experience of injustice over centuries and of disaster in the last few months is not what God dreams for Haiti. And reading these passages we see that the projects of Christian Aid and Outreach International are little foretastes of God’s vision for the whole world and steps along the way to that vision.
And secondly, I think we need the hope that our Revelation passage holds out in order to have a balanced faith and live balanced lives. Yes, Jesus calls us to faithfulness. But in the end it will be God who will make everything right, make everything new in a way that we could not even if all of us were to strain every sinew throughout every moment of our waking lives.
Some of you will know Tim Nafziger who worked at the London Mennonite Centre from 2004 – 2006 and now works for Christian Peacemaker Teams in Chicago. In a recent article for his blog for The Mennonite magazine, Tim talked about what he saw as a traditional dichotomy in the Mennonite church between peace and justice on the one hand and Christian conversion and day to day discipleship on the other. Tim said that he found in the Anabaptist movement in the UK a way of keeping the two together, “a charismatic vision of shalom that centered on God's vision for the redemption of all of creation, not just the soul and not just society”. So, Tim says, “peace and justice is at the center [sic – Tim is American after all!] of the gospel, right along side Christian conversion, community, discipleship and hope in the resurrection”.
And Tim warns against a theology that is so intent on peace & justice, or perhaps in the terms of my sermon today so intent on faithfulness, that it “can end up strident and triumphalist. We will shape the future! We will not be silent!”
“We forget,” Tim says, “that it is God, not us who will save the world. Each time our attempts to shape the future fail or even backfire miserably, we grow a little more brittle and a little more cynical.”
And that’s where it becomes essential to hang on to hope. We may face disappointment and failure, but if we know that it is God who will change the world and who will change us too, we can continue to hope.
So, Tim continues, “hope grounded in resurrection and Jesus’ triumph over death will not be so easily swayed by the latest political failures. It recognizes our need for personal liberation is as great as society's need for redemption.”
So on this Christian Aid Sunday, as we’re reminded of the needs of the world, I think we need to hold on to Jesus’ call to faithfulness but also to the hope that our future and the future of the whole earth and its peoples are in God’s hands.
And so we come to love. Faithfulness, hope and love. And I’d like to take us back to our first passage from John’s gospel.
"Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them,” Jesus says.
There’s something very moving about the down-to-earth picture of Jesus and the Father coming to those who love Jesus and making their home with them.
It reminds me of the promise of Revelation 3:20 to the lukewarm, half-hearted church of Laodicea: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” Or of the opening verses of John’s gospel “And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (NRSV) which some versions translate as “The Word became a human being. He made his home with us”
And I think this is also an important strand in our response on Christian Aid Sunday. It is good to work and pray faithfully and it’s important to live in the hope of the resurrection, knowing that it is God not us who will save the world. And it’s also good to feel the security and nourishment and intimacy of being loved by God, of sharing our home with Jesus and the Father. Indeed, the promise of the Father and the Son coming to make their home with us is followed almost immediately by the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit.
"Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” So the Trinity of Father, Son & Spirit will make their home with us.
For some of you it will be very familiar to look at Rublev’s icon and to reflect on the way the space at the table seems to beckon us in to eat with the three figures, who may be Abraham’s mysterious three visitors or may be the persons of the godhead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But for others it may be new and for all of us, I think, it is good to remember that quite apart from our church community we are also invited into another community, the community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a community where we are loved and are at home and can be secure, with our hearts untroubled and unafraid.
So this Christian Aid Sunday even as we hear the call to faithfulness in keeping Jesus’ word let us also hold to the hope of the day when God will make all things new and put everything right. And let us also rejoice in the love of being included in God’s family as Father, Son and Spirit come to make their home with us.