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25th April 2021

Learning to be loved

Passage: John 21;15-17


There is no doubt about it- faith should make you a kinder person. That’s what this conversation between Jesus and Peter is about: “Peter, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know I do.” “Then feed my sheep.” Jesus had called himself The Good Shepherd, caring for his followers. So, says Jesus, if you love me, you will feed my sheep.

Feed them, with what? With love of course. The love you have for Jesus you share with others. We get that. It has always been at the heart of Christianity: it was what marked out the followers of Jesus from the start- “see how those Christians love one another.” Think of the great medieval monastic houses in this country where medical care, education, support for the destitute were made freely available; think of the modern equivalent-Food Banks, Samaritans, Street Pastors, Hospices- all started by Christian groups. Christians who quite clearly do not love others are branded as hypocrites and rightly so. So yes, we get that. If you love me, says Jesus, you will care for my sheep. Off you go. One more step.

Just hold on a second. Peter was the first leader of the Christian church. He has been called the first Pope. This made him responsible for a hugely volatile mix of people drawn together from a wide range of cultures, creating a new faith community in a largely hostile society. I was trying to think of a modern equivalent: imagine setting up a new Choir where the singers have least six different “first languages,” so they do not understand each other very well; come from at least seven widely different cultural backgrounds so you are walking on a knife-edge and the only place you have to rehearse is in a very exclusive, predominantly white retirement village. Multiply the challenge that presents by ten and you have some idea of what leading the first Christian church looked like. Peter was going to need love by the bucketload to cope with this and I just want to ask where would all this love come from?

It was Peter’s and Jesus’ great friend, John who said that “we love because he first loved us.” Peter loves Jesus because Jesus first loved him. It had been Jesus who had taken the initiative in asking Peter to follow him. Peter at first had said “you don’t want anything to do with me, Lord. I am not a good man.” But Jesus chose Peter’s comradeship. He had seen the good in him. No matter how many times Peter went wrong, Jesus forgave him and set him right.
Even after Peter publicly denied knowing Jesus when Jesus was arrested, something for which Peter could not forgive himself, Jesus came back for him and it has often been thought that this three-fold commission -feed my sheep- was Jesus’ way of making up for Peter’s three-times denial. See, I still believe in you and I still need you.
“We love because he first loved us.” Not as some kind of “deal”-I love you so you have got to love me and everyone else- but as an empowerment: because I love you, you will be able to love in return.

It is true, isn’t it that people who know they are loved find it natural to give love themselves; they will persist longer and harder in loving those who are doing their best to be un-lovable; they will find strength to keep loving, even when a lot is asked of them. Because they have someone else pouring love into their lives.
Whereas, when we do not feel that we are loved, our care for others can become either an obligation or little more than an expression of our own neediness. We love because we want to be loved and that does not tend to work awfully well. True love is fed and nourished by true love. We love as we are loved.

Many of us are blessed to have true love in our lives, which makes it easier for us to love. But, because we are only human, we can lose those who love us best; we can see that those who love us are really struggling to cope with life’s cruelty either for themselves or for us; even our greatest loves have their limitations; and sadly there are some poor souls who have known virtually no love at all in their lives? So how fair is the statement that we love as we are loved?

St John wrote a lot about our capacity to love one another (take a look at his first letter to the church in the New Testament). He rates the power of human love incredibly high, even in a dark and dangerous world. But nevertheless, he comes back to the statement that “we love because HE first loved us.” Yes, we can love to an awesome level; we can do incredible things by the strength of love. But we are creatures capable of love because our creator first loved us. It is part of our DNA. If we believe this, we can then believe that even when our own capacity to love does run dry, the love of God will renew us. “We love because HE first loved us.”

I know that the next question some of you will ask is, “how can we believe in a loving God when there is so much evil and suffering in the world?” And you need to be honest enough to ask and I have to be honest enough to say that I do not know the answer to the problem of evil.
What I do know is that just about every true hero or Saviour in this world, someone who has made a huge difference for good in the face of overwhelming evil, (Wilberforce, Luther-King, Mandela, Florence Nightingale, Corrie ten Boom) has been a person with hope in a benevolent power in the universe. If you cannot believe in a force of love which is greater than us, then what hope can you have in life? What hope can you have in yourself? What belief can you maintain in the power of love? “We love because HE first loved us.”

Peter and innumerable Christians since him have found that they have to keep believing in God’s love because this is the only way to keep believing in themselves; the only way of maintaining a hope for humanity; the only means of persisting in faith even when doors are slammed in our faces and local culture tells us we are mad, bad or dangerous to know.
St Paul, remember, linked faith, hope and love together. While these three remain, life is worth living. And, if you think about it, each of those three depends upon the other two.

So, what does it mean to live as one who is loved?
I have been asking quite a few people that question this week and I also checked out two magazines- Reform and Vogue….
I loved the picture in Reform of a broken bowl, which has been mended with gold and now the light can shine through the broken pieces. When you know that you are loved, you believe in forgiveness and in a restoration that will make you even better than you were before.
I liked the suggestion in Vogue for a “positive mantra” as 2021 began: “You have to visualise to realise.” Build up a picture of what you would like life to look like. When you know that you are loved, you can visualise far more bravely and boldly and generously.
The other suggestion I liked was that, ”the best mantra is a movable mantra.’ In other words, it is no good making hard and fast plans because life never goes according to plan. But when you know that you are loved, you know that you can adapt. That is why the marriage vows are for better or worse, richer or poorer, sickness or health. And that is why the song we sang last week asked that “whatever may pass and whatever lies before me, just let me still be singing when the evening comes.”
Back in Reform, I found the story of a man who was told that he saved someone’s life simply by smiling at them when they wanted to kill themselves; the story of a couple who have registered for Nightstop- offering a bed for the night to homeless teenagers on a temporary basis; a Minister from Worthing URC determined to supply fresh water to a village in Zimbabwe, no matter how many attempts it took. When you know that you are loved, you learn to think creatively, to welcome opportunity to do good, rather than shrink back from it; to push yourself out of your comfort zone because knowing that you are loved is comfort enough.

May our quest through the coming weeks then, be to know that we are loved by God and to grow in an ever-present awareness of Jesus and his love.