Sermon: "God's Love Perfected in Us"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Acts 8.26-40; Psalm 22.24-30; 1 John 4.7-21; John 15.1-8
In last Sunday’s lessons and sermon, we saw how Peter and John had been arrested for healing a crippled man. The officials asked, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Peter, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” boldly declared the healing took place “by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” whom they had crucified but “whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 4.7-10; NRSV).
In I John 3 we encountered the question, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” and a plea, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3.17; NRSV). The Holy Spirit, should we so desire, enables us to overcome our individualistic desires such that we may love others.
Over the past few weeks, we have considered the relationship between desire and mimesis. As noted, mimesis is negative. In mimesis we desire worldly pleasures, we idolize wealth, power, and prestige, and we conspire to attain them. The tenth commandment instructs us: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20.17; NRSV). We love the things we covet more than we love God or our neighbor; the things we covet are idols which we have put in God’s rightful place. Despite our sin and sinful nature, God reaches out to us in love.
Our salvation comes not through our love for God, but through God’s love for us. As 1 John tells us: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another … if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4.10-12: NRSV). Two questions come to mind: 1) How do we know that God’s love is perfected in us? And 2) How is God’s love perfected in us? Let’s look at these in turn.
First, how do we know that God’s love has been perfected in us? In 1 John we read, “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us” (4.17-19; NRSV).
I sincerely believe on the day of judgment there is a sense in which we will judge ourselves. If love has been perfected in us, we will approach that day with a sense of joy, “because as God is, so are we in this world.” If we do not love, we will approach the day of judgment with dread and fear.
Our salvation does not rest upon our own merit or result from our own efforts; it comes through God’s love as expressed in the Incarnation. As James Marr observes, given the nature of desire, we will be possessed. The question is who or what will possess us. Marr writes:
Being possessed by God is totally contrary to the many cases of possession that Jesus dealt with in the synoptic Gospels. I suggested above that the people Jesus healed had been possessed by other people. We only need to reflect on how we become possessed by people we are seriously at odds with. If we put John’s teaching of God’s indwelling love together with demonic possession, we are confronted with the conclusion that we are going to be possessed by somebody. It is not possible to remain aloof from the intentions and desires of other people. They will possess us whether we like it or not. The question is: By whom are we possessed? Jesus told a little parable about the evil spirit that was cast out, but then returned to the house with seven spirits “more evil than itself” (Matt. 12:44 45) This parable teaches us that casting
out the spirit that has possessed someone is not enough. One must become possessed by the Spirit of Christ, who is full of love, one who is not in rivalry with us or with anybody else (Emphasis added) (http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-b/easter5b/).
In that we are creatures of desire, in that we are possessed by our desires, by whom, or by what will we be possessed. When we are possessed by the Spirit of Christ, by the Holy Spirit, we are full of love, and we desire only to imitate Jesus as Jesus commanded: “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. … I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13.15, 34; NRSV).
As such, we are to abide in God: “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. … God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God” (I John 4.13,15; NRSV).
Second, how is God’s love perfected in us? In the gospel of John, Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes to make it bear more fruit. … Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me” (John 15.1-2, 4; NRSV). God’s love is perfected in us through abiding and pruning. We abide in Christ through the study of God’s word, prayer, meditation, loving in word and deed, and sharing Christ with one another. We are pruned through the daily challenges and trials we encounter. Our trials help us to draw nearer to God in prayer and meditation.
Jesus further stated, “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15.8-11; NRSV). When we bear fruit, we are filled with joy. And what is this fruit? In Galatians 5.22-23, Paul tells us, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things” (NRSV). Living a life characterized by the fruits of the Spirit is a powerful witness.
One who is filled with the fruits of the Spirit abides in Christ and works through the Spirit. Our reading from Acts 8 provides an example in Philip’s interaction with the Ethiopian. As the Ethiopian was reading from the scroll of Isaiah, Philip asked if he understood. The Ethiopian asked how he could do so unless one guided his understanding. Philip then joined him and explained the scriptures. Upon understanding, the Ethiopian asked if there were any reason why he should not be baptized. After having been baptized, the Ethiopian continued on his journey, but Philip was transported to Azotus. We do not know if Philip miraculously appeared in Azotus, or if he was so filled with the Holy Spirit that he had no memory of having made the journey.
Helen Town once said she thought more emphasis should be placed on the work of the Holy Spirit. I whole-heartedly agree. Brian McLaren, in We Make the Road by Walking, offers this advice about walking in the Spirit and abiding in Christ:
If you want to gain practice walking in the Spirit or abiding in Christ or tending the inner flame, you can start when you wake up tomorrow morning. Before your feet hit the floor, open your heart to the Spirit. Ask God to help you walk in the Spirit, step by step through the day. Ask God to help you abide in the Vine so good fruit will naturally develop in your life. Ask God to keep the fire burning within you. Just starting the day this way will make a difference.
As you build that habit of yielding yourself to the Spirit morning by morning, you can build the habit of checking in with the Spirit hour by hour throughout the day. At each mealtime, you can offer a prayer of thanksgiving and you can reconnect with the Spirit. As you travel from place to place, as you wait for someone, whenever you have a free moment, you can offer yourself to God: “Here I am, Lord. Please move in and through me to bless others.” Whenever an emergency or challenge arises, you can lean on the Spirit: “Give me wisdom, Spirit of God. Give me strength. Give me patience.” When you sense that you’ve let something other than God’s Spirit fill you and direct you — anger, fear, prejudice, lust, greed, anxiety, pride, inferiority, or rivalry, for example — you can stop, acknowledge your misstep, and re-surrender to the Spirit. It’s like breathing — exhaling an acknowledgment of your misstep and inhaling forgiveness and strength to start walking in the Spirit again. (pp. 242-43)
May we make a practice of walking in the Spirit and abiding in the vine!