Total and complete love

Matthew 5:1-12
Isaiah 49:14-16
1 Corinthians 13:1-13

A gas engineer walked into a bar and ordered a pint. “Certainly”, said the barman, “I’ll serve you sometime between 8 am and 1 pm”.

We all know the rules.

A bag of crisps walked into a bar and ordered a pint. “Sorry”, said the barman, “we don’t serve food”.

We all know the rules.

Certainly, the rules of life are clear, we think we know all the rules.

The mother of four young boys often had difficulty curbing their energy, especially in church. But when the minister preached on “turning the other cheek,” the boys gave her their undivided attention. “No matter what others do to us,” she said, “we should never try to ‘get even.'” That afternoon the youngest boy came into the house crying. Between sobs he said he’d kicked one of his brothers, who then kicked him in return. “I’m sorry you’re hurt,” his mother said. “But you shouldn’t go around kicking people.” Still choking back tears, he replied, “But the preacher said he isn’t supposed to kick me back.”

Life isn’t always fair.

A minister arranged a garden party on her manse lawn, under a gorgeous old oak tree. At the last moment, on the morning of the party, she discovered she’d left Miss Hissyfit off the invitation list. She Miss Hissyfit and begged forgiveness, “I’m so sorry we didn’t realise this sooner, Miss Hissyfit. Please will you come to the garden party?”
“Begging won’t help now, minister”, said the offended Miss Hissyfit, “I’ve already prayed for rain”.

Life isn’t always fair.

There are two common misconceptions about Christianity: that it’s about keeping rules; and that somehow we earn God’s favour, when the reality is that his love is offered freely and abundantly to everyone. Too often we encounter the rules of life, and it’s very easy to apply the same principle to God and think that God asks us to keep rules. Too often we encounter the unfairness of life, and it’s very easy to think that’s how God is, and that he wants us to be good to earn his favour. God is total and complete love, and wants us to share and live that total and complete love, which he offers freely and abundantly to us.

This total and complete love, freely and abundantly offered, is, of course, what Joanna’s baptism is all about – not our love for her, which might on occasion be somewhat strained with a tantrum in the middle of the night – but God’s love for her, which has no such human weakness. It doesn’t matter that Joanna isn’t old enough to know or respond to God’s love herself, because it’s about a sign and a seal of God’s love for her.

One of our theologians told the story of a grandmother who had died before her grandson was born, so the grandson never knew his grandmother. Before she died, though, his grandmother left a special present for him, so that the grandson knew that his grandmother loved him, even though she’d never met him. This is what a baptism is like, because it’s a sign and a seal of this total and complete love of God offered freely and abundantly even to those too young to realise it yet.

This is exactly what Isaiah was talking about in our reading telling us that God will not forget us because we are carved on the palms of his hands. It’s an amazing image that God loves everyone so much they’re carved on the palms of his hands.

In our reading from Matthew’s gospel we heard a reading many know well: the beatitudes, from the sermon on the mount. This is also about God’s total and complete love, but in a rather different way. Many might ask where this total and complete love is, and how they can find it. This reading was an answer as Jesus was saying that happiness comes, not from material things, but from an inner state of mind, if you like from being, not from doing. We won’t find God’s total and complete love in being over busy and doing stuff, or in material things, but in being, and in how we think.

We find another aspect of this total and complete love in the reading, loved by many, from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth. First, Paul explains what that total and complete love is in such wonderful poetry that’s never been bettered, and he ends by saying that greatest thing is love, which will abide forever. He also tells us that now we see dimly, but one day we shall see face to face. What we know now of God’s total and complete love is but a small part of it – it’s so immense that this side of eternity we see but a small fraction.

I’ve said a lot about God’s total and complete love, offered freely and abundantly to everyone. That’s because it’s important, and it’s often forgotten in favour of rules, or of trying to earn what is freely offered. It’s a free gift with no strings attached. But it does bring with it a challenge. When we love other people, such as a parent loves a child, that love doesn’t mean we don’t want them to change. It means we can see the potential in them and we want to help them to be the best that we know that they can be. God wants that in us too, and his total and complete love brings us that challenge, that with his help, God wants us to rise to our fullest potential.

As well as us, it’s also a challenge for our world. How different would the world look today with total and complete love flowing freely and abundantly, rather than concentrating on rules and earning favour? Might Europe be such a problem with total and complete love, instead of rules and earning favour? Might Israel and Palestine be able to live side by side in peace? Maybe even footballers might not assault children?

What might God’s total and complete love, offered freely and abundantly to everyone, mean in the life of our world? What might you do about that? What might it mean in your own life? How might you respond to that?

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