Love Comes First
Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 25, 2014
St. James-Santee, McClellanville
I Peter 3:13-22
As we attempt to see a thing clearly, sometimes we must look away from it. As we know, this is true in solving personal problems at times, for too much constant focus can sometimes confuse things. But it is also quite literally true in other situations. For instance, have you tried to find that initial, faintly-twinkling star just after dusk? In terms of the anatomy of our eyes, something about the density of rods in our retinas enhances both peripheral vision and light sensitivity. But those rods – that help with night vision – do not benefit the view directly in front of us. Therefore, as we look for that speck of a twinkling star in the growing darkness, we find it in the corner of our eye.
So it is with the subject of our readings this morning. A primary topic of those readings is love, but except for the Gospel, we cannot see that topic in a direct way. Rather, we find evidence of love indirectly – in the corner of our eye, as it were.
In the reading from Acts, we encounter a St. Paul who somehow does not seem to be himself. He is addressing people of Athens, and he does so in a way that is uncharacteristically kind. We might add that he also seems politically astute in that circumstance – but that is not the point I want to emphasize. St. Paul says, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22-23).
Now, usually when St. Paul encounters some situation that he dislikes or that he finds fault with, he deals with it quite directly and without holding back his opinionated observations. However, this response from him seems quite restrained. He uses an agnostic symbol – perhaps even a pagan one – as a means to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I suggest to you today that what is at work in St. Paul is love – love and care for those people of Athens who need to hear the Gospel. What we usually encounter in St. Paul is confrontation and self assurance. His training was, after all, as a Pharisee, and those folks spoke the truth as they understood it, without apology and without filter. But St. Paul here is restrained and caring. Surely love is at work.
The First Letter of Peter, which includes our Second Reading, has a particular historical context for its setting. That is, St. Peter’s letter is addressed to faithful Christians “in exile”, as Peter describes them. The objects of this letter live in Asia Minor – out of the Holy Land – and they attempt to practice their faithfulness in an environment which is scornful toward them. To a certain extent, in fact, they are persecuted in that setting. In sum, this is a letter intended to offer encouragement and pastoral care to a group in need of such attention. It is a love letter, no doubt.
The particular passage we read from First Peter does not ignore the trials and tribulations of the people addressed by the letter. However, St. Peter does not focus on those realities. Rather, his focus is to point out reasons for maintaining the faith in Christ and to encourage his readers as they follow that path. He writes, “Even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord” (I Pet 3:14-15). Then follow these words, “Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil” (vss. 16-17). Encouragement, understanding, support, love – this is St. Peter’s message.
In the Gospel, Jesus deals with love more directly – not as a peripheral matter, but straight ahead. He says to his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15). This passage tells us much about the power of love – power that is alluded to in today’s first two readings. Here, though, it is right in front of us. Jesus sums up his theme this way: “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me” (Jn 14:21).
According to Jesus, love becomes a radical motivation, which is often misunderstood – in his day and in our day. Our call is not to follow Jesus out of guilt, or even out of duty. Our call is not to follow Jesus in order to earn some reward from God. Rather, the radical nature of this motivation is that it turns things around. We are called to follow Jesus because of love – regardless of the consequences. Love comes first, you see. Love does not depend on anything else. It is the basis for relationship. Love comes first.
This understanding mirrors the impetus behind God’s actions in the biblical story. It was because of love that God created the world and everything in it. And then, as we know, “God so loved the world that He gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16). Love does not result from a feeling or from some emotional response to someone. Rather, love is the basis for relationship. Thus, biblical love is a cause, not an effect. Love comes first.
The subject of love appears to us this morning – both in our peripheral vision and directly in front of us. In the setting of agnostic Athens, St. Paul addresses his appeal to the Athenians, in love. In a situation of hostile exile, St. Peter calls on love to be the basis for faithful Christian action there. Finally, Jesus speaks directly of love as the motivation to live a Christian life. Indeed, love gives us reason to follow him.
Thus it was that in our Collect this morning we prayed these words: “O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire” (BCP, p225). Amen.
The Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg
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