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Sermon - 1 February 2004
Bible Verses: 1 Cor 13:1-13 & Luke 4: 21-30
(click the verses above to read the passages online)

God's Love is Wider than We Want

Jeremiah 1:4-10, 1 Cor 13:1-13 and Luke 4:21-30

The email advertisement is for a new curriculum which promises to transform our congregation and its members in three one hour sessions as the power of our God-given gifts is unleashed. Something God spends a lifetime on. There was a statement in the publicity, "Do you ever wonder why it is that 10 percent of the people in your church do 80 percent of the work?"
The work of the church." What is the "work" of the church? Some people will turn to the word "liturgy" and think of the work of the people being worship. I suspect that was what they did in Corinth.
Paul was quite clear . .. The parts of the body may have all the gifts they want but at the end of the day, when its crunch time, they cannot act alone only as a body. The purpose of the total body is to love as God loves.. and if love is not there then it is nothing. It is absolutely nothing. It is empty.

Jesus came back to hometown Nazareth and told the people of Nazareth this love has no boundaries and God has no favourites.
Jesus proclaimed the year of the Lord's favour, the year of Jubilee was here to stay, the lame walk, blind see, people set free.
They were all excited and proud of him. We read: All commented favourably, and marvelled at the gracious words which flowed from his mouth; and they said: "Isn?t this our Joseph's son?"
At this stage in the episode, Jesus was popular.
But the next thing Jesus says incites a riot.
"You'll doubtless quote me the proverb 'Physician, cure yourself',
and you'll ask me to do the same things here that you did in Capernaum -but to tell you the truth, no prophet is accepted in his home town."

It is significant that it's Luke who tells this story. Among the Gospel writers it is Luke who especially emphasises the inclusive mission. In common with Paul, [that once-uptight Jewish bigot who was rocked to his foundations and converted to Jesus and his ways] Luke delights in the inclusive love of God.
Paul and Luke were concerned to keep the doors open, to keep the Gospel free, and to fight the home town prejudice that threatened the Christian mission.

The people in Nazareth would have all been able to accept Jesus' reading and they expectantly waited for it to be proven true in their own home town -
BUT Jesus expanded it. The way of loving God has - goes way further than what they had in mind. He reminds them about Elijah who when there were many starving widows in his own territory went and helped a foreign widow. Jesus puched home his message " Remember Elisha, there were lots of lepers in Israel, but he prayed with some guy named Naaman, from Syria a nation which despised Israel and Naaman was healed.

When the people in the orthodox Nazareth synagogue heard Jesus tell these stories they were furious!
When Jesus made it clear that God's love cannot be owned by one group he comes right up against the tightly held belief that those who do the right thing are favoured by God exclusively.. Jesus' Jubilee - year of the Lord's favour- has a loving which stretches and challenges our boundaries.. and our absolutes.
The people of Nazareth knew what their religion was about and. Jesus has made it all fuzzy. The chosen people did not have the monopoly on God's love?
We here have had years of Christian teaching, we can't even begin to understand how offensive that was to Jesus' hearers. Either they had to listen or eliminate, [eventually the final move to eliminate him came]] but for then they drove him out of the town and up to a cliff - intending to throw him over -a ritual of stoning. They had a charming habit in those days of throwing the victim over and cliff then dropping large boulders on them. but Jesus passed through their midst [ran for his life] and went on his way..
Why such rage? Wayne Hilliker suggests the following reasons.
Its easier to make black-and-white distinctions (i.e. this is always the loving thing to do, and this is always the wrong thing to do) than face those grey-area questions that are more common in our lives today. The difficulty is that people who know that they are right come off sounding more reliable than those who appear to be hedging. Especially in ethical issues.
"Giving birth is always the loving thing to do, abortion is always murder". Full stop.
"Heterosexuality has the blessing of God upon it, homosexuality has the curse of God upon it". Full stop.
"Faith views the bible as infallible, unbelief insists on various levels of meaning and interpretation". Full stop.
" You are either a believer or not a believer". Full stop. End of discussion.

Many support moral absolutes and denounce moral relativism as the root of all evil...as valueless. Politicians soon discover that the best moral issues to take into the public arena are those that appear to avoid ambiguity and instead, appeal directly to strong surface emotions.
However history suggests that the damage done to humanity by the so called relativist is far less than the damage done by moral absolutes.

In the 1800's Christian ministers of the Gospel piously proclaimed the Christian virtue of slavery in which one person owned another as private property. Being certain is not the test of truth.. Christians have been 100% certain of many things that were not so.

Being absolute is the perogative of God not of humans, Paul says now we see through a glass darkly, now we know in part. Evil is done when people play God.

Jesus shows us a Jublilee way of loving which is wider than we can ever imagine. Where we have the absolutes swept away and replaced by faith, the rules swept away and replaced by the gift and demands of costly love . Faith and hope are ambiguous and love confuses every absolute. We need to have an awareness of ambiguity, an understanding that we only know in part and the humility to understand that we may even have the wrong part.
Too often, we find ourselves yielding to the temptation of bringing premature closure on some ethical issues simply because we do not have the courage to live with moral ambiguity.
One of our greatest problems at present in our church PCANZ is how to resist the pressure to come up with simplistic answers to complicated moral issues.

There are times when the integrity of our questions can be a clearer sign of loving discipleship than the certainty of answers that some would have us proclaim. Such 'living the questions' will not look as spectacular in the eyes of the world as shouting out the answers. But the church at its most faithful is not rules/dogma in search of obedience, but, costly love in search of form.

Love is at the heart of acting rightly. . Nowhere in the Bible is such a love defined as a feeling., love is a decision, a response, an action. Biblical love is something we decide to do because of what we know about God and about loving God.

If Jesus should come among us in the flesh today, challenging our church to embody God's free grace for all types of people, would we too find it expedient to edge him out?

Jesus was not a popular success at Nazareth. Doing the right thing led him to be pushed to the edge of a cliff by the good people of the worshipping community.
Inclusive love, when it moves into nitty gritty truth and action, remains a scandal. It will offend some. Those who once spoke well of us, can quickly turn on us and reject us when the truth of Christ starts to bite. For myself it is always a source of wonder that with all my imperfections I am still told that I am loved by God. But because of that I can assure others that God loves them. We all have to decide how we respond to that loving.
To love and follow Jesus is a risky way for us to go. Yet it is the way that leads to abundant life and light and holy joy.
So let's choose it again today, or perhaps for the first time, as we begin a new year of loving from our base of the Parish of St Johns and St Philips.

Sermon references with thanks to
Rev. C. Wayne Hilliker
James W. Wall, "Absolutes and Ambiguities" (The Christian Century) Dec. 16, 1992.
William H. Willimon, The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything,
Judson Press, 1978.
Fred Kane, Hillsboro United Methodist Church PCRL List
Rev Bruce Prewer

Rev. Margaret Anne Low


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