A survey of single Christians in church does not surprise me at all. Single Christians often feel ‘isolated , alone and lonely’ in church. Single women feel they are seen as threats to married couples.
Why does this not surprise me? Because I was 41 before I married, and I experienced some of this. I was told that marriage was ‘the norm’, which made me feel abnormal. There were questions raised behind my back about my sexuality. To some extent, things changed when I began as a minister, because one of the positives about that was to find myself on the receiving end of many kind offers of hospitality. But I also heard married Christians say they did not think I would be able to help them – without a thought for all the single Christians who might feel that married ministers could not understand them.
I have reflected in the past that there is an assumption in the world that you are not fully human unless you are having regular sex. Since the church usually confines sex to marriage, that is adapted to a notion that you are not fully human unless you are married.
What are your experiences? Do you have some better examples, some stories of best practice?
After all, it’s ironic how often we don’t notice that our Lord and Saviour was single.
I noticed last week that a lot of people were coming to this site to look for sermons on last Sunday’s Lectionary Gospel passage of Mark 9:38-50. If people want to find what I have preached in the past on this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage, they may struggle with conventional Google searches. The assigned passage is Mark 10:2-16. However, when I preached on it six years ago, I preached on Mark 10:1-16, because verse 1 makes a significant difference to understanding this difficult passage. So if you want to know what I’ve said on the painful subject of marriage and divorce, you need to go here.
How do we see cohabitation as Christians? I’d be interested in your thoughts. I have many Christian friends who adopt the ‘traditional’ view, but an increasing number who live together before marriage. Friends of both persuasions read this blog.
I’ve known for years that research that suggests those who cohabit are more likely to break up than those who don’t. I seem to recall figures that couples who cohabit and then marry are 60% more likely to divorce than couples who only move in together at marriage. Couples who cohabit but never marry are twice as likely to break up as couples who marry without cohabiting first. However, I’ve lost the references to that research, so my memory of it may be faulty.
I have, though, now come across some nuanced research from a Christian perspective that not only shows the greater likelihood of cohabiting couples to break up, but also goes into something I had long thought: that there are many reasons for cohabitation. While in some less bureaucratic societies a couple moving in together did constitute marriage, cohabitation in our society has a number of different reasons. Informal marriage, trial marriage, a rejection of marriage, a matter of convenience and so on. The report, ‘Cohabitation – an alternative to marriage?‘ comes from the Jubilee Centre. One of the researchers was interviewed by Cross Rhythms.
It can’t all be about statistics, of course. It must also be about what we believe to be the core principles of marriage and relationships. For example, is a sexual relationship covenantal or even sacramental?
So – over to you. How do you see this?
As the reality of God has faded from so many lives in the West, there has been a corresponding inflation of expectations that personal relations alone will supply meaning and happiness in life. This is to load our partner with too great a burden. We are all incomplete: we all need the love which is secure, rather than oppressive, we need mutual forgiveness, to thrive.
Unrealistically high expectations of a romantic partner are killing relationships today. Not that a couple shouldn’t do their utmost, but the lack of belief in God leads to new idolatries.
I’d like to say more, but it’s late! That is enough to start chewing on!
If you believed the media, nearly all of us are getting excited about the Royal Wedding on Friday week. Well, not all of us: I noticed that BBC1 are showing a repeat of Shrek that afternoon, and the wedding in that cartoon is more appealing to me.
Not that I wish Wills and Kate any ill-will. Trial by media and marriage by media: no fun. They really do need prayer for a long and happy marriage.
But the coverage of all the royal frills will encourage all the existing wrong expectations people have of weddings. No expense spared – even if you haven’t got a royal budget. All about the day, rather than the life – the wedding, rather than the marriage. A focus on the couple, rather than on the mutual sacrifice that a marriage requires, as Giles Fraser recently got into trouble for saying on Radio 4’s Thought For The Day. The coverage of who’s attending – whereas, as Maggi Dawn recently commented, all you need is the vicar, the couple and two witnesses.
So it was a joy today to register a very different wedding. The bride runs a toy library that uses the hall of one of my churches. A year ago she found faith in Christ through an Alpha Course run by the local New Frontiers church, who worship on Sundays in a local secondary school. But without anyone haranguing her, she came to the conclusion that it was wrong in the sight of God to be living with her partner outside marriage. So at 11 am today she was married, and at 12 noon (in the building of another local church) she was baptised.
It was wonderful to co-operate with her pastor on the marriage ceremony. No trimmings – both bride and groom had had that for their first marriages, and they knew it made no difference. A simple service, with about twenty friends and family present. Not even any hymns, but some worship music on CD – even if the laptop misbehaved for the music during the signing of the register!
I think I’ll remember today’s wedding for longer than next week’s.
(My last repost in this series. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll be able to tell you what’s been happening.)
“If you get bored, then look at the windows.”
So said our leader at the beginning of a course I attended.
“They are beautiful stained glass, I’m sure you’ll enjoy them if you find what I say is boring.”
I didn’t need to gaze at the windows. But her self-deprecating comment reminded me of other occasions.
There was my friend Pete, struggling through a boring and lengthy sermon by an earnest and well-intentioned preacher. “I know exactly how many window panes we’ve got in the church,” he told me a few days later.
But there was also the time at college in Manchester. Once a year the college put on a lecture to which old students and friends were invited. A distinguished speaker was always invited. This was my first year. I wasn’t any the wiser.
He was well-known for his views on marriage. We, however, remembered very few of his views from that lecture. His inspiration level was that of window-pane counting.
Except that … we all latched onto one of the things he advocated. He said that given the fragility of marriage today, it should not be viewed as a life-long commitment but as something that should be reviewed by the couple after ten years. More like a fixed-term renewable contract. This was not what we expected to hear from a Christian speaker on the subject.
And so it was that over coffee afterwards, one of the students went around canvassing to start up the college wife-swapping club. He was generous enough even to include the single students.
Christians may be known for sharing (or we should be), but this is not an area to which our generosity is expected to extend. An early Christian leader called Tertullian said, “We share everything except our wives.”
I suppose our distinguished speaker wanted to take seriously the tragedy of relationship breakdown in our society. Being married now to a divorcée myself, I am not without sympathy to that concern.
I know too the statistics that suggest second marriages on average last fewer years than first marriages. I have heard the saying that a second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience.
Yet for all this there is no way I want to model a relationship on the fixed-term renewable contract idea. My understanding of love must come from Jesus, whose love is unconditional, unchanging, and a covenant commitment of faithfulness.
Yes, that means relationships where we burn our bridges. But what kind of love is it that does not have risk and vulnerability at its heart?
Dave Warnock has recently written two storming posts on the problems of ‘complementarianism’, the view that takes the New Testament scriptures about ‘male headship’ in a highly literal (and I would argue, wooden and out-of-context) way. Read ‘The forgotten victims of male headship‘ and ‘My wife …‘. Both these posts talk about the demeaning of people (of wives who are only valued for their beauty, and of all sections of society). His writing made me think about a recent conversation with a friend. I found it quite startling.
“Dave,” said my friend, “thank you for modelling the fact that it’s OK for a Christian man to marry a woman with a strong personality.”
Huh? I mean, I just fell in love with her? And no-one who meets my wife can miss the fact that she calls a spade a shovel.
“I wish more Christian men would model this,” said my friend. “I wonder if it’s why I’m still single.” For my friend is a gently outspoken single woman.
How much more damage must we let complementarianism do?
I wonder whether you know the story of the devout Methodist who refused to get married on principle? He said he didn’t believe in games of chance.
The Lectionary today presents us with readings about marriage and divorce. When these lessons came around three years ago, I preached on the Mark reading and explained that Jesus does not here completely prohibit divorce and remarriage. Indeed, the prohibition on a woman to divorce her husband is actually about not deserting him.
But today, I want to go to the reading from Genesis. In some ways, this is the most fundamental text in Scripture about marriage. Both Jesus and Paul quote this passage when they teach about relationships, especially verse 24:
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.
And in a culture where marriage is regarded as simply one of a number of relationship options, we need to think again about our Christian beliefs regarding it. We hear that ‘marriage doesn’t work’. We hear that people should do whatever two consenting adults decide between themselves to do, provided it doesn’t harm anyone else.
Before I launch into this, I want to say one other thing. As both a minister and as someone who didn’t marry until he was forty-one, I am aware this subject may not immediately apply to everyone. We are a mixture of single, married, widowed and divorced people. However, it’s hard to look at all these in one sermon. Just as I explored divorce from the Mark reading three years ago, this time I am thinking about marriage. On other occasions (not in Chelmsford, admittedly) I have preached about singleness. Another time it would be appropriate to think about widowhood and bereavement. Nor do I have time to offer any reflections this morning about homosexuality.
So come with me back to this ancient, inspired text as we explore some basic elements of Christian marriage.
The first point I want to make is that marriage is social. This is not an argument for wife-swapping! It is to say, though, that although marriage is exclusive, it isn’t private. What do I mean?
The context of our passage is about how the man will look after the garden God has created. He needs a helper, a partner. The woman is created so that she and the man may steward God’s creation together. Marriage has a social function. It is designed to bless the world. Whatever goes on in our relationships, they affect the world. This has a negative and a positive consequence.
Negatively, this is where I beg to differ with those couples who choose to live together and not marry, saying they don’t need a piece of paper to prove their commitment to each other. I don’t doubt their sincerity. However, I believe they are mistaken in thinking their exclusive relationship doesn’t have social implications. That’s why marriage is a step of social recognition.
Positively, it means a couple when they come together do not do so simply to enjoy one another and support each other. As a couple, they can have an effect for good on other people, on society and on the environment. Let me repeat something I said in a different context once. The love between the members of the Trinity had to be expressed from and beyond them, hence the creation of the universe. Likewise, the love that exists between a couple has to go from and beyond them to others. The most common way in which this happens is if they are blessed with children, but they may also share their love by serving the community. Marriage is designed to radiate the love within the home to the world.
This can involve simple acts of kindness. Opening up our homes in hospitality to those in need is one obvious way (and of course is not limited to those who are married). Just the other day, Debbie and I found ourselves talking to a friend who is Australian but married to an Englishman. A dear friend of hers back home is gravely ill with cancer. We promised to pray for her and her friend, but we also said our door was always open if she wanted a coffee. It was just a simple way of extending our love to her. It is something married couples and families should, I believe, normally aim to do as a token of God’s love.
Secondly, marriage is equal. You may find it surprising to hear such an argument from the Bible. Isn’t the woman here called a ‘helper’, and doesn’t that make her subservient to the man? Didn’t the Apostle Paul tell women to submit to their husbands, and wasn’t he an ignorant single man? Let’s dismantle this.
Take the ‘helper’ description first. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, God is called ‘the helper of Israel’, and it’s the same Hebrew word for ‘helper’ as here. I hope we are not going to suggest that God is subservient to men! The great Puritan Bible commentator Matthew Henry made this point about the woman being made from the man’s rib: She was
Not made out of his head to top him, not out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.
As for the texts about submission, let it simply be said that we also need to note what Paul required of husbands: we are to love our wives as Christ loved the Church – that is, we must be ready to die for them! The equality of marriage is not so much about equal status and rights, it is an equal relationship of self-giving, sacrificial love. This is what makes for the companionship of marriage. It is not whether we have compatible personalities, it is what we are each willing to do for our spouse for their well-being. The Bible teaches an equality of helping that leads to deep companionship.
Oh, and by the way, Paul probably wasn’t single! He says in 1 Corinthians that he isn’t married, but as a Pharisee it would be unthinkable that he hadn’t married. It’s far more likely, I believe, that he was a widower. I think he did have experience of marriage when he was young.
Thirdly, marriage is a priority. When verse 24 says, ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and mother’, that is a rather curious statement for a Jewish text. Usually it was the other way around: the bride left her parents to move in with her husband, who stayed close to his parents.
But ‘leaves’ may be translated ‘forsakes’, and this is a relative term. Marriage establishes new priorities. It is not that we stop caring about our parents, but they are no longer our first concern: our spouse is.
And I might suggest that this reordering of priorities applies not only to our parents. It applies to the rest of our lives. Which comes first, work or family? Some large companies think their employees can just uproot their families and follow the latest economic whim.
But before we get too self-righteous, we should remember how the Church has sometimes expected members and ministers to show commitment to meetings and programmes at the expense of family life. There was once a church where mysteriously a banner appeared one week across the notice board. It said, ‘All meetings cancelled.’ The stewards set up an investigation to find out who the vandal was. They discovered it was the minister’s teenage son, who felt he wasn’t seeing much of Dad.
It’s why, although I technically work a six-day week, one of the first things Debbie asked me to do when we married was to block one night a week just for us. We can’t get by as a couple simply on one day off a week. So when I look at weeknight meetings from Monday to Thursday (allowing for Friday as my usual day off), once three of those four nights are filled with appointments, I refuse any more. I don’t always get my priorities right as a husband, and I wouldn’t have thought of doing that myself, but it’s what my wife needs and it’s right to do it. After all, those who want their pound of ministerial flesh would soon express disapproval if we drifted apart and separated.
This area of priorities is one where Christians could go against the flow of society. We might not all get the promotions in our jobs that we want, but marriage makes for new priorities.
Fourthly, marriage is a covenant. In verse 24, the man ‘leaves’ or ‘forsakes’ his parents and ‘clings to his wife’ – the old word for ‘clings’ is ‘cleaves’. He leaves and cleaves. It has the sense of sticking to his wife. It is about ‘both passion and permanence’. And that raises the idea of covenant: a permanent commitment that is not simply a legal contract (marriage is more than a piece of paper), but backed with passion, with love.
This, then, is the ‘for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, until we are parted by death’ element of the marriage vows. The man sticks to his wife and sticks with his wife, if you like.
Sometimes people say their marriage just died. I suggest that’s based on a false understanding of marriage. I once read some wise words on the subject. The writer said, it’s not love that will keep your marriage alive: rather, marriage will keep your love alive. In other words, it’s that decision by the grace of God to stick with your spouse in bad times as well as good that makes the difference. It’s the covenant love that loves even when we don’t feel like it. We stick to one another.
And that, I know, can be enormously difficult. A musician friend of mine, Bryn Haworth, once wrote a song called ‘Working for love’, which sums up what the covenant nature of marriage sometimes requires of us. It requires work and effort to maintain that ‘stickability’. But the good news is that the God who calls us to such effort in order to maintain and grow our marriages offers us grace and power all the time and especially at our time of need. For where God guides, he provides.
Finally, marriage is a unity. In marriage, man and woman ‘become one flesh’, says verse 24. In an age of individualism, the unity of two people in marriage reminds us we are not isolated and separate people who make our own decisions regardless of anyone else. The partners in a marriage may be very different, and that may cause tension and conflict, but they act as one. Marriage is not about ‘me’: it’s about ‘us’.
But note the unity isn’t simply that the man and woman ‘become one’, Genesis says they ‘become one flesh’. This is, I believe, a poetic allusion to the act of love. For Christians, sexual intercourse is not simply a pleasure to be pursued, like buying an ice cream (although God does intend it to be pleasurable, as the Song of Songs attests). Rather, it is, as the great spiritual writer Richard Foster says, ‘a life uniting act with life uniting intent’. The sexual act is virtually sacramental for Christians in marriage. No wonder we talk about it as the ‘consummation’ of a marriage.
This means, though, that we find ourselves vastly differing with the beliefs and practices of millions today, who believe in mutual consent but not necessarily in union. It’s another reason why I don’t believe Christian faith can agree with living together, however sincere many cohabiting couples are. If they live together as trial marriage, that makes little sense. Marriage is about total commitment, so you can no more have trial marriage than you can have trial death. Besides, all the research I have ever read shows that couples who live together are much more likely to break up than those who marry without living together first. Sexual relationships without the abandonment to unity are houses built on sand.
In conclusion, then, I cannot state an entire Christian view of marriage from this one passage, but we can find some fundamental building blocks. And what we have here makes for a distinctive witness in our society, if not a thoroughly counter-cultural approach. We take marriage to have social implications rather than being entirely private. We agree with today’s view that it is between two equals, but we say that is about mutual service and sacrificial love, not inflicting my rights over and above another person. We see the marriage relationship as a high priority above the allure of money and career. Furthermore, it is not merely a piece of paper or a legal contract, it is a covenant requiring total commitment and love. Finally, the one-flesh unity cemented in the sexual relationship distinguishes us from the tentative approaches to commitment today and the disposable attitudes to sex found in some people.
This lines us up to be distinctive in today’s world, even to the point of being mocked. May God grant us the grace to hold to our witness, and to hold to it winsomely.
 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, p51, calls this ‘the far agenda’ as opposed to ‘the near agenda’ of sexuality and sin.
 Op. cit., p71.
 I owe this insight to Doug Barnett in a seminar at Spring Harvest some time in the 1980s.
I have been sitting on this post for three days. I’ve fiddled with it, wondered whether to publish it, but in the end I’ve decided to go ahead. Feel free to make constructive comments in response.
On Tuesday, Bill Kinnon linked to the latest sign of Todd Bentley’s return to public ministry. He has a new website that is a variation on his old ministry’s name. There is much talk on it of ‘restoration’. To me, it still looks like Bentley is rushing/being rushed (delete as applicable) back into the public arena.
Now I have to say I like the word ‘restoration’ when it comes to church discipline. It is Jesus’ intention. Church discipline is not violent vengeance. The aim is not ultimately to condemn but to bring someone’s life back in order in relation to God and the church. However, if some talk more about discipline than restoration, there is more talk about restoration than discipline on the new site, insofar as I can see. (Do tell me if I am wrong.) Yes, there are passing references to Bentley’s fall and the damage caused, such as in this article. However, it is also peppered with references to Bentley having ‘lingered with the Word Face-to-face’, so he still seems to claim Moses-like stature for his spiritual experiences. And that makes me nervous. Not because I deny the possibility of such experiences, but because it looks like they are being used to validate the spiritual superhero. How can you argue with someone who claims such an experience? It’s the charismatic trump card.
I see the references to having fallen from grace and past mistakes and so on, all on the same page that advertises all sorts of product. Guys I’m sorry, please give me eighteen dollars. What would be ‘fruit in keeping with repentance’, though? Some of it depends on how you weigh the thorny question of divorce and remarriage. I am not an ‘indissolublist’ (one who believes that any subsequent marriage after a divorce while the first spouse is still alive is automatically adulterous, because all marriages last for life whatever happens). I believe that the New Testament exemptions for divorce under certain circumstances only make sense if they end the marriage and leave the wronged partner free. Indeed, that was the position of my own wife when we first met. (See this sermon for an exposition of a relevant passage.)
But to me, I struggle to see how such exemptions could be relevant to someone like Bentley, although if I am right they would be true for his ex-wife Shonnah. From what I know (and I have to acknowledge there may be more that is rightly being kept from the public eye for the sake of Bentley’s children and ex-wife), I would normally expect that the Christian thing for Bentley to do would be to remain celibate. Sex is not a right; it is a gift. The same is true of ministry.
(By the way, I am not alleging that Bentley caused marital breakdown by actual adultery. I do not know, and I do not wish to pry. But what is undisputed is that it was the emotional involvement with another woman, and that has led to a new bond that should not have been made.)
There is an issue of public scandal to be addressed for the sake of public witness. For example, I have seen churches act decisively when scandal has rocked their congregations and their witness in the community. That such churches took action was respected by those non-Christians who had wondered about the standards of the church. Had the church not done so, there would have been a legitimate charge of hypocrisy. I don’t see an equivalent action in this case. Yes, Bentley had to step down from Lakeland immediately. But in only a few months he’s back back back. Is that right?
I am also aware that the ‘mainstream’ Christian Church has not always acted with integrity in this area. I know of an instance where a minister left his wife for another woman, whom he then married, and he was allowed to remain in the ministry. What message that sends to his ex-wife is deeply troubling.
And there is also then everybody else’s situation. None of us is without sin. Who can cast the first stone? If I am not perfect, what sin am I entertaining? How do we distinguish between the struggles we all have and outright flaunting of God’s word? Are there different degrees of sin? These for me are the most difficult questions of all. However, they cannot be used to disallow any possibility of discipline. The same Gospel – Matthew – that says ‘Judge not’ also has the clearest passages on church discipline. People have been clearly wronged. Relationships have been damaged. Injustice has happened here. The Gospel has been brought into disrepute. That must be addressed.
And if I am so imperfect, why even write about this? (I could even be writing for poor motives – like getting more hits for my blog.) That is because this whole sorry saga has unfolded in public and in the light of the massive public claims Bentley and others made about the Lakeland movement and the like, all of which were discredited by the actions of certain ‘apostles’ and Bentley himself. Following that, the restoration process is being played out like a reality TV show on the web. And as I’ve said before, you don’t do pastoral care like that. Right now, you still have to wonder what the motives are for getting Bentley back on platforms so soon. I continue to have some very cynical ideas about why, and I wish I didn’t.
UPDATE, 26th June, 2:00 pm: Maggi Dawn has a post here and she ends with some prescient words:
Rick Joyner’s voice welcomes you to the website, bigging it up with “God mobilising”, at this “strategic time”, “miracle power”, etc etc. There are links galore to Bentley’s teaching, and you can buy his books, and invite him to minister. OK, so allegedly he isn’t actually taking UP any invitations right now, as he is still in a period of “restoration”… still, you don’t launch a new website when you aren’t planning your comeback, do you?
That’s rather how I feel about the invitation/not taking up invitations issue.
My name is David, and I am an addict.
A book addict. I can’t stop buying them. I can’t stop reading them. The statutory thirty yards of bookshelves in my study have been complaining about my habit for years. Every now and again, I reluctantly dispose of some old titles, to make room for newer ones. But really, I don’t want to live in a manse, I want to live in a library.
One of my biggest addictions has been to Bible commentaries. Thirty years ago, I started off with a one-volume commentary on the entire Bible. But it just wasn’t enough. I needed bigger thrills. I began to collect commentaries on individual books of the Bible. Many years ago, I achieved my ambition of a commentary on every book. But now, I have to have more commentaries on each book.
And when it comes to the Gospel according to John, I have ten commentaries. You may think that’s excessive. I can’t understand why.
For when I began to explore today’s Lectionary reading, it was one of those ten commentaries on John that I hadn’t pulled down from the shelf for a long time that gave me a fresh way of seeing these famous verses.
What is that fresh way? Covenant. It’s to see this passage as being about Jesus establishing the New Covenant with his people. I think if we explore John 15 in terms of Covenant, we may see not only old and familiar things, but gain new insight into the odd difficulty some people have with these verses. Stay with me, and see whether this helps you, as it has me.
God Makes The First Move
‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you,’ says Jesus (verse 9).
Everything starts with God’s love. The Father’s love for Jesus; his love in Christ for us. Always in salvation, God makes the first move. If we track this through the Bible, we’ll see this.
God is love, and out of that love between the members of the Trinity comes an action of love, creation. Love is expressed beyond the Trinity to something else.
Then – who’s the first missionary in the Bible? God. God comes walking in the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve’s sin. Later, God takes the initiative to call Abram when he wants to start forming a people for himself. God hears the cries of the Israelites in Egypt and sends Moses. God sends the prophets.
Finally, at the right time, God sends his Son (Galatians 4:4). Or put it like this: ‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). No approach from the human race. Yet because of our sin, a loving God makes overtures to his creation. It all starts with God.
Why is this important? It affects a number of things. First of all, it means that the love of God humbles us. We can take no pride in knowing God through Jesus Christ. It is not down to us. It is entirely a matter of God’s grace and mercy. We owe everything to the grace of God. Knowing God does not make us superior. There is nothing in knowing God that means we are worthy of that honour. It is a matter of sheer love.
We glimpse a little of this in ordinary human relationships. Parents conceive children out of love. They delight in their children. Even when their offspring pain them by their behaviour and they have to impose discipline, they long that the relationship be fully restored. One parent goes up to the bedroom where the child is sulking, in the hope of bringing harmony back to the home.
For some of us, we need to be humbled by knowing that the whole spiritual life begins with God, not us. We need to be brought low from our pride.
But for others of us, the news that life in the Spirit starts with God is good news, if not a relief. We know we’re not worthy of God’s love, and so it is the most wonderful, liberating news to learn that for all our unworthiness, God has set out from the very beginning to woo us with his love.
Yes, whether we think too much of ourselves or too little of ourselves, it is essential good news to understand that God makes the first move in establishing a covenant relationship with us, with the world and with creation.
But this good news that God moves first is not only for us. If it is for us, it is for others, too. If God makes the first move, then it affects how we view sharing our faith.
We heap a lot of guilt on ourselves and other Christians when we talk about the importance of sharing our faith with others. We make it sound as if it all depends on us. Now I’m not about to argue against the importance of talking about Christ to people who don’t know him – it’s essential. But it doesn’t all depend on us. Not if God makes the first move.
In spreading the Good News, we should remember that God always moves first. God will go ahead of us. It has often been said that mission is finding out what God is doing, and joining in.
I’ve given you an outline of God doing this in the Bible already, from creation to the Fall to making a people for himself and ultimately sending Jesus. One Gospel story that brings this out for me comes in Luke 10, where Jesus sends out followers in pairs ahead of him to various villages. He gives various instructions to them, but I find one of them particularly interesting: he tells them to look for ‘anyone who shares in peace’ (Luke 10:6) [or ‘man of peace’ in older translations]. What is such a person if they are not someone in whom God has already begun to work? I think Jesus is telling his disciples to look for where God is already at work, and to concentrate their efforts there.
So when we set out to share our faith, let us start cultivating an attitude that looks for signs of where God has already made the first move. Let us ask him to open our eyes to where he has already been preparing people to receive his love.
I have to cop out to some extent here and say that how God shows us he is making the first move ahead of us in people’s lives requires a whole sermon to itself, so at this point I have to confine myself to saying that we simply pray and seek God’s guidance. Let’s be open to the leading of the Spirit – the leading, I say, of the Spirit, because – God moves first.
We Respond To God
Back to verse 9: ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.’ Abiding in God’s love is what we are called to do in response to God making his overtures of love towards us.
‘Abiding’ (or ‘remaining’ in some translations) is a word that communicates a sense of permanence. The covenant between God and ourselves is rather like the covenant of marriage. It comes as a lifetime commitment. God has made a ‘lifetime commitment’ to us; he calls us to respond in the same way. In fact, in the light of the Resurrection it’s more than lifetime: this cannot be limited to ‘till death do us part’. This is a commitment for ever. Because God has shown such remarkable love to us, we make a radical commitment to him. Ours will be an abiding love.
And if it is an abiding love we offer to God through Jesus Christ, it is one that will not depend on our feelings. Sometimes our faith gives us great feelings, but our level of commitment to Christ cannot depend on them, any more than a marriage can depend on the times of ecstasy. Sometimes it’s not so much that love keeps a marriage alive, more that marriage keeps love alive. The commitment is primary, and it’s great when the feelings follow, but they don’t always.
And I think it’s in that light we can understand the difficult language of this passage where Jesus makes love into a commandment. Keeping his commandments is a sign of love (verse 10). He commands us to love one another (verse 12). And we are his friends if we do what he commands us (verse 14). How can love and commandment go together?
But isn’t this a peculiarly modern problem? We think that love is about how I feel. But it isn’t. People say, ‘Our marriage didn’t work’, or ‘Marriage doesn’t work’, as if ‘marriage’ is some separate entity to blame when things go wrong. But before love is a feeling, love is a commitment. Even when love is not a feeling, it is still a commitment. Why? Because it is a covenant. It’s why I tell wedding couples they won’t say ‘I do’, they’ll say ‘I will’. It’s about promise and commitment to that promise.
God has poured out his blessings to us, supremely in Christ and his Cross, and we respond to his commitment to us with a commitment of our own to him.
So in that sense, Jesus can command us to love him and love others. He’s telling us what the nature of the covenant commitment is. Turning love into a command isn’t bullying, because the One who commands us to love is the One who laid down his own life for his friends as the greatest love of all (verse 13) – words that are sandwiched right into the context.
And so love isn’t ‘I do’: it’s ‘I will’, even when I don’t feel like it. And maybe the times when we don’t feel like it are when we prove that our response to Christ is real. Because we’ll respond out of love, even if we feel nothing and even if there’s nothing in it for us.
Actually, the bride and groom say, ‘With God’s help I will’, because they cannot do so alone. And again, it’s similar when it comes to God’s covenant with us. Obeying by showing love to Christ and others is a tough call. It challenges the self-centredness that is at the heart of sin. Remember that old saying that sin is a little word with ‘I’ in the middle?
So as we respond to God’s love for us in Christ with our own covenant commitment to love others and obey Jesus, we find it’s remarkably difficult to do. But for us, too, like the couple getting married, it’s ‘With God’s help I do’. For Jesus does not leave us helpless when he shows us that the right response to God’s first move of love is a radical commitment. He promises the Holy Spirit. And though the Holy Spirit is not specifically mentioned in these verses, Jesus name-checks the Spirit over and over again in this section of John’s Gospel.
So when we rejoice in God making the first move of love towards us (and his whole broken creation); when we consider the appropriate response of love to him; and when we realise that response is likely to be a major and at times demanding commitment; let us rejoice, not only in God’s love, but in the gift of his Spirit, through whom God enables us to make that response and live a life of commanded love.