Loving is more valuable than believing
Sermon by Andy Wurm, Easter 5, 19th May 2019
Some years ago in Melbourne there was a terrible tragedy when a wall collapsed and killed some people. Seeing footage on the news, something that stood out was that lots of people passing by rushed to help. The same was true the following week, when a clothing factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing hundreds of people.
All of those people united to act together. Compare that to if you got all those people together and asked them where they stand with regard to one another in terms of their beliefs. Even after years, they probably still would not have worked it out.
In the church we sometimes make the mistake of thinking that our beliefs matter most and what we do is secondary, yet, if on the receiving end of help, we aren’t too worried about why someone helps us. If a hungry person receives food from someone, I doubt it would concern them whether the giver is motivated by belief in Allah or Jesus, or no-one, for that matter.
Today from John’s gospel, we hear some of Jesus’ farewell message to his disciples. He leaves them with one instruction: love one another. Nothing about what they should believe. (It should be noted that throughout his gospel, John lays great emphasis on believing in Jesus, but he means giving oneself actively to Jesus, in the sense of living his way, which is love.)
Jesus says that people will know we are his disciples if we love one another. To me that suggests that anyone or anything is one with God, if there is love.
We can also understand Jesus to be saying that it is proper for his disciples to live in love because it is consistent with the one they follow. In the same way, it was proper for Jesus to live in love, for it is consistent with the One he incarnated. This is how we end up with our beliefs of Christianity – they are extrapolated from experience and actions. Jesus told his followers what to do and that implies certain things about him, which implies certain things about God. Hence, for example, the belief that God is trinity is nothing more than an extrapolation of Jesus’ commandment to love. If we are to love, it’s because God is love.
I’m telling you this to show that while beliefs are important, they are secondary to actions. Living in love is more important than believing that God is love, but believing that God is love sets parameters, or shows us in which direction to look for God and therefore to know how to act. This means we don’t have to get too worried about whether we believe the correct thing or not, and our beliefs, dogmas, creedal statements, words we pray etc. are secondary to the fact we are praying or opening ourselves up to the divine life that is reaching out to us.
Some churches define themselves in terms of their beliefs. On their websites they list their beliefs. (I think if we did that on our parish website we might need a number of pages to contain all the differences.) Such an approach to Christianity defines what you are by what you believe. You stand with others who hold the same beliefs and stand apart from those who don’t. In contrast, a different approach is to define yourselves in terms of relationship: you are defined by whom and what you are in relationship with. In an immediate sense we are in relationship with other Christians, perhaps first of all, in relationship with other Anglicans, but then in a wider sense we are in relationship with all other human beings, and wider still, we are in relationship with all creation. At the heart of it all is God, who sets the parameters.
To me that is a much better way of defining who and what we are, and more in keeping with Jesus’
commandment to love, or live as God is. If God is love, or communion, then so are we, if we are true to what God creates us to be.
Back to belief then, if belief is secondary to the call to love, we should treat our beliefs more lightly than we sometimes do. For a start, if they don’t lead to loving others and loving ourselves, then there’s something wrong. We haven’t arrived at the correct understanding, and so need to work more at it (with help), or let it rest for awhile. So, for example, if the belief in the virgin birth doesn’t lead to greater love, then perhaps we don’t need to worry about it, or leave it be. The important thing is to remember that like all our beliefs, they aren’t ends in themselves. They are all to lead us closer to God and so to love. Whether or not Mary was a virgin has no value in itself, when it comes to faith.
I saw a cartoon on Facebook recently, in which Jesus was speaking to a group of people, saying ‘the difference between you and me is that you use scripture to determine what love is, whereas I use love to determine what scripture is’. Making public statements about who is going to hell would be an example of using scripture to determine what love is. As followers of Jesus, we should pay heed to the lesson he provides to two disciples on the road to Emmaus on Easter Day. As they walk together, he teaches them that love is the key to interpreting scripture. If a text of scripture does not reveal that God is love, then it needs to be interpreted in a wider sense than is immediately apparent.
The problem with belief being considered more important than love comes to the fore in our worship, where it seems to acquire greater importance that it deserves. For example, when we say the creed, it might seem that we are expressing who we are and what we are on about through what God is like, but that’s not what it’s meant to be. It’s meant to be a putting into words our experience of God as love and God’s call to us to live in love too. The trouble is that we keep using words and phrases that were appropriate a long time ago, but which we wouldn’t use today, to say the same things.
Today we don’t hear Jesus telling us to love everyone, but to love those in our faith community. Elsewhere he tells us to love everyone and it’s implied anyway. But here Jesus directs us to start with those around us. It’s easy to love humanity in general. Harder is to love those we actually share our lives with (family, friends, neighbours, work colleagues etc.) We also don’t get instructions on exactly what loving others entails. Jesus leaves it for us to work that out.
If we give our heart to our faith, it is because we see value in doing so, and it is natural to want to share that experience with others. That is the work of evangelism or seeking to convert others. Maybe we feel uncomfortable admitting we want to do that, but I think we do want to convert others, for what we’re talking about here is not getting people to hold particular beliefs, but to make love the centre of their lives, or to realise that the love which is at the centre of their lives is precisely what Christianity is about. Beliefs, dogmas and creeds are just attempts to express that, and none of them are perfect.
Jesus calls us not to orthodoxy, which is right belief, but to orthopraxis, which is right practice, or living out the truth, and as Jesus tells us, the truth is that love is the way to life and to God, because it is of God and from God.