Saturday, May 08, 2021

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Sixth Sunday of Easter.

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Reading: John 15:9-17

In the Farewell Discourse (that is, chapters 13-17 of St John’s Gospel), Jesus talks a lot about love. Love became very popular in the Church in the twentieth century. Famously in the 1960s, the Beatles sang that ‘all you need is love’, and many in the Church were quick to agree. St John’s famous statement in his first letter chapter 4 verse 8 that ‘God is love’ seemed to sum up exactly who God is and what he is like.

Jesus, as a consequence, came to be seen as embodying this love and demonstrating it by reaching out to people with the unconditional love of God. The Church’s message now is one of unreserved welcome. Its message is that whoever you are, wherever you come from, whatever you have done, and however bad you have been, God loves you and accepts you just as you are, and the Church does too – well, in theory at least.

This idea that God’s love is unconditional basically now goes unquestioned. It has been enthusiastically embraced by all sections of the Church, not least by Protestants brought up to believe that salvation is ‘by grace’. ‘Grace’ is today understood as another word for the free and unconditional love of God. Protestants used also to say that we needed faith to receive it, but this too has largely also been abandoned as itself putting a limit on God’s love for us. God is love and God loves each one of us. Period. Full stop.

The way this has become the Church’s message was brought home to me this week listening to the BBC Radio drama, The Archers. The Archers is the world’s longest running broadcast drama series. It follows the lives of the inhabitants of a fictional English village called Ambridge. In particular, it focuses on certain key families in the village; not least, the Archer family, after whom it is named.

This week in the drama, Alice and Chris, members of two of the other key families in the village and who are married to each other, planned to have their new baby, Martha, baptized. Alice has until recently been something of a golden girl: beautiful, well-educated, intelligent, successful, and from a wealthy background. She appeared to have it all. Alice, however, is an alcoholic, and she has been causing much pain and grief to those closest to her. Up until this point in the series, very few people know of her alcoholism. Alice herself realizes her life is a mess, but she seems powerless to do anything about it. She is full of guilt and shame.

Before the baptism, Alice attends a baptism ‘rehearsal’ with the local Vicar, the Reverend Alan Franks. Alan is a thoroughly modern Vicar who is not easily shocked; he is accepting, inclusive in his approach, and unwilling to pass judgements. While talking to him about the baptism, Alice, without admitting to her alcoholism, talks of her feelings of shame and worthlessness, and how she has been selfish, hurting and letting down the people who care for her. Alan assures her that God loves her unconditionally and accepts her as she is.

Alan asks Alice what she thinks baptism is about. Alice replies ‘cleansing sin’. ‘You’re not wrong’, comments Alan. His tone is that of a kindergarten teacher who has asked a child a question and doesn’t want to discourage the child by telling them it is the wrong answer. ‘But there is so much more to it than that’, Alan continues, correcting the child in a positive and encouraging way instead. You get the idea.

What are we to say, then, about Alan’s emphasis on the love of God? I personally would say to him and to all those who think like him, what he said himself to Alice, ‘You’re not wrong.’ I would also add, ‘But baptism is so much more specific than that.’ Baptism is not simply a general statement about how much God loves us. It shows us the way in which God loves us and that is to be seen principally in God cleansing us from sin. Alan’s reply to Alice implied that we shouldn’t worry too much about sin. On the contrary, we should worry about sin, and we will never even begin to understand the love of God unless we get it right about sin. Ironically, it is the messed-up Alice who gets it right and the ever so accepting Alan who gets it wrong.

So how should Alan have responded to Alice? Well, certainly not by ignoring the reason for Alice’s feelings of guilt and shame. Alan effectively dismisses these feelings, and doesn’t even ask her why she feels like this. Alan wants to be seen as taking Alice really seriously as a person and to be affirming of her worth, but by his refusal to take her guilt and shame seriously, he is doing nothing of the sort.

Instead of offering Alice the sort of platitudes that she could get from any self-help book or life coach, Alan should have helped her face up to her sin and to accept that indeed she is guilty and should be ashamed. Having affirmed her in her sin, he could then have shown her how, despite her legitimate feelings of guilt and shame, that God’s love for us takes over precisely when we have no love for ourselves.

The script writers get Alan right as an example of a typical Vicar, and, in their script, they are only reflecting what most Vicars nowadays would say in such a situation. What the script writers also continue to get right is that what Alan says is totally ineffectual and unhelpful.

When the day of the baptism itself arrives, Alice has a very public crisis outside the Church, before the baptism, in front of most of the village. And the baptism itself doesn’t take place. It sounds great all this talk of acceptance and unconditional love; the problem is: it just doesn’t work.

Telling someone who hates themselves with just cause that they need to accept the love of God and love themselves seems somehow to miss the point. It is, in fact, in our very guilt and shame and by facing up to the reality of our sin that we discover the love of God. St Paul doesn’t dismiss a believer’s sense of shame. He writes:

‘So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death.’ (Romans 6:21)

Far from being just a small part of what baptism is about, ‘cleansing sin’ is at the heart of what it is about, because it is sin that is at the heart of all our problems. Again, as St Paul writes:

‘Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.’ (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

As believers, we may disagree over precisely how baptism works, but, at the very least, the water of baptism speaks of our need to be cleansed from sin. Baptism symbolizes the washing away of sin. This is made possible by the death of Jesus for our sins on the Cross. It is the blood of Jesus himself that actually washes away our sin. As St John writes, ‘the blood of Jesus his [that is, God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin’ (1 John 1:9).

Alice does need professional help for her alcoholism. What she does not need is to have the damage she has done trivialized and dismissed as unimportant. Ironically, by doing so, Alan has prevented Alice from experiencing the love of God that is to be seen in the death of Jesus for our sin. As St Paul puts it:

‘But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8)

In my podcast for Easter, I spoke of the meaning and importance of the death of Jesus and of how in the New Testament the death of Jesus is understood as being ‘for our sins’.

This can all sound very theoretical and unrelated to the lives we live. It is, however, in the death of Jesus for our sins and in his blood shed for us that there lies hope for those who feel guilty and ashamed. It is the blood of Jesus that offers freedom and forgiveness from those things that trap us and hold us captive. It is the blood of Jesus that offers hope to the alcoholic and to all those whose lifestyles have become destructive of both themselves and others. It is only the blood of Jesus that can wash away our sins and make us whole again.

As the old hymn puts it:

‘What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

O precious is the flow
that makes me white as snow;
no other fount I know;
nothing but the blood of Jesus.’

May we find forgiveness and freedom in the blood of Jesus shed freely for us on the Cross.


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