Sunday, 11 November 2012

His love endures for ever

I have had a difficult week. I offended a dear friend of mine and caused so much hurt that I doubted things would ever be the same.  That would be a tragedy to me because this person's friendship has been one of the highlights of moving to Limerick.  Just in case you are wondering, the person is not associated with this church.

Anyway, there were two positives to this sorry state of affairs.  Firstly, my appetite was ruined; and I am conscious that I need to lose a good few pounds. Secondly, it forced me to cry out to God.  I have always felt that prayer is most real when we are in a corner and have no other option to cast our anxieties upon the Lord and trust in his goodness.

So, on Monday night I lay in bed trying to comfort myself by praying and I did what I don't do enough: I contemplated what the Bible teaches about the person of God.  The verse that jumped out at me like never before was from Romans 8: 'nothing can separate us from the love of God.'  Popularity, success, health and loved ones will come and go but God's love remains.  Everything may change, trouble may come, but God will never desert his people.

This is the same comfort that is found in the Farewell Discourse.  Farewell Discourse is the title given to the teaching found in chapters fourteen to seventeen of John's Gospel.  Jesus wants to give the disciples comfort and assurance in the face of his immanent departure and the troubles that they will face as his followers in this world.  Everything may change, trouble may come, but God will never desert his people.

The Farewell Discourse actually begins with our reading at the end of chapter thirteen. The verses that we have read introduce the major themes of these chapters: glorification (31-32), departure (33) and love (34-35).

'Glorification' (31-32)
Judas had just left the room.  Another step has been taken on the journey to and from the cross.  This journey brings glory to God.  'Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him'. In this context glory refers to an act that demonstrates God's worth, greatness, and power.  The glory that has been manifested through the ministry of Jesus now comes to a climax at the cross.  As the reformer John Calvin said, 'in the cross of Christ, as in a splendid theatre, the incomparable goodness of God is set before the whole world.'

Notice that the cross brings glory to the both the Father and the Son.  The most famous verse in the Bible tells us that 'God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son ...'  The cross reminds us of the incomparable generosity of a Father who gives his Son for a rebellious people.  The cross also reminds us of the incomparable obedience of the Son, who lays down his life for his friends.

One Easter time I asked a few people to read some reflections on the cross.  I will never forget how one friend struggled to hold back tears as he read the following words from Scottish theologian Sinclair Ferguson:

When we think of Christ dying on the cross we are shown the lengths to which God’s love goes in order to win us back to Himself. We should almost think that God loved us more than He loves His son. We cannot measure His love by any other standard. He is saying to us, “I love you this much.” The cross is the heart of the gospel; it makes the gospel good news. Christ died for us; He has stood in our place before God’s judgement seat; He has borne our sins. God has done something on the cross which we could never do for ourselves. But God does something to us as well as for us through the cross. He persuades us that He loves us.

Christians love to sing and speak about the cross.  When they do we are reminded of how wonderful a God we serve.

'Departure' (33)
It is with gentleness that Jesus continues.  'My children', is more literally, 'little children.'  It is a fatherly term of endearment.  'I will be with you only a little longer.'  He is going to go away, first to the cross and then to his Father's side.  When he said a similar thing to his opponents he told them that they would seek for him not find him.  But to his little children he does not say they will not find him.  In a very real way we find, and are found, by Christ.

'Where I am going you cannot come.'  Those disciples could not follow Jesus, at that time, on his journey from cross, through resurrection, and onto ascension.  But later they would be united with him and be with him for all eternity.  In the meantime he will not leave them as orphans. Indeed, Matthew's gospel ends with Jesus promising, 'and I will be with always, even to the very end of the age.'

'Love' (34-35)
So, everything may change, trouble may come, but God will never desert his people.  That was certainly going to be the case for the disciples. Jesus was about to leave them and is about to assure them that they will have many troubles in the world.  What crisis are you facing?  Think of the cross, the glory of Father and Son, and the evidence that we are loved with an everlasting love.  Remember that though he departed, he has sent the person of the Holy Spirit. He has not left us as orphans in the world.  At times, it may feel like people are against us, but we are not alone. At my funeral I hope they will sing the words of 'Be still my soul'.

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.

In the Farewell Discourse, Jesus speaks of glory, the glory of he cross; prepares the disciples for his departure and assures his people that we will never be alone; and leaves us with the call to radical love.  'A new commandment I give to you: love one another.'

Technically, this is not a new command, you can find such words in Leviticus.  However, Jesus adds new depths to the love that is demanded of us. We are to love each other in the way that Jesus has shown love to us. The cross is God's demonstration of love, and the model of sacrificial love that we are called to imitate.  By this all people will know that we are disciples of Christ, if we love one another.  One historian, who does not claim to be a Christian himself, says that the strongest cause of the growth of Christianity in the second century was he love that the Christians shared for each other.

The story was told, in the early centuries of he church, that when the writer of this gospel, John was very old he would be carried into the church assembly at Ephesus. The people would ask him for his wisdom.  He would reply, 'little children, love one another.' When they eventually got tired of him saying this all the time the people asked him, 'why do you always say this?'  To which he replied, 'it is the Lord's command, if this alone be done, it is enough.' C

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