We can’t earn God’s love. And we don’t need to. God has already given it in his Son. Abraham, Martha and Mary encounter God, and love and an openness to grace is what enables them to discover new life.
Sermon preached at Newcastle Cathedral, Sunday 21st July 2019
Have you done enough to earn God’s love?
Do you think you’ve done enough to earn God’s love?
I hope a part of you – perhaps all of you – is scandalised to hear a Christian sermon start with that question. It is of course the worst perversion of the Christian faith… to suggest that we in any way need to EARN God’s love.
And yet, there’s a little part in each of us, that just sometimes says, I’m not good enough for God, I’m not worthy. He can’t possibly love me.
Or more dangerous, that voice that says, Yes. I’ve made it. I’m an AMAZING Christian. Isn’t God proud of me.
Look at everything I’m doing, the way I live my life.
Look at how many times I go to church.
Look at how often I say my prayers.
Look at how much… I doooo for God.
Isn’t He lucky!
And today’s readings seek out those tendencies in each and every one of us. They square up to us and say… NOPE.
NOPE! You can’t earn God’s love, and you don’t need to earn God’s love. Because he has given you his love, already. He has given you Jesus.
Stop. Listen. Learn to love and to live.
The story starts with the book of Genesis, as all good stories do. God has made a covenant with Abraham, the father of the Israelites, the father of all who follow God. Abraham and his son have been circumcised as a sign of that covenant. And Abraham gets on living a nomadic existence with his family, his livestock, his tent.
And one day, Abraham is sat in the door of his tent at the height of midday… and he sees three men standing near him. My Lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Strange. There are three of them. But Abraham for some reason addresses them as one, Lord.
Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Do you remember Jesus washing the disciples’ feet at the last supper? Do you remember Mary and John keeping watch under the tree on which Jesus died?
Let me bring you a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on – since you have come to your servant. Well, you’re here at a Eucharist, the sacrament of bread and wine, so I don’t need to point out the importance of a little bread… to refresh us.
But my point is this. At first glance it looks like Abraham is showing hospitality to these three guests. Stop and think, and it might seem that Abraham is showing hospitality to God, the Trinity; Father, Son and Spirit.
But is that what’s really going on?
In the famous Icon of this scene, the hospitality of Abraham, you can see the three figures sat at the table, but you can’t see Abraham. The three figures are welcoming Abraham in, welcoming us in to sit at the table with them.
When Abraham gives them the water, who really gives the water of life? When Abraham refreshes them by washing their feet, who really makes who clean? And when Abraham offers them bread, who really gives the bread of life?
I’ll give you a clue… it isn’t Abraham who is the giver of all gifts.
This isn’t a story about being hospitable, about welcoming in strangers. And neither is the Gospel reading.
I have heard many sermons in my time which go like this. Mary and Martha are different. Mary listens to Jesus but Martha is distracted by the tasks of the world. Which are you. Do you pay attention to Jesus? Or are you distracted by the world?
And I think that’s ok, but it doesn’t really do the passage justice.
It doesn’t do Martha justice, either, if I’m honest.
First, she isn’t just distracted by the cares of the world. Luke says she is distracted by something very specific. She’s distracted by diakonia… ministry. It’s where we get the word deacon from today. Martha isn’t distracted by looking up the latest fashions. She’s distracted by something which is really important. Ministering to others.
But second, does Jesus actually criticise her because she is distracted by her work? Jesus says, Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. You have need of only one thing. Mary, who is sat here listening to me, has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.
Martha, if you think about it, is doing exactly what Abraham was doing… offering the Lord some refreshment. But the difference is their attitude. Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Martha says. Tell her then to help me! Martha’s problem, the thing she has missed, is that what God really wants, what Jesus really wants from her and from us… is love.
The psalms put it rather well, and put these words in God’s mouth.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls,
or drink the blood of goats?
Rather, offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving
and pay your vows to the Most High. (Psalm 50.12-15)
Martha thinks that Jesus really needs feeding with food, and she offers her service grudgingly. This isn’t love and honour, in the way that Abraham showed love and honour when God visited his tent. Martha is worried and distracted not by her work, but by her bitterness. And bitterness, feeling hard done by, is always a difficult place to be when you want to show love.
Abraham served his Lord, and he served God in Love. Martha tried to serve God, but her attempt was thwarted by bitterness. And Mary… Mary doesn’t serve God at all. She just… sits there…. but she sits there… in openness and love.
Has God ever visited your tent? How did you respond?
Lots of people tell stories of times they served an unexpected guest, and it felt like they had served an angel. One priest tells of a homeless boy he met. They shared a meal at Burger King. He nipped out to the loo, and when he came back the boy had disappeared. Had he ministered to an angel sent by God?
Maybe we haven’t all had experiences like that. But that doesn’t mean God hasn’t visited our tent.
The first chapter of John’s Gospel describes the coming of God in Jesus like this. And the Word became flesh, and lived among us. Jesus, God the Word, taking on humanity and living among us. But the word John uses to describe living among us has a deeper meaning.
He says this, and let your mind’s eye create a picture: And the Word became flesh, and pitched a tent among us. In Jesus, God has pitched a tent among us. God has come to our home, and made His home here too, with us and alongside us. The letter to the Colossians puts it beautifully. In Jesus, walking on earth among us, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. God pitched His tent among us, and it pleased Him.
So what should we do? Should we make like Abraham and Martha to scramble to serve our God who lives among us?
No. Remember Abraham. It wasn’t Abraham who was really being hospitable. It was God, God giving Abraham the bread of life and the water of life and the washing of salvation.
If you think the Christian faith is about doing enough to earn God’s love… then you’ve completely missed the point.
We don’t serve God. God serves us.
We don’t need to feed God. God feeds us.
We don’t need to provide for God. God provides for us.
We don’t need to protect God. God heals and holds us in our brokenness.
We don’t need to sacrifice to God. God has already sacrificed himself for us.
At this and every eucharist, God invites us to God’s own table. And we approach it and pull up our chairs to the feast. With Abraham and Nicholas, and Mary and all the saints who have ever been. And each other, the saints who are.
God offers us the bread of life here. Will you be like Mary, open and loving?
And if you don’t feel you can, will you hope, will you ask… to be like Mary… Lord, make me open and loving.
In us is so much that wants to earn our place, or be proud at what we have achieved… or which is bitter, and guilty… and hurt and angry and tired. And that makes us often very bad at loving.
But God says… nevertheless…
Come… sit down… and taste.
With me you will find all things.
With me… you will learn love.
With me… you will discover… life.