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  • Writer's pictureFather Benjamin von Bredow

A happy announcement.

A Sermon for the First Sunday after Trinity

June 2, 2024 at Holy Communion

1 John 4:7–21


“God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (John 4:9). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.


I spent the middle of this week with an employee of the diocese who helps congregations figure out their next steps when they are between priests. This often involves asking them some fundamental questions about how they understand their churches. In passing, she said that she asked one group simply, “What is the gospel?” They were a generous, hard-working, well-meaning group of folks, who had lots to say about why it was important to keep their church going, but suddenly they had nothing.


We can be sympathetic; they were put on the spot. But this is a question that any Christian should be able to answer: what is the good news you have believed? If we can’t give an answer, we need to examine whether we might be here for some reason other than desire for the good news of Jesus.


So what is the good news? What is the Christian gospel?


There’s no need to string this out: in our Epistle reading, St John gives us an answer. “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9). The “happy announcement” (as we might also translate the Greek word for “gospel”) is that life came into the world so that we who are in the world could have it, here and now and forever. The Life of the Father does not remain in heaven, but descends like a whirlwind to pull us into itself.


And God does this out of love, as John says immediately before, because “God is love” (v 8). God’s entry into the world to give life is, in fact, just his way of showing what he always was: love and life, eternally poured out between Father, Son, and Spirit before the sharing of that life was ever a good news to anyone. The life we are given is, in fact, the same life that God has. The good news is that life in God is possible because God has drawn near.


What is the Gospel? “God came into the world, so that we might live through him.”


But we also say that if you “believe the gospel,” you will be “saved,” so we usually, and quite correctly, talk about the gospel as the happy announcement about “salvation.” And that’s where we have to be very careful, or else you will find yourself confused in a hurry. The temptation is to ask, “Saved from what?” And then people will borrow a little bit from here and there in the Bible and come up with answers like, “Saved from eternal condemnation” or “Saved from God’s wrath.”


That is, we can all too easily end up saying that God himself is what we need saving from! But once we get there, it hardly needs saying that we are no longer talking about the same gospel which started, “God sent his Son into the world, so that we might live through him.” The Christian gospel is a gift of life for the eternal present, not an end-run around future death.


When we say that to become a Christian is to be “saved,” we mean just that: not “saved from” anything, just saved. Both the Greek and Latin words that lie behind our English “salvation” simply mean “health.” To be saved is to be made healthy, whole, and complete. So Christians can talk about being “saved from” something, usually from sin and death, but only in the way that a patient might be saved from an infection. We are saved because we are being returned to a state of wholeness from which we had slipped away, a state of wholeness to which we could not return without the Great Physician’s help.


So, although he doesn’t use the word, St John is telling about the good news of “salvation.” God comes into the world so that we can have the Wholeness—that is, the Life—which is God. In the entire universe, there is only a single Living One. God is Life, the beating heart which fills the veins of every member of his body. God’s gift of life is not a gift of something other than himself. Indeed, there is nothing outside God that he could possibly give. He gives himself, and so gives life, since he is Life. As St John said (if we noticed), “God sent his Son into the world so that we might live through him.”


So now we might be ready to understand the whole wondrous cascade of St John’s argument: in the beginning, God is love: three persons, perfectly interpenetrating, giving to one another spirit for spirit and love for love, in nothing but pure relationship, whose mutual dynamism is the only Life there is (v 8). But then God shows this love by creating and by entering the world so that the world can also become the site of God’s life and love. We hear and believe this good news, confessing that in Jesus we see the revelation of divine love (v 15). But to believe it is to receive it, and so God comes and lives in us (v 16), and we have life in him (v 9). And as the love of God comes to perfection in us (v 17), we become no longer just recipients of divine love, but participants in God’s outpouring of love to all people and things.


There is no salvation, here or hereafter, other than entering the give-and-take of the eternal love of the triune God.


There is a very practical theme all over our readings which emphasizes this last point, how a recipient of the love of God must bear that same love towards his neighbours. King David gives food and shelter to the invalid son of his former enemy, and is commended. In our Gospel parable the rich man ignores Lazarus at his door and is tormented. And everything I’ve just drawn out of St John’s Epistle is couched in a discussion of why every lover God must love his Christian brothers as well.


Some people think that salvation is about being a kind and generous person, providing for the poor, dealing gently with the wayward. That’s fine, so long as we don’t think of this as doing God a favour in the hope of getting something back from him in the hereafter. I hope it is clear by now that showing love to your neighbour is not an alternative path to salvation or even a duty that you owe to God as a way of thanking him for saving you.


Remember that salvation is love: divine love living in you, incarnate, and pulsing through your hands and your feet. If you do not love, you’re not simply failing to live up to your duty to God, for which God would surely forgive you. It’s actually worse: when you fail to love, you give evidence that the love of God is not in you—that you are not, in fact, saved, not even really alive. And who knows how long you’ll have to spend in Hades next to that rich man before you wake up to fact that you were cold and distant with both God and your neighbour!


If your conscience accuses you of lacking love for your neighbour—or if you find that you have trusted in some lifeless theory about God’s wrath and his forgiveness—but have never known the consuming fire of God’s love, don’t be afraid. “Perfect love casts out fear” (v 18). Incarnate love will soon descend. Eat it. Drink it. Take it into you, become what it signifies: a gift of Life and Salvation and eternal Love.

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