The Acts passage, I'd contend, tells us about love. Now, if you know your top ten Bible passages to read at a wedding, you'll know that 1 John contains one of the most popular: 1 John 4 and "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear". Possibly the most popular passage of all, though, has to be 1 Corinthians 13: "if I have the latest widescreen LCD TV but have not love, then I am but a gadget freak with a large credit card balance" and so on. (Better examples?) Now, do you suppose that when Paul wrote that passage he thought to himself "they'll be reading that at weddings for the next 2000 years"? Or even "that's the wedding couples written to, now for the rest of the church"? Of course not (as Paul himself would probably put it). Paul wrote to men and women of the church - to the married as well as the unmarried, to those in the haze of first love to those who had never experienced it and to those that had forgotten it. He wrote to couples and to singles, to families and to friends. But above all of this he wrote to Christians. So when he wrote "love is patient, love is kind" and so on, he didn't have husbands and wives in mind - he had ordinary people like you and me. And he was telling us how to love one another, how to be Christians together, how to be Church.
Paul does, of course, write also to married couples. I've even heard those passages used in weddings (but less so). You can picture the scene as the bible is read: Wives, obey your husbands (all the men nod). Husbands, love your wives (they nod again - we can do that - we've got the florists on speed-dial), as Christ loved the church (ah - now you're asking a bit much there) and gave Himself up for her (er… couldn't we have 1 Corinthians 13 instead, please?)
One problem I think we have when we come to the question of Christian love is that we have taken to heart Paul's description of marriage being an illustration of Christ's love for the Church and forgotten that it's only an illustration - it doesn't just apply to couples, but to all Christians. It's an illustration, yes, but it's not the only relationship that the descriptions of love apply to.
We therefore come back to the Acts reading. The sharing that we see, the holding all things in common, the selling of land and possessions to help others, we see that as practical love. And practical love is the most useful kind. In the middle of a busy weekend, I came home to find that Jason had mown my lawn for me. He said that he'd figured that as he didn't have time to mow his lawn he was pretty sure I had even less time to mow mine, so once he'd done his he trundled his lawnmower across the road and did mine for me. Practical love. Far more use (and far more welcome) than him looking dewey-eyed at me over coffee, I think you'll agree. Love is patient, love is kind - it starts to make more sense when you see it as written to all Christians, doesn't it? As being the foundation for practical love. And what do we see when we look again at the Acts reading - bang in the middle of the bits about sharing and selling we find: "with great power the apostles continued to testify to the Lord Jesus". This isn't Luke getting confused and losing his train of thought. It's not even an aside. It's in the middle of a demonstration of practical love to show that, from a power-base of love, the Gospel is proclaimed powerfully. It's a very holistic thing - a being together and then worshipping together. Being church inwardly so it can be proclaimed outwardly. Several of us commented on how good Easter Morning's service felt and how the fact that the service followed us having breakfast together possibly contributed to that. A being together, then worshipping together. Inward, then outward. Some of our most memorable times have been like that - Mothers' day, Trisha's visit, Café Church, Alpha, Weekends away - I see a pattern emerging, and one that we've been discussing and wondering how we can build on it.
And that's how it should be. But (and you knew there was a but coming, didn't you), as Larry Norman put it in 1973: "the Beatles said all you need is love and then they broke up". Did they not mean it? Did they not practice what they sang about? Or did they not understand Christian love? Most likely the latter. That the band that preached love and peace more than any other at the time should break up so acrimoniously a few years later…
When I was at university I knew a couple called Dennis & Dorothy. He once told the story of how his work colleague spotted some flowers on his desk. "For Dorothy?" yes. "Is it her birthday?" No. "Is it your anniversary?" No. "Oh - what have you done?". He'd done nothing, they were a spontaneous gift to show her that he loved her. But the assumption of others is that demonstrations of love are either pre-programmed or attempts at redemption shows that society doesn't understand Christian love - and not too surprising, for until you understand that God loved us first, it's a bit hard. It's like trying to play the guitar without tuning it up first - unless the framework is in place, you won't get anywhere.
But back to the flowers - what if we have done something? What if all the exhortations to love one another have gone awry? What if we just can't do it? Then the letter from John comes in. Firstly, he says that he writes to us so that we will not sin: Will not. So it is possible. But unlikely, which is why he goes on to say "but if anyone does sin…" and here we begin to see how the love of God surpasses any human love. The gift God gives is so much more than flowers, far more practical than mowing a lawn. The gift God gives is Jesus, His only son. Jesus, crucified and died in our place. Crucified in order to pay the price of our sin. Totally. In mathematical terms, necessary and sufficient: His death is necessary because it's the only way back to God, the only way to remove our sin. It's sufficient because nothing else is required. That's grace - a gift that surpasses all others, that requires no additional restitution. In mathematical terms, necessary and sufficient means complete. Christ's death on the cross, which we've just commemorated in Good Friday, is complete - the complete and only way back to God. It was necessary and it is sufficient.
So, in summary, love one another, as Christ first loved us. And if you can't, then rely on His love to give you a second chance to try again. For Jesus, the cross was not the end - but the start of something new. For us, forgiveness through the cross is not the end, but the start of a new life, a fresh start, a second chance. An opportunity to aim for John's aim: "so that we will not sin". Like my motorbike on a frosty morning, it might need a few goes to get properly started, but God's love is such that, unlike the battery on my bike, there's always enough there for another go.
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