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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=90

 

5 Easter Year B (May 3, 2015)                                         St James', Peace River

 

I want you to imagine that you are Philip walking along that dusty desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza. It's a long trip on foot, 76km as the crow flies. In our time it's even longer, in fact you simply can't get there from here because of the blockades between Israel and the Gaza strip – if you drive you have to go 600km out of your way via Egypt. So, imagine you're Philip, walking. It's a wilderness road, so, not much traffic – you might find that a little scary but also a little enjoyable. It's quiet. You can hear yourself think.

 

Then there's a clatter behind you, and a chariot approaching. Riding it, along with his driver, is a pretty exotic figure – an African dressed very finely, both in his wealth and culture belonging to a completely different world from yours. The chariot passes you by, but not too far ahead they stop to rest the horses, and you catch them up. From under the sun shade you hear familiar words. The foreigner is sounding them out carefully – it's the passage from Isaiah about the lamb being led to the slaughter! But the charioteer is carefully paying you no attention – you never know what people might be up to on this road – and so far, you've been returning the favour. What do you do?

 

Something inside you says, “go and talk to them.” That is so far from what you were intending that you wonder where it came from. But even though it feels weird, it also feels right. You start a conversation with this unusual stranger, and it turns out – he is really just a person. Underneath the trappings, not that different from you. And as you listen to him telling you about things that really matter to him, and wondering out loud about what he should do, you start to recognize that feeling inside. It's the same feeling you were once on the other end of, when you met Jesus and started talking to him in exactly the same way. You realize – you like this guy. Well, that's not quite the word, is it. Your heart went out to him when you heard him searching and questioning in exactly the same way as you. You want to walk with him on as much of that journey as you can.

 

Switching back now to being you, in the 21st century, I want to ask you if that experience feels at all familiar. Have you ever been in a position where you were able to reach out to someone with whom you had no prior connection? Have you ever had a surprisingly meaningful conversation with a stranger? Have you ever followed up an odd internal prompting, with unexpected results? Have you ever discovered yourself simply wanting the best for someone, with no strings attached, no expectation of any benefit to yourself – just letting your heart go out to them?

 

If the answer to all those questions is “no”, then maybe what I want to say is simply, “Try it!” It's one of the most basic ways we can follow the example of Jesus, and one of the most fundamental ways in which he lived out his love for people. Jesus didn't have to wait to get to know people before he decided whether he wanted to be in their lives, or have them in his. For him, seeing was loving. He saw the hungry crowd on the hillside, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. He looked at that rich young man who came asking what he really needed to do to get his life right, and he loved him. He saw Peter and Andrew at their nets, Nathanael under the fig tree, Matthew in the tax booth, and he asked them to come and be his friends. He saw you, his heart went out to you, and he invited you along for the journey too.

 

We don't have to go out of our way to meet people we can let our own hearts go out to. Though sometimes going into a fresh environment allows us to try something new, to let go of the things that might hold us back, or to put aside the baggage that sometimes clutters up the ways in which we might try to love the people we know. One of the things I've really enjoyed about our bi-weekly trips to Carmon Creek is exactly that. Everyone we meet there is a stranger, there are no preconceptions, it is harder not to empathize with their situation in a gruelling work environment so far from home, and it isn't difficult to talk about things that really matter. When you allow that sort of thing to happen, love is the most natural thing in the world.


That is, after all, what we are talking about: love. The kind of love that John was talking about when he  wrote, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God.” Loving others in the way that God loves us, and being able to love others because God has loved us. Letting your heart go out to someone, just like God let his heart go out to the world and to every single person in it when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us; just as Jesus let his heart go out to every person he met. Loving like that is not some mystical, religious or supernatural concept – it is rather the discovery of our own nature, what we were made for, something we can do and have the chance to do every day, if we would only see it.

 

Perhaps it seems a little strange or awkward taking a word as deep as “love” and applying it to people we don't even know, to conversations with strangers or random acts of kindness. But doing that may actually help us to focus on the most fundamental aspect of love even for those closer to us – which is not affection or comfort or friendship or even mutuality, but self-giving. What God shows us, and the reason the story of God and the Gospel moves us so much, is that love is a conscious choice to desire and do what is good for someone else – and loving like that is what we were made for, because we exist in the image of God who loves us just like that. You don't need to know someone well to want what is good for them, or to do something about it. And in fact, when you let yourself listen to another person, and really see them, of course you want what is good for them. It actually takes a conscious act of resistance to respond in any other way – a conscious act to not become aware of them in the first place, or to prefer yourself when you do.

 

We make those conscious acts of ignorance and self-preference all the time, so much so that we almost believe they are really “human nature”. But they're not. And when we're surprised by another person's presence and impact on our lives – as Philip was on the desert road, as I have been at Carmon Creek, as I'm sure you have been – we remember. We were made for something different. We were made to let our hearts go out.

 

So, I'm asking you to look for opportunities to do exactly that. Don't let anyone be a stranger, at least not for any longer than it takes to see how you can commit yourself to wanting what is good for them. And as for those whom you would already say that you love, take another look at them and remember that God has put you in your lives, and them in yours, just as surely as he moved Philip to speak to the Ethiopian. You are given to each other not simply to enjoy each other's company (which is a fine thing), or to take each other for granted (which isn't), but to see and hear and listen and appreciate and serve – in short, to love through the giving of yourself, just as God in Christ has loved us. And when we do that, it is actually God's love we are sharing – because it is then that we can know and feel how it is that God really makes his home in us, and we make ours in him.