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Bible readings:

6 Easter Year B (May 10, 2015)                                      St James', Peace River

Just after Easter, I heard a colleague suggest that – if our order of service really reflected what we read in the Bible – when the priest opens the service with “alleluia! Christ is risen!” the congregation would answer “WHAT???!” In the last pages of the gospels and the first pages of Acts, nothing could have been more astonishing than the good news that Jesus was alive. People ran, sometimes for miles, arriving out of breath to say, “we have seen the Lord!” Crowds gathered to hear what this unimaginable message was about, and when they were persuaded it was true, they felt like their own lives were beginning all over again. The world was changed.

We don't start our service quite that way. Not because we're not amazed, or not persuaded, or not excited, but because we are all those things. We know it's true, and so when the priest says “alleluia! Christ is risen!” we all say [?] “The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!” We begin our worship, especially in Eastertide, by telling ourselves and the world what we know to be true, that Jesus is here, he is alive never to die again, and that life is indeed different as a result. And we're still saying that now, six Sundays on, when the celebration of Easter Day has faded into memory and the routines of ordinary life have already reasserted themselves. But because Jesus' life and presence don't depend on our remembering, and because we meet him most powerfully precisely in what we think of as ordinary life – when someone announces “Christ is risen” we don't respond “still??” It's not something that stops or fades away. He is risen indeed.

The Bible readings today give us a sense of how Jesus' risen life can continue to surprise us long after the initial arrival of the news. In Acts 10, Peter takes this extraordinary leap of faith in going to meet a Roman centurion named Cornelius, and realizes while he is there that if Jesus is alive for anyone he is alive for everyone. Peter a Jew, and Cornelius a Gentile, had completely different journeys that would never have converged for any other reason. But each of them finds their lives transformed by the same truth: that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, and that in Jesus' death and resurrection God has made a completely new start, a new creation that reaches out to include everyone. So Peter, who thought he was arriving at Cornelius' house to announce the good news “Christ is risen”, goes away with a completely new insight into what that means. Perhaps thinking to himself, “He is risen indeed!”

I think there's something we need to take away from that experience of Peter's, because it is not merely a history of how the Gentiles came to be included in Christianity. It is about the story that still goes on every day, of new people embracing the new life of Christ in new ways. If you want to know for yourself how God can keep making you alive in a brand new way – there is no better way to learn than to watch what God does as other people make that discovery. Look around at people you know, in this church or among your own friends or family, whose lives have been changed by being drawn into the living love of God.

Or for that matter, head off to a different continent (as our bishop is about to do!) to see what God is doing there – where so many are new Christians, living their lives in such different circumstances from ours, and yet being moved and transformed by the same message. Surely there is a lot for us to learn about what God is doing, and not simply “for them”, because after all it is the same Lord, and whatever it is God is doing with our fellow Christians, he is also involving us. But there is equally plenty to learn about that right here in our own community, where lives are being changed by the presence of Christ too. You don't have to go far to have a conversation with someone about

-       how Jesus saved him from alcoholism

-       how embracing faith gave her family a sense of purpose and discipline with Christ in their midst

-       how a group coming together to work on something important discovered Jesus was there

-       how receiving new life through Christ inspired their creativity, or enabled them to start again, or sustained them through grief, or any number of other unique realities in people's lives.

Conversations like this don't happen because you decided to go talk to someone about Jesus. They happen when you listen, as Peter listened, first to God's inner prompting to go love your neighbour, and then to your neighbour as they talk about what they need to talk about. That's something we can all do, and which God invites all of us to do. And if I can offer a shameless plug – it's the reason why we have a workshop coming up on “prayer and pastoral care” which I hope you will all attend! And important to say that we're having that workshop, not because someone else thinks it would be good for us – but because we do: it's something people in this congregation already know God is calling us to, and we've asked for help in being better prepared to do it. But the take-away from Peter's experience is this: that when you let yourself be open to discovering what God is doing in other people, you are also more open to what God can do with you. Their new ways of receiving new life give you new possibilities you never knew before.

The other two readings, from the first letter and the gospel both attributed to John, shed a different kind of life on this. They are about “abiding” in God's love and how that is related to new life in Christ. “Abiding” can seem like one of those bible-words that make our eyes glaze over. But what does it really mean? Making your home somewhere. Putting down roots. Deciding to stay. Abiding in God's love means not just visiting the place where you know God's love for you, but becoming a permanent resident. In some ways the concept may seem like the very opposite of newness, but it isn't. If you live where God's love is, there will always be something new, some way in which your life is just beginning. That's kind of the point of the resurrection gospel.

There are some ways in which our human experiences of love can illustrate this for us. Today being Mother's Day, we have a particularly apt example to focus on. Your relationship with your mother, whether it's good or bad or somewhere in between, is something both of you carry with you for life – you “abide” in it. And because you do, you keep discovering greater depth to it. I can look back now at things my choices my parents had to make for me when I was a child, and gain a whole new appreciation I wouldn't have had until I was a parent myself. That not only changes my perspective on who my mother was (and is), but it opens up something new about how I see myself, as well. That process doesn't stop – I'm sure as my children grow older, and as I do for that matter, it will keep going on. And it doesn't have to be only about positive things – the struggles any of us might have within that relationship also open up new possibilities, as we discover their hidden depths too.

In human relationships, abiding in love can be hard work. Even though it's always transformative, it sometimes tests us beyond our means. Some of what John writes about God's love suggests the same kind of thing. Abiding in God's love is about obeying his commands.... his greatest command is to love as Jesus loves us.... and that means laying down our lives. Of course, that's not just about actually dying for the sake of someone else – it also means putting your heart and soul into the business of loving others, putting your time and effort and in fact your self at someone else's service. (Perhaps something else mothers know something about!) Testing ourselves against that commandment will show us some hard truths. But if we actually try it out, the greatest surprise of all is in store.

John says, “his commandments are not burdensome”. Just when you think you're going to be stretched too far – that you can't love the way you're supposed to – that's the moment when you realize something else is going on. The love that you're pouring out, the giving of yourself, turns out to be God's way of loving you, making you an integral part of his own gift of himself to the world. And the thing that seemed too hard to do, becomes the one thing that really opens you up to God's desire to give you a whole new kind of life. As the gift of God, it turns out not to be hard at all, once you leave behind all those ideas of needing to be someone you're not.

Easier said than done, I know. And yet I think it's the place we all long to be, and the surprise that's in store for every one of us as we come to abide in God's love more deeply. When you keep facing the challenge of loving the people around you – your children, your parents, the people you spend each day with, or the people God sends you to be with – when you are so far beyond your own resources that you have no choice but to make your home with God and love like God loves – that's the moment when you can hear Jesus say, “You are my friend... I chose you, and I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” And it's then that you will know what it really means for Christ to be alive – not in a distant time and a distant place, but at the heart of who you are, and at the place where you choose to abide.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!          The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!