A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, 25 May 2014:
This morning’s lessons (1 Peter 3.8-22, John 14.15-21) invite us to live by the principle that lies at the heart of the Trinity—the principle of the love Christ has for his Father; the love that flows from both the Father and the Son: the love of the Holy Spirit. They give us powerful insights into how this principle of sacrificial love was lived out in times of persecution and great insecurity about the future of the Christian church. They encourage us to believe that, whatever external circumstances we may face—whether we are buoyed up in times of growth and strength, or weighed down in times of hardship and persecution—‘those who love Christ will be loved by the Father’, and that Christ ‘will love them and reveal himself to them’ (John 18.21). Finally, they invite us to share ourselves in the work of transformational living—living so that others may be brought to the love we know and believe in—through our giving and our living.
Our epistle reading from the first letter of Peter (1 Peter 3.8-22) was written in the second half of the first Christian century, a time of incredible uncertainty and hardship for the early Christian communities of the Roman Empire. During the brutal reign of emperor Nero, Christians and Jews were routinely persecuted: it was Nero who put the apostles Peter and Paul to death and, with them, innumerable Christians in Rome. In his Annals, Tacitus, one of the greatest first-century historians, suggests that Nero’s persecution of Christians was an elaborate cover up for the infamous burning of Rome (Annals, XV, 44).Written in the smouldering ashes of Rome and with the memory of the first generation of Christian martyrs very much alive, our epistle speaks a message of peace and love into a world full of uncertainty and hostile to people of faith.
The congregations to whom our epistle was addressed are called to live by the way of love, not share the hatred of their oppressors. They are invited to remain united in face of danger, to share in one another’s sufferings, support one another in hardship and difficulty. They are encouraged to ‘have sympathy’; now the Greek word sumpatheis really means ‘share in someone’s feelings’ rather than warm to someone: ‘rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep’ is how the apostle Paul put it in his epistle to the Romans (Romans 12.15). When faced with the persecutions of their Roman overlords, the early Christians were encouraged to bury their differences, to look out for one another and to share in the love that characterised their faith. As Jesus had said at the table of the Last Supper, only a few verses before today’s Gospel reading commences, ‘by this all will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ (John 13.35).
Love, for the writers of our epistle and our Gospel readings, was not just a warm feeling in the heart, or the creation of a deep emotional bond. In the first Christian century to love someone meant first of all to act with righteousness towards them; to treat them as one would expect to be treated oneself. And from this first principle flow a number of important instructions to the Christian community that go beyond the principle of love, of ‘having a tender heart and a humble mind’, as first Peter puts it (1 Peter 3.8). Faced with the ruthless and organised persecution of Christians in the capital and provinces of the Roman empire, our epistle challenges us to love even those who persecute us: ‘Do not repay evil with evil, or abuse for abuse; but on the contrary, repay with a blessing’ (1 Peter 3.9). It is hard to bless those that insult you, let alone bless those that seek after your life. Yet this is what the first epistle of Peter instructs the persecuted Christian community to do: ‘do not repay evil with evil, but repay with a blessing’ (1 Peter 3.8).
Evil that is countered with evil, the writer of our epistle knew, only creates further evil: the cycle of violence and hatred can only be broken where people have an absolute passion for goodness, an utter lack of provocation. Refusal to retaliate where others accuse unjustly, the writer of our epistle tells us, can break the cycle of escalating conflict. Where people return evil for the evil they have received, they only stoke the flames of conflict. ‘Repay instead with a blessing’, first Peter encourages us, ‘because it is for this that you were called: that you, too, might inherit a blessing, might inherit salvation’ (1 Peter 3.9). Those who live by the way of love will receive blessing and salvation, our Gospel reading echoes first Peter. In fact, those who shun the way of breaking evil by love, our Gospel reading suggests, may never know this love-filled way of life, nor the Spirit of God that makes known this life: ‘the world cannot receive this Spirit of truth, because it neither sees nor knows him’ (John 14.17). Rather, it is those who live lives that counter evil with good, hatred with love, who know God and will be known as his children. Who will be sustained by God’s strength to undertake their work of building up and transforming the Christian church: ‘you know the Spirit of truth’, our Gospel reading tells, ‘because he abides with you, and he will be in you’ (John 14.17).
In setting before us the way of transformational living by sharing in God’s love, our readings also make an important distinction about suffering persecution. While there will without a doubt be many who are called to suffer for their belief in Jesus Christ, not all are called to suffer persecution: ‘if it should be God’s will for you to suffer’, our epistle reminds us, ‘it is better to suffer for doing good than to suffer for doing evil’ (1 Peter 3.17). Though there will be some among us present here who have suffered persecution for their faith—I am thinking in particular of those who had to flee their homelands to escape the kind of persecution our epistle speaks of—for many of us the sacrifices we may be called to bring for our faith may not be through physical suffering. Not all will suffer persecution, our epistle assures us, yet all are called to shun evil and do good; all are encouraged to work for goodness and peace in their own generation. We all are called to contribute, through whatever means we may be able to do so—by offering of ourselves, our talents and our gifts, our finances (and yes, in the case of some, even by facing persecution and hardship because of the hope that lies in us)—to bringing about the vision of transformational living our readings speak about.
At St Paul’s Cathedral we have made the way of life that today’s readings speak of our Cathedral vision. Our Chapter and Cathedral team believe that together all of us can help transform our city and diocese. In the conversations that the Precentor and I have been conducting with our congregations over the past weeks, it is clear that many of our members share our vision. The transformation that our Cathedral vision upholds is both an inner, spiritual transformation, and an exterior physical transformation—as in the case of the physical reshaping of our office facilities and meetings rooms over the next few months, in order to ensure that our ministry is well-resourced for future generations. This work of transformation will not come without effort or even sacrifice; indeed, in the case of our refurbishment project it will create much physical upheaval, and a significant financial burden, that relies on the generous response of many to carry. But we undertake this, and other work, encouraged by certainty contained in today’s readings: the insight that where we all join together in the work of transformation, others will be able recognise the hope that lies at the heart of our faith, and come to share in our work of ministry.
By sharing the Good News of the life-transforming, world-changing death and resurrection of Jesus, this world truly may be changed for good, our readings tell. They also affirm that this message is not only for the first generation of Christians but for all time and all places, including our own generation and this land. Through the grace of God and the gifts, talents and vocations of each one of us, each one of us is indeed enabled to show forth the transformational love of Christ: in our congregations, and our city and diocese. Today’s readings invite to commit ourselves once more to Christ’s way of transformational living. They invite us to show forth in practical ways that we truly believe in our hearts what we profess: that by our sharing in Christ’s ministry of love, that by our bearing fruit that will last in his name, others will know that we truly are Christ’s disciples, and will themselves come to know and love the One who first loved us and called us his friends (John 15.16, 13.35).
‘Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen’ (Ephesians 3.20).