Saturday, May 09, 2009

One Love, One Heart, Let's Get Together

Acts 8:26-40, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

What's the best piece of good news that you've heard this week? Of course, it might be something personal - news about the birth of a grandchild or one of your children getting a job, or about a cure or treatment for an illness. But maybe this week hasn't been all that eventful for you personally, and the best piece of good news you heard was something on the radio or the TV.

One piece of good news which dominated the headlines at the start of the week was the story of Ben Southall, the 34 year-old Englishman who has won a competition to live, with his girlfriend, on a tropical island on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. He'll have a three bedroom luxury villa to live in for six months, the use of a buggy to drive around the island, a private swimming pool and a wet suit for snorkeling on the Reef itself. Not only that but he'll be paid a salary of £74,000 - and all he has to do in return is write a daily blog - or Internet diary - about his experiences.

Already the story has generated more than £50 million worth of free publicity for the Australian tourist industry, making it the most successful marketing campaign of its kind. But perhaps it's not quite such unalloyed good news for MrSouthall as everyone seems to think. One Australian commentator pointed out that the island and its waters has a population of sharks, salt-water crocodiles, a breed of large aggressive birds called cassowaries - which specialise in kick boxing, seven of the ten most venomous species of snake - including sea snakes, the odd venomous lizard, plagues of box jellyfish, black widow and funnel web spiders and stingrays. And then there are the cane toads, a large and aggressive breed of toad which will think nothing of coming into your kitchen in search of food. The Australian Government advises that the only way to get rid of them is to beat them to death with a golf club or cricket bat.

Now Mr Southall is the sort of guy who rides ostriches for fun, so an encounter with any of these creatures may not be enough to spoil his time in paradise, but this catalogue of threats does reminder us that there's often another side to so-called 'good news' stories.

Sixteen to eighteen year-olds had a good news story of a kind this week - their summer exams might be cancelled completely if their schools and colleges are closed because of swine flu. But the downside of the story is that they might catch the flu themselves, and of course there are some people who surprise their teachers by doing better in their exams than they did in their course work, so it won't be good news for everyone.

Maybe eleven year-olds have more cause to celebrate. Their Standard Assessment Tests will no longer include a paper and pencil test for science. But again, the bad news is that the tests in maths and English will continue.

It's a bit like the old formula for jokes - 'Do you want the good news first or the bad news?' 'The bad news,' said the doctor, 'Is that we have amputated the wrong leg. The good news is that the man in the bed opposite has offered to buy your slippers.' And so I could go on.

The Ethiopian official was someone with a deep interest in spirituality. He was barred from entering the inner part of the Temple, because he was a eunuch and perhaps also because he was a Gentile - although the story doesn't tell us for certain about that. But he wasn't put off by these restrictions. He'd come to Jerusalem to worship, and he was going home with a very valuable prize - a copy of the scroll of the prophecies of Isaiah. Copied out by hand, it would have cost him the equivalent of many thousands of pounds. But then he could afford it; he was a very important man, in charge of the entire Ethiopian treasury.

His problem was that he didn't know whether the story he was reading was good news or bad news. He knew that it was supposed to be good, but it sounded pretty bad. He was reading about someone who had been chosen by God to represent him but who is being betrayed - led like a lamb to the slaughter. Humiliated, denied justice, unable - or unwilling - to speak in his own defence, the martyr's life is taken away. 'How can I understand this story unless someone guides me?' asked the baffled official. Fortunately, the Spirit had guided Philip to be on that road at just the right time to answer this question and 'starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.'

Like Philip, we live in a world hungry for meaning and crying out for good news. Like Philip, who was really a kind of church social worker by profession, we may not have any special training in sharing the Christian story but we do have opportunities to start from where people are, with the questions they're actually asking, in order to share with them our understanding of what's happening in the world. Global warming and economic recession - aren't these a challenge to the false values of greed and selfishness which are the engines that drive our whole way of life? Migration and the growing influence of people from different faiths and cultures - aren't these a reminder that the human family is made up of many different peoples and nations who are all loved by God? The breakdown of family life - isn't this a reminder that people can't expect to get along with one another, and raise their children in security and trust, without taking notice of traditional values like love and self-sacrifice?

And, of course, like Philip, we can conclude our proclamation of the Christian faith by explaining what the scripture means when it talks about God's chosen representative being led like a lamb to the slaughter and having his life taken away. It sounds like bad news, but on this occasion the twist in the tail is that it turns out to be good news after all. The death of Jesus on the cross is the ultimate example of love and self-sacrifice triumphing over evil, as Jesus deliberately confronts wickedness, prejudice and ignorance and submits to them in order to overcome them with the power of love.

After surviving an assassination attempt in New York, the reggae singer Bob Marley is reputed to have said, "The people who are trying to make this world worse, are not taking a day off! How can I?" That's pretty much the Christian response to all the bad news that seems so often to get in the way of good news. So long as people of faith or goodwill go on ceaselessly confronting evil, good news will always have the last word.

This theme of love overcoming evil is taken up in the extract which we heard from the First Letter of John. The writer says that Jesus' death on the cross is the supreme example of God's love at work and, if we live and act in the same spirit of love for one another, Jesus will live and continue to act in each one of us. And, he continues, this loving attitude casts out all fear and hatred, leaving no room for bad news to get a grip on us any more.

The writer of the First Letter of John also wrote the Gospel of John and here he reinforces the same message that, by abiding in Jesus, we can bear much fruit and be a source of love and good news. But he also reminds us that if we prefer hatred and fear, we cannot be joined to Jesus and will inevitably be cast out. Is that the downside, the bad news angle, on John's 'good news' story? Well, if it is, let's leave the last word to the good news.

The Gospel passage about the vine concludes like this: If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.' It's John's version of the famous saying of Jesus that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we will be able to say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for us. Except that, for John it isn't faith which is indispensable to being able to make things happen, it's love - and love only has the power to make things turn out right. If we act in fear or hatred, we will not bear fruit.

I've quoted Bob Marley once, so I'll quote him again, this time from the words of a famous reggae song which he wrote with Curtis Mayfield in 1965: 'One love, one heart, let's get together and feel all right.' That's almost, but not quite, how John puts it in the letter. 'God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them... If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.' We may not have won a prize to go and live on a tropical island with loads of poisonouscreepy-crawlies but this is real good news, which has endured for almost two thousand years and which has no downside.