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Imitate Christ - Be a Love Extremist

(Ezek 34:11-16 / John 21:15-22)


I recently discovered the show, Game of Thrones, which I think is fascinating and spectacular to watch. One of the various story lines concerns the Men of the Night Watch, who protect the North Wall and keep the South safe from invasion. The Men of the Night Watch take solemn oaths of commitment to their duties, including celibacy, promising to never take wives or father children. The Keeper of the Ravens is speaking to a new member of the group and asks him if he knows why they are forbidden to take wives or have children and goes on to explain very simply that loves kills duty. Love kills duty. Of course, he meant it in a negative sense . . . if the men had partners and families their minds would not be so much on their job of protection and service. And in that sense, love certainly may kill duty.

But I think for us as Christians love kills duty in a radically good and wholly appropriate way, because when it comes to the people of God, love for God and love for one another is so much more important than duty, as Christ himself reminds us when he says how loving God fully with heart, mind, soul and strength, and loving neighbour as self, sums up the Scriptures in their entirety. When the Lord says he desires mercy, not sacrifice, he truly means it.

And this comes over to us so beautifully in John’s account of the conversation between Jesus and Peter. Dear Peter . . . so very human in all he did: Frail, bewildered and terrified after Jesus had been arrested in Gethsemane, he denied he even knew him, not once, not twice, but three times. And all after Jesus had even told him he would fall away; and despite Jesus previously teaching that whoever denied him, he would deny before his Father in heaven. I can only imagine that even knowing Jesus had been raised from the dead, Peter still felt absolutely dreadful for having denied the Lord he loved and believed in. No wonder he had gone back to the one thing he felt completely comfortable with - fishing. But Christ had other plans for Peter, and here, for his three denials, Jesus reinstates Peter three times, to take on the task of loving others in his name. “Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep.” “Peter, do you love me? Feed my lambs.” Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep.”

We live today with an almost constant barrage of extreme attitudes that lead to acts of extreme hatred or abuse or neglect. We have the extremes of Daesh, known as the Islamist state, raging and rampaging against people of faith and non-faith alike, and with murderous intent they determinedly cut down anyone that does not fit their brand of unloving, ungodly way of life. Not so dissimilar in attitude, we have the extremes of far right conservatism that produces political activism in the form of neo-Nazism, encouraging racism, anti-immigrant bullying and anti-gay homophobia. We also have the extremes of those who love wealth and prosperity so much they are willing to build tower block homes without sprinklers, fire hoses or fire alarms, and then clad them in cheap, flammable materials that look quite nice, but ensure that peoples’ homes become death traps should a fire break out, as has tragically happened with Grenfell Towers. And we have the extremes of religious leaders preferring the appearance of righteousness while denying children protection from sexual abuse, and denying loving committed same-sex couples the chance to marry, all the while covering up their hypocrisy with excuses and weak theology.

What can possibly be the answer to all this? What is God’s answer in the face of terrorism, right-wing politics, the neglect of equity for the poor and those less well off, and religious abuse and hypocrisy?

Well, thankfully God is an extremist too, actually, but his extremism is radical, limitless love, outrageous grace, and unstoppable blessing - all poured out through the power of the Holy Spirit.  

God’s extreme love meets suffering head on. He expresses his love to us in relieving our suffering.  He doesn’t necessarily remove our suffering, but he does bring relief in the middle of it by being with us in it. He does hear the cry of His people.

He proclaims freedom for the captives, says Isaiah (Is. 61:1), and he works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed, according to the Psalmist (Psalm 103:6). When someone loves us to extremes, they want to know when we are hurting.  They listen to us and can even share our pain.  Our Heavenly Father is exactly like that in the compassion he has for us, especially when there is injustice involved. 

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus knew He was facing imminent crucifixion.  He was deeply troubled, and it was difficult to work through the process of surrendering to God’s will and the cross.  It was a time of incredible torment for Jesus, but God sent an angel to give him strength and comfort Jesus in his suffering.

The relief God brings through his love is the relief we need to go on in life, even when we face trials. We will all experience suffering to one degree or another, simply because we are human beings and live in the world, we cannot avoid it.  But when we are faithful to the Lord, he will always bring purpose to our suffering, a plan, and the promise that he will always be with us and walk with us through it, even if we cannot see it at the time.  That is extreme love; a love that will never leave us, and never let us go, whatever happens.

With the comfort we receive from God’s extreme love, we have the ability to comfort others. Paul insightfully points this out: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).  

And don’t we see the extreme love of people poured out in community when we are hit with crises borne of extremism that does harm? Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Seikhs, others of faith, and people of non-faith coming together to provide shelter, food, clothes, money, and comfort for those suffering; standing up for social justice and religious progress when people are being oppressed and abused and don’t always have a voice to speak out. All of it reflecting the extreme love of God for those in need.

The Lord’s answer to the bad extremism in our lands isn’t simply a, “Stop it! . . . Stop it now!” with a finger wag and a stern voice. Which can, sadly seem to be the message the world hears from the Church from time to time. No, God’s answer is active, extreme love, with compassion and justice that are inseparable. It’s the “let me show you a better way” love. It’s the love that held Christ firm in Gethsemane; it’s the love that reinstated Peter after denying Christ and running away; it’s the love that meets community in times of tragedy and crisis; it’s the love that will meet you and I, whatever troubles and trials may come our way.

Do you see the benefits of God’s extreme love around you? If the answer is ‘no’, I would really encourage you to look with new eyes. Are you actively expressing the extreme love of God to those in need around you? If the answer is ‘no’ . . . why aren’t you? In days of extremism, God pours extreme love on us - and the challenge to us is to imitate that love and pass it on, in the strength and grace of an infinitely loving heavenly Father, a wonderful redeemer, and a powerful, enabling Holy Spirit. May we do so, without hesitation.