Love one another...
Today, the 6th Sunday of Easter, Pete Stevenson, a member of the congregation, spoke to us about Love, and challenged us to ask ourselves (among other things!) not what your church can do for you - ask what can you do for your church.
9th May 2021
1 John 5:1-6
In normal times, one of life’s little luxuries Debbi and I enjoy is going out for a long cup of coffee, either because there’s something important we need to discuss and it will go better if we take ourselves out of the house, or, just because we can. But I find the choice of coffees bewildering, there’s dozens of them and I’m trying to spot the one that looks most like a cup of Nescafe with a dash of milk. Who thought we could have over 40 words to describe a cup of coffee?
Contrast that with a much more important word. Love. I love my friends, I love my children, I love Debbi. All these statements are true but I mean quite different things, and that’s without going into the love of inanimate objects like old cars, chocolate and baked beans. But I use the same word. Today’s Gospel and Epistle readings are about love, but not the comfortable type.
The Greek language of the New Testament had six words for love (please forgive me if you’ve heard this many times before). The one we’re probably most familiar with, Eros, a desire, an instinct of what we want. The Greeks saw this form of love as being quite dangerous, falling madly in love can cause us to do mad things, as many a politician has found out. Maybe we have been madly in love and remember some of the mad things it made us do that now make us laugh... or cringe. Perhaps we’re not immediately aware of it but it’s a love which is self centred. We find another person attractive/handsome, we like the way they make us laugh, we enjoy their company, we like their smile. Don’t get me wrong, so long as there’s some two way traffic going on, this is a love which can develop into something much deeper and we start adding extra words. True love for instance.
Using Eros as an analogy, which has its limitations, don’t take it too far. Our love of Jesus, and on a good day, our love of our church, can be a bit like Eros love. Indeed, some of our modern worship songs sail dangerously close to this. Take out the word Jesus from some worship songs and you’re left with an Eros style love song. We love Jesus when he says ‘come unto me you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest... I will never leave you... My yoke is easy’. We may love a church because its style of music appeals and the worship band is really good. The sermons are interesting and entertaining. We have friends there who make us feel good. Again, I’m not knocking these things, we should aspire to all of these and more! But to re-phrase John F Kennedy’s words, ask not what your church can do for you - ask what can you do for your church.
Jesus’ words about keeping his commandments in order to abide in his love from John’s gospel have been placed between his entry into Jerusalem and Good Friday. Indeed, look at any of the gospels and you will find a strong emphasis on holy week. It’s as if Jesus is saying to them, you’ve enjoyed three years of stories, miracles and many comforting words. Here’s the hard part. The passage only appears in John who writes a lot more reflectively than Matthew, Mark or Luke who are more intent on describing what happened. John’s gospel begins with a much more ethereal tone ‘In the beginning was the word and the word was with God...’ His first epistle begins in a similar way. Today’s reading may be familiar to us but scratch beneath the surface and, by comparison with Jesus’ words of comfort, it is a little strange. ‘If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love’ Having spent many working years with cynical atheists, I know they would turn this round in an instant, ‘Do as I say and I will love you!’. A sort of opposite of what Alison puts on her Power Points before our services, ‘God loves you, no exceptions’. In my preparations, I look at the Collect for the Day to help me see a theme, I don’t know if you paid attention to it (you’re forgiven if you didn’t). ‘Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire’. I dare you to try it out on your nearest and dearest, Look into their eyes and say Please will you pour into my heart such love towards you, that I may obtain your promises, which exceed all that I desire! At best I think you’ll get a strange look. I’ll come back to that.
In our 1 John reading, ‘For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome’ I want to shout at the page, ‘Excuse me John but loving my neighbour, turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, giving my coat if I’m asked for my shirt is not easy! There are times I find it burdensome!’
I think the stock answer is, we love God so much that, by comparison, these things are not burdensome. During these lockdown times, Debbi and I have had one Valentines day, two wedding anniversaries and three birthdays. Especially last year, when it seemed wise for me not to go out, these occasions needed some creativity on my part with wood, chisels and sandpaper. Did it all take some time, effort and imagination? Yes. Was it burdensome? No. I think this is the answer I’m meant to give to the verse ‘...and his commandments are not burdensome’. But we do need some honesty. In the classic Crosby Stills and Nash song Our House; Our house is a very very fine house, with two cats in the yard, life used to be so hard, but everything is easy ‘cause of you’. The first time Debbi heard it she turned to me and said, I wouldn’t say everything is EASY because of you’ She was good enough not to elaborate. When we find things difficult we need to be able to share it with someone. I think a reason why solitary confinement is such a brutal punishment is... there is no one to share your struggle with. It’s amazing what we are able to cope with so long as we are with others in the same boat. In our Christian pilgrimage, how else are we to help ach other? Surely not by striding ahead and letting the devil take the hindmost?
Getting back to our readings and unusual Collect. The Greek word for love used here is agape, a selfless giving love which does not expect any return on investment. We love, regardless of who they are. Perhaps the easiest way to grasp this is the way we use the verse in Remembrance and Memorial day services “ No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’. I’ve had the privilege of simply watching for an afternoon a much loved uncle love his wife suffering from severe dementia. My aunt’s personality and character had changed beyond recognition but my uncle’s gentleness and care was so moving. This was love being given with nothing given in return, in fact she had become quite rude. A family that functions well, may profoundly disagree on matters of politics, religion, whether the cream should go on the jam or the jam on the cream, but above all, there is love which prevents them from becoming taboo subjects. Today is Mother’s Day in the US. A baby seems incapable of showing love but the mother loves anyway. Sometimes in teenage years the process repeats itself and the mother has interpret just what the grunt ‘ugh’ meant this time. The mother loves anyway.
Two weeks back, BBC journalist Nick Robinson interviewed the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby on his programme ‘Political Thinking’. It’s not adversarial which makes for enjoyable listening and enabled Welby to take his time to give honest answers. Nick Robinson dug out of the archives a horrendous quote from an African bishop on homosexuality, Justin Welby answers it and Nick Robinson tries to help by summarising ‘so you need to respect each other when you disagree?’ and the Archbishop pulls him up, ‘No, it’s beyond respect, we are called to love each other’. He explains that it’s not whether you think the other person is wrong or whether someone should be more to the left or more to the right. He explains we should be working on a different scale, different units. I expect you remember in school, having mastered the arithmetic of adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, fractions, your maths teacher began to explain how to apply it to simple problems. If bananas cost 60p/lb, and oranges cost 80p/lb, what change will you get from £1 if you buy 1 lb of bananas and an orange weighing ¼ lb? I remember the teachers mantra was, ‘Don’t mix your units!’ You can’t mix bananas with oranges!
I’ve done a lot of head scratching over this homily, I think for the most part, I was mixing my bananas and oranges and I don’t pretend to be there yet. The agape love Jesus and John are talking of is not the same love we may see everyday, it’s not the love we experience where we love and we receive love in return. Yes, ‘God loves you, no exceptions’ but then he calls us to love as He has loved us. Mother Teresa suffered very severe doubts in her faith and for the most part went through what we might call ‘the dark night of the soul’ but she was able to write:-
‘If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway...
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.
Trying to compare love with respect is not the sort of scale that enables you to convert Euros to Dollars, Pounds to Euros. It’s a love of a different quality altogether, and from those who research these things, a quality that is in decline. God has many good things in store for each of us and our church if we obey his commands.
Lord, by your grace may we understand and live your truths. Amen.