25 Oct 2020, 30th of the Year
Love can quickly lead to tragedy. Think of the ending of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, where star-crossed lovers never quite get Cupid’s arrow to meet. The play ends with Romeo and Juliet dead, the Friar speaking of their “stolen marriage day,” the Prince decreeing:
“Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things:
Some shall be pardoned and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”
In our Gospel today Jesus gives us the summary of the law, as it’s usually called, the two greatest commandments. It arises out of another question meant to catch Him out. It’s good for us to ask questions grounded in love, often we miss out on doing so because we fear the questions are caught up in hatred and negativity. Last Sunday we heard the Pharisees have a go, asking Jesus about paying taxes. This Sunday, it’s the turn of the Sadducees.
When we are asked or wonder ourselves which is the greatest commandment we must give this, Jesus’ answer. The Lord’s answer is not entirely surprising but it’s worth us bearing in mind that Jesus doesn’t give what’s often called ‘The Golden Rule.’ He commands this elsewhere, and Tobit in the Old Testament knew it too: “Do to as others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12 and Tobit 4:15). This doesn’t go far enough. Ultimately, when we’re feeling glum we might say, ‘I don’t care whether someone hits me so I can hit that person.’ And could we with this solely as our philosophy end up giving because we expect to get something back? This is not what love looks like.
What of the relationship between the two commandments, loving God, loving those around us? St John reflects that we can’t love God, whom we cannot see, if we struggle to love the person around us whom we can see (I John 4:20). I wonder if he’s turning the logic upside down in that statement because there’s another line of thinking which says it is easier to love God because He has done so much for us, yet it is difficult to love the person next to us if they have done nothing for us, or even worse have hurt us and let us down. We still have to love them.
Seeing Jesus is a particularly important image for St John: “to have seen Jesus is to have seen the Father,” Jesus tells St Philip (John 14:9). The fact that St John and the community for which he wrote could say, “We have seen His glory” shows that the Christian will daily have an encounter with Christ because the Word was made Flesh, He has lived among us. St John is not really prioritising love of God over love of neighbour or vice versa but is rather saying one without the other is incomplete. “God is love,” the beloved disciple writes a few verses earlier in his letter I quoted from earlier, “and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them” (I John 4:16). True love, divine love cannot be limited by saying I love so-and-so more than that person.
“Love your neighbour,” Jesus says. One reflection on this word “neighbour” and that is to say I don’t find it a very helpful term. Perhaps this reveals I’m a child of the 1980s and I think of the Australian soap opera of that name where everyone could come together to have a BBQ and Jason O’Donovan and Kylie Monague could stare longing at each other with awful hair cuts. This isn’t what neighbour is. It is a basic term of location: whoever is next to you, whether you like them or not, whether they’re your type of person or not. We’ve got to love them, to love them in exactly the same way God loves us.
It takes our whole life on earth and beyond to discover the depths of this love. We haven’t got there yet! Let’s look at that reading in Exodus 22 we heard earlier where rules of lending money to people is given: “If you lend money to any of my people you must not demand interest.” Jesus leads us His people to a fuller understanding love when He teaches: “If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you?“ (Luke 6:33). We should only lend money when we don’t expect it back, otherwise we’re behaving accordingly to worldly standards, not the expectations of those who know God is love and abide in Him.
One of the things Paul congratulates the Thessalonians for in his first letter, part of which we heard today, was being transformed by God, by changing their way of life. He wrote that it was “with the joy of the Holy Spirit that you took to the Gospel, in spite of great opposition all round you.” Joy in the face of opposition. Love in the face of hatred. We are called to be so rebellious, my friends, in the way God’s love undermines how the rest of the world works. We’re to be mischief-makers as we see those not reborn in the Spirit going around making plans and trusting in their own strength and believing it is only for this life that we have believed in Christ. Pah! What do they know? And this subverting of the wisdom of the world drives Paul who is “waiting for Jesus, the Son of God, whom God raised from the dead,” and who is going “to come from Heaven to save us.” Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead.
When Jesus returns we will be confronted with the price of our salvation. During Advent which begins on 29th November this year we’ll hear sung the hymn, Lo, He comes with clouds descending. The third verse: “Those dear tokens of His Passion still His dazzling body bears, cause of endless exaltation to His ransomed worshippers: with what rapture gaze we on those glorious scars.” We know then that love is cruciform, it is shaped like a Cross. And this too reveals the foolishness of the world, with its talk of love which people falsely believe can be limited or conditional or sectarian. Love flows from the Cross; love flows from the Saviour’s pierced side.
Love is the response needed to this pandemic: loving Jesus more, loving those next to us more. St Aelred of Rievaulx reminds us that love begins with choice. The pandemic and the restrictions in place lead us to a spiritual blindness that makes us feel like we have no choice. But that will only stifle love. Often the Saints will write of love and use the word charity. St Aelred writes in The Mirror of Charity, “Charity means in the first place we have chosen something we are permitted to have; that we have gone about attaining it in the right way, and that having attained it we enjoy it in the way that God meant it to be enjoyed.” It’s basic pragmatic stuff.
And as life flows from the Cross, so life will flow from love. Please forgive another Shakespeare reference, who wrote a sonnet to a loved one, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” At the end of these lines of poetry, he concluded: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” The record of the beauty in the poem makes it eternal. The love we have for Jesus and His love for us overflows in to eternal life. Sin is about death. Love is about life. When St Therese of Liseux, a photograph of whom is in the Chapel at St Mary’s, when she was on her death bed she could see the roses she loved in the garden. She vowed that when she died she would go to Heaven and “let fall from there a shower of roses. I will spend my heaven doing good upon earth.”
The good we do endures. When we ring someone up out of love to see if they’re alright, they’ll remember that when we’re gone. When we welcome someone to Church, they’ll remember that when we’ve died. We don’t do these things to attain fame or notoriety but this very fact reminds us that love connects us to eternity, because love is of God. The enemy of love in our own day, my friends, is not hatred but indifference and the pride that has redefined what love looks like to make it hedonistic, all about the pleasure of the individual with no thought of anyone else. Renewed then in our sense of what love looks like, let’s love the Lord our God and those He has placed next to us. Amen.