4th of the Year, 30 Jan 22
Well, we all like a nice song to begin the sermon and today’s choice is the Beatles’s All you need is love. The lyrics were hardly complicated or poetic: “All you need is love, love is all you need, there’s nothing that can be done that can’t be done” etc. The sentiment, however, and the simplicity of the message are second to none: all we do need is love.
And what better song for us to have humming through our minds as we hear that glorious reading from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Last term at Boys’ Brigade and Girls’ Association with the 11 to 18 year olds I did a series on my favourite Bible passages: Romans 8, John 10, John 21 and I Corinthians 13, our second reading. It’s a fabulous combination of profound theology and deeply practical advice: Love is patient, love is kind. How often do we misunderstand love, thinking it means “indifference but not hating someone” or “controlling someone who is to be used by me.” Paul gives us so many definitions to ponder: “Love takes no pleasure in other people’s sins but delights in the truth.” How often do we enjoy finding out that someone has sinned and how far do we stray from God’s word when we do!
Two further thoughts about love for us to ponder. First, the issue of whom shall we love? We may be buying Valentine’s cards over the coming weeks and often splattered on the front is the inscription, “To the one I love.” The world makes a virtue out of loving only a few people, or maybe even only one. Ironically as society cheapens love equating it to chocolates and flowers so it has also narrowed the focus of love to a select few in each person’s life. Our Lord’s words on the subject could not be more different: “Love your neighbour.”
I wonder if the English translation sanitises the commandment, for “neighbour” certainly makes me think of the person who lives next to me and of a soap opera lots of people, including me, watched obsessively in the 1990s, where everyone came together for BBQs in a cul-de-sac. The Greek and indeed the Latin for neighbour draw out more clearly the sense of general proximity being the important thing no matter how briefly.
Remember the parable the Lord gives when the lawyer asks who his neighbour is (St Luke 10:25-37). The Parable of the Good Samaritan speaks of the person who is set upon by robbers and leave that person half dead on the way to Jericho, the lowest city below sea level on earth. We’re to think things couldn’t get worse. By sheer coincidence, a Levite, a priest and a foreigner, the Samaritan, pass by. For that brief moment they are in proximity to each other, sheer fluke. The whole point is that it is so brief that it could not be easier for them to cross the road. They don’t know where each other lives, there could be no reward, no recrimination for doing good but they happen to be inhabiting the same few square feet of land: that fact even if by accident is enough for this most demanding of commandments to kick in to play: “Love your neighbour.” The commandment is that even though you know so little about each other and in this case what you do know should drive a wedge between you, despite that you must love each other. It ought to make us uncomfortable. The card, “To the one I love,” should be one we could give to the random person on the bus, the person in front of us in the queue at Aldi, the annoying boss at work.
Hopefully we’re slightly frightened by that proposition: “What, I have to love so-and-so?!” Hopefully you’ve got someone in mind whom you do struggle to love, I certainly have but I won’t name them! So, if the first thing we need to recall is to love the person next to you, the second is that love is composed of obligations and these vary from person to person. I have to love my mum in one way, my dad who has died in another way, my wife and children in still yet more different ways. My love for them might involve a kiss but my love for the person in front of me in the queue in Asda almost certainly won’t involve a kiss. We love different people in different ways: there are different obligations.
What love looks like is at the heart of our Gospel today too. The Gospel follows on directly from the proclamation we heard last Sunday that Jesus is anointed with the Spirit of God, a declaration made in the synagogue in Nazara. We’re still in that synagogue and the response, St Luke tells us in his ordered account, is approval. But then love and entitlement are confused. The people quote a popular saying at the time it would seem, “Heal yourself,” in part meaning it would seem, “Heal your own people.” “We have heard all that happened in Capernaum, do the same here in your own countryside.” The people are wondering what’s in it for them and are claiming a privilege of shared citizenship of the local area. Jesus shatters their expectation, their what’s-in-it-for-me mentality: “no prophet is ever accepted in his own country.” We mustn’t just use people or communities or indeed the Church only when we want something out for them.
They go to stone the Lord of life. They thought that had love in their hearts for Him, but it does not measure up to the description given by St Paul: “it is never jealous … it does not take offence, and is not resentful.” And so they can quickly move to trying to kill Jesus when it doesn’t go their way. Jesus shows how He is on the side of all victims of domestic abuse and of those who are hurt by those who should love them. Our Lord knows this is not how He is to die and so extricates Himself from the situation, “slipping through the crowd and walking away.” They cannot be loved. He can do no more. He is doing the right thing by leaving them.
There’s the beautiful hymn which we will sing in Lent once it has started on Ash Wednesday, 2nd March: “My song is love unknown, my Saviour’s love for me, love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be.” Here our Lord has shown love to those who love Him not. When Jesus dies on the Cross He is even dying for those who have tried to stone Him in our Gospel today. St Matthew records the crowds at the Cross shouting out, “His Blood be on us and on our children,” (St Matthew 27:25). This is a cry acknowledging guilt: blood on our hands, meaning it’s our fault that God is hanging there. But this is also a cry pleading for mercy: save us by your blood, may we be sprinkled clean. The guilty cry out for mercy and we must stand with the crowd and plead for the same. When we are unloving, still God invites us to share in His love.
“God is love and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them,” St John writes in another of Scripture’s beautiful meditations, which I often give as a penance when people make their confession (I John 5:16). When we love someone or something we are indeed close to God for we are participating in that which is eternal, love abides, it endures. But the thing or person we love, our love for them and their love for us must not become as a god for us. The danger of this is very real: just because God is love, does not mean all love is of God. We can love our spouses, our children, our pets, our hobbies, sport, food, our bodies, our jobs, our home, our selves, music, books or whatever in a way that is sinful even though all these things are great gifts of God for which we are to be thankful. If they block out God, if they block out worship, if they block out the random neighbour next to us, if they block out our obligations to love others, they are damaging us.
I hope we can ponder then how are to love all the different people in our lives and see that the call to love them is actually made easier by realising love is constructed of obligations, it is not some feeling we need to work hard to create within ourselves. How could God be love were it to be so? We see this in God, who doesn’t just stay in Heaven thinking happy thoughts of love but whose generosity causes Him to create the world and then not stand idly by as He sees humanity constantly make choices that offend Him. So He sends His Son to die for us on the Cross: “In this is love,” John writes, “not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins,” (I John 4:10). The truth that there is only love with sacrifice and duty is revealed supremely in the Cross of the Saviour. “All we need is love,” the song goes, and love can be truly seen as we come to the foot of the Cross and worship Him who hung there.