Sermon for the Fourth Sunday before Advent
4th Nov 2018
THE FOURTH SUNDAY BEFORE ADVENT YEAR B
“There is no commandment greater than these”. Mark 12.
I am a child of the 1960s, and I am old enough to remember what Beatle mania was like. And the song we children loved to sing, I think because it was so repetitive and catchy, was ‘All You Need is Love’. We have today to consider the well-known statement of Jesus on love. It becomes immediately obvious that he does not speak abstractly or vaguely. Instead he takes two separate statements and makes them one. The first statement concerns the being of God and the second our own being in relation to God. “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and you must love your neighbour as yourself”.” On these two commandments hang the whole Law and the Prophets…” This message of love, which Christ both teaches and embodies, is the crucial turning point for human civilisation. It is a leap forward for a truer understanding of the meaning of our existence.
The Gospel writer John was to declare God to be One who not merely shows his love in the created order and in Jesus Christ. He IS love!
John’s appeal is philosophical - God is love, and in God there is nothing that is not love. He cannot be other than love. Christians understand in this way that such love is regenerative. It has in turn been given recognisable form in Jesus Christ, the One who incarnates love. He makes it flesh and blood and gives himself in love to common humanity. He can do this because He and the Father are One.
This love of God is not to be expressed in the abstractedness of a Beatle’s song; with the strains of the sitar or the advices of the Maharishi! No, it is expressed as an action which proceeds out of the human heart and towards our neighbour. But it is given and exercised freely. It is passed on from the Father to the Son to us and then to others…It is a sharing of God’s trusting charism. The radical nature of Jesus’ message is that Faith in God can make no sense without its interrelatedness to what we call ordinary or common humanity. Christianity is not a mystical eastern religion providing a spiritual way for those who are the initiated ones. Neither is it individualistic. God and neighbour exist within the one unbreakable bond of God’s love for us, his creatures. And in communion with him, this is what we come to know ‘by heart’.
But how are we to respond to what have been called these ‘impossible commandments?’ Of the commandment to love? After all we have no ready recognition of human love in which human frailty is not also powerfully at work. And that is how it must be. It is recognised in St Paul’s famous hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13 in which he professes the very limitedness of our capacity to love. And his statement comes to us as a crie de coeur : “For now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known… But there remains for us only three things: faith and hope and love. But the greatest of these is love”.
Some lines from a poem by WH Auden ring in my ears “You shall love your crooked neighbour with your crooked heart”. And then a prayer from a former Dean of Westminster,
How can I love my neighbour as myself
When I need him as my enemy –
When I see in him the self I fear to own and cannot love?
How can there be peace on earth
While our hostilities are our most
Cherished possessions –
Defining our identity, confirming our (apparent) innocence?
But equally there come to us the words borne out of St Augustine of Hippo in a declaration of confidence in the informing and influencing power of Christian Faith, and this gives us the hope we seek – The initiative remains God’s, as Augustine knew: “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless ‘til they find their rest in you’. .
It may be that we can only love in small ways, but even these can be significant. I once knew in King’s Cross of a Christian woman, Juliet, who was an inveterate letter writer, and a giver of beautiful cards, which express everything she hoped for in her God but were written and directed toward those she met. And they were hand written in real ink! Then there was that Dean of Westminster, Eric Abbot, a great spiritual director, whose handwritten letters and postcards to those in his care were legendary. But these are the ones who worked and made evident something we already know: It is the miracle of the nearness of God and of his love to us. These witnesses and their like make that nearness a present reality. They have always known, perhaps through painful struggle, that none of us can believe or hold to a Christian Faith in isolation. The commandment to love God and your neighbour has been termed ‘ the impossible commandment, but we must try nonetheless.
Today Jesus proclaims the inseparability and the nearness of God in the one reality of love. For Jesus the Faith is always relational. It is expressed as our longing for God and God’s longing that we become what we were made to be.
For God is Love.
The Church’s prayer is that God’s love for us comes to be, in the words of The Beatles song,
“All you Need”…