Sermon for Easter 5. 2021
2nd May 2021
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter Year B
“I only love God as much as I love the person I love the least”.
Those are the words of Dorothy Day. She’s not that well known this side of the Atlantic but she is something of a famous figure for most American Christians. She was originally a Communist but she discovered the faith and was baptized at the age of 30 in 1927. She believed that her ideals of social justice were better lived out as a Christian than as a communist and she set up the “House of Hospitality” to work with the poorest residents of New York’s slums.
She was very scathing of the American Christianity of her time. She saw a lot of supposed faith, a lot of people who claimed to love God. But those same people could be highly judgmental of those living in poverty around them. This was an America of the so-called “New Deal” of Franklin D Roosevelt - the reforms that brought in the kind of welfare system in the United States that was also coming into being across Europe to protect vulnerable people - the unemployed, the sick, the homeless, the elderly. It betokened a new level of active trust between government and people and a challenge to the brutal free market in America where those who couldn’t afford to eat were just viewed as indolent and inferior. Out of these circumstances, Dorothy Day’s statement of faith was also an honest acknowledgement of the idle promise of love as a broken one: “I only love God as much as I love the person I love the least”. She is saying the same thing, of course, as St John in his first letter:
Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
Dorothy Day reminds us firstly that love is not a feeling so much as a decision. We must love our brothers and sisters, John tells us. The Gospel reminds us that all people are potentially our brothers and sisters, certainly all the baptized as we see in the new bond created between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Both are transformed by the honest acknowledgement of their oneness in Christ. Jesus goes on to say that we should love our enemies. Now our culture believes that love is a feeling - most pop songs are all about it. But we are never going to feel love for our enemies. It is impossible to feel love for all people in the way John talks about here. So for the Christian, we are able to love because we decide to love. We decide not to judge because it is our refusal to condemn that makes love possible.
Dorothy Day also reminds us that as well as a decision, love is an action. Love needs to be expressed in concrete form. Dorothy Day really got on with that in practical ways running a soup kitchen and housing the homeless. In a big city like ours with so many different needs, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by a sense of inability to make a difference. But there are always things that each one of us can do to make our love for others concrete. Indeed there has to be if we are truly to be Christians and follow this very direct command of Christ. So love is a decision and love is an action.
Our society is threatened, as are others, by its own inequality and fragmentation. It is one of the real challenges that results in more cosmopolitan and diverse societies and the changes and transformations that affect their sense national identity and personal security. And where there is a period of disenchantment with the political process, so a gap is left for the reactionary to voice and practice their reaction in the face of these challenges. The unreflecting, reactionary mode of being is inconsistent with the New Testament which sees everybody as connected to everybody else. We see this in the wonderful image of life in Christ as life on the vine. All the branches bear their own fruit and the parable clearly implies a personal responsibility, a judgment of our individual actions. But all are woven together and connected to one another in one organic unity. The vine either flourishes as a whole or it withers and dies as a whole. It will flourish when the whole vine is grounded in Christ who is the God of love.
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
Those aren’t warm fluffy words for our comfort. Those are challenging, radical words for our time. So let’s be people who stand against condemnation, people for whom love is a decision and an action. Love as transformative of the human condition. Let’s pray that our society might be a fruitful vine where all may flourish and where we all may grow in the love of God.
As Christians, it is our duty, as we approach this week’s local elections as voters, to reflect deeply on what kind of society we envisage. The Christian decision for love and inclusiveness must surely inform where we put our cross on Thursday, to greatest as to the least of my brothers and sisters, in whom the love of God lives and moves and has its being in their lives as pray it does in yours.
Rev'd. Jim Linthicum, Senior Chaplain, Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital.