Tag Archives: human being

13 May – Love, love, love

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Easter 7

1 John 2:3-11
Psalm 1
John 17:6-19

In a sentence:

Love creates community from a centre, not from a border

If you’ve taken the time to read through 1 John, you’ll have noticed that it is not a straightforward text. There are circular arguments, contradictions and leaps of logic which make it difficult to follow. We’ve noted already that this is in part because we read here only one side of a conversation. It’s also the case that John simply thinks differently from us. Some scholars even wonder whether the text as we have it is in fact a pastiche of materials from different sources, loosely stitched together into our present ‘letter’.

Whatever the case, the text is complex, and this is certainly the case in our reading today. There is not a lot of point trying to unpack that complexity here; it is pretty clear, in the context of the rest of the letter, that John’s concern here is the operation of love within his community: the ‘old’ and ‘new’ commandments are the same: love one another.

This much is straightforward. Or it is, until we give it half a thought. Why does John insist on this? Again, the answer seems obvious: love is surely a good thing. But let us notice then where the word generally operates for us and, more interestingly, where it doesn’t.

In common usage, ‘love’ pops up almost exclusively in relation to relatively intimate relationships: I love you, she loves him, they love each other. This describes or expresses marriages, families, friendships. To put it grammatically, this is love in the ‘indicative’. It’s love which is already there.

But let’s then notice how love tends not to appear in common use: love rarely pops up in what is labelled grammatically as the ‘imperative.’ That is, love rarely pops up as a command. Our politicians do not tell us to love one another. Teachers to not tell their students to love one another. Doctors are not told to love their patients. So much the better if we do but the imperative is rarely spoken. We could say, broadly, that love is not a ‘political’ category: we recognise its operation within the polis (the community; Greek for ‘city’), but it does not make the polis, the political space.

The word is absent from public space in this way in part because of the connotations it has in more intimate use. But possible replacement words are largely absent as well. We might occasionally be encouraged as a community to care for each other (usually after some catastrophe) but it is occasional – a passing thing and not something we constantly hear.

John, however, will not keep quiet about love. The love of which he speaks is very much a political, social love: love the other as brother or sister. He blurs the easy intimacy of family relationships into a broader social imperative, command.

And the word command is important, with the corresponding expectation of an obedient response. Intimate love makes a response but it is largely an involuntary one. We ‘fall’ into this kind love. The love which John emphasises here involves not a fall but a push, a command: love one another.

Yet, even if this is the case, why does it matter? Why should we hear this command and why, then, is it not regularly heard outside walls like these ones? We don’t hear a command to love in the broader community because love does not define community for us – something else does. At the political level, for example, the community is defined by such things as national identity and the tangible and intangible borders that come with this. Within this identity love may well be present and active, but it is not necessary for political dialogue to take place, for the polis to exist. Our politicians and teachers and shock jocks don’t talk about the need to love one another because such talk is redundant. We are a community by a means other than love, and – as much as love ‘helps’ – all that we then need to do is legislate for tolerance, or provide enough places for haters or the hated to hide themselves from each other.

This is what John contradicts. His position is that we are first and foremost lovers and that society is first and foremost communion – love in its broader political dimension. The to and fro of love – in whatever form – is where we begin and end. All other definitions of who we are – or accounts of how we come to be – are secondary. A flag is but a fig leaf snatched up and wrapped around ourselves at our discomfort at being naked. It is a uniform which makes us bearable to each other without requiring that, in fact, we bear each other.

In John’s own context he speaks against a definition of self which has nothing to do with national identity but with a different sense of who God is and how God can and can’t relate to the world. The principle, however, is the same. That different idea about the source of our self was enough for a split to occur in the community, to create the kind of divisions which borders or race or gender or religion create.

Against all other definitions of who and how we are, the command to love says that it starts here. Who we are has to do with how we relate to each other in immediate relationships.

More than this, the command to love is given because being our true selves depends on it. We heard as much at the very beginning of the letter, where John accounts for the letter itself: ‘We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete’ (1.4). The community of love needs to be loved and to love in return, if it is to be ‘complete’.

So John says, love – do it. Shake the hand, ask the question, make the phone call, offer the assistance, give the money, make the time – pass the peace, for peace is what love brings.

The people of light do the light, that they may see more clearly, and that all others might too.

Let us, then, love one another.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


In confessional response:

We offer thanks and praise, O God,
because you have created and sustained us
and all things.
And yet, merciful God, we confess that we have sinned in thought, word and deed.
Forgive us when we reserve
love for the lovely
for the familiar and comfortable.
Forgive us the secondary things we make primary,
the penultimate things we make ultimate,
as we choose whom and how to love.
Forgive us our insensitivity to our own need for love
and our assumption that our love
would not be needed by others.

Almighty God,
to whom all hearts are open,
all loves known,
and from whom no secrets are hidden:
cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love you,
and worthily magnify your holy name;
through Christ our Lord.

25 December – Christmas against Christmas

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Christmas Day

Hebrews 1:1-4, 5-12
Psalm 98
John 1:1-14

With Christmas comes, without fail, the poignant reflection piece of the newspaper columnist.

The first I read this year was by Amanda Vanstone. It was a disappointment and the others didn’t improve much from there. But then what else could these pieces be if indeed there is any truth in what the church confesses about the baby in the manger? For we confess that everything we desire is given there. It is scarcely believable, but nonetheless it is the point of being in church on a Monday. So if, with Vanstone, most of the rest of the world, and most of the church most of the time – if, with all, we turn away from that gift, we must then find something to give ourselves. What that self-gift might be is precisely the subject of the Christmas reflection piece: the discovery, the revelation, of the stillpoint in the chaos. If the church is hypocritical and irrelevant, if family traditions are too burdensome or evaporating before our eyes, if gift-giving is corrupted by materialistic commercialism, if death looms to overshadow our celebrations, then how desperate we become for the one thing which will transcend all of this. Where is the infinite thing, beyond the failure of our best efforts, our ideals and our dreams, which will meet our yearning for something solid and reliable and enduring? It will not be found in average newspaper Christmas reflections. These, like all exclusively human endeavours, merely propose more that we can do for a better experience of the world. And they imagine that, for the first time in history, this new utopia will not sink beneath the waves of moral failure, our failure to do. The poignancy of such reflections at Christmas (or any) time is in their necessity – for they speak a truth – and in their hopelessness, for they cannot realise any further truth.

As a way towards the answer of Christmas to all our disappointment with Christmas, a reading from the Danish thinker, Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard’s concern here is what a believer looks like; this believer he names “the knight of faith,” in the sense of “champion of faith.” What features distinguish her from anyone else? How does the “heavenly” manifest in the way he conducts himself in the world? How does the longed-for infinite occur in the desperately finite?

“I candidly admit that in my experience I have not found any reliable example of the knight of faith… People commonly travel around the world to see rivers and mountains, new stars, birds of rare plumage, queerly deformed fishes, ridiculous breeds of men … and they think they have seen something. This does not interest me. But if I knew where there was such a knight of faith, I would make a pilgrimage to him on foot, for this prodigy interests me absolutely…

“As I’ve said, I have not found any such person, but I can well think him. Here he is. Acquaintance made, I am introduced to him. The moment I set eyes on him I instantly push him from me, I myself leap backwards, I clasp my hands and say half aloud, “Good Lord, is this the man? Is it really he? Why, he looks like a tax-collector!” However, it is the man after all. I draw closer to him, watching his least movements to see whether he shows any sign of the least telegraphic message from the infinite, a glance, a look, a gesture, a note of sadness, a smile, which be­trays the infinite in its contrast with the finite. No! I examine his figure from tip to toe to see if there might not be a cranny through which the infinite was peeping. No! He is solid through and through.

“One can discover nothing of [an] aloof and superior nature … He takes de­light in everything, and whenever one sees him taking part in a particular pleasure, he does it with the persistence which is the mark of the earthly man whose soul is absorbed in such things. He tends to his work… He takes a holiday on Sunday. He goes to church… In the afternoon he walks to the forest. He takes delight in every­thing he sees…

“Toward evening he walks home, his gait is as strident as that of the postman. On his way he reflects that his wife has surely a special little warm dish prepared for him… Actually, she hasn’t, but strangely enough, it is quite the same to him.

“…he is interested in everything that goes on, in a rat which slips under the curb, in the children’s play, and this with the nonchalance of a girl of sixteen. And yet he is no genius, for in vain I have sought in him the incommensurability of genius. In the evening he smokes his pipe; to look at him one would swear that it was the grocer over the way vegetating in the twilight…

“And yet, and yet—actually I could become furious over it, for envy if for no other reason—­this man has made and every instant is making the movements of infinity. …he has drained the cup of life’s profound sadness, he knows the bliss of the infinite, he senses the pain of renouncing everything, the dearest things he possesses in the world, and yet finiteness tastes to him just as good as to one who never knew anything higher, … as though the finite life were the surest thing of all.

“…He constantly makes the move­ments of infinity, but he does this with such correctness and assurance that he constantly gets the finite out of it, and there is not one moment when one has a notion of anything else.

“It is supposed to be the most difficult task for a dancer to leap into a definite posture in such a way that there is not a second when he is grasping after the posture, but by the leap itself he stands fixed in that posture. Perhaps no dancer can do it—that is what this knight does.

“…to be able to fall down in such a way that the same second it looks as if one were standing and walking, to transform the leap of life into a walk, absolutely to express the sublime in the pedestrian—that only the knight of faith can do—and this is the one and only miracle.[1]

Kierkegaard points us to a humanity which lives the freedom of the eternal and yet looks just like an ordinary piece of the world: the one and only miracle. But as a miracle, it is beyond us. This is the pathos of all exhortations to do better at Christmas time, or any time: only a miracle will do, and we are not miracle workers.

Yet this is precisely the miracle of Christmas.

The church has long spoken of the “incarnation” of God in Jesus, imagining for the most part that there would have been something about him indicating that he was different – Kierkegaard’s cranny through which the infinite peeps. Even the Scriptures do this in their Christmas narratives, trimming the story with glimpses of heaven: a virginal conception, choirs of angels and a star of wonder with royal beauty bright.

Yet to say Jesus was human is to say, with Kierkegaard, that he was solid though and through, that he was in every respect like us – unremarkable but for the way in which he met God and God met him. This meeting was the play of the finite and limited with the infinite and unbounded such as Kierkegaard describes. What we’ve come to call the “divinity” of Jesus was evident only in his extraordinary humanity, which was his extraordinary meeting of God – for what meeting God does is cause the world to be itself. Our poignant Christmas reflections spring from the experience that we are not ourselves, and exhort us to perform the miracle of creating ourselves.

But for us to be ourselves is for us to be relieved of the burden of performing miracles, relieved of the requirement that we make real for ourselves the sublime in the midst of the mundane, relieved of the demand that we cause the infinite to be visible through some cranny.

This is incarnation, and sacrament. This is Christmas against Christmas: gift against our tired exchanges, grace against hard-earned favour, aid against wearing demand; the infinite in the finite, dwelling among us and us invited to dwell in it.

In the beginning was the Word, John writes.

In him was life, and the life was light.

The Word became Flesh. And we have seen his glory: the glory of a human being fully alive.

Would this not be everything we need? Do we not long to be our very selves, and yet to be located in, connected to, part of the whole – the more than us – but not overwhelmed by it?

Christmas marks just such a humanity as the gift of God in Jesus, whether under a crown, on a cross or in a cradle, whether with sceptre, under scourge or in a stable (TIS 321): the miracle of a leap of life expressed in a mere walk, the sublime in its natural habitat: our ordinary.

Christmas would give us heaven because it would give us the world, each without poignant loss.

Now, and in the year about to begin, let’s take them both.


[1] Largely drawn from the translation of Walter Lowrie (Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Doubleday 1954, p49ff), although emphases added and language “adjusted” for a modern ear, with some guidance from Robert Payne’s OUP translation (pp.48ff).