Tag Archives: Love

16 June – The simple Trinity

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Romans 5:1-5
Psalm 8
John 16:12-15

In a sentence:
Trinitarian faith expresses what God must be like if love is to be possible.

Despite the fact that Christian trinitarian doctrine has not often lent itself to comprehensive expression in less than several hundred pages, John’s gospel this morning puts all of the ‘dynamic’ of that doctrine into just a few words.

John can put it so briefly because is concerned only with the ‘What’ of the dynamic of salvation which eventually becomes fully developed and defended ‘doctrine’. Argued doctrine is usually about the ‘How’ of what is believed – how to make sense of God-things. This involves intersecting such simple statements as the New Testament makes about God with the vast and complex theories we bring with us about what the world is and what a god could be. In this way we sometimes seek to ‘prove’ trinitarian doctrine.

But we will stay with the simple What this morning: the Spirit will glorify Jesus by taking all that Jesus has – which is all that the Father has – and giving it to the disciples. To borrow from a chapter or so back: to see Jesus is to see the Father (John 14.9), and the Spirit makes it possible for us to see Jesus.

This pretty much sums up the church’s interest in trinitarian doctrine. Without Jesus there is nothing to look at, without the Father there is nothing to see, and without the Spirit we wouldn’t know what we were looking at in the first place.

In itself, this is straightforward as a set of connections, whether we believe it all or not. The question then becomes, what does it mean to believe it?

Believing, here, cannot mean simply reciting the creed happily as a set of things to which we give assent, agreement. This is because ‘the things of the Father’ which Jesus brings are not a series of beliefs. What Jesus has is the Father. This, then, is what we have.

Yet having this is not clearly relevant to every other thing we have, until we place flesh on those connections – our own flesh.

One way of doing this is to consider the Eucharist. Here we pray for the gift of the Spirit, that the elements of bread and wine might be for us ‘the body and the blood’ of Jesus. That is, we pray for what Jesus describes in our reading: when the Spirit comes, it will bring me. The prayer for the Spirit – for the ‘Remembrancer divine’, as we’ll sing later – is a prayer that the Spirit will ‘declare’ Jesus to us, make him and his benefits present to us through these elements and through our consuming of them together.

But there is one more thing to add to this. Eating the Eucharist does not ‘save’ us in the narrow sense that the elements might be a kind of medicine. Rather we eat and drink, as the prayer goes, that ‘he may evermore dwell in us, and we in him’. The ‘in him’ is the clincher. Clearly Jesus is ‘in us’ because we have eaten and drunk of him, if even in only a figurative sense. But this does not account for our being ‘in him’. To be ‘in him’ at this point is to speak of the effect of his being in us: ‘in him’ means becoming as he is.

This is the truly confronting thing of Christian faith. Cut apart from what Jesus promises with the Spirit, trinitarian doctrine looks quite foolish and unnecessary.

But there is something much more foolish at that heart of the matter, which is that the Word did not just become flesh – a couple of thousand years ago, around Christmas. It becomes flesh – our very flesh – here and now. The foolishness of faith is in the notion that God might lift human beings to such heights, for how could mere mortals as us be crowned with such honour, as our psalmist today wondered (Cf. Psalm 8)?

It is not only in the Eucharist that we encounter this understanding but the Eucharist is especially rich in language and symbol which make the point. We pray that the Spirit make Christ present to us in the elements, and we speak of becoming what we eat – Christ’s Body. This ‘Christ’s Body’ is ‘Word made flesh’, but now our very ordinary flesh lifted up, filled out. We become here what we have prayed for: an ‘on earth’ which is ‘as it is heaven’.

Jesus says, ‘When the Spirit comes it will announce to you all that I am. And I will be yours, and all that is the Father’s will be yours, in me’. This is not information about God. It is the promise of transformation of our bodies into the body of God in the world.

Now that is a foolish and even dangerous thing to say. And so it must seem that it cannot be true. And yet it is.

The only safeguard in place is the consequence of such a claim for those of whom it is said – for us. It is not for nothing that John – the evangelist who most encourages this kind of problematic thought – is the one who states most explicitly and pointedly the ethic which corresponds to such thinking: Love one another. Why? Not because love is good. But so that ‘the world may know’. And may know what? That God has sent the Son, that we might find ourselves in him.

We don’t need several hundred pages of theological ‘How’ and all the necessary political and ethical qualifications to prove the gospel’s bold assertion about God’s trinitarian presence to the world in the Body of such bodies as ours. The proof of the gospel of God is in the love God’s body manifests. Trinitarian is a question to us as much as it is a statement we might make: Is there love here?

What leads to trinitarian thinking is the experience of that divine love which crowns even us with glory and honour. What flows from trinitarian thinking is an answering love which receives God’s embrace and, as the body of God, extends it towards others.

‘When the Spirit comes, it will declare to you all which is mine, which is all which is the Father’s. And your joy will be complete. And love will be the only response which can make sense of it all.’

Let us, then, strive ever more earnestly to prove what we confess, in love which startles, as God is startling.

By the grace of God, Amen.

19 May – Not a politically correct God

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Easter 5

Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
John 13:31-35

In a sentence:
God does not merely call us to love, but makes that love possible

The whole of the New Testament is written against the background of an unflinching belief in the resurrection of Jesus, not simply as a thing which was now ‘believed’ but as a thing which made a difference to the way we live and experience each other and the world. ‘Jesus is risen’ is code for ‘the world is now a whole other new place”.

The book of Acts, from which we hear quite a bit each year after Easter, looks like a history of what happened next after Easter. Yet, more than this, it is history as an account of the kind of thing which would necessarily take place if it were the case that Jesus was risen from the dead.

We can see the difference between a mere historical account of what happens next and the theological, resurrection-informed experience of what happened in the details of our reading this morning – in particular in the unexpected way in which Peter defends what happened in the house of Cornelius.

The crisis is that Peter seems to have transgressed the hard boundary between Jew and Gentile: ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?From the moral and ethical outlook of modern liberal western society it looks as if what Peter has done is ‘obviously’ the right thing. Most of us today hold that everyone should be treated equally, have the same rights, not be put down or otherwise mistreated, and so on.

Yet Peter does not offer a moral argument for his actions along these lines. Instead, he accounts for his actions by ‘blaming’ God. Speaking of his vision of being commanded to eat unclean foods, he quotes God:  ‘What I have made clean you must not declare profane.’ The reason for the breaking down of this barrier – that between Jew and Gentile – is not liberal ethics but divine command. Peter doesn’t know about the ‘brotherhood of man’ or any such thing; ‘God made me do it’ is the reason he gives for doing what we would consider simply to be the clear moral choice.

Now, there is nothing wrong with the moral ideals we have about everyone being equally human to everyone else. It is just that that is not what our text is about. The Cornelius incident is about what was thought to be a God-imposed distinction between Jew and Gentile now being overcome by God. And so the resolution of the dispute back in Jerusalem is not, ‘Ah, yes, of course the Gentiles are people too! How foolish of us!’ Rather, the Jewish Christians turn to the praise of God saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’

In the election of Abraham and Sarah as patriarch and matriarch of the people of God there is actually nothing to suggest that God’s love for this people means God’s hatred or exclusion of all other peoples. In fact, just the opposite is found in the covenant with Abraham: ‘through you will all peoples be blessed’ (Or, ‘will all peoples bless themselves’, depending on the translation.)  But there had developed a very sharp distinction in the minds of the Jews by the time of Jesus, so that Peter could say to the Gentile Cornelius, ‘Even you yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile’ (Acts 10.28).

This distinction had taken on God-proportions, and its violation was understood to have consequences for a person’s standing before God (in terms of ritual cleanness). It doesn’t go too far to say that, for pious Jews of the time, God required of them their self-isolation from Gentiles – it had become to be understood to be divinely instituted. And so it would have felt to Peter that God was changing God’s own rule here: God was contradicting what had being held, and held for the sake of God.

And now we can see how this is an event which has to do with the resurrection of Jesus, and so with the power of God, and not simply with human ethics. For it was for God’s sake – as an act of piety – that Jesus was executed, because he was perceived to be a threat to the religious and political safety of the people. The resurrection, then, is God standing against God, God in heaven contradicting the God in our hearts, revealing that the two are not the same and that we are serving the wrong one.

When God pours out the Holy Spirit on the household of Cornelius the resurrection happens again: God raises the dead. Only, those who are raised are not just Cornelius but Peter and, later, the other believers back in Jerusalem. These are raised in the sense we know from Saint Paul, who describes this God as the one who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which did not exist. What ‘did not exist’ for Peter and the other Jewish Christians was that God’s work in Christ had anything to do with the Gentiles, for how could it? ‘It is unlawful for a Jew to associate with Gentiles…’

But now that Christ clearly did have something to do with the

Gentiles, a new beginning met with a new understanding and the dead were raised, eyes were opened, and God was glorified.

If we take away from the story of Peter and Cornelius only the message that God loves everyone and so we ought to too, then we render the story irrelevant because it tells us nothing most of us don’t already know. Perhaps more problematically, this seems to imply that such love is actually possible – that we ought to be ‘able’ to love each other, and so to usher in the kingdom.

But the Jewish Christians back in Jerusalem praise God for what Cornelius experienced, and we must take this with utter seriousness. The implication is not simply that we should be loving and accepting of each other but that such love and acceptance begins as a work of God.

This being the case, we might also note that the rather modern notion of ‘love and acceptance’ doesn’t really fit the story, or isn’t rich enough for the story. For the Gentiles are not given a mere welcome but a repentance: ‘… God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life’ (11.18). The love of God is that the loved are now free, or even ‘allowed’, to change. Their humanity is indeed recognised but so also its deficiencies; God’s ‘love’ is here the possibility of repentance, and not of mere ‘inclusion’.

So neither the Jews nor the Gentiles are the ‘good guys’ here, or the victims. Borrowing again from Paul, all have fallen short of the glory of God. This is the accusation, the ‘bad news’ of the gospel.

But the important thing is that the accusation is a diminishing echo which sounds after the ‘big bang’ – the moment of creation – the act of resurrecting grace which stands Peter and Cornelius and all they represent on an equal footing of being loved, forgiven and accepted by God.

And so it is, as we sang in our opening hymn, that we pray that we might love, and see whatever love we might manage as an answer to prayer – the acts of today’s apostles, working out the logic of the resurrection of Jesus, to the glory of God.

For the benefit of all God’s people, may this prayer be ever on our lips, and find its answer in the faithfulness of the God who keeps his promises by making it possible for us to love one another.


7 April – Against ‘building the kingdom’

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Lent 5

Ecclesiastes 5:1-20
Psalm 126
John 12:1-8

In a sentence:
We are not called to do God’s work, but to do and be as God has given us

We’ve heard from Jesus today what is perhaps the most scandalous thing he has to say in the gospels, at least to the ears of the modern, left-wing-ish liberal: ‘you will always have the poor with you’.

This, in fact, is heard in three of the gospels, with the exception of Luke who, perhaps because of his sense that the poor and the marginalised symbolise something central to God’s work in Jesus, omits at least this version of the story and these words, although he has a story which is similar in some respects (Luke 7). (We might note in passing that John’s remarks about Judas here are unique to him, and something of a distraction; in Mark and Matthew’s versions, it is the disciples as a whole who say what Judas says, without apparent ulterior motive).

The problem for us is that not always having the poor with us is one of the aspirational engines of modern liberal democracy, although we’d have to say, looking at the evidence, that Jesus has the right of it.

So far as our friend Qohelet is concerned, the poor don’t loom large as an explicit concern. He does lament the situation of the oppressed (cf. 4.1-3) but he comes at poverty more from the perspective of risk and unpredictability: the rich cannot know they will not one day be poor, the righteous might well be accounted unrighteous and the living might suddenly not be.

Both Jesus and Qohelet, then, are in the same place on this, even with their very different framings of the matter, and it is a place quite different from where our political efforts are typically centred.

But there are two further questions about charity raised by Jesus’ response to Judas: What is charity, and When is it? These questions arise from the contrast Jesus draws between ‘you will always have the poor with you’ and ‘you will not always have me.’

If we ‘always have the poor’, What then is the meaning or purpose of serving the poor? What is achieved if, like Sisyphus rolling a great stone up the hill only to see it roll down again, we will not see the end of poverty through our efforts? It is obvious that, in any particular instance, what we do will make a difference for that individual. This is truly wonderful but it is not our political dream: the eradication of need. Some answer to this question – to the ‘What?’ of charitable work – is important for us as we consider once again our motivations and intentions in auspicing Hotham Mission.

Related to this is the second question arising from Jesus’ word here: the ‘When?’ of charity. When do we ‘not have Jesus’, so that we are then to serve the poor? Jesus’ point seems to be that not having him is having the poor; that that is the time for charitable work. Yet this also is less straight forward than it might seem, for the ‘when’ of Jesus is always coloured by Easter. The resurrection speaks of a continuing presence of Jesus (something like what Matthew has Jesus say at the end of his gospel account: ‘I am with you always’). It is too simple – and just not correct – to say that Jesus is no longer with us. All of this indicates that what Jesus means here – what the relationship is between the worship of God and the service of those in need – is not as clear as we might first think it to be.

Elsewhere we hear from Qohelet that ‘there is a time for every purpose under heaven’, and wonder what time is it now: time for service or time to worship, time to work or time to ‘enjoy’? We’ll come to consider that text more closely on Good Friday (I think!) but the idea of a ‘time for everything’ throws over to us the pressing question of what time we find ourselves in, here and now. This is the urgent question of all politics. The cause of all human anxiety is that we might not be in the right time, doing the right thing for this particular time. Is it the time for worship or for service? Should a years’ wages of perfume be spilled on the ground or sold and the money given to the poor? What should we spend on accommodating the life of the congregation? How big a percentage of the church budget should Hotham Mission claim?

To all of this uncertainty and anxiety, a strange word from Qohelet: ‘With many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words; but fear God’ (5.7).

Vanities and multitudes of words are the ‘form’ of getting the time wrong and sustaining ourselves in the error of ‘many dreams’. It is Qohelet’s ‘chasing of the wind’ to misconstrue where we are and what we are doing. With a federal election looming, let us be prepared for a vain multitude of words!

But, while it is easy to slip into cynicism here, Qohelet is not cynical and neither is Jesus. They ‘merely’ call us to the truth. This is largely by negative means in the case of Qohelet and largely by positive means in the case of Jesus, but it is the truth nevertheless in both cases.

Jesus’ ‘You will always have the poor with you’ and Qohelet’s caution against vain dreams and words are statements of what is the case. There is no accusation here, unless we persist in vanity and fear not God but some lesser thing. There is no permission to passivity here with respect to the needs of the poor or, more generally, with respect to the need to work that we and others might live. These are to be held together, appropriately.

The gospels finally resolve the worship-service question by Jesus’ own self-identification with the poor. To turn to Jesus is to turn towards the outcast and oppressed, the seemingly godforsaken and all-forsaken. In the case of John’s account of Jesus, the cross of the godforsaken becomes the throne of the divine Son. To see the one is to see the other, if the ‘seeing’ is sometimes worship and sometimes loving service.

In the case of Qohelet, the ‘fear of God’ he commends matches his other principal commendation, heard again today: ‘it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us’ (5.19). Qohelet’s ‘enjoyment’ of food and drink and each other is a refusal to allow the poverties of life under the sun to be feared. It is a refusal to be distracted from what is good and worthy and approved by God.

Only God is to be feared or, what is the same thing in Judaism and Christianity at least, only God is to be worshipped, only God is God. This is freedom from all utopias and visions, from all dreams and multitudes of words, ever threatening to crush us with the responsibility of making them real.

Our vocation, whether through a structure like Hotham Mission or in our quiet assistance of our next door neighbour, is not to usher in the kingdom. Our vocation is to know what time it is.

It is the time to live and to love for life and love’s own sake, and to leave the rest – whatever ‘the rest’ is – to God.

In this, may God ever keep us occupied with the joy of our hearts (5.20). Amen.

24 February – Love, for no reason

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Epiphany 7

Ecclesiastes 1:1-18
Psalm 37
Luke 6:27-38

In a sentence:
Love is not a technique, not a means to an end; ‘just do it’

We have all at some time reached out to touch the lowest part of a hanging mobile, then watched as it bobs and turns above us, each of the arms and hanging baubles twisting to re-adjust under the extra momentum we have just introduced to the system. A mobile is a marvellous demonstration of a network of balanced forces. To change a weight or the length of some of the supporting arms is to change the way the mobile will settle. To simply remove one of the weights would to be see much of it collapse.

A hanging mobile provides us with a marvellous metaphor for the Christian Scriptures. The predominant metaphor we have for the Bible is, of course, ‘book’. It clearly is a book, but with the notion of a book comes a sense of how the elements hold together – the concept of a narrative, a movement from a beginning to an end. This is a helpful way of understanding how the Scriptures work but it is not the only way.

Let us consider, instead, that the Scriptures are not so much a linear narrative but a mobile on which hangs the 66 books which make up our Bible. In this understanding, it doesn’t matter where each is hung: they are no longer ‘in order’. Rather, they are hung in such a way that they balance each other out. Now we no longer have a more-or-less continuous unfolding of a history but a set of interacting accounts of life under God. If we change one of them – not by adding or subtracting content but by giving it more weight as we improve our understanding of its testimony – then that extra weight requires that everything else in the system shifts accordingly, in order to keep the balance.

On this understanding, every Scriptural book impacts upon every other scriptural book: Genesis upon Revelation, Song of Songs upon Romans, Ecclesiastes upon Luke’s Gospel.

And this brings us to our project for the next couple of months. The book of Ecclesiastes, for most of us, sits rather strangely in the Bible. To many it is pessimistic, nihilistic, acquiescent, world-weary – none of which seems appropriate given the apparent orientation of the whole of sweep of the Scriptures towards the hope of joy in Christ. This is probably why, in the version of the lectionary we use, only one passage of Ecclesiastes appears: on New Year’s Day we might hear the poem of chapter 3, ‘for everything there is a season…’

But there it is – Ecclesiastes as a whole – the Bible. On the metaphor of the book, we might think we can exclude it by saying that it is overtaken by the flow of the story, that Jesus is an answer to Ecclesiastes, an overcoming of his conclusions. But we can only say this on the basis of that particular metaphor. The metaphor of the Bible as a hanging mobile – a system of mutually affecting testimonies – calls for a different reading. If we exclude Ecclesiastes, why do we imagine that we understand the gospel of the crucified and risen Jesus, on which Ecclesiastes acts? It might be not so much that Jesus overtakes Ecclesiastes as that Jesus echoes him. If this were the case, would it not expand enormously our understanding of the cross? Could there be a relationship between the central theme of Ecclesiastes – ‘vanity’ – and the central theme of the gospels – the cross? Could we dare to imagine ‘the vanity of the cross’? That it seems so impious to do suggests that it might make a good title for a Good Friday sermon!

As with all things which really matter, this will be a matter of definitions. Let us, then, look to what Ecclesiastes means when he speaks of vanity, and consider what this might have to say about we have heard from Jesus in today’s set reading.

‘Vanity’ is the standard translation in Ecclesiastes of the Hebrew word ‘hebel’. And it is an unfortunate translation, because the modern sense of the English word is too narrow and specific to capture Ecclesiastes’ point. To speak of vanity is to speak of self-absorption, narcissism. Socially this is an empty, pointless pursuit, and such emptiness is part of what Ecclesiastes is getting at but there is rather more. In fact, he uses the word in several different ways. If we try to find a common thread which strings his various uses together it is something like the notion, ‘ungraspable’. The literal meaning of the Hebrew is ‘mist’ or ‘vapour’. Ecclesiastes extends this metaphorically to characterise our attempts to make sense of how the world works. For he finds ‘life under the sun’ to be ungraspable, incomprehensible. The unjust are rewarded when the just are not. We toil to gather the things we need, then die and someone who has not worked for them squanders them. A buffoon might become king. A good man can be crucified. This is not, of course, always the case. Yet Ecclesiastes sees that we cannot guarantee tomorrow. We cannot reliably extrapolate, we cannot confidently manipulate. There is no clear rhyme or reason to the world. And so there is no real movement, no progress: there is nothing new under the sun.

We will hear more of this as we consider Ecclesiastes’ reflections over the next couple of months but for now we will take a first test on his declaration of vanity – not by discussing abstractly whether or not he is a depressed pessimist but by turning to the gospel to see what resonance we might find between Ecclesiastes and what Jesus says and represents there.

Jesus puts to his disciples – and presumably also to us – ‘love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, turn the other cheek, don’t worry about who has your stuff’ (Luke 6.27-38). These are confronting commands. And because they are so confronting, there wells up in us the question, Why.

But there is no why. Jesus makes no promises in relation to this other than that you can expect no better than what you give.

We ask Why? because we know we might receive less than we give. The Why hears Jesus’ commandment as a means to an end. But Jesus promises no end. Chances are we’ll end up like he did – the cross is never far from his teaching. Asking ‘Why’ turns ethics into a technique, a method by which we obtain an outcome.

Yet this is precisely what Ecclesiastes says we cannot have. When we act we cannot guarantee the consequences. Calculation and prediction work in simple systems like natural science (at least up to a point) but they don’t work in history, in real human existence.

We will hear Ecclesiastes say again and again that there are things to be done, even if we can’t know that we’ll do them well or that we doing the right thing. We should just do them, nevertheless. Jesus doesn’t say this explicitly but it is there in the starkness of the command. Why one would do as Jesus commands is ungraspable, is beyond the capacities of any reason.

To put it differently, love is not a method. It guarantees no outcome, and it might be crucified. Doing to others as we would have them do to us is no guarantee that they will do to us in the same way.

This, I expect, is more than most of us want to hear. It is ungraspable, incomprehensible. We tend to love ‘in order that’ – in order that the loved one might change. But Jesus adds the disorienting ‘and expect nothing in return’; we could imagine that from the pen of Ecclesiastes (cf. Eccles 11.1-6).

This is not pessimism. It is a different handle on life – that life does not have reliable handles. Ethics – how we act – is not about technique, is not means to an end. It is about character, about the way in which we conduct ourselves in the world.

Love, Jesus, says, because there is really nothing else which matters.

Love, expecting nothing in return.

Love, for no reason.

2 September – Having life

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Pentecost 15

1 John 5:9-13
Psalm 15
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

In a sentence:
Love is defined in the coming of the Son in Jesus

Christian faith has an extraordinary capacity to become its opposite, at least in the hands of Christians. We have seen this recently in the scandals about cover-ups of child sexual abuse in the churches. We can see it also less dramatically but no less seriously in understandings of how God deals with us.

Consider, for example, John’s declaration this morning: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (5.12). This, with a good number of similar verses in the New Testament, is a matter of scandal even in many churches. The scandal is the exclusivity it seems to imply: that only those who ‘have’ Jesus have life. This seems obviously to be wrong on account what we’ve just noted – that Christian confession is no guarantee of moral righteousness. And even when this isn’t the case, it seems seriously wrong to suggest that only those who know and confess Jesus ‘have life’, that there are not other ways to life.

Often posited over against the notion that ‘having’ Jesus is the only way to life is the confession that ‘God is love’. God’s love is felt to ‘supersede’ any requirement of confession that Jesus is the Son, to overcome the limited scope for life which knowing and confessing Jesus seems to imply.

The irony is that it is the same John who tells us both that only those who have Jesus have life and that God is love. We address any embarrassment about the need for confessing Jesus only if we force a split right down the middle of John’.

We might believe we have good reason for this, that we can see more we know than John could. But, then, we cannot then sensibly appeal to John’s declaration that God is love. For to do this would be to turn Christian faith into its opposite, no less so than when the church covers up the abuse of innocents for the sake of its own good name.

This inversion, this making-opposite, is in that what we do here is turn the statement ‘God is love’ into a premise – a starting place – rather than a conclusion.

For John, ‘God is love’ is a conclusion. Love is nothing other than what God does, and the central, fundamental thing God does is send the Son in the person of Jesus that we might live through him (4.9,10). John’s ‘take home’ message is not so much ‘God is love’ but what we’ve heard him emphasise a number of times now – that the crucified human being Jesus is the divine Son. That this is the case – or at least the confession – is the meaning of ‘God is love’.

‘God is love’, then, cannot ‘correct’ any overemphasis the connection between Christian confession and having life. For John, having life is what comes with seeing that the crucified Jesus is the Son; life is not some other thing than this. Love is what the cross means and does, as the very cross of God in the Son.

It is, in fact, not clear how the cross does this. There is no divine equation or formula or recipe which shows how the cross of God saves. John knows only that it does save, does bring life.

And so it is at least clear what the cross means. It means life: a life founded on the cross as an act of love. For John, this life springs from, and so looks like, love.

Our anxiety with John’s connection of ‘having’ the Son with ‘life’ – including ‘eternal’ life – comes from our concern for the lovely – those whom we love – and our concern for the loving – those in whom we see good things. That is, in rejecting John’s connection life with Jesus, we make judgements: this one deserves love, deserves life, because of what we see and judge to be of value in him or her.

The declaration that God is love, however, is not a judgement about anything in you or me. We want to say: if we are valuable, then God will love us. John says, God loves us – we must be valuable. Nowhere in John or in the gospel as a whole is love bound up with judgement. Nowhere is there an ‘If this (the condition) then love (the judgement)’.

Love is, rather, judgement overcome. ‘God is love’ does not supersede the confession of Jesus as Lord; it is the meaning of it. The two things are the different ways of saying the same point.

And so we are not to judge the love of others, or their loveliness – for better or for worse. We are to love them, as God has loved us, because it is in this kind of love that God is met, that we have life.

This life is not a thing we have earned, and so not a possession we hold; it is a common-wealth. It creates, it transforms, it connects – to God, to others.

To have the Son is to have life in all its fullness. It is to see life not in effort and reward, not in what we hold to be lovely, but in need met with gift. The need is very great; the sign of our need is Good Friday. The gift is even greater: it is Easter’s transformation of Good Friday from our judgement of God into life together beyond judgement, life on God’s own terms.

Imagine what ‘Life together beyond judgement’ would look like. Imagine what it would look like in the family, in the work place, in the church, across divisive borders, across racial and gender divides.

To ‘have’ the Son, to confess that Jesus is Lord, is to have begun to imagine such things, and to live them, because Jesus is where our own experience of love without judgement has begun. Discovering this, and then exploring what it means in the lives we are given to live, is the meaning of ‘God is love,’ something which we speak only in hope as we ‘prove’ it in testing and demonstration.

Our faith does not divide us from others, neither does it place us above or before them. It turns us towards them, that the life we are discovering in God might be uncovered by them also.

To ‘have the Son’ is to have work to do. This is life.

Let us, then, live that work, that the world may know…

19 August – Conquering the world

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Pentecost 13

1 John 5:1-12
Psalm 34
John 6:51-58

In a sentence:
Love conquers the world by
winning it over

We sometimes get the sense that theological specialists get a little het up from time to time on matters of precision and correctness in faith. I’m probably not immune to such a charge myself. Why bother with the language of the Creeds, with doctrinal precision, with correct liturgical structure?

As a way towards answering this, let’s consider the theological intensity in the middle of our reading this morning from 1 John: ‘[Jesus Christ] is the one who came by water and blood…not with the water only but with the water and the blood.’

If nothing else, this is dense theology. It is neither immediately clear what it means nor why it matters. At the same time, John insists on it, rabidly, foaming at the mouth: this really does matter. There was obviously some controversy in John’s community about ‘the blood’, and whether or not belief in ‘the blood’ had to be added to belief in the ‘the water’. Perhaps the most likely scenario is something like this: there was an argument about whether or not the redeemer – the Son of God – was present in the baptism of Jesus only (the water, or the waters of birth [cf. John 3]), or whether he has also present in the death of Jesus (the blood).[1] What seems to be at stake is the relationship between ‘Jesus’ and ‘the Son of God’.

That is, John defends here what we now call the doctrine of the Incarnation – the meeting of God and the world in the human being Jesus of Nazareth. Yet, if this makes sense of the statement, we must then wonder about the next thing: why does the Incarnation matter?

As far as John is concerned, the doctrine matters not for its own sake but for its crucial pastoral implication: it is those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God (that is, who believe Jesus came ‘in the water and the blood’) who ‘conquer the world’.

‘Conquering the world’ is perhaps not the best way of putting it for modern ears anxious about histories of colonisation and so on, but we get the point if we invert John’s way of putting it: it is those who believe in the meeting of Jesus and the Son – in the ‘water and the blood’ – who are not conquered by the world. ‘The world’ is here anything which might constitute a threat to us – the fears in our love, as we considered them last week. To believe that Jesus was the Son is to get a grip on the world, rather than be gripped by it.

This is so because the world ceases to be a place which comes between us and God – and so between us and our true selves; the world becomes the place where God is met and embraces us. In the person of Jesus God meets with the real world, as lived by a real person in time and space, with all its joys and sorrows.

We declare this each week in our recitation of the Creeds: Jesus is ‘God from God, light from light, true God from true God’… residing in, coinciding with, ‘was born…suffered…was buried.’ This is not mere doctrine; it is a way of saying that true God and true world can meet. The Creed declares that such a meeting has happened, and it is the hope of all who say the Creed that this will happen again.

And so the Jesus of the gospel is not a solitary individual, a tool in the hand of God, a means to some divine end. He is a real person engaged with other persons. His death is not mere mortality or tragedy, and it is – again (see July 29 sermon!) – not something God demands. The cross is a failure of the world to bear God – a rejection of such a presence of God to the world.

A sad philosopher once observed that ‘hell is other people’. It would have to be said that this was the experience of the crucified Jesus, because it was only by other people that he found himself on the cross; the physical suffering of the cross represented the suffering of the conflict endured throughout his ministry.

But the point of his ministry, and the point of John’s preaching through this dense and circular little letter, was to declare just the opposite: that heaven, also, is other people. This is why – as we saw last week – the love of whatever in the world it is appropriate to love can be the love of God – our love of God and God’s love of us. Our presence to God and God’s presence to us ‘looks like’ loving one another.

We do not believe ‘in the Incarnation’ as a thing which happened. The thing which happened, we believe, is the defining instance of God’s en‑fleshing of himself in our very lives, and this matters for the continuing shape of our lives. To believe that Jesus was the divine Son is not so much to ‘conquer’ the world with right doctrine as it is to declare what the world truly is: a vessel – even ourselves – which God has created to fill with himself.

To believe that Jesus – even ‘in the blood’ of the cross – is ‘true God of true God’ in the world is to believe that there is nowhere in the world which is alien to God, nothing which cannot be raised from the dead.

This is why we are to love not only the lovely but also those who it seems even love would do little good. Such love always seems wasteful, always appears as a throwing of good after bad. But this is not to say that such love is then an expression of kindness or compassion. As a throwing of good after bad, in the manner of God’s own work, our love of the unlovely is an experiment in resurrection. Is there really a passion stronger than death, as Solomon puts it in the Song of Songs (Songs 8.6)? A ‘Yes’ to this question is what marks the Christian.

The world, then, in its constant turn towards deathly things, is not conquered for the sake of the conqueror – whether us or God. It is conquered for its own sake. For the weapon in this struggle is love, and love conquers as much for the beloved as for the lover. God, then, does not conquer the world so much as reach out to gather it to himself; for the closer the world is to God, the more it is what God intended it to be.

This is the promise of the gospel.

And we ‘prove’ the promise – in the double proving of testing and demonstrating – in the love we show to those in need of it.

Once again, then, let us love one another. For nothing else will help.

[1] This occurs elsewhere in John; cf. John 3, where a contrast is drawn between being born of ‘water and the (s)Spirit’. There is also the reference in John 19.34f: ‘one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.)’ That is it necessary to emphasise the truth of this indicates that the matter was very important in the understanding (and debates) in Johannine community.

12 August – How to love God

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Pentecost 12

1 John 4:10-12, 16b-21
Psalm 34
John 6:35, 41-51

In a sentence:
The love of God is always concrete and tangible – the love of our human neighbour

A few weeks back I preached on ‘God’s unnecessary love’, trying to indicate how there is nothing compelled about God’s love. Today, the shape of our love for God. Once again, John’s first letter informs this thought.

‘There is no fear in love’, John asserts, ‘perfect love casts out fear. The fear which might confound love is of two kinds. The most obvious is the fear of losing the thing we love. Trivially, this is fear for the new toy – fear of a scratch on the new car, shattering the screen on the new phone, or having our nice things burgled while on holiday. More significantly, of course, we fear losing the child, the parent, the spouse, the job, the house, the reputation.

For those of us who hold that there is a just God, it is the loss of the object of love which gives rise to the questions of theodicy – is God righteous, given that such loves, such valuable things can be lost? How can injustice and disorder like this – such contradictions of all we thought God promised – be ‘allowed’ to happen?

The fear to which John refers in his ‘no fear in love’ is not quite the fear of loss, but it is related. This is the second fear associated with love: the fear that we might be found to have loved the wrong thing. Here the emphasis is not as much on the loving as on the being found – being dis‑covered, exposed, judged for loving what is not the final object or goal of ‘true’ love. Those who love truly, John says, do not fear judgement.

(As an aside: This connection of fear and love is quite different from fear of losing what we love. We lose our beloved for ‘natural’ reasons, for reasons beyond our control: accidents, theft or simple mortality. John’s fear of judgement is a fear related to our choices – what we bring about, not what happens to us. This is the fear of having contravened some kind of implicit or explicit commandment, of having misunderstood or deliberately chosen against the order of things.)

Again, there are greater and lesser versions of this love-fear. At the softer end, this might be fear of judgement because I dress differently from the masses, or that I believe in God when most don’t (or the other way around), or that I refuse to eat meat (to the unhappy inconvenience of my omnivorous family and friends).

More substantially, it might be that I refuse to answer a conscription call up because of pacifist convictions, or the fear of retribution when I become the whistle blower. The particular concern of John is the question of judgement before God: love does not fear God’s righteous judgement for having done the wrong thing, for having loved the wrong thing.

With this second reference to righteousness, we can now see the relationship between the two love-fears. In the first love-fear we fear the absence of justice, the loss of what we love. In the second love-fear, we fear the presence of justice, the loss of ourselves if we have loved wrongly.

Love, then, is not the simple thing we often imagine or declare it to be. The pathos of human love is that it fears both the absence and the presence of the justice of God, as we seem usually to understand that justice. Love – the most natural thing to arise in us, and so the thing most naturally expected of us – turns out to be fraught. Our loves and our fears constantly pose the question, Is this right, Will it be right, Does love end?

If love as we usually know it is fraught in this way, what does John’s ‘perfection in love’ look like?

Surprisingly, perfected love doesn’t look like ‘loving’ God in any internal or spiritualised sense.  John never calls us to love God. In fact, he seems to back away from saying this:

4.10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

That is, John does not say here, ‘we ought to love God,’ which would be the more natural complement to the declaration that God has loved us. He does recognise that it makes sense to speak of loving God (e.g. 4.20f, 5.2) but there is no imperative to love God as if this were in any way separable from the love of others, or even prior to such ‘neighbourly’ love.

Perhaps more to the point, John does not allow that our love of God is a kind of invisible ‘spiritual’ counterpart to visible ‘embodied’ love in human relationships. God’s love is entirely concrete: the sending of the Son and the rehabilitation of the cross (on this ‘rehabilitation’ see the July 29 sermon). Our love for God is also entirely concrete: loving the brother, the sister, the neighbour. Love always looks like something – even the love of God. Love is always embodied. The perfected love which does not fear looks like the love of those in need of love.

If there is fear in our love, then, John implies that it is because we do not yet love in this concrete way, and not because we have not yet sufficiently trusted God. That is, our love for God is incomplete, and so our sense of safety in God, because we do not yet love the ones close to us: ‘If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us’, John says.

Yet, even this can be too abstract. Perhaps strangest of all here is that love might look like coming to church. This is not because at church you ‘learn how to love’; such basics are learned elsewhere. It is because ‘church’ is a concrete and specific community which ties us down. For love, in being embodied, is also tied, bound. It is often noted, in critique, that in the letters and in the gospel of John, the focus of human love is not on the ‘neighbour’ (as in the synoptics) but on the sister, the brother, of the Christian communion. This looks embarrassingly ‘in house’ and self-interested. Yet John’s focus makes love very specific and concrete – not the love of anyone who might or might not cross our paths, who might or might not be the person I’m supposed to love, but the person to whom God binds me – the one who also claims to be claimed by God.

For, if nothing else, coming to church binds us strangely to each other. We are not natural family here, not tribal connection. And so this is a place where love’s fears might be challenged in learning to love those we would not normally love, simply because they refuse to go away. It is only in this way that love grows and thickens, and the fears in love begin to diminish because we see that love finds a way.

There is no fear in love. Or, put positively, love is fearless – God’s love, and so the love to which we are called. The fearlessness of love is not in its courage but in its indiscriminateness. Love is not a choice, it is a call which takes the form of the person sitting next you to, or who lives behind you, or who shares your office.

John’s declaration that ‘We love because God first loved us’ is not an explication of how we have come to love God. It is a statement of mission, of how to love God: we become God’s love for us in the love of sister, brother, neighbour.

To say it then, for the umpteenth time in our reflections on John’s letter, Let us be fearless in our love another, for this is what it means to love God. Amen.

29 July – God’s unnecessary love

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Pentecost 10

1 John 4:7-12
Psalm 145
John 6:1-13

In a sentence:
God does not ‘have’ to love us but does, unnecessarily

‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God’ (4.7).

I want to unpack today why the church holds that the love which is from God – of which the gospel speaks – and the love to which we are called to demonstrate, is unnecessary love.

To the unbaptised mind this is clearly wrong. Surely, What the world needs now, is love sweet love, because Love makes the world go around, and so All you need is love: the Love which lifts us up where we belong. Even the church’s foundational texts – from which we have heard this morning – seem to contradict this: God is love, God loves us, let us love one another.

How, then, could love be unnecessary?

For the church to say that love is unnecessary is to say that the love which is our particular concern here – ‘gospel’ love – is unnatural love. Natural things are necessary things. We can rely on what is natural, because it unfolds predictably: apples fall from trees, very cold water freezes, nobody gets out alive. The love about which the gospel speaks is not predictable in the way of nature. It is in this sense it is not necessary love.

What this means is that the love of which John writes is not familiar love – the love which comes and flows naturally. And so, when he lays love out for reflection, he doesn’t point to mothers or to lovers or to the best of friends. Rather, John points to the cross: ‘…In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (4.10).

This is, again, incomprehensible to the unbaptised mind, for where is the natural love in this? Is it not a ghastly, bloody God who requires atoning sacrifices in the first place? How is it that God cannot simply forgive? Would that not be true love?

All of this would be ‘necessary’ love: sensible and understandable love. But when it comes to joining the cross and the love of God, we cannot say that even the cross itself was necessary. All theories of the atonement which suggest that God was too righteous to forgive the unrighteous, so that there was some deep law which required blood, make the cross necessary and either tie God’s hands to a law outside of God or split God into two parts, one part demanding a price which the other pays.

But the cross is not magical in this way. It is not an incantation or formula which brings salvation; it is not the necessary key which unlocks God’s heart. If the cross is not necessary in this way, then neither can any love associated with it be a natural, necessary love.

In fact, the cross is not, in the first instance, God’s work at all. It is ours. And it is ours – we imagine – as a necessary work: ‘is it not better that the one should die than that we should lose everything?’ Do the gods not require the expulsion of the blasphemer? Must he not die at our hands?

The cross is – in the first act of the drama – a work of ‘un-love’ if Jesus is not a blasphemer but the messenger of God. The cross is necessary for us because in Jesus we meet a God we cannot bear: ‘What the world needs now,, is not love, sweet love, but less Jesus. But, while necessary for us, the cross was not necessary for God. The ministry of Jesus and his call to follow was open to the possibility that people might actually follow – that the cross would not be necessary. (If not, it was all just play-acting).

In what sense, then, does God ‘send’ the Son and the cross, given that that is where it all ended up? God sends the cross in the resurrection. Our word to God – the cross – becomes God’s word to us in the resurrection: God’s Yes to our No.

And this is the unnecessary, unnatural thing. It is not the case merely that God ‘loves’ us but needs the cross to get past what is unlovely about us. The cross is the unloveliness of the human creature. This is our godlessness – and so our lack of humanity – that we employ such things as crosses and that we sometimes find ourselves on them. God does not so much use the cross to save as overcome the cross and our shame in crucifying the Lord of glory.

But it is not obvious that God will do this. John declares ‘God is love’ as an answer to the question of Easter Saturday: What Will God Do? The unnecessary, unnatural, unlawful thing God does is raise Jesus and return him to the disciples (in person) and to Israel (in preaching) with the words, Peace be with you. Not a sword of divine wrath but an offer of peace.

This is love: God’s devotional persistence, despite the cross: unnecessary, unearned love – a breaking of the law rather than an observance of it.

The resurrection becomes a revelation of God’s power in relation to the cross. Here we see God’s willingness to embrace and use the least lovely of all things – even the murder of God himself on a cross – in pursuit of those God loves. This is not necessary love. It is so much more than that. It is gloriously unnecessary, because it springs from the very heart of God. The only question which matters is whether God will set right what is not right among us. If the answer is no, then surely we are all lost. If it is yes, then it is the God’s identification with the cross by overcoming the cross which proves it. We hope in this God because this God has overcome the cross.

And the love commanded of us? ‘If we love one another,’ John says, ‘God lives in us and his love is perfected in us’ – God’s love is perfected in us. This perfected love is not the easy love which – if we are lucky – comes naturally, although that too is of God. The love which is not natural but which is commanded is that which loves as God does. This is our calling, because it is a calling to become like the one who calls. Love where and how God does. Love where love is not sought. Love where love is not expected. Love where it is not deserved. Love where it would seem love will be wasted and so is unnecessary, not required.

Such love is difficult because we cannot see where it goes, whether even it will go anywhere. It was not different for God in Jesus and yet God loved, and here we are 2000 years later.

‘Beloved,’ John writes, ‘since God loved us in this way, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us’.

Let us, then, become lovers after the love of God. That is all that is necessary.


By way of response, a prayer of confession..

We offer thanks and praise, O God,
because you have created and sustained us
and all things.

And yet, we confess that in thought, word and deed
we have not loved you or our neighbours
as ourselves.

Forgive us when we allow only that love
extends only to the familiar and easy,
when the charity which begins in the home
also ends there.

Forgive us when we imagine that your love is like ours,
that you love us because we are deserving of love,
that there is nothing in us which needs to be overcome,
nothing which will be revealed as shadow
by the light of your love.

Forgive us the lovelessness which says No when a Yes was possible,
which withholds what is excess to our need,
which is unnecessarily jealous,
destructively envious.

O God, the protector of all who trust in you,
without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy:
Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that,
with you as our ruler and guide,
we may so pass through things temporal,
that we lose not the things eternal; [Proper 17]

just so, gracious God, have mercy on us…

17 June – Going in Circles

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Pentecost 4

1 John 2:18-28
Psalm 92
Mark 4:26-34

In a sentence:
What God, for love, has joined together – even Godself to us – let no one separate.

Looking as closely at 1 John, as we have been doing over the last couple of months, reveals just how repetitive it is. It’s not long into the letter that we begin to think we’ve read something like this just a moment ago. There is an unmistakable circularity in the way John thinks and writes.

Yet this is not a going round and round in simple repetition. A closer approximation to John’s style teaching is that of a helix – a circularity like that of a cork-screw: John moves around the same central point (or, more accurately now, axis), but always with different concepts and associations.

The axis is those particular fixed things central to his experience – the love of the Father, the identity of the crucified Jesus with the Son, the church community. This axis he relates to different concerns and consequences; these are how the circle ‘moves’ to become a different circle but still revolving around the same central axis: Now we talk about light and dark, now about sin and reconciliation, now about the love of God and the love of the world, now about community and division. Each cycle around the axis adds nuance and depth to our sense of the significance of the axis itself – the meaning of the relationship between the Father and Jesus, and between us and our neighbours, and the relationship between these relationships(!).

In today’s reading the same thing is happening: the helix continues to wind around the relationship between human being and divine being, and this is extended now in terms of the concepts of ‘knowledge’ and ‘abiding.’

It is the second concept – abiding – which I’d like to focus on today because ‘abide’ is a constant refrain through the letter and is especially useful for demonstrating how John seeks to hold all things together. (‘Abide’ appears a couple of dozen times in letters of John, although not always translated as ‘abide’ – sometimes as ‘live,’ and it can also mean ‘remain;’ we might get back to ‘knowledge’ another time). Today we’ve heard,

2.24 Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father.

2.27 As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him.

2.28 And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he is revealed we may have confidence and not be put to shame before him at his coming.

Elsewhere in the letter we hear,

3.24a All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them.


4.16b God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

A teaching, particular knowledge, abides in us. This makes possible an abiding in God. And acting according to that knowledge is the guarantee that God abides in us.

What becomes clear is that this not a set of linear connections, such that one must come before the other. There is nothing linear in John’s thinking, to the extent that his arguments feel quite circular to us (consider from today’s passage: 2.19 They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us). He holds belief and action so closely together that there is no other way to say it other than to go around and around in reiteration. When he considers the break-away group, it is not only that they first believed the wrong thing and then left; their very departure was just as much part of their false belief.

And so what is to us a ‘doctrinal dispute’ in John’s community – whether the crucified Jesus is the divine Son – is no ‘mere’ doctrinal dispute. There is no ‘mere’ doctrine for John. All doctrine is implied action; all action implies doctrine. John says: believing ‘this’ looks like doing ‘that’. Not doing ‘that’ is in fact believing something else. And so, for John, actions do not speak louder than words; actions are words and words are actions (it is perhaps this second part which is the surprise for us). Nothing speaks or enacts truth other than getting them both right.

Now, perhaps this all sounds just too complicated and difficult. Part of the reason for this is that modern thinking expects truth to be expressed differently than John expresses it. Even if we can see what he is doing, we are not well-placed culturally or intellectually to be moved by it.

But rather than try to unpack those cultural and logical differences we can cut through the hard knot if I suggest to you simply that John teaches this way because he is enraptured by the beauty of it all: the beauty of such movement in harmony, the beauty of balance which is not static and of motion which is not unstable. This is the beauty of a world thoroughly infused with God – inconceivable without God, for ‘Jesus is the Son’ – and the beauty of a God enveloping that world, inconceivable as doing anything else, for ‘the Son is Jesus’. It is the beauty of the source of all things finding its end in us, and that end becoming a new source for all things.

For John, the truly beautiful is neither static nor theoretical. It is no mere object to thought; thought is as much subject to the beauty. Mere knowledge is not enough; the knowledge which matters will gather us up into the beautiful.

Or, more concretely, the beauty John sees is only beautiful if it is a life lived. A creed, a liturgy, a building cannot capture the beauty of God, although neither can it be captured without those things. An experience, a kindness, a sacrifice cannot capture the beauty of the world, although neither is it captured without such things.

God’s life with us and our life with God are an abiding – a living, a remaining, in a kind of mutual orbit. This spinning of God and us around each other is at the heart of what John says. Perhaps we must sometimes freeze the motion in order to speak about the one or the other but then we are not speaking about them in their liveliness, but only in their isolation, like the isolation of a single image pulled from a strip of film.

All this is to say that Christian life is a kind of going-in-circles. The Christian community is properly a place where such talk and action, such being and doing, such hearing and speaking, such to-and-fro with God, are a ‘making beautiful’.

So, John says to us,

2.24Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father. 25And this is what he has promised us, [this is] eternal life:

abiding in God as God abides in us (4.16)

Let us, then, do the beautiful: abide in God as God abides in us.


By way of response, a prayer of confession:

We offer thanks and praise, O God,
because you have created and sustained us
and all things.
And yet…
Forgive us, Lord,
when we receive you as a silent thing,
and hear only our own thoughts about you.

Kyrie, Kyrie, Kyrie eleison;

Forgive us when
we claim to trust in you alone

but our actions speak of a different confidence.

Christe, Christe, Christe eleison;

Forgive us when our confusion about such things
perpetuate the needs of others
and their own confusion and disorientation.

Kyrie, Kyrie, Kyrie eleison.

Almighty God,
to whom all hearts are open,
all desires 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.


20 May – Bound by a liberating Spirit

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1 John 4:1-12
Psalm 104
John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

In a sentence:
The Spirit of God binds us together for love

We live in an age of the resurgence of ‘spirit, a certain sense for ‘spirituality’ which has developed in the last generation or two as a way of expressing how many people feel they experience themselves and the world: as ‘spiritual’ persons.

This is, in part, a reaction against drier, rationalist accounts of the world, ourselves and God which have dominated Western society (at least) over the last century or two. But there is more than this in general spirit-think. At heart, ‘spirit’ conveys freedom. Spirit resists capture, crosses boundaries, shakes foundations. This is the opposite of what cultural constructs like institutions do, whether the institution be a social organisation, a language, a religion or a just set of mores. ‘I’m not religious but I am interested in spirituality’ is a statement which sums up the contrast. Institutions – religion among them – fix in place; spirit breaks free. And we live in a freedom-seeking age.

But there is a very deep problem here. Jesus did not say – but might well have said – Where two or three gather in my name, there you have an institution (cf. Matt 18.20). Institutions – tangible and intangible – spring from community, from the need of otherwise separate individuals to negotiate a way of being together. The weight of an institution is the weight of life together. Sometimes we can lighten that load, but we will always do that by shifting the burden to another institution if it is ‘we’ and not ‘I’ which does this.

The problem here is that if we invoke spirit or spirituality to set us free from all this, spirit comes to stand over against a fundamental characteristic of our life together – that we always, and must, construct modes of relating to each other. Against this, certain understandings of the spiritual allow me to shut my eyes so that you disappear and there is only me and God (or whatever it is I see when my eyes are closed).

To the notion of spirit as escape from one another, John says No, although we have to strain to hear it. There has been a painful split in his community around what we might consider a ‘mere’ doctrinal point – whether or not Jesus was the incarnation of the divine Son of God. But for John the distinction between doctrine and ethics doesn’t hold; that the incarnation deniers have in fact separated themselves is as much their failure as the denial. To confess the wrong thing and to do the wrong thing are the same.

In our reading this morning, John implies that the deniers have invoked an inadequate sense of ‘spirit’ and this has led to the division of the community, the rejection of the ‘institution’ (we might say) by which they first gathered.

If we were to try to reconstruct the theology against which John writes, it might go something like this: God is spirit, and we are spirit. Our physical embodiment is secondary to our spiritual being, so that what happens to or between our bodies does not, finally, matter (perhaps this is why they could say, ‘we have no sin’ [cf. 1.8]). The death of Jesus is itself a denial of embodiment, a liberation from body, a denial that physical things matter; only the spirit of the risen Son is important. The spirit of the Son is free, as we can be free.

On this understanding, John’s insistence on love makes little sense. Love requires bodies, and not only the case in the instance of sexual expression. Bodies are the means of creating personal histories, which are what give us our identities. And these interactions create ‘institutions,’ rules of engagement, ways of being together, bindings between persons; a community is a ‘body’ (consider ‘the body of Christ’ – a body of bodies). Such things are all intimately associated with what we are in and as our embodiment. Wafting spirits neither bind nor are bound (cf. John 3.8). Bodies, on the other hand, do these things all the time.

And so John declares what is otherwise almost incomprehensible in connection to spirit:

4.2By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.

The real human body of Jesus the Son ‘in the flesh’ matters because our bodies matter, and our bodies matter because the body of Jesus the Son matters.

What John says, then, is that how we are – that we are embodied persons in space and time, springing from each other and into each other – is of the utmost importance for faith.

The ties that bind us to each other – how we interpret our embodiment – will sometimes be too tight, will strangle. This is the meaning of the prophets’ rage against the barrenness of Israel’s religion, even though it is also God’s religion. It is also the meaning of John’s own command to love, to overcome stale expressions of community, too harsh regulation, or not enough regulation, in order that more joyful life together might be embodied.

But while the ties which bind are sometimes too tight, there is no unbound life before God or before each other. The Spirit of God is the Spirit which points to God’s own binding of himself in the life and death of Jesus. Jesus does not give up his body on the cross; he refuses to disconnect from those who disconnect him, who unbind themselves from him. If God is really only there when I shut my eyes and can no longer see you – when I count you as dead – then I’m dealing with the wrong god.

John does not say then, that the Spirit will make us confess the correct creed. He says that the Spirit will make us human, and that it does this by binding us together in love. It is to this that the doctrine about Jesus as the incarnate Son points. As God has been to us, even to the point of death, so we are to be to each other.

Spirituality should indeed set us free, but not from each other. The Spirit which points to Jesus sets us free from all which might separate us from our fullest humanity or, to put it differently, the Spirit sets us for each other.

Where the Spirit of Christ is, there is freedom – to love.

Let us then heed John’s call: love one another as God has loved us.

In the name of the one who is lover, beloved, and love. Amen.


In confessional response:

We offer thanks and praise, O God,
because you have created and sustained us
and all things.

And yet we confess that,
in thought, word and deed,
we have not loved you with our whole heart
nor our neighbours as ourselves.

Forgive us when we seek in you
a hiding place from the world
in which you’ve placed us for our benefit,
with its abundant gifts
and light burdens.

Forgive us the love we withhold
the much needed kind word put off
the unnecessarily angry word set free.

Forgive us our attachment to those things –
theories, habits, institutions,
which take more life from us or from others
than they give.

Almighty God,
to whom all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from whom no secrets are hidden:

cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your
binding and liberating Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love you,
and worthily magnify your holy name;
through Christ our Lord.


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