Jeremiah 31. 31-34; 2 Thessalonians 1. 1-5; St John 12. 20-33
Laudabo Nomen Domini
Our Lenten series this year at St Matthew’s has been on the theme Mirroring God’s Love’, and over the past weeks we have been looking at ways in which we are called to reflect the love of God as individuals - as Christians - and as members together of the Body of Christ, the Church. We started by looking at the person of Jesus Christ, who is in himself the image of the unseen God, and have gone on to look at how we are called to reflect the love of God to each other, at the margins, and to the world.
Mirrors are strange things. Without something to reflect they serve no purpose. They have no light of their own, and exist only to reflect the image of a person or object. We all rely on them, some more than others, and we would find it hard to imagine life without them. Without mirrors we would have no idea how we appeared to other people. Mirrors give us some clue as to our identity. The problem is that so often mirrors can catch us unawares: the reflection is there, but we fail to see it.
The story is told of a visit by President De Gaulle to the Louvre, who as he was being shown around by the Director of the Gallery, stopped at a painting and said ‘What a wonderful Matisse!’. The Director, rather embarrassed, pointed out that it was in fact a Chagall. In the next room, the President, keen to show his knowledge, admired a painting he thought was by Manet. The Director said ‘actually it’s a Monet’. In the third room, the President stood in front of a large frame and said ‘Ah, well I know this is a Picasso’. ‘No’, said the Director, ‘it’s a mirror’.
Today we are looking at the Church as a mirror of God’s love, and how as Christians we are all called to help the Church reflect that love in every aspect of its life.
But what is God’s love? The word love is of course debased through overuse. Hopefully when we say ‘I love you’ to our nearest and dearest we’re saying something more than when we say ‘I love chocolate’, although at times I’m not sure there is any difference. Love can so easily become self centred that we end up loving anything that gives us pleasure or makes us feel better. Love and like can be synonymous. I love what I like and I like what I love.
But God’s love is altogether different.
In our second reading this morning from St Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, we heard
‘We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing.’
As faith grows, love increases. But we can be sure that it doesn’t mean all is sweetness and light. The Church is indeed a divine institution, but it is also human, and subject to the same pressures and failings that happen whenever people gather in association together. We shouldn’t be surprised by that.
We are tempted to think that the chief Christian sufferings should be those inflicted by the world upon the Church, as we rather naively think, by the ‘wicked’ upon the ‘good’. Those sufferings are easy to bear compared with the peculiar sufferings we bear as Christians within the Church. The Church is where the tensions of human life have to be confronted on the deepest level. Eric Abbott, from a broadcast from the Chapel of King’s College, London.
Reflecting God’s love doesn’t mean papering over the cracks, and pretending. That’s not love. The love of God, that we are called to live by, to exhibit in our own lives and in our common life together does not avoid the pain and difficulty of living with one another, rather it embraces it. The church is not a club for the like minded, and we have to learn how to love those we dislike as much as those we like.
So what is the nature of the love that the Church is called to reflect in its life and its relationships?
In one of the strongest teachings of Our Lord we are shown the radical nature of God’s love.
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. St Luke 6
Loving, as Christ would have us love, is not easy. In the topsy turvy world of the gospel we are called to a new and very different way of loving. Do we love our enemies? Have we even begun to glimpse what it might be like to love those we don’t like? It’s not easy. But it is this that marks us out as Christians, and it is what Jesus is referring to when he says
‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ Jn 13.35
The love of God that we are called to reflect is markedly different in character than the love that is common to humanity.
The pattern is there, but it is far from easy.
From the Book of Jeremiah we heard how God was making a new covenant, one that would be written on the hearts of his people, a covenant of love that will bring such intimate knowledge of God that, in fact, all the old rules will no longer be necessary.
Christianity has struggled for two thousand years trying to reconcile itself with this new covenant of love. If church history says anything at all, it tells us how much trouble we’ve had believing that God’s love is in our hearts. We are so much more inclined to write canon laws and set up regulations for everything rather than to take the call to love one another seriously.
‘Christianity is not the laying down of a code of rules and regulations about what a person may or may not do, but it is about reflecting the love of God in every circumstance. It is about the making of a character of pure gold. Dom Bernard Clements.
It is a timely reminder as we approach the end of Lent. For if this season has been about nothing more than an attempt to keep the rules, to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and try to be better Christians then our time has been wasted and we will not be prepared for what comes next.
This Sunday marks the beginning of Passiontide, when the focus now turns sharply to events where all our rules and constructs collapse in the face of God’s love in Christ. In the words of our first hymn this morning
‘Inscribed upon the Cross we see in shining letters, ‘God is love’
This is where we see the love that we are called to embody and reflect. It is a love that is truly sacrificial, that gives and gives and gives.
MY song is love unknown,
My Saviour’s love to me,
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
O, who am I,
That for my sake
My Lord should take
Frail flesh, and die?
Here might I stay and sing
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King,
Never was grief like thine!
This is my Friend…
Love does not crucify others:
It crucifies itself.
You are as close to God
as to the person you like the least
‘Maybe the very fact that we struggle
to recreate the body,
the body of community,
and that we live with people
very different from one another
and from ourselves –
people who belong to different churches or religions
or have none,
people from different races, cultures, classes –
it is a sign that difference can become a treasure,
that war is not inevitable;
peace and unity are possible
because of a love that flows from the broken one,
who carries for eternity,
in his glorious body,
the wounds inflicted upon him.
Perhaps we can be a sign
of the value of each person,
no matter how broken,
no matter how poor
or how apparently useless he or she may appear to seem.
A sign that they carry a treasure in their hearts.
Perhaps we can help reveal the secret of the gospels:
that God chooses what is foolish
in order the confound the wise;
that God chooses what is weak
in order to confound the strong;
that God chooses what is lowest and most despised
to reveal his power and glory.
© Philip Chester