The love above all others

IMG_2378Every now and then the gospels portray Jesus in a way that startles. We are so used to public figures guarding their words that we could wish they spoke a bit more frankly at times. Every nuance of what they say is examined by people ready to pounce at the slightest infringement of what is expected or deemed acceptable. So the head of Ofsted resigned over the summer following lack of care in how he referred to the Isle of Wight. Having been the vicar of an area where the gene pool needed expanding, where the local health visitors and podiatrists told me about the additional toes, and where there were significant learning challenges in the local schools, I had an inkling as to what he might have been referring, but there were more respectful ways of saying it. His words were jumped on and condemned. Careless words can cost jobs.

Jesus used some very surprising language in our gospel reading (Luke 14:25-33). He told his hearers that they should “hate” their parents, children and siblings, even life itself. If they didn’t do this, they could not be his disciples. Still reeling from that, they were told that unless they embraced the way of execution and shame, their cross, they could not be one of his disciples. The point behind this came in what followed, that they needed to know what the cost was so that they followed him with their eyes wide open, that they entered into this fully aware of what was involved. But still, ‘hate’ is a very strong and an emotive way of putting it. In English ‘hatred’ refers to intense dislike and strong aversion.   We have ‘hate crimes’, which are usually violent offences motivated by some form of prejudice, not least racial or sexual prejudice. To put it mildly, it is very strange to us to be encouraged by the gospels to adopt hatred as a sign of being one of Jesus’ followers.

It won’t, perhaps, surprise you then that all is not as it seems. The word translated as ‘hate’ turns out to be more subtle. Its more likely meaning is ‘to love less’ or ‘leave aside and abandon’. That is still a challenge because we expect to love and be loved by those closest to us fully and children need to know that they are loved, that they are their parents’ priority. In fact depriving them of unconditional, full love is very much seen as neglect and not an environment conducive for them to grow and flourish. And we would expect that loving is itself to be seen as an outpouring of the Christian character, which is infused by love, by the love of God.

It is here that we begin to find a way into what Jesus was referring to. All love stems from God’s love. It is because God loves us that we can have any hope of loving. Our love is rooted in God’s love for the creation and which is hardwired into creation. So to love anyone we have to connect with that foundational love which brought the world into being and holds it in God’s purposes. As the writer of the First Letter of John put it, “God is love and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them” (1 John 4:16).

But there is more to this love of God standing above all other loves. The foundation of our loving is our love of God and loving another or any other is not a substitute. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is not something we do with the spare bits of our lives that are not allocated to something else. Following Jesus Christ is the primary goal and call on who we are. Everything else flows from it. How that is expressed, though, is another matter. We English people don’t tend to go in for particularly passionate religious expression. We tend to be rather reserved and see the emotive outpouring of faith as being excessive and it makes us uncomfortable when we see it. So when a group from one of the newer churches in the city walked into Cathedral Square on Friday afternoon singing the praises of Jesus very loudly and exuberantly, I was very much out of my comfort zone. I am much more reserved than that. But it is not that far from what I do every time I kneel for my morning prayers, as my outlook is reset for the day ahead, just much more quietly and privately. It is what lies behind what we do as we gather here to remember Jesus with bread and wine in the great thanksgiving prayer of the Eucharist. It is what we do when we ‘sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ (Colossians 3:16), at the moment to the accompaniment of the piano, but in time to the magnificent sound of the soon to be restored mighty organ. The cultural expression is very different but the passion and faith behind them both is far more similar, and rooted in the same whole-life commitment.

With this heart that responds at its deepest point to the love and call of God in Christ comes a further challenge, that is to realize the potential cost of this. It is to risk, to be so committed to it as the reason for life that it is the priority for life, even if that means that life being threatened. There were news reports this week about a suggestion that clergy should not wear clerical attire in case it attracts attacks. This came from a particular group and followed on from recent terrorist activity. Most of the responses I saw from fellow clergy saw this as being alarmist and it struck at the heart of what we stand for. It came to mind yesterday as I walked through the city centre in full robes to lead a prayer outside the Town Hall as the Red Ensign was raised for Merchant Navy Day, far from incognito. Making statements about what matters most to us, be it by flying flags or forms of dress, is important. The alternative is that we hide and give in to the secular delusion that it is possible to have a neutral space where they are all removed. It is not. All of us have an ideology that lies behind our values, our living and our loving. For those of us who follow Jesus Christ, it comes from Christ and so we can do no other than make that explicit.

That may bring a cost, it inevitably will where there is conflict with other ideologies. For Paul, in our first reading from his letter to Philemon, it led to incarceration, and it is clear from his letter that he wrote from prison (Philemon 1-21). This was because what he said was seen as being seditious, against the accepted values of a state that expected that it would hold ‘the allegiance beyond all others’. Totalitarian regimes often put themselves in the place of God and think they stand above the divine. This is one of the disturbing sides of the French burkini ban and the forced uncovering of women on beaches. There is an understandable concern that faces are visible – otherwise people become non-people and you can’t relate to them as people. We expect people to remove crash helmets when entering banks and the burka is the same, covering as it does the whole face. Headscarves and the hijab are different. Are we going to ban nuns from beaches because they also wear headdress? For us how we are, who we are, is rooted in our allegiance to Christ.

As we think about this, Paul’s letter to Philemon adds a further dimension. Having lost their slave Onesimus Paul offers him back to the recipients of his letter, not as a slave, but as a beloved brother. They are to welcome Onesimus as they would welcome Paul. He will flourish and so will they in the grace and freedom that comes from knowing they are the beloved. The cost comes in different guises. It is easy to focus on the darker side of the cross, of knowing the price of the force to be expended in the venture, of the cost of the consequences when what we stand for clashes with another ideology. But it also comes in the pouring out of blessing, of grace being expended as an investment and rewarded in the return.

Talking of ‘hating’ life, parents, children, skews the message to our ears. It is more that the first love, the foundation of our loving is the love of and for God. By definition all other loving will be secondary but nonetheless profound and deep. I don’t think our translators, those who chose the word, have helped us here. Ultimately all of us stand alone before the saving grace of God. That saving grace calls us to love and blesses us with love, but it is not to be replaced by any other loving. It is the root of who we are and all we shall be.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 4th September 2016

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About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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