I don’t know if you have been using the ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ material over the last ten days, from Ascension to today. This has been encouraging us to pray, to open our hearts to the life and love of God in Jesus Christ, to seek his kingdom above and in all things, to be longing for the life of the Holy Spirit, which we celebrate today. It has been a period of encouragement to share this hope and longing in all our meetings and relating, to long for others to come and share in this life of hope. Some aspects of the material have been deep and profound, beautifully worded and perceptive of how life can be and feel.
On Thursday the theme was ‘adore’, and adoration and praise is the response our hearts make to the love of God that gives our lives meaning and hope. The reflection that accompanied this, if you were using that resource, popped into my email inbox. And it started so well, reflecting on the lure of celebrity and fame, the illusion of adoration which can mask a deep-seated insecurity and actually feelings which struggle to accept that we are adored and adorable. My disappointment grew, though, when I read words which talked of us not ‘deserving’ this love of God and knowing for ourselves “that we’re not really that adorable”. Oh dear, I thought, that subtle comment goes against so much of what I believe to be true at a profound and fundamental level. It also undermines the message it was trying to convey – an unfortunate slip, but one that may well display more than is realised. Let me explain.
The point of Jesus Christ is that he shows us what God is like. And it is in the nature of God to love. We exist because of this love, and it is God’s gift and giving which is the source and goal of our life. We are held in that love or we are nothing. ‘Deserving’ is not in the equation at all. Worthiness is not in the equation, except so far as we perceive it. God reaches into our lives with a loving embrace. And that can be almost unbearable, and extremely difficult to accept, but that is our baggage and not God’s. “God so loved the world” that he came as Jesus among us. He didn’t come despite the world, despite our unworthiness. That is not part of the deal or even on the table. It is love offered, love given, love shared and poured out for us. And all because it is in the nature of God to do this. So no choosing beyond choosing to be who God is.
This tension between how we see it or feel it and how God is, is expressed beautifully and powerfully in George Herbert’s poem ‘Love bade me welcome’. You may know it from Vaughan Williams evocative musical setting in his ‘Five Mystical Songs’. The soul draws back because it knows it is ‘guilty of dust and sin’. But quick-eyed love observes this and invites the soul to be the guest, ‘worthy to be here’. It is too much for the soul who protests unworthiness. But for God this is not the criterion. God made him and love him. Love says that he should sit and eat. But the soul, accepting to join the meal, says he will do so as the server, only worthy in his own eyes to wait on tables. This is rejected. ‘No you won’t’, says love, ‘you are my guest’. The nature of God is to love and we thrive and flourish in that love. It is radical, transforming and changes people for the better.
Yesterday we saw the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle; the Duke and Duchess of Sussex as they are now known. Love has transformed their lives; brought them joy and completion, which is a delight to see. Neither has had to earn that love; they gave it to one another because it is in their natures to love. It is in all our natures to love and in so doing we display the image of the one who made us and reaches out to us in loving embrace. In his sermon, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, Michael Curry, quoted Martin Luther King.
“We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world. Love is the only way.”
Love changes us. As Michael Curry went on to say:
“There’s power in love. Love can help and heal when nothing else can. Love can lift up and liberate for living when nothing else will.”
And this is true because God is love and all loving is hardwired into that nature of God.
So we come to our gospel reading (John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15). In these verses taken from John’s gospel, Jesus talks about the Spirit being sent and given, the Advocate, the Helper and Comforter, depending on your translation. ‘He will prove the world wrong about sin, righteousness and judgement.’ This is the anti-thesis of having to earn and deserve God’s gift and love. The world is wrong about sin precisely because it does not understand who Jesus is and what he represents. He represents the nature of God who loves and gives and blesses because that is who he is. It is wrong about what it means to be righteous because it does not depend on deserving, on anything we might do, but on God’s grace alone. We can do nothing to change or affect it. Jesus is going to the Father. That means he is who he is and that gives the authority for what he says. It is wrong about judgement because we have hope. The ruler of the world, the effect of sin, the power of evil and rebellion has been defeated in Christ’s cross and resurrection, in his ascension. God is God and so we bask in that loving embrace in Jesus Christ.
And that brings us to Pentecost, the gifting of the Holy Spirit. It is the gift of the fuel needed to fill us with the life and love of being adored. It is the counter to all the false searching in places where there can never be true fulfillment – be it fame, the latest experience of a high however induced: partying, drugs or alcohol, or hollow relating. The Holy Spirit is the grace and charism of God, and that is by its nature infused and overflowing with love.
So we do not come here as unworthy creatures, even if that is how we feel, even if that is how it might look if we measured ourselves up against the perfection of God, fallen as we are. We come as beloved, invited by the love. We come as guests of one whose nature is to give and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon us, and in us, is that love being made complete. For we are not left alone, comfortless, or abandoned by an absentee creator-owner. We are filled with the spirit of the divine which makes love the most powerful force in the world. It changes hearts, puts down weapons and bridges divides – not least oceans between peoples otherwise divided by a common language.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Pentecost, Sunday 20th May 2018