WELLS CATHEDRAL – A CALL TO JUST LOVE
September 22nd 2018
God is Love.
Above all the noise, above all the tumult, above all that Brexit negotiations and political power shenanigans, above all our sexuality discussions and internal church wranglings, above all that is going on in each of our lives, know this:
God is Love. And those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
It really is that simple.
And today we come to celebrate the truth about this wonderful, life changing, extravagant and unconditional love. The timeless truth that we love because He first loved us – a love revealed by the fact “that God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 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.”
Goodness, some of us have taken a life time to truly understand the enormity of this – indeed many of us are still struggling to accept that God loves us just as we are: uniquely different and equally loved. These words from John are so ancient, so familiar and yet so deeply profound. Love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
You see, these are truths that we have to own for ourselves, that we have to have revealed – not just in our heads but also in our hearts. I must admit I sometimes fear that we can become so familiar with certain Bible verses that they sadly lose their impact and power. Like the words of old familiar hymns, we recite them by rote without allowing their truth to really penetrate and transform our lives.
God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. There are no caveats, no exception clauses and no conditions. No preferred race or ethnicity, no preferred social status or churchmanship, no preferred gender or sexuality. Nothing we can do or be can ever make God love us more, or less.
None are exempt. All are welcome. Even those with whom we disagree.
This is a truth that has transformed my life – indeed I would safely say has saved my life. I talk about it at the very start of my book, Just Love, where I tell of an incident that happened at one of the darkest points of my life. It occurs at home just after my first breakdown, where I had been hospitalised due to the inner turmoil of me trying desperately yet unsuccessfully to reconcile my faith with my sexuality.
I have just woken, and am lamenting the fact that I’m still alive, having begged God to take me the previous night because I couldn’t take the pain and stress of being in this agonising state of feeling so desperately conflicted any more. So I go on to say:
“I feel like an animal!”
I felt a surge of anger course through me and shouted out aloud into the empty room. “What makes me any different to an animal, heh God?”
Tears of sheer frustration rolled down onto my pillow as I encountered deafening silence. And then, a voice – so recognisable and so familiar, so quiet and yet so reassuring, which said: “Your ability to love, Jayne.”
I thought about this briefly then, emboldened by my anger and the painful memory this had touched, I snapped back: “No, I’m not having that. Harry (my kitten) loved me! Animals can love you know!”
“Ah Jayne, but you can respond in love to any situation I put you in, because I AM love, and I AM in you, and you are in Me!”
Was it an audible voice? I still don’t know. It was as loud and clear as someone standing right next to me. But whether real or imagined, this articulated truth turned my life upside down.
“I AM love.”
I finally understood. It was so simple but so profound.
I could respond in love to any situation that I was in, because God IS love.
It really is just that simple. We are called to JUST LOVE – no matter who, no matter where, no matter how, no matter why.
JUST LOVE! That’s all. The rest is up to God.
But is it really just that simple? We are human after all – with a range of emotions that, let’s be honest, don’t always end up with us showing love to those we care about, let alone those who reject and hurt us, who revile and hate us, who write all manner of unkind and untrue things about us, impugning our motives and our faith.
How do we respond to a call to “Just Love” in such circumstances?
Do we give up and say it’s just too difficult, that Jesus didn’t really mean it when he tells us to “love our enemies”, or that John got it wrong when he says:
“Whoever claims to love God and hates a brother or a sister is a liar”?
Does loving people who reject and abuse us mean that we should not also get angry with them, that we should passively roll over and just keep turning the other cheek?
No, not at all, for that in itself would be just another form of abuse!
So what is the appropriate way to respond?
Well, I believe we have to look at how Jesus chose to deal with these situations. Did He get angry? Yes of course. But perhaps, most importantly is why he got angry?
I wonder if we can each take a moment to reflect on what makes us angry?
Seriously…what is it that gets you feeling steamed up and hot under the collar?
Now, I’m not talking about listening to John Humphries on the Today Programme, or even the state of our Brexit negotiations…
No, what gets you really angry? I recently asked my neighbour this, and he said:
“It’s easy – injustice, hypocrisy and bullying.”
I must admit I thought that this was a rather good list, and certainly one that summed up where I was coming from too, although I suppose I would have liked to have added: “especially from those who should know better”.
You see, there seems to be something even more unjust, even more hypocritical, even more hurtful when the perpetrator is someone who is in a position of power or trust over those in their care, especially those in positions of spiritual power – those who appear to profess one thing, and yet knowingly do the very opposite.
It’s why the world is so disgusted by the child sex abuses scandals uncovered in both the Catholic and Anglican churches – of which, sadly, I fear we are to hear far more. It’s why we find it hard to understand how the Church – particularly the evangelical wing of the Church – sought to so vigorously defend the institution of slavery. During my recent trips to the United States, I’ve become far more aware of the horrendous scourge of racism that still exists in society – both there and here.
I’ve been reading the speeches of Frederick Douglas, a former slave and one of the leading abolitionists, who was a firm believer in the equality of all peoples - whether black, female, Native American or immigrant. On September 14th 1846 he gave a rousing speech in London entitled “Slavery in the Pulpit of the Evangelical Alliance”:
“It is from the pulpit that we have sermons on behalf of slavery…I have heard sermon after sermon, when a slave, intended to make me satisfied with my condition, telling me that it is the position God intended me to occupy; that if I offend against my master, I offend against God; that my happiness in time and eternity depends on my entire obedience to my master.. …
“I have been the slave of religious and irreligious slaveholders, and I bear my testimony, that next to being a slave at all, I regard the greatest calamity to be that of belonging to a religious slaveholder. I have found them the most mean, the most exacting, the most cruel.”
This was a man who famously believed in making alliances across racial and ideological divides, stating he would “unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.” I rather wish he was still alive today to speak out in the US!
The fact is well made though, that the injustice seems even more abhorrent when practiced by those within the Church, those who profess the love of God, who read and proclaim 1 John 4:21 “that he who loves God must love his brother also” and yet then do exactly the opposite, using scripture as a weapon to justify their cruelty.
It is this that makes me really angry – and I believe it is what made Jesus really angry too. We see it in our Gospel reading, and from his other encounters with those who were supposed to save life rather than destroy it – those who laid heavy burdens on people that they couldn’t carry, those whose hardened hearts caused yet more pain and cruelty, whose sheer hypocrisy was an afront to the Gospel of Love.
Oh yes, Jesus got angry. But he never did so out of fear or selfish ambition, but only ever when he encountered an offence against the Law of Love. When those who should know better did or said something that hindered people from knowing and receiving the unconditional Love of God. This is what I believe angered Jesus the most, and still does. Offences against the Law of Love, often due to a love of law.
So we need to look at the motivation behind our anger. Is it fuelled by love or fear?
If the latter, then we need to allow the redemptive power of love to do its work. If it’s out of love, then I believe we need to allow our passion to rise up and show.
For it is when we are both passionate and angry that our resolve to do something is at its highest. Again, we see this modelled in Jesus, particularly with his cleansing of the temple, where his passion for it being a place for all people is matched solely by his anger at the profiteering that was going on and the barriers this created for people in their ability to worship. He was driven by love, as He always is, and was angry at those who were driven by anything else.
And, quite frankly, I think we need to get more passionate and more angry about the pain that the LGBTI community is often subjected to – frequently, sadly, at the hands of those in the Church. It is time to show our righteous anger and together, loudly say “enough is enough” – the way you are treating us is an afront to the Gospel of Love. You see the same things that Jesus railed against to the religious leaders of his day still exist in our Church today – I can see four in particular:
Firstly, Hypocrisy – saying one thing and yet doing another, especially when it comes to turning a blind eye to the actions of some. Jesus called out hypocrisy in religious leaders repeatedly when he saw it. For me, one of the most hypocritical things is to profess the truths set out in our reading, such as “whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him and he in God” and then teach a completely different message that puts legalistic constraints on it. Similarly, I find it highly hypocritical for Christians to preach about a Gospel of Love, knowing that God tells us to love each other (even our enemies) and then decide instead to hurl abuse and insults at us – be it on social media, in blogs or at Pride marches.
Secondly, Superiority – placing burdens on people that they themselves are not willing to bear, such as teaching that we need to be celibate for life while knowing full well that even Jesus said this was a gift that only certain people had been given.
Thirdly, being Lukewarm – or sitting on a fence, trying to please everyone all the time. Be hot, be cold, but please don’t try and be all things to all men – and please stop trying to sit on a razor wire fence on these issues, it is impossible to do and will only end up causing pain to yourself and those who look to you for leadership!
And finally, fourthly, Hardheartedness – having a form of legalism that would rather see people suffer and be hurt, rather than flourish and be all that God has created them to be. We see it in our Gospel reading – with Jesus healing a man with a withered hand in a synagogue on a Sabbath. Jesus was “grieved by their hardness of hearts” and so asked those in the synagogue (those who should have known better) “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” and they had refused to answer. You see, they were putting a Gospel of Law ahead of a Gospel of Love, and that’s what angered Jesus. They seemed totally unmoved by the plight of the fellow human stood in front of them, and instead could only see their rule book. It amazes me that there are many religious leaders today who seem to do exactly the same – they are completely aware of the pain they are constantly causing by their teachings, and yet they can only see their legalistic rule book.
Dear Friends, we are indeed called to Just Love all and everyone. However, I believe this also means that we must also get passionate and angry against offences against the Gospel of Love. It is time I think we took a stronger stand against offences that undermine and negate the message of God’s amazing Gospel of Love for all. I truly believe that is what Jesus would be doing if He were with us here today. He would be calling out those who are in positions of authority – be it spiritual, political or wherever there is a power differential - who teach and preach against a Gospel of Love – either by being hypocritical, by being superior, by being lukewarm or by hardening their hearts to the plights of those around them.
It’s why I called my book “Just Love” – because whilst we need to learn to be motivated by “just love”, we also need to ensure we preach a “just” love – a love that is fair, equal and unconditional. A love without exceptions, where all means all.
This is the truth about love:
“Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God…God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.”
It really is that simple.