The Reverend Robert Reiss Canon of Westminster
Sunday, 19th August 2007
In this month in which I have been Canon-in-Residence I have been looking at the three Christian virtues identified in the thirteenth chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, faith, hope and love. So today on this third Sunday we come to the final one, love.
All the main writers of the New Testament see love as a fundamental characteristic of Christian living. The gospels record Jesus’ summary of the law as being ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.’ St John describes love as the most fundamental characteristic of God himself, ‘God is love’ and ascribes to love the motive for God’s relationship with the world through Jesus Christ; ‘God so loved the world that he sent his only son’, and St Paul said that of the three virtues of faith, hope and love, that ‘the greatest of these is love’. So it is seen as central to the character of God himself, and therefore seen as an essential characteristic of those who follow God both in their relationship with him and with their neighbour.
But of course that religious use has competition in the way the word is used in much popular writing, where it is often confined to the romantic attachment between two people, sometimes it must be said overlaid with a good deal of sheer sentimentality. Of course there are proper connections between the ways the word is used in both contexts. Perhaps both contain the three essential elements of love, of recognising or bestowing value on another, of seeking intimacy and union with the object that is loved, and of exercising care and service for the one who is loved, but I suspect for many the notion that all those three elements can be there in our love for God and his love for us is not always recognised. So let me think about each of those in relationship to our love for God and his for us.
Take first the recognising or bestowing of value. It is very easy to say that we love God, but what does that really mean? That obviously hinges on what we believe about God, but if we include in our idea of God the notion that he is the being at the very heart of our universe and world, that which gives meaning and purpose to the whole thing, I suggest loving him means at least that we value the world as his creation, see his life giving spirit in all around us and really give that a pre-eminent place in our fundamental approach to the world. Yet contrast that with another approach to the world that we can see all too clearly in our contemporary society, and into which if we are honest it is very easy for many of us to fall; to see the world and all that is in it as something for us to plunder and to use for our own benefit and pleasure. Really loving God, in the sense of recognising the value of him and the creation as his, will make a substantial difference to how we view everything. It is not just a pious idea; it really can change our attitudes and behaviour if we take it seriously.
And that will apply also to the second aspect of love, seeking intimacy and union with the object of our love. Of course that language can more easily be understood in the erotic context of sexual love, but there are various Greek words translated as love in the New Testament, and the one that is normally used for Christian love, agape, has different connotations from that of eros, which is the one used of the sort of love talked about in teenage magazines. And agape can include seeking intimacy and union as well, but not in a sexual way. Indeed one way of looking at prayer is to see it as the process of trying to achieve just that intimacy. Prayer is not a process of our trying to persuade God to do something that he would not otherwise do, but rather a process of allowing him to mould and make us into the people he wants us to be. Most of us for much of the time view the world with ourselves at the centre, with the fulfilment of our needs and wishes being primary. But prayer is a process whereby the centre of our thinking can be moved from focussing on our own concerns to trying to focus on the world as God sees it, and then to allow that intimacy with him, which includes our own sense of being loved by him, to form the basis of our actions and attitudes.
It is, of course, important that we check our understanding of God in that process. No doubt those who flew the planes into the twin towers on 9/11 thought they were doing that, so we do need to check that the vision of God we have is one that is consistent with the loving God revealed by Jesus Christ. But as long as it is then prayer as a process of seeking intimacy and even union with God can again become a powerful factor influencing not just how we think and believe, but how we behave as well. Seeking intimacy and union with the God whom we love and who loves us will also bring about change.
And that applies to the third aspect of love, exercising care and service for the one who is loved. That obviously covers the service of God, but we are also called by God to love our neighbours as ourselves. To place other people’s good at the very least on a par with our own good - that is one of the claims of love. There can be no room for simply using other people for our own ends irrespective of the effect of our actions on them. That is surely inconsistent with seeking the good of others. Of course in practice it is never quite as simple as that, or at least not when there are groups of people involved. Different people desire different good things, and they are not all compatible with one another, so sometimes love demands making difficult and complex choices. But then who ever suggested that being a Christian was a simple and straightforward thing. Any serious process of loving inevitably entails being immersed in the difficulties and complexities of human life.
But in the process to know that we are loved by God, to love him and to love our neighbours does provide a touchstone by which to judge all our actions. Maybe that is why St Paul said of faith, hope and love that ‘the greatest of these is love.’