Sermon given at Evensong on the Second Sunday of Christmas 2022

God is love, and love is his first gift to us.

The Reverend David Stanton Canon in Residence

Sunday, 2nd January 2022 at 3.00 PM

As the procession of choir and clergy entered the Abbey this afternoon, we passed beside the memorial to Nelson Mandela and my mind turned to his memorial service here back in 2014 which was attended by Prince Harry and David Cameron, the then Prime Minister.

The address was given by archbishop Desmond Tutu and I remember him saying of Nelson Mandela that he made us all believe that each one of us are made of goodness.

My mind also turned to reflect upon the recent death of archbishop Desmond Tutu, the last truly global figure from an era when South Africa taught the world what courage and reconciliation could achieve.

The archbishop’s funeral took place yesterday in the cathedral of St George in Cape Town, and his ashes will later be interred behind the pulpit there, where he used to preach with such passion against racial injustice.

At his requiem mass yesterday, president Cyril Ramaphosa described him as South Africa’s moral compass and national conscience.

In many ways, archbishop Tutu did as much as anyone (including even Nelson Mandela) to bring apartheid in South Africa to its knees, and leading to the formation of a democratically elected government under Mandela himself.

Desmond Tutu was ordained a priest in 1960, the year that I was born, and he was the first black Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, consecrated in 1986, the year I was ordained a priest.

As we all know, he was a courageous political campaigner, some would even say firebrand, against the blatant injustices meted out to the non-white population of South Africa.

But his love for all people and his obvious personal kindness and his wit endeared him more than ever to the proponents worldwide of the anti-apartheid cause.

In his final years, remarkably active in the light of his cancer, Tutu campaigned in many parts of the world for human rights and freedoms, and I had the privilege to meet him many times here in the Abbey.

It was his deep love for all people (both black and white) coupled with his infectious laugh that will be his enduring legacy, a love that was firmly based on the love of Jesus Christ.

At times, this must have been severely tested, but preaching on Christmas Eve in 1967 (seven years after Tutu’s ordination to the Priesthood) Martin Luther King reminded his hearers of the difference that love can make to our world:

“This is what Jesus meant when he said, ‘Love your enemies.’ And I’m happy that he didn’t say, ‘Like your enemies,’ because there are some people that I find it pretty difficult to like. Liking is an affectionate emotion, and I can’t like anybody who would bomb my home. I can’t like anybody who would exploit me. I can’t like anybody who would trample over me with injustices. I can’t like them. I can’t like anybody who threatens to kill me day in and day out. But Jesus reminds us that love is greater than liking. Love is understanding, creative, redemptive good will toward all”.

Our New Testament Lesson this afternoon came from the first Letter of St John. In the first four short verses of this reading, St John uses the word “love” nine times!

His message is very clear: God is love, and love is his first gift to us. God is an exchange of love between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Here we see that God invites us to share in that exchange of love by pouring out his love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

He is explaining to us that we who have been created by God out of love are called to love in return; love is our fundamental vocation. The way we can be sure that God lives in us is if we love as God loves.

Since we are made in the image and likeness of God, love is what he asks of us in return. So, we are reminded once again that God’s gift to us is his beloved Son, sent to offer himself as expiation for our sins so we might have eternal life through him.

This is the good news that we are called to share with others. Our mission as Christians is to share the good news, which is in turn, rooted in God’s very identity as love itself.

Jesus summarizes the commandments for us in terms of love: love God and love neighbour as yourself.

In other words, how well we love is the measure of our union with God and the benchmark by which we will ultimately be judged by Christ.

Both Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu were both committed churchmen and sophisticated thinkers who attempted to interpret the Gospel message from the perspective of those who suffer.

As Nobel Prize recipients, we should see King and Tutu as “moral exemplars” in a global context. Their vision of peace and community, deeply in the Judeo-Christian heritage, has had lasting value to peoples of diverse languages and regions.

But during this Christmas season we are also reminded that Christmas is the feast of love incarnate and born for us in Jesus Christ.

He is the light of all people, shining in the darkness, giving meaning to human existence and to the whole of history.

Furthermore, Christmas invites us to reflect, on the one hand, on the drama of history, in which all of us men and women, wounded by sin, ceaselessly search for truth, search for mercy and search for redemption; and, on the other hand, on the goodness of God, who has come towards us to communicate to us the truth that saves and to make us sharers in His friendship and His life.

So, as we enter 2022, the life and witness of archbishop Desmond Tutu gives us particular inspiration and encouragement for the difficult times that we are all currently facing.

Here we see a man of deep faith and the utmost integrity, who lived through the terrible times of apartheid in South Africa and who was a prime mover in bringing this to an end.