The Reverend Professor Vernon White Sub-Dean and Canon Theologian
Sunday, 20th August 2017 at 11.15 AM
What are you & I, as fellow human beings, made for? What’s our most basic drive in life? To compete, to succeed at all costs in the biological rat race for survival? To satisfy some primal Nieztscherian will for power? To satisfy our sensual desires? Yes: in some measure, all of the above. But deeper than all those natural drives, we are also made for something even more primal, more powerful, more distinctively human: we’re all made for the spiritual purpose of love. To love and be loved is the deepest human desire and drive. That is the heart of Christian belief.
And so it’s the nature of love I now want to talk about, briefly, tonight. Not in order to duck or deny the reality of other darker evil drives. How could we, today, sitting again in the shadow of yet more attacks in Europe, remembering the evil which has been unleashed on the people of Spain and Finland - Barcelona reminding us too of Paris, Berlin, Manchester, Westminster, Mosul, so many others. No, we cannot and must not deny the reality of evil. Yet we’re not wanting to succumb to it either. And so that does mean remembering the power of goodness too. Which is why I want to think now about love.
But what then is this deeper drive of love?
Just the word ‘love’ isn’t self-interpreting, of course. It can melt into meaning almost anything, and therefore too easily mean nothing. The same word ‘love’, after all, is used for sentimentality and sex; for family, friends, and partners; for music and mystical experience; for chocolates and fast cars: in other words, for our attraction to almost anything or anyone. But in Christian faith love does have sharper definition. It’s been embodied, given real shape. It means the sort of love seen specifically in Christ, where it does have a unique and definite form, and a unique authority.
The form of it is a profound self-giving: a giving which sets no pre-conditions; needs no response. It may long for a response - but it doesn’t depend on it because it really is concentrated on the need of the beloved, not its own need. And this means it’s more than friendship. Friendship does need mutuality, a sense of return, if only the natural reward of finding something in common. But Christ-like love doesn’t need that: it’s an unconditional giving, to friend or stranger. It doesn’t depend either on finding any obvious attractiveness in the beloved. Instead, it actually confers value and attractiveness on the beloved by the very power of loving. This means it’s more than erotic love too. Erotic love does depend on finding the beloved attractive, electrically attractive! But Christ-love doesn’t. Think of the people Christ paid attention to: the lepers, tax collectors, the mixed bag of his own disciples. Christ did not find them attractive - his love made them attractive. That is powerful love indeed. It’s called grace…
To be clear, this doesn’t downgrade friendship and erotic love. They too are good gifts of God, to be celebrated as close relations of Christ-like love; so close they often help lead us into this more powerful love; friendship and erotic love can, so to speak, kick start us into Christ-like love and are often included in it. Even so, Christ-like love does also have this unique meaning and power which goes beyond them; this unique form of unconditional self-giving, and value-giving
Its unique authority lies simply in the fact that it derives from Christ, who is a unique revelation of God Himself. So this love is none other than the love of God. Not just the love God does but also the love that God is. For in Christ , especially in his relationship to His Father through the Spirit, we see this love as the very structure of God’s being as Trinity; as such, it is the structure, the deep DNA, of ultimate reality. And that, of course, is what means it must also be the deepest motivating force and goal of all reality. It is this love, not greed or power or survival, which must be what gives ultimate spiritual meaning to everything, as surely as the Higgs Boson particle gives physical mass to everything…
Where do we find this deep drive of love in action?
Pre-eminently, as I’ve said, we find it in the life of Christ. But in fact it is everywhere else too, if we look hard. It’s there in all the great stories of faith. It was there even in that second reading we heard: the narrative of Pauls journeying to Derbe & Lystra Phrygia & Galatia, Troas, then called over to Macedonia. At first sight this seems little more than breathless, fleeting snapshots of a 1st century travelogue. But look at what actually drove it, what it was all for: that travel from town to town was, we were told, ‘to deliver the decision of the Council of Jerusalem’, which in turn was none other than a definitive ruling about precisely this sort of love and grace: an historic acceptance that all people, Gentiles as well as Jews, have equal value conferred on them by the love of God, whether or not we have any kinship, commonality, natural friendship with them.
Which leads me to this final thought about love in action. Namely, that it is also necessarily a drive to justice. After all, in a world where in fact everyone is not equal; in a world where people are different, different in their natural attractiveness to us and natural claims on us; in a world where biological and social life is inevitably unequal - in such a world this love must also be a drive to justice, because when love gazes on this sort of world it must try to transform it. Not by denying the differences. But simply by unequivocally affirming that absolute, universal, equal value in all, and seeking to confer that value, whatever the differences.
That is why Jesus, as the embodiment of love, also inevitably stood in a prophetic tradition which worked for social justice. That is why (as Martin Luther King said), when God is love ‘the arc of His universe, however long, must in the end also bend towards justice’. And so must we. It is a truth recent events in Charlottesville have surely again crystallized. However dark the opposing forces, they cannot be the deepest drivers of this world, or victors. Not when God is love…
What are we all ultimately for? For love - and so also for justice. An impossible ideal? No - because it’s God’s ideal, not just ours. And with God all things are possible.