Sermon preached at the Sung Eucharist on the Fourth Sunday before Advent 2023

Many of us don’t love ourselves nearly enough.

The Reverend Mark Birch MVO Precentor

Sunday, 5th November 2023 at 11.15 AM

The greatest love of all, according to George Benson, later Whitney Houston, (but, to my mind, both eclipsed by Shirley Bassey) – the greatest love of all is learning to love yourself.

This is the necessary third wheel of the double love commandment that we heard Jesus affirming in the gospel – love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour, as yourself.

Many of us don’t love ourselves nearly enough.  Many suffer what therapists would call a persecutory inner object, and what tradition has often referred to as demons – voices within that accuse, belittle, undermine, that tell us in all kinds of subtle ways that we aren’t really good enough.  Many of us are so accustomed to these voices that we just take them for granted – we don’t even notice them – we just assume this must be the truth about us.  Not good enough – or worse, fundamentally bad.  This is the root of a great deal of unhappiness, even mental illness.

Some of us, of course, love ourselves far too much.  So much so that we think ourselves above any kind of criticism, from within or without.  This is called narcissism, and when narcissism is mixed with financial or political power, we should all be very afraid.  We should never give them our vote.

Loving ourselves properly, ordinately, is no easy matter, and, despite the ‘never mind what the world says, I’m going to love myself anyway’ hutzpah of the song, it isn’t something we can do alone, unaided.  Loving yourself cannot be separated from the love of neighbour, and indeed, the love of God – love given, and love received.

But there is a trope within Christianity that pushes against the proper love of self, typified by the mantra,

 “a heart of steel towards self, a heart of flesh towards man, a heart of flame towards God.”

It is sometimes ascribed to Fr Benson, founder of the Cowley Fathers, who used to reside in St Edward’s House, round the corner, on Tufton Street.  We have all met them – prayerful, holy souls that are scrupulously kindly to everyone but themselves – we might be one of them.  As if holiness requires us to be impossibly hard, frankly unloving, towards ourselves.

Those folk certainly prove the lie to the saying that you can’t love other people unless you love yourself first.  That is clearly not true, but that is not to say that learning to love yourself isn’t a holy endeavour – part of our calling as saints.

However, when anyone tells me I should love myself more, I want to ask them if they’ve actually met me?  You don’t have to be especially hard on yourself, you only need a modicum of self-knowledge, to know that loving yourself is going to be a bit of a challenge.  The things that go on in our hearts and minds, the secret fantasies and addictions, let alone the things we sometimes say or do (or fail to do), make us not exactly the sort of person we might want to befriend, let alone love.

So, to the central point – we simply cannot love ourselves alone, unaided.  To love the complicated creature we find ourselves to be, we need to know that we are loveable; which is to say that we are the recipients of love, and love’s necessary lieutenant, forgiveness.

The letter to the Hebrews we heard earlier focusses heavily on the atoning quality of Christ’s sacrifice; sanctifying us and renewing our communion with God.  To receive Christ, as we do in the Eucharist, is to receive forgiveness, to receive the love that is extended to us – the love that tells us we are loveable despite everything; the love on which basis we might learn to love ourselves and others properly.

The debate over which is the first commandment, in Mark’s gospel, ends intriguingly with the scribe , having delighted in what Jesus has said, about loving God and loving your neighbour as yourself – giving this gloss: ‘This – the scribe says - is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ To which Jesus says ‘you are not far from the kingdom of God.’  The solemnity and finality of this statement is underlined by the fact that we are told there were no further questions.

The scribe dares to imagine an ethic built on love rather than sacrifice – something that the psalmist and the prophet Hosea had hinted at, but which would have been pretty unimaginable in the context of the Jerusalem Temple, and the rituals surrounding atonement in particular. 

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews explains the finality of Christ’s sacrifice,

when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption

Once eternal redemption is achieved, the need for sacrifice ends.

At Evensong a few weeks ago, the Canon Rector mentioned the work of Rene Girard, and the fresh perspective it offers on Christ’s work of atonement.  For Gerard and those who have developed his work, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus works by unveiling, showing to us, not so much what we do to goats and calves, but what we do to one another – to the scapegoats we sacrifice for the sake of maintaining peace – we who mimic one another’s desire, finding ourselves in rivalries that easily become deadly, heaping the blame on some ‘other’.  Jesus, as the innocent victim, not in any sense our rival, reveals, uncovers this scapegoating mechanism, and by his resurrection offers us freedom from it – freedom, finally to love our neighbour without rivalry; without sacrificing anyone.

To take a trivial example, how much of our friendships are based on a shared dislike of certain other people?  How much of our love of nation, and our shared national identity, gets bound up with the rejection of others who we agree to regard as a threat; immigrants, for example. 

Sacrifice goes on – scapegoats are sent away, sometimes to their death, certainly to their detriment.  Jesus unmasks this by the offering of his own innocent blood – and challenges us to see where our love of neighbour falls short.

Whereas it is always tempting as human beings, especially on this side of the enlightenment, always jealous of scientific method, to split things up; treat things in isolation from one another; we simply cannot do that with love.  Loving God, loving our neighbour as ourselves – these things cannot be divided.

We cannot love ourselves in isolation – not until we know we are loveable and forgiven.  That requires at least one other person, or, better, God.

We cannot love our neighbour, with whom we are in constant rivalry; trying to patch up our conflicts by casting-out some agreed scapegoat or another.  We cannot love our neighbour unless we are shown what we do, by the innocent victim, who was rejected, died and was raised to tell us that we are forgiven; and that love, free from rivalry, is possible.

We cannot love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength if we already love ourselves too much, or too little.

The greatest love of all is not just learning to love yourself.  It is learning to find yourself loved and forgiven; free to love and forgive in turn.  To find yourself in a whole economy of love – the love of the Trinity – where love of God, neighbour and self is indivisible, inexhaustible, and eternal.