Sometimes I fear that my theology is too love focused and that this makes me somehow ‘light weight and fluffy’. But then there are seasons like Christmas that make is clear that it is all about love. And the readings we have this coming Sunday make it clear that Christmas, and the coming of love among us, is not a single event but a journey, a process which is grounded in our central certainty that the love of God has been expressed from the beginning of the world and encompasses all of us who inhabit this world. (RCL Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 147:12-20; Ephesians 1:3-14; and John 1:1-18.)
I love that the Hebrew Scriptures often have such a physical whole-of-person and community understanding of blessing, of love manifest! “ … and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord … their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.” And the psalmist says: “Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem! Praise your God, O Zion! For he strengthens the bars of your gates; he blesses your children within you. He grants peace within your borders; he fills you with the finest of wheat.” Many of us have just shared Christmas with our families and friends (or longed to if we were isolated or separated) and is this not what we want – to be protected, to have our children and grandchildren blessed, to have peace among ourselves and to be full of good food and drink? Love is not only an emotion it is a whole of person and community experience of being cared for with the good things and experiences of life.
Ephesians make it clear that love is our foundation, the form in which grace makes itself manifest, and our great task is to learn how to receive love, how to share love, and how to grow most fully into that loving union we are called to. When we hear that the Word came into the world in order that love might abide with us, among us and in us we are not being told a child’s simple story to comfort us so that one day when we are spiritual grown ups we can hear a more important message than love. This is the all encompassing story – that our foundation is love and that the call as we ‘ grow up’ is to grow into the demands of love.
If we have ever seriously had to work at love - maybe as children of struggling or absent parents, as parents, as partners or friends of those going through a time of great difficulty we will know that love is not a lightweight or easy calling. My husband has PTSD after decades of being a first responder and he has taught me more about love than anyone else both in his loving nature when he is well and also in those times when he is struggling most and in the ‘pit of despair’ when I have to work out what love most looks like in this moment and then in the next moment. To find the right mixture of tenderness and toughness, forgiveness and challenge, encouragement and distance. Love is the most demanding as well as rewarding call, the most glorious state of being and the most self-emptying risk-taking act of surrender. For those of us who aspire to being right minded and right in our practice, who prefer to be independent and self sufficient, who desire to be worthy of the love that we are given and want others to be worthy of our love, then biblical love is a dreadfully wonderful surprise as we do not deserve love but are promised it; we are told this is where we come from and yet where we need to grow toward. Love is our beginning, the journey we need to go on, and the destination. Love is the goal and the process.
And yet love does not easily or instantly cure everything. Even Jesus the Word made flesh was not recognised by so many of who he came to be with. If Jesus - the one who most perfectly embodied the love of God - was not always well responded to then what chance do we think we have? Why are we surprised that sometimes our love is not well received? Or that our love does not fix everything that hurts? We can start each day with affirmations and gratitude, we can agree with every meme that instructs us to love without counting the cost, we can pray heart felt prayers for the wellbeing of others and our world and at the end of some days find ourselves emptied out and those we love still suffering. Is love therefore flawed or failed?
Of course our particular capacity to love is somewhat flawed and limited because of our human nature and our own brokenness. But maybe also the very nature of love needs to be revisited. Love, I have come to believe, is powerful but not magic. Love must first of all be given and received; it must be allowed time and space to not only fix but to change the way things and people are; and love is more of a companion than a cure. By which I mean love as a presence and a force can companion us in the darkest places including death but will or cannot necessarily stop such experiences. Jesus himself found the Father’s love did not prevent death and that his love did not stop those crucified with him dying either. But love did sustain Jesus and his unworthy companion through the death experience, so that even in anguish Jesus spoke only words of love and compassion. And in resurrection was urgently concerned with encouraging those who would soon have to embody his love without his physical presence.
And of course we were not meant to labour at love alone but as a people, as a community! As our recently and dearly departed Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” While love is not personal or communal it is both and so we need to be supported, mentored, encouraged and challenged in our communal life as to how to grow in love. Community keeps us guessing and needing to be more honest. If we try to be community simply by keeping rules (even good rules) we will soon find things falling apart, issues arising, misunderstandings and differences emerging, and eventually competition and conflict. Community is the context in which we are to love and it is not easy.
Bonhoeffer wrote: “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.” A bishop quoted this to a group of us recently ordained and I have often thought of this as I have experienced exasperation or despair in a community. I wouldn’t claim to have plumbed the depth of this wisdom but it brings me back to a more humble and compassionate place within the very community that I am struggling to love or feel loved in. Community teaches us how to love and tests our love.
Christmas understandably focuses our hearts and minds on the Christ child and our relationship with Jesus. And we celebrate and explore that love in community. Love is love and the love of God flows through and around us through others.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come encompass us in your love.
If you are preaching on the Epiphany readings you may be interested in this blog from last year.