Perfect Love

Sunday 19th June 2011
Year A, Trinity Sunday
St John The Baptist, Clayton

It may seem strange to begin a sermon on the Blessed and Holy Trinity by contemplating the concept of perfect love but that is where we must begin because, as we know from the opening of the marriage service, but also from any consideration of God worth the name, that God is love. What preachers might be drawn to on such a day is an explanation of those rather technical and difficult ideas in the Nicene Creed about the doctrine of the Trinity with all its begettings and proceeding. But Creeds are attempts to reach a set of propositions in language to ward off perceived heresy and to give some human shape to the mystery that is God. They are means to an end and that end is to apprehend something of the mystery of God's love; and to live that love in our own lives in the context of our necessary imperfection.

If we think about a description of the Trinity which I used in opening this sermon, we will be nicely on our way. Remember, instead of the customary: "in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" I said: "In the name of the one God, Creator, Saviour and Sanctifier". Instead of trying to pin down who these 'persons' of the Trinity are, this second formulation tries to say something of what they do. As well as being perfect love, God created everything, including us, in love so that we might in turn choose to love God and each other. But choice necessarily involves imperfection, and so one way of understanding the Incarnation of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, is to think of God's divinity being manifested in human form to express God's solidarity with our necessary imperfection so that we can understand that no matter how we might, necessarily, fail, God will never abandon us. On the one hand, we were not abandoned when we killed Jesus as the greatest of humanity's atrocities; and, on the other hand Jesus, who was with us in Palestine did not abandon us when we committed or suffered from the greatest atrocities of the 20th Century; and is with us now in our daily struggles, our triumphs and our failures, just as he is with all who struggle and suffer for God's sake. And that presence now, that sense that God is with us, is encapsulated in the idea of the Holy Spirit for whom nothing is too big nor too small, the Spirit of God with us now.

The problem with this idea of perfect love is in two parts: the first is simple; because we are imperfect we cannot understand perfection completely, although we have some really striking ways of apprehending it. We know, for instance, the difference between a perfect egg and a cracked egg; we can tell a broken window from a beautiful pane of glass; we watch the bud burst into the perfect rose before it is ravaged by time. We have many different ways of being perfect and seeing perfection. Indeed, in the way we have developed mathematics we have formulated some internally consistent but limited forms of perfection. And so although God is beyond anything we can know, we have approximate ways of talking about perfection.

Just as we have some language about love, the second part of our proposition; but in this case it is more complex because there are different kinds of love which we generally summarise in the two Greek words Agape and Eros, or selfless and selfish love. I'm not sure that this distinction bears close examination. A great deal of Agape is actually a kind of sacred insurance policy and, what's more, we quite often enjoy our agape, and there's no reason we shouldn't. Eros, on the other hand, as culture throughout the ages will testify, is fraught with sorrow and selflessness. But I maintain that there is a strong sense in which human love can give us an inkling of divine love; just as our mathematical perfection is limited so, no doubt, is our self sacrifice; but most of us do our best most of the time.

My conclusion is that perfect love is not so far away from our imagination as we might think, much nearer anyway, than the doctrinal dryness of the Creed; but our apprehension of divine love has a much more profound implication than the doctrinal. In claiming that we can apprehend the mystery of divine love we are quite properly claiming that we aspire to the divine; if we take this view then we are not 'fallen' and we have not been condemned by 'original sin' but, rather, as creatures in God's image we have been created to aspire.

The Feast day of the Blessed and Glorious Trinity, then, is an occasion not for doctrinal disquisition but to draw us into the contemplation of God's perfect love and the way in which we participate in it.