Love and Power

Sunday 29th April 2012
Year B, The Forth Sunday of Easter
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Acts 4:5-12
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

I have just returned from a lecture tour in the Czech Republic and one of the aspects of the visit which I particularly enjoyed was my hosts’ passionate commitment to their language which contrasts sharply with our often sloppy indifference. If we care about language at all it seems to be about split infinitives, the use of text message short forms and the arrival of the hugely expressive "init?" But these people were not only passionate about the survival of Czech; they were also, in a spirit of self-interest and generosity, pyrotechnically multilingual. And so in seminar rooms and over long, heavy dinners we discussed every conceivable subject in a variety of languages, often shifting from one to another without taking breath, searching for the bon mot for the zeitgeist!

Unfortunately, one concept we did not explore in detail was the idea of love which dominates our three readings today. The word in English is something of a pallid pantechnicon covering ideas as broad as: "I love chocolate", "I love my country", "I love her" and "I love God". Surely these are different kinds of loving. We don't love chocolate so much as enjoy consuming it; we don't so much love our country as enjoy its collective riches to which most of us only make a modest contribution. And often when we say that we love somebody we really mean that we desire them and want to possess them, physically and/or emotionally. This leaves our love for God which must, necessarily, be quite different from God’s love for us.

Perhaps a good place to start untangling the knots is to separate three ideas: what we like and want; what we care for; and what we truly love. I have already mentioned the first of these, so let us concentrate on the second and third. We are, to our collective credit and in spite of some evidence of coarseness, a deeply caring society which goes so far in some quarters as caring rather more for donkeys and veal calves than for the poor and the exiled but, nevertheless, it would be churlish not to recognise our collective and individual commitment to caring for people.

But to care is not, I believe, to love. To care is to exercise a faculty in a benevolent way, to serve the needs of another but it runs the terrible risk, to which I will return, of morphing into the exercise of power. The other sense of love, of a deep affection for the other, is frequently contrasted with hate but, again, I think this is misleading because this kind of love, like caring, is active and runs the risk of morphing into possessiveness and obsession.

The love of God for us, on the other hand, is totally devoid of the dangers of power and possession because it is so totally unselfish that life itself is subject to it: only the love of God, says 1 John, is good enough; only the love of Jesus the Shepherd, says John, is such that he will lay down his life for the sheep. And there is the crux of the matter. What does it mean to be a shepherd of the sheep?

I am not sure whether the compiler of the lectionary made a deliberate or a subconscious - or perhaps even a totally accidental - juxtaposition of these two readings with that from Acts which carries more than a whiff of the anti-clericalism which pervades the Gospels and, it seems to me, properly represents an important strand in the teaching of  Jesus. The shepherd, out of self-interest and affection, may care deeply for his sheep but he is in a relationship of the powerful to the powerless, an aspect of his role which is clearly brought out in the prophesies of Jeremiah 23 and Ezekiel 34 read in other years on this day. The clergy might answer their vocation for the very best of reasons but the temptations of power over their fellows are enormous such that in many religions they are supposed to hold the key to heaven: they are the judges of what ritual or what conduct will ensure eternal life. And for many this temptation is too powerful to resist. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on other faiths or even other Christian denominations but if we confine our thoughts to the Church of England I have to say that if you want to be a member of Saint Peter's non-clerical "Royal Priesthood" you have to undertake a stiff assertiveness test.

The really true way of the shepherd is, of course, as the unconditional servant laying down his life for the sheep as Jesus laid down his life for us; and that points us to the true meaning of love which is not about consuming, not about liking, not about enjoying mutual pleasure and certainly not about exercising power, even if it is in the name of the good of the other; love is unconditional, non-judgmental openness to the other, a human kenosis which imperfectly represents the divine kenosis of Jesus. It is an ennobling of our vulnerability and brokenness, the meekness and humility of the brave.

This kind of love, whose opposite is not hate but power, seems to fly in the face of all we know about ourselves but it does not deny caring and the pleasures of mutual affection, but it crowns this necessary solidarity of action with an openness to the other which has no limit. Jesus suffered and died for our wrong choices without a murmur of complaint and it is our lot, if we follow him, to suffer for the wrong choices of others - as well as our own - without complaint; and that is the most difficult thing of all.