Pouring Cold Water on the Flames

Sunday 6th May 2018
The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
BCP Evensong
of; of; of
Revelation 3.14-22

I little thought when I mentioned Captain Corelli's Mandolin in my sermon three weeks ago, citing the wise Dr. Iannis on the difference between falling in love and growing in love, that he would be back so soon; but here we are again.

The passages from the Song of Solomon in our First Reading are far apart but often tied together in this way, particularly at weddings. The first is a tactfully curtailed account of a passionate sexual encounter which has been deliberately mistranslated and misunderstood in the Western Christian tradition for almost 1000 years, since Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) wrote his commentary on the Book consisting of 86 sermons without it, apparently, crossing his mind that the text had a meaning of its own quite separate from its symbolic understanding as a treatise on divine love. The second passage affirms the strength and durability of love and because of the way the two passages are fused together there is the implication, which the good Dr. Iannis would reject, that there is an automatic connection between sexual passion and the unbreakable bonds of love. He wouldn't be on his own. If this was written by Solomon you only have to look at his later sex life involving concubines from many nations, including some who lured him away from his Covenant faithfulness. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the way that the second passage is so often linked with earlier accounts of sexual passion is horribly misleading and, unfortunately, colludes with the contemporary attitude to marriage which seems largely to be based on this kind of easy optimism and we only have to survey the number of divorces, single parent families and children's lives destroyed by marital breakdown to understand the outcome of such shallow optimism. In an age of universal contraception the carelessness with which we produce children, as relationship trophies, is truly shocking.

The designer of the Lectionary puts this passage about passion and love up against my favourite New Testament text outside the Gospels. The exhortation to the Church of Laodicea is that they are neither hot nor cold or, to put it into contemporary parlance, they are Goldilocks people for, whereas Robert Southey was merely writing about porridge, we use the term now to mean well-adjusted or just right.

And so here we have a paradox: in society as a whole there is a strong tendency towards non offensive, even vacuous, speech as if this can be an effective barrier to uninhibited sexual passion, racial prejudice and plutocratic arrogance.

Giving the Lectionary designer the benefit of the doubt, we can say that the author of Revelation wants us to love God with the same kind of passion which we generate when we fall in love, with the following thought that we can then turn this moment of initiatory passion into an enduring relationship and I must say that in spite of the rather odd fit of the two Readings, this is a point well made. The notorious English virtues of under-statement and phlegmatism are ill suited to the establishment and maintenance of a vibrant relationship with Jesus.

Now I should at this point warn against the kind of personal relationship with Jesus which sails very close to the error of seeking advantage, beautifully challenged in the hymn My God, I Love Thee; not because I hope for heaven thereby ... not for the sake of winning heaven, nor of escaping hell ..." but, it concludes, "Solely because thou art my God and my most loving king." Our passion should be generated by simple gratitude for being created out of love so that we might freely love. But in spite of our language of unconditional love, we are never more than a pen stroke away from contractual reciprocity.

I therefore share my suspicion of sexual passion as never being wholly altruistic with my suspicion of a human/Jesus relationship which operates on the basis of bogus equality, the kind of Jesus who is credited with our trivial gains and asked to make good our trivial losses.

The simple conclusion from all this commentary is that there is something about initial passion of any sort which is so intense that it cannot be maintained but must give way to a more mundane striving; but that is true in all cases but one, and that case is our relationship with Good if we open our hearts to the graceful fire of the Holy Spirit within the context of a Sacramental Church. Only a handful of people in Christian history, as far as we know, have been capable of sustaining an unbreakable relationship with God outside the context of a mutually supportive Church, which is why we are all here now.

Only with the grace of the Holy Spirit will we escape the accusation hurled at the Laodiceans. Calm, comfort, compromise and common sense have become part of the DNA of the Church of England to such an extent that we are deeply affronted by Credal collision and doctrinal disturbance and even by liturgical adjustment. For, we say to ourselves, in the words of the Reading: "We are rich, we have prospered, and we need nothing" to which the reply is: "You do not realise that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked."

The final, unfashionable thought in the Reading from Revelation is that God reproves and disciplines those he loves; but that discipline and reproof is only made clear to us by stringent self-examination within the believing community of the Spirit. Our false sense of comfort arises when we, so to speak, mark our own homework, our own God-work.

Whether we were born into a Christian family or whether we came to Jesus later on, the Church of which we are members is under-written by the continuity of the Spirit’s grace which maintains the fire of spiritual passion; it would just work so much better if we could restrain ourselves from pouring so much cold water on the flames.