Love in Three Sacraments

Sunday 23rd October 2005
Year A, The Last Sunday after Trinity
St. George's, Hurstpierpoint
Leviticus 19:1-2
2 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

Sermons on the subject of love are supposed to begin with a touching story that will fix the topic firmly in our minds before moving on to the more abstruse arguments of theology; but the problem with stories about love is that they work in two apparently opposite ways: first, they fix in our minds pictures of very particular love, love being described at the time, love which is unique to that narrative; and secondly, and apparently paradoxically, they strike us as being other, as not quite like the kind of love we recognise, narratives of somebody else's love that we can observe but not feel deeply. I make a distinction between this and the kind of story that makes us cry by playing on our emotions, on our sentimentality. Most of us like a good cry but it isn't the same thing as recognising the hard and subtle realities of love.

And, therefore, rather than telling you a conventional love story, The Love of Three Oranges, I want to tell you the story of the love in Three Sacraments, remembering that a Sacrament is a visible sign of God's Grace; as with the water of Baptism and the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

Once upon a time God - whom we think of as "God the Father" - created the world. Being God, He didn't have to do anything. We explain this to ourselves in two different and complementary ways: first, God is the answer to the question: "Why something rather than nothing"; secondly, god, being pure love, needed creatures on whom to bestow His love and from whom He could receive love.

Now like all good stories, we have to make a slight diversion here. The conditions for loving which God established were the same as for any kind of phenomenon we call love; that is, love can only be between equals; if the relationship isn't equal it isn't love. It might be exploitative, it might be kindness or benevolence but it isn't love. To be equal is not to be the same, nor to be identical; it is to have the ability to recognise the validity of otherness.

So God created this world as a theatre for love; and that is why the physical, from the mountains to the cities, from the most gifted to the least, are to be valued as part of creation. The idea that spiritual things are somehow superior to physical things is one of the commonest Christian heresies. Or, to put this into the context of our story, - according to Angela Tilby1, a highly gifted Anglican theologian often to be heard on Thought for Today - the physical world is God the Father's particular Sacrament, it is a physical sign of His love.

But, as we know, in a way which we don't really understand but think of analogously in the story of Adam and Eve, we rejected that equality with God, we rejected our otherness, and wanted to be God. and again, in a way that we don't really understand, God, in His love, chose to help us to restore our equality with Him by sending His Son to be one of us, a human being. He was born, died and rose again for us, and most of our thought revolves around the meaning of the incarnation, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, but our story today is about the chief Sacrament which Jesus created, not Baptism, not the Holy Eucharist but the Church itself. The Church is according to Karl Rahner, one of the chief reforming theologians who advised Vatican II2, the particular Sacrament of Jesus Christ; it is the perpetual, physical sign, the substantial continuation of His mission on earth. It is the medium through which we exercise our corporate love of God and through which we are endowed with His Grace to love each other. But the Church, as Herbert McCabe explains as he would, being both a Thomist and a Marxist theologian3, is caught between promoting the equality of love and preserving a hierarchy of order, so we always have to be on guard, to ensure that the Sacramental Church strives towards being an instrument of equal love, keeping hierarchy to that minimum necessary because of our imperfections as self disciplining human beings.

And now we come to our Third Sacrament which brings us to today's Gospel. It is my contention that love between human beings is the particular Sacrament of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus said that we must love one another as He loved us, in recognising the magnitude of what he required, he promised to send the Holy Spirit to be with us. Admittedly, this aspect of Trinitarian theology is generally understood to mean that the Holy Ghost acts, if you like, as the guiding influence of the Church; and that is all right as long as we remember that this does not simply mean guardianship of the clergy, or things that go on in church but actually means guardianship of the whole Church, of the people of God, of, as St. Peter puts it, the Royal Priesthood, which means all of us.

Our unequivocal, primary purpose as Christians is to love; and when I say that this is the particular Sacrament of the Holy Spirit I necessarily include within it physical, earthly, love, the manifestation of Grace in mutual relationships; and this has important implications for the way that we look at what we call love.

First of all, as a Sacrament is a physical manifestation, physical love is not inferior but is equal to what has traditionally been called "Platonic", or non physical, love. This means that the traditional split between Agape and Eros, between sacred love and physical love, is, to say the very least, highly questionable. Personally, I would go further but, for the time being, let me content myself by saying that the pivotal point in the whole history of creation, after creation itself, is that the Word was Made Flesh.

This idea that the Sacrament of human love is particular to the Holy Spirit has a mass of implications but I only have time to deal with one, not objectively but at least topically the most important; and this conclusion of my story leads, as all good stories should, back to the beginning. We know what our love is but we don't know what love is. We know what our love is but we don't know what other peoples' love is. We are to love one another as best we can under the guidance of the Holy Spirit but we are not to go round noisily making rules for the Holy Spirit about what she would sanction as love.

For too long we have confused love with a quite understandable attempt to make social rules about sexual passion which have often got tangled up with hierarchy, property ownership, the repression of women by men and a concern to maintain irrational social norms which usually disadvantage people who are different; as a Church we have been ensnared by secular power into making all kinds of rules about behaviour. That is not the primary duty of a Church which exists to promote love under the necessary conditions of equality.

So when Jesus says that we must love God, He says this in the context of the Father's Sacrament of creation; and when He says we must love one another he means in a condition of equality, safe from the depredations of others, within the guardianship of the Holy Spirit; and when He says we must do both, He means that we must do so within the context of the Church which He created as the means of fusing our love of God with our love for one another. When Jesus says in today's Gospel that there are two laws, the love of God and the love of neighbour, this works at a presentational level but not at a theological level; for Christians the two kinds of love are one.

1 Tilby, Angela: The Glory of God Revealed in Creation in: Chapman, Mark (ed): Celebrating Creation, Darton, Longman & Todd, 2004.

2 Rahner, Karl: Foundations of Christian Faith, Crossroad, 2004; see: Christianity as Church pp322-402.

3 McCabe, Herbert: One God in: God Still Matters, Continuum.