Fruits of the Spirit: Love (1)

Sunday 23rd June 2019
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
1 John 4.7-21
Matthew 22.37-40

For the Christian, love is not a set of impulses for the good, no matter how admirable these may be, it is the way we express our faith in Jesus. In the Gospels Jesus makes our faith in God and our love of neighbour totally inter-dependent (Matthew 22.37-40) echoing Deuteronomy 6.5 and Leviticus 19.18: we cannot love God without loving each other and we cannot love each other unless we love God. This is because our love of God is expressed in our lives in imitating Jesus, just as loving one another is evidence of faith.

We are thinking about love in the context of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, so it is helpful to think about fruit: it is not easy to grow, it takes time, it is subject to the bruising of hail and the infestation of predators, no matter how comfortable the word sounds.

For the Christian, the ultimate typology of love is seen in the death of Jesus who laid down his life for his friends and for their successors. From this we learn that love involves sacrifice. We can imagine a theoretical state in which we can love our neighbour and God without sacrifice but our practical experience tells us that we would be very lucky indeed to get through life, trying to love God and each other, without some kind of sacrifice. This is where love stops being cuddly and becomes distinctively painful.

There are numerous examples of love in the Old Testament but I want to suggest that the real history of Biblical love begins with the Servant Songs of Isaiah and reaches its zenith in the death of Jesus. I say this because the way I look at love is slightly unorthodox.

Conventionally, in Western Christianity love is about the actor or the agent doing something to somebody. Some Eastern Christians and advocates of other religions think that love is a sublimation of human emotions but although the Western tradition understands sublimation its tradition is activist and we tend to think of sublimation as rather callous. So for us, love is about anything from giving flowers to the beloved to popping a box of tea bags in the food bank. And while we understand the virtue of the listening sympathiser we tend to be verbal, to provide words of sympathy or encouragement. My somewhat unorthodox view is neither sublimation nor activism but rests on the concept that the deepest, most difficult love of all is to live in openness to otherness, that the ultimate expression of love is our vulnerability, that real giving is allowing otherness to be realised in us.

This kind of love is shockingly difficult because it denies the Western dynamic that love is an assertion which is attractive because it generates a dynamic of power and hierarchy: when we give we are implicitly expressing our sense of superiority whereas vulnerability inverts this dynamic so that to love is having things done to us. Which is why I said that for me the ultimate expression of love initially lies in Isaiah and is lived out in Jesus. Of course Jesus was a social activist but the impression which his earthly existence most deeply leaves is one of silent humility in the face of hostility; he allowed those he came to save to persecute and kill him; he did not just, in John's phrase, lay down his life for his friends, he laid it down without any verbal fireworks; not for Jesus the unrealistically long hero's aria before the opera ends in tragedy.

But I can understand why most of us are where we are: it is much easier to exercise love in the context of a dominant dynamic than it is to exercise it in an inferior dynamic. I say this personally rather than generally because the thing I find most difficult in human relations, as you all know, is holding my tongue, saying nothing, when I come into contact with difference, particularly when I find the difference unattractive or even alien. In this context it is important to distinguish between loving and liking. If we are to love as Jesus loved then the love we become involved in is more often than not going to be with people we don't like; and vulnerability will mean suffering their difference at best and their aggression at worst. This puts love into a very unpleasant category of human experience, as far away as we can be from the flowers and the food bank.

This is why love for the Christian is impossible without faith, because suffering the experience of love requires the comfort and strength of the Holy Spirit, because if we try to suffer alone we will capitulate and make wrong choices.

I want to say two more things which are difficult but which we need to take into account when we think about love, and they both involve the idea of love in a collective context rather than in the experience of the individual. Not only are we social animals but we are also now deeply inter-dependent: it is all very well for economic ultra liberals to rank free enterprise over collective effort but they send their goods to market on roads built by public taxation. The first thing to say, then, is that just as we express our love through voluntary contributions to charity we should also complete our income tax form with a smile on our face as an expression of our public love. Secondly, in a time when dialogue is becoming ever more toxic in the Western World, we should be very careful what we say. For example, are we advancing a political position in the face of opposition because we are personally favoured by the position we advocate? It seems to me to be against the principle of love to advance any political view simply because it makes us better off at the expense of others.

Taken together, these ideas amount to a very difficult definition of love which involves self-restraint, sacrifice and, above all else, vulnerability. But, most difficult of all, love requires forgiveness which accepts both the obligation of vulnerability and the universal reality of wrong choices. This is why it is so difficult to imitate Christ and why we need all the help we can get. And, in turn, this is why there is an absolute inter dependence between our love of neighbour, and our love of god because in order to imitate Christ we need God's Spirit: in other words our human attempt to love is an imitation, no matter how imperfectly, of the economy of love of the Holy Trinity.