Fruits of the Spirit: Love (2)

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

There is hardly a word in the English language more potent than love. It is summoned for all kinds of purposes from declaring war "for love of country" to sexual harassment in the name of romantic love. It ranges from love of chocolate to love of Jesus; it is, in summary, an all-purpose word for expressing our individual preferences. At this level we can say quite honestly that we love God, why shouldn't we love God if that's what we choose? Why shouldn't we also choose to love a sexual partner or a kind of chocolate. Love, after all, is the expression of individual choice. Love justifies gratification and the sooner the better!

Today we are considering love in the context of the Fruits of the Spirit and the word fruit gives the game away. Fruit is not all that easy to grow, it takes time, it is subject to bruising by hail and infestation by predators, no matter how comfortable the word sounds. And this clue leads us into a very different world.

As a starting point in this new world we need to be very clear about the distinction between the exercise of personal choice and the idea of Christian love. We might be lucky now and again when the exercise of personal choice actually does some good, such as when it gives us pleasure to contribute to a food bank or to send some money to a charity. In this context we are buying an experience which gives us pleasure. And there is nothing wrong with that; but I doubt we will be lucky enough to get away with the coincidence all our lives. This second kind of love, the coincidental, is the kind which we are most apt to think about when we try to define love in a way that is not simply an exercise of choice, the first kind of love. On this occasion we have made a good choice rather than a selfish choice. A third kind of love happens when the exercise of a benevolent preference actually costs us some sacrifice: we put so much into the food bank that we deprive ourself of a night out. A fourth, deeper love, happens when we express our love for the beloved not just by giving flowers or a bottle of wine but by making some kind of painful sacrifice. Here we are showing our love by sacrificing something or suffering pain to spare the beloved but this is only deeper than the third kind if we conceal the sacrifice, if we do not boast that we have made the sacrifice or suffered the pain.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter. There is much to admire in the Old Testament on the subject of love but for me the beginning of the real history of divine love begins with the Suffering Servant Songs in Isaiah and it reaches its high point in the suffering and death of Jesus who died for us without protest, who was tortured and killed by the very people he came to save but who never rebuked others nor justified himself. This for me, is the ultimate love.

This is not the kind of love we are used to. My first four examples may sound simplistic but they all involve us in acts of love where we are the actors, the agents, where we choose to express ourselves. As I said, there is much good in this kind of love but each example implies a power dynamic where we as the agent are doing something to the recipient: we are active, the recipient is passive; we give, she takes; and although we may not specifically, consciously, expect gratitude, the expectation is always there, under the surface.

But if the ideal of Christian love is embodied in the suffering and death of Jesus we have to face up to the difficult fact that this kind of love is very difficult indeed. This kind of love involves not only dealing with people we don't like, it actually involves leaving ourselves vulnerable to people we don't like. Sometimes this will simply involve a sense of alienation or revulsion but often love will involve leaving ourselves vulnerable to aggression. This is why Christian love is impossible without a loving relationship with God: it is why Jesus says that love of God and love of neighbour are inseparable; we can't do one without the other. If we want to imitate Jesus in our lives there is no way that that is possible without the support of the Holy Spirit. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the area of forgiveness where we not only exercise our vulnerability but also acknowledge the universal reality of wrong choices.

Why should we bother to put ourselves in this difficult position? The simple, though not easy, answer is that what defines Christians above all else is their faith in Jesus and their love for God and each other and these are all bound together: we cannot love God unless we love our neighbour and, because it is so difficult, we cannot love our neighbour if we do not love God. This is a package that cannot be unpicked: we cannot love Jesus simply as the exercise of a pietistic preference; we cannot choose to love only those we like; and, above all, we cannot undertake our Christian duty to God and neighbour without an admission of absolute dependence on the strength of the Holy Spirit. In other words, to be a child of God and a sibling of Jesus is far more exacting than simply doing things that come easy, make us feel good and are of some benefit to others. It is not that we are being asked to make sacrifices because punishment is in some way good for us, it is because the exercise of free will to love God and neighbour is so difficult that it cannot be achieved without great difficulty. We only have to look at our world to know that, but in looking we should bear two more things in mind, and both of these have to do with love in the collective rather than the individual sphere. As we all live in a complex world where we depend on each other, part of love is not only to give to individuals or charities but also to complete our tax forms with a smile on our face. Further, as we live in times of such controversy, our kind of love expressed in vulnerability involves us in being very careful what we say: it is not loving, by definition, to express support for a policy just because it will be to our personal or family advantage. It is inconsistent to give to the food bank and oppose policies which would benefit the poor just because they go against our private interest. All the best pop songs tell us that love is not easy, so does the life and death of Jesus and so does our personal experience, so we should not fool ourselves; but undergoing hardship is not simply part of the human condition, it is our way of imperfectly imitating Jesus.