Being God's Lover

Sunday 20th May 2007
Year C, The Seventh Sunday of Easter (Sunday after Ascension Day)
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Acts 16:16-34
Revelation 22:12-14; 16; 17; 20; 21
John 17:20-26

What does it mean to be a lover?

I suppose the first response is to think of the mystery, danger and delight of the liaison dangereuse. Then there is the platonic version of the lover, epitomised in Dante's sublimation in Beatrice in the Comedia Divina, more popularly celebrated in the knightly chivalry of the Medieval tournament. Then there is the more mundane long, steady relationship where being in love turns into loving, a state popularly evoked in the words of Dr. Janis in Captain Corelli's Mandolin (though believe me, there are much better books to help us understand this idea.) Then there is the lover of art who enjoys a barely two-way, distanced and vicarious relationship with the artist through a picture. Finally, there is the lover of chocolate who does not have a relationship at all but simply consumes a commodity.

Next, what does it mean to be one of God's people, to be God's lover?

First, there is the mysterious, delightful, passionate, yes and even dangerous, relationship of the mystic, a relationship frequently discouraged by an established church obsessed with control. Then there is the slightly withdrawn, somewhat intellectual, relationship of the liturgist and the scholar, the cool and carefully distanced reverence, the tidiness of things pleasingly done. Next there is the long, steady relationship, the kind that I suppose most of us have with God, which involves a little mild study, prayer and church attendance, just enough of everything to maintain a proper equilibrium, the English phlegmatic approach to the divine. Then there is the vicarious experience of the non believer who likes the sacred music of Bach or Mozart; and, finally, there are people who do not have a relationship with God but simply think of God as a commodity to be consumed.

There is one marked similarity and one marked difference between these two kinds of being a lover.

The similarity is that in earthly and spiritual love we can put the different strands into different sequences and we can pursue more than one strand at once. In other words, whatever the person or object, we don't just have one way of loving. Even if it is a picture that we love we will look at it in different lights and from different angles and we make sure that it is well cleaned and protected from harm. At a higher level our love is immensely complex or, to take a slight risk, the higher our love the richer, the more complex it becomes. Simple love is a fantasy. In human love we can reach the ecstatic and then fall back into the mundane, so with the love of God the complexity of our experience is sometimes bewildering, which is why it is difficult for us to face up to simplistic atheistic onslaughts.

The one great difference between human and divine live is that humans are happy to talk about their beloveds but not inclined to share them. Some people are secret chocolate eaters, hoard their pictures and look at them privately and some people are so jealous of their partners that they don't like them to go out alone (just think of Marcel's problem with Albertine in Proust.)

But the quintessential quality of the spiritual lover is the desire to share that love amongst all those around; and it is this mission to share which unites today's readings. Chapter 17 of John is one of the most important but overlooked passages in the whole of the Gospels, the last of the great four Chapter speech between the washing of the feet and the crossing of the Kidron Brook to the Garden of Gethsemane; perhaps we are in too much of a hurry to follow the big events to look at the extended explanation of their meaning. Chapter 17 begins with Jesus celebrating His mutual glorification with the Father which will be brought about through His passion and death. Then, in a passage of profound relevance to us, Jesus links that glorification with the passing on of His mission to the Apostles, a much more significant commissioning than that in the more famous injunctions in Matthew about binding and loosing and about the keys of the kingdom (16.18-19, 18.18); this is not a kind of ecclesiological succession planning but the spiritual succession from the Father, to Jesus, to the Apostles to us; it is the foundation of our equal discipleship in Jesus, regardless of the contingencies of the physical church and its hierarchies. We are accustomed to the idea of a link between The Father, Jesus and the Apostles but the final stage is altogether less well proclaimed, so let me remind us of the exact words; Jesus says to the Father: "I ask not only on behalf of these (that is the Apostles) but also on behalf of those (us) who will believe in me through their word." And so, just as the Apostles were sent out, so are we also sent out. We cannot be successors of Jesus in the way that He specifies at the end of Chapter 17 of John unless we agree to be sent out. We can't be truly or completely Christian if we just sit in our comfort zone, talking to "People like us."

In our reading from Acts we see St. Paul, having been sent out, in missionary action. St. Luke makes sure that what happens to Paul carefully replicates the earlier experience of St. Peter, so just as Peter was imprisoned and freed, so Paul is imprisoned and freed. The difference is that all of Peter's escapes took him back to his own community whereas Paul's escape presents a missionary opportunity resulting in conversion and baptism.

Our third Reading from the Revelation of St. John The Divine, tells us in highly figurative language what is the end point of our mission, of our being God's lover. The end point is eternal life in God. To be honest, I find this rather abstract in spite of all the imagery, so let me make a different kind of start which related to the beginning of this talk. Imagine that ecstasy of human love, the fusion of the physical and emotional, without any prospect of what often follows: disappointment, guilt, betrayal or simply a descent into normality. Imagine that ecstasy perfectly sustained, so that it never varies, never palls but maintains a perfect balance between two persons, in this case each of us and God. This is only a metaphor for what being God's lover is like.

That sustained ecstasy depends upon the graciousness of God, far beyond the coldness and dryness of human judgment and justice but that does not mean that there is nothing we can know about what we must do. We are to be sent out to bear witness to God's love for all humanity. If we stay inside our comfort zone we will never experience the ecstatic. Since Advent we have been living through the story of Jesus who has now ascended to the Father. We await the Holy Spirit; and then What? With the Apostles, next Sunday we will be sent out? But will we be ready to go?