Homily 14th Feb 2010
There can be no escaping the fact that today is Valentine’s Day. Being cynical, after the bonanza of Christmas followed by the January sales and with the chocofest of Easter still a few weeks away, retailers need something to keep the cash tills ringing so what better than Valentine’s Day with chocolate, flowers and cards to dispel the retail gloom. It is of course good that we celebrate love for it is a gift that is both human and divine but at the same time, the celebration (perhaps to excess) of all things romantic can make this time of year one of great pain for those who, for whatever reason, crave but are unable to find human love.
Reverting for a moment to Valentine who we celebrate today, the reality is that we really don’t know very much about him. He is variously described as a priest in Rome, a bishop in Interamna (in Umbria in Italy) or a martyr in the Roman province of Africa. He appears to have met a particularly unpleasant end (beheaded after surviving being beaten and stoned) at the hands of emperor Claudius II somewhere between 269 and 273 AD apparently for his persistence in marrying Christian couples at a time when Christians were still intensely persecuted for their faith but the details are very sketchy. As well as the associations with love (presumably stemming from his practice of his marrying Christian coupes), he is apparently associated with bee keepers, plague, epilepsy and as a cure for fainting! Truly a remarkable chap.
Turning from Valentine to that human and divine attribute with which he is best known and which we celebrate today, love, it is striking that for a language that is blessed with an overabundance of words, we have just the one word ‘love’ to describe that most complex of emotions.
Whilst the suggestion oft heard that the Inuit people have something like 400 words for snow is an urban myth (the reality is something much nearer 1 or 2 dozen) the fact that there are even one or two dozen words for the white stuff that we have seen so much of here this winter is quite remarkable and makes it perhaps all the more remarkable that we have just the one word for that infinitely more complex emotion - love . This lack of vocabulary perhaps does much to cement the notion that we British are not particularly a nation of romantics.
The problem for us today is that the one word ‘love’ that we do have has become solely and seemingly inextricably linked with the notion of romantic love – what the Greeks would have described as ‘eros’. Whilst romantic love is a natural part of our human natures we sadly tend to overlook the two other main facets of love – the bonds of brotherly love (used in its broadest amd most inclusive sense) that (hopefully) exist between siblings (what the Greeks called phileo) and the self giving, self sacrificing love for our fellow human beings – what the Greeks called agape, a term (and perhaps a concept) that has fallen out of use apart from within the Christian church although even there, it is a long time since I have been to an agape supper.
Although in the aftermath of events such as the earthquake in Haiti, there have been many who have questioned how a God of love can be behind such disasters, love with a capital L is at the heart of the Christian gospel message. Not romantic love (although in the Book of Revelation, St John conjures up the wonderful image of the church in the new Jerusalem being adorned as a bride with Jesus as her bridegroom) but the hard, self-giving, self-sacrificing love of agape.
God’s love for us isn’t expressed with flowers, boxes of chocolates and cards adorned with pink hearts but rather in the horror of the cross as Jesus having had nails driven through his hands and feet was hung up to suffer and die in order that we, the guilty ones, should go free.
As if the physical pain and abject humiliation of crucifixion weren’t enough for Jesus to have to endure, there was the emotional pain of separation from his Father, the one with who he had enjoyed fellowship since the very beginning of time, the pain that caused Jesus to echo the words of Psalm 22 as he cried out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’
John describes God’s love in chapter 3 & v16 of his gospel – For God so loved the world that whosoever believes in him should not perish but will have everlasting life.
This isn’t the romantic love that we pay homage to today – love that can be expressed one minute as undying affection but seemingly thrown away in an instant when someone better comes along but love worked out and expressed in the grim reality of the cross. Such love, pure as fresh fallen snow but sealed with blood can never die.
When people ask about the extent of God’s love – it’s tempting to say this wide and that is indeed true for it was expressed in Christ’s outstretched arms on the cross. The apostle Paul puts it more eloquently when he writes in his letter to the Romans
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
What does loving God mean in practice well there are many clues in the Bible.
Paul gives us some very practical examples in chapter 13 of his first letter to the Corinthians – words frequently associated of course with weddings. Writing about love he says
If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
As he ends, he reminds his readers and listeners
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Those words do much to describe what to love one another means in practical terms. To understand more of what it means to love God and to love one another, we need to turn again to the passage we read earlier from John’s first letter, words again that are very much associated with weddings.
Dear friends, John writes let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
John closes this passage with the reminder He has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.
Our call to love is God given summarised so succinctly in the great commandment to love God and to love others as ourselves.