Monday, November 19, 2012


Sermon preached in the Church of S. Mary, Lewisham
on Sunday, 18th November, 2012
(Parish Mass and Baptism)

Stay awake, because you do not know
when the master of the house is coming,
evening, midnight, cockcrow or dawn;
if he comes unexpectedly,
he must not find you asleep.
And what I am saying to you I say to all:  Stay awake!' (Mk.13:35/36 NJB)

“It’s not fair!” cried Emily as her mother took the toy from her and gave it to her brother.  “It’s not fair!!”  Her mother bit her lip. “No, darling” she replied,” life isn’t, and you need to learn that” as she reflected on the way her husband had just lost his job for no fault of his own.  Life isn’t always fair. 

 Today, as we move towards Advent, our attention is directed towards the Kingdom of God and the Judgement that awaits all.  And it seems a pretty stark future, hardly something to look forward to, rather something to fear.   We can readily picture the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory to gather the elect and might wonder, what will happen to me? 

Central to Christian faith is this matter of Judgement, and we can be excused if that reading, like others, conjures up a picture of God as a stern judge God all too ready to condemn.  Will he be fair?  Or does my deep-seated sense of guilt make me fear the consequences of judgement?  As we come to admit Gabriela to the church through baptism her parents and godparents may be forgiven for wondering at all this talk about judgement.  But it’s a healthy reminder that Christianity takes sin seriously and maintains that there will be a final show-down when the consequences of our actions will be made clear.  But all this talk of judgement needs to be set in the context of a judge who loved us so much that he entered into our human condition and regardless of all that He suffered, still loves us and does not want anyone to perish forever.  When Emily had the toy taken from her, she may have wished all kinds of terrible things might happen to her brother, but Emily is not God! 

It was the great Carmelite, St. John of the Cross, who stated that: “In the evening of life we will be judged on love alone”

So what is this love by which we shall be judged?  What is love?  Is it, as one child said, “when a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on aftershave and they go out and smell each other.”  It is, of course, impossible to exhaust the meaning of love which, as the song says, is ‘a many splendored thing.’  We could say it’s creative, gives meaning to life, enables us to reach our full potential and still have only touched it’s surface.  Thomas Merton said:  “Man's greatest dignity, his most essential and peculiar power, the most intimate secret of his humanity is his capacity to love.” 

Those four letters create a word that cannot be defined, for definitions limit meaning.  There are, of course, many forms of love.  So often, when we use sing about or write poems concerning love, it’s what might be called ‘romantic’ version that takes our attention.  Yet romantic love is but one form of love. 

One of the greatest books written by C. S. Lewis, author of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, was ‘The Four Loves’.   Lewis was a great Christian thinker and, in that book, explores aspects of love.  Recognising that this one word has to cover so many things he focused into four: Affection, Friendship, Eros and Charity (or Agape).    The first three, Lewis said, can be seen as natural, or "creation" loves.   The fourth, Charity, or Agape, is the love of God and takes pre-eminence over the first three, bringing them to their fullest expression.  St. John says: ‘God is Love’ and, in doing so, defines the eternal nature of the One who will judge us.  

"Love's proper place”, said Lewis, “is to God himself.  To love at all involves risk of heartache, but far better this than to lock up our hearts in a coffin where they grow cold and hard, irredeemable.”  Perhaps we could say that one of the purposes of love is to enable us to plumb the depths of what it means to be human – and still to ache for more. 

Another writer, Paul Tillich, spoke of love as the moving power of life that drives everything that is towards everything else that is.  It’s in this drive and possible encounter, between our desire to open our hearts to the power of love and the eternal flow of divine love that its meaning is to be found.  

Perhaps Dame Julian of Norwich best explained this when she wrote of God’s revelation of Himself: ‘Thus I was taught’ she wrote, ‘that love was our Lord's meaning. And I saw quite clearly in this and in all, that before God made us, he loved us, which love was never slaked nor ever shall be.  And in this love he has done all his work, and in this love he has made all things profitable to us.  And in this love our life is everlasting.  In our creation we had a beginning.  But the love wherein he made us was in him with no beginning.  And all this shall be seen in God without end ...’

Over the coming weeks we are preparing for what one carol declares: Love came down at Christmass.  Here the mystery of Love is revealed in the life and death of one man.  Yet,
‘… how can we,
                                      Loving so little,
Fettered by knowledge,
Believe in such excessive love?’

Only in the heart of a lover can this belief be found.  Sometimes a child recognises its power and meaning:  "When my grandmother got arthritis,” wrote one, “she couldn't bend over and paint her toenails anymore.  So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too.  That's love."  Sometimes, like Emily, we need to learn the meaning of love.
It is in this very short life that we work out our eternal salvation.  Every day presents us with new opportunities to grow in love; in our families, our places of work, and amongst all whom we meet, if we ask God to use us to spread His eternal love.  

Jesus invites us to be his hands and feet and to express our love for him by loving and helping those He puts in our path.  On our own we may not be able to do much, but if we try to walk with God each day, His grace will be enough to help us to help others.   For how can we say we love the God whom we cannot see, if we do not love our neighbour whom we can see.  Jesus at one point tells us that He counts as done, or not done, to him what we do or neglect to do for those who need our love and care. Christ is a King who cares deeply about us, His subjects, and He sees in each of us another like himself, for we are created in his image and likeness.  And He tells us another way to avoid judgement: “Judge not, and you will not be judged” (Lk 6:37).  Judgement is God's right, not ours.

The power and potential of love is limitless to those who are willing to embrace, and be embraced, by it.  It is to be found in the eyes of a baby and in the music of Mozart.  It is not to be understood, but contemplated.  In being touched by it we participate in the cosmic celebration of "the love which moves the sun and stars."  (Dante’s ‘Paradiso’)

after mastering
the wind, the waves,
the tides and gravity,
we shall harness for God
the energies of love,

and then,
for the second time
in the history of the world,
we shall discover fire.
(Teilhard de Chardin SJ)

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