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Isaiah 49 and John 21
“Loving can hurt, loving can hurt sometimes, but it’s the only thing that I know. When it gets hard, you know it gets hard sometimes, it’s the only thing that makes us feel alive.” Ed Sheeran, Photograph, released in 2014 with almost 140 million Youtube hits. I want to talk about love this morning, love in the context of a verse from the Isaiah passage I read: “The Lord God hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name.” I cite the King James Authorized Version – there’s a balance and poetry that gives Isaiah’s sentiment gravitas. And it’s gravitas that I want to get at, because Isaiah relates calling to our being created, to who we are and how we are named – not by ourselves, but by God who “hath made mention of my name.” We are called into being before we begin to exist. Love is not just the expression of who and what we are as created in God’s good providence; love is the means, the way, whereby we come to know who and what we are. In loving we know we are alive, as Ed Sheeran sings, and it can hurt sometimes.
I also read the story at the end of John’s Gospel that to my mind sums up the nature of the Christian discipleship: the famous dialogue between the risen Christ and Peter. The exchange about following centres around the question “Do you love me?” The risen Jesus asks Peter three times: “Do you love me more than these?” Those with a knowledge of Greek will point to how the word used for ‘love’ changes. Christ uses, in his first two questions to Peter, the Greek verb agapao (a deep loving related to the way God loves us; a love that abandons itself towards what is other). Peter replies throughout with the Greek verb phileo (a loving than can be between two married partners, but it often associated with friendship). The third time Christ asks his question of Peter he uses the verb Peter uses – phileo. It’s as if, the new discipleship Peter has come into following the resurrection and the knowledge he is forgiven for his betrayal of Christ on Good Friday, cannot yet understand love as agape or dare not described his love as agape because of what he still remembers. But whether we use agapao or phileo, the question Christ puts to Peter is the most basic question that Christ can ask of any who follow him; it’s the basic ecclesiological question of belonging to Christ, of being in Christ. But as Peter seems to recognize by his confusion at being asked the questions, the one who asks this is the one who knows all things, God. Christ is therefore not asking Peter this question because he doesn’t know the answer. He is asking it because Peter needs to know something – something about his own disposition now towards Christ; something that has changed because of the Easter events. Peter needs to know that he loves – and maybe that his loving though beginning and ending in friendship has to become something more self-sacrificial. It has to become kenotic, self-emptying. I’ll come to that in a moment. Secondly, Peter has to recognize that such self-abandoning loving will carry consequences. Three times he is commanded to feed or nourish my lambs; tend, guide, govern my sheep; and feed or nourish my sheep.
To love in Christ installs us in a delicate web of relations, a web as fragile and diaphanous as the web of a spider frosted on one of Britain’s bright winter mornings. I don’t imagine you get such mornings here. And the spiders are probably different too. These relations are vibrant with life and light and darkness and tension. “When it gets hard, you know it gets hard sometimes.” But it is only in and through this web of relations that we will ever come to know Christ as the way, the truth and the life: relations to ourselves; relations to Christ; and relations to others. There are no relations to ourselves or to Christ without relations to others. In this web of relations Peter himself will be hollowed out by that loving. That’s what loving does. It hollows out because it demands a giving up – mainly of our self – in order to be given a true name in Christ. BUT, and this is crucial: being hollowed out in Christ is the most positive experience of redemption.
St. Paul, in his Letter to the Philippians puts this hollowing out into a Christological context often referred to as kenosis. I did warn you I’d say more about this. The word just comes from the Greek verb keneo which means ‘to empty’ and the opposite of to empty is plereo ‘to fill’. Paul plays with these two words. Christ pours himself out for us in His obedience to the Father – an “obedience even on to death”, Paul tell us. But the flip side of this pouring out and giving up of one’s self is that he is “highly exalted” and given “a name above all names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil.2.9-11).
Being hollowed out in Christ is our redemption because it enables us to participate in Him, being one with Him, and so enter into His exaltation. So what all of us are called to is to love as a labour of self-offering. “I have labored in vain,” Isaiah tells God. “I have spent my strength for nought.” And God corrects him. The labour has not been in vain. The labour in the love of Christ is an operation of the love of Christ in the world and so it will help to bring about, in its own small way, “salvation unto the end of the earth.” As a labour, love is a craft we have to learn, a craft in which we too have our being crafted. This love has to discipline all our desires. And this disciplining so vital to discipleship cannot be done in our own strength. “I have the power to lay down my life,” Jesus tells his disciples, earlier in John’s Gospel. We don’t have that power. If loving is done in our own strength then what the hollowing out that love, that self-sacrifice and self-giving, produces can be dangerously negative and have violent emotional and physiological effects. The power of love comes from elsewhere. It comes from beyond us because it is beyond us. It comes from God; it is God in action, God as pure energy and operation. It is a divine outpouring out of which all things were created, in which we ourselves have our being. We are here because of love; love is written into our nature and our destiny. In all our loving of other people we are living out something of that divine love, that divine name that “he hath made mention of”. We are exploring and experiencing that which is divine. In all our loving we come to participate in Christ as the way, the truth and the life.
I’m saying this because a few weeks back the primates of the Anglican Communion met at Lambeth Palace in London, and most of us know the topic they were discussing was the topic that is tearing them apart with disagreement: homosexuality. They have made it plain now in their verdict on the American Episcopalian church appointment of an openly gay bishop that homosexuals are a problem for the Anglican Communion. And the Church of England, with its own long and venerable tradition, is now subject to the rulings of the Anglican Communion. A Communion it formed in, through and beyond its colonialism. What I am saying they would condemn. I am saying that love of which I speak, its hurts, the times when it is hard, its rootedness in learning Christ, in our being called to be who we are by God from the wombs of our mothers, is exactly that: love actually. Whether that love is between a man and a woman, between two women, or between two men. The redemptive power and self-emptying of such love cannot be denied. I’m not going to argue about its rights and the wrongs, because this is not a moral issue. Love between consenting adults, between two human beings, in and through all the mysteries and creative energies of attraction, desire and embodiment is not a moral issue. The treatment of gay people by the church as second-class members or deviants from the gospel or disabled in some way is a moral problem. Persecution is a moral problem; as injustice is a moral problem. I’m not even calling for tolerance. In the face of the hollowing out that loving performs tolerance is a mealy-mouthed word that often masks indifference. I am calling for celebration; the celebration of a God given gift and destiny coming from nothing less that that calling “from the bowels of my mother” and that “mention of my name.” It is the way Christ is learnt and encountered, and “salvation unto the end of the world” is proclaimed and wrought.
In my pastoral capacity I have heard of Anglican Diocesan Directors of Ordinands refusing to allow gay people to go forward for ordination until they repent. I have heard of bishops refusing to find parishes for those who have realized who they are while training. I have talked to people from Jamaica and several African countries who have come to Oxford to study for a year, and speak of their terror returning. I have met others who have to live lies because their careers would be on the line. I have even mourned the suicide or attempted suicide of a few. And, once, I encountered the sheer overwhelming beauty of an evangelical family deeply wounded by their son’s coming out to them who slowly came to see he was the same person they had always known only much much happier. And they repented, and the son and his partner were welcomed and embraced. And all of us witnessed salvation in Christ.
So I say to you this morning, and through you to the church as one who serves the church: let us live, let us love, let us be who we are, how we were created. We have a testimony, carved out through pain and struggle, joy and betrayal, hope and disappointment, and the need – need – to be honest with ourselves. We have a faithful witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. “Loving can heal. Loving can mend your soul. And it’s the only thing that I know… It’s the only thing we take with us when we die.” Ed Sheeran.