1 John 4:7-12
7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
Three cheers! Well done everyone who’s been working so hard to sustain the life of our churches during the vacancy. Well done everyone who’s been part of the search and appointment process. And well done Celia for saying yes: we couldn’t be here without you!
So is that it then. Are we all going to slip back into our usual ways, and carry on just as before? I don’t think so. A new priest inevitably brings new ideas with them. But it’s more than that. We are all acutely conscious both of how much the church and Christian people are being called to do in a world that is so full of need and so unsure of the basis for hope. And also acutely conscious of how easily the institutional church at least could be lost to our nation, with all that will mean for generations to come.
So there is work to do. And a service like this is a time not just welcome Celia into the ministry here but to reaffirm our shared commitment to that ministry and the mission that goes with it. To stand a bit taller and say yes to playing our part for God.
That mission and ministry reaches out far beyond the people who turn up for church services. I’ve been reading your parish profile. It offers a vision of warmth and welcome, spreading out you say from the personality of the priest (so no pressure then Celia) to the congregations and their churches and touching the whole of the local communities. “Many lives could be made happier and more fulfilled by the embracing of the faith and values which our churches represent.” “Whoever can bring energy to this post, engage with the wider community and enjoy being part of it, could markedly invigorate the presence of the churches in our benefice, and bring to the already present sense of neighbourliness the positivity that comes from the recognition of having God in our lives.”
But thank goodness for that last sentence, that reminds us that for all the expectations you have for your new priest and the obvious truth that much will depend on her, nevertheless it is the recognised presence of God in us, not we ourselves, that is at the root of the whole plant. That is what the reading Celia has chosen underlines, with a reminder that it is not so much we who have God in our lives, as God who calls us into his life. It all goes back to him.
It is that letting go of ourselves into the love of God which is both what meets us as human beings in our deepest needs and transforms us most fully, and what is one of our greatest challenges, because we are deeply implicated in building the towers of Babel of today, basing our lives and our futures on our own abilities even when we also see them to be deeply flawed. The impulse to follow Frank Sinatra and Do It My Way is almost the gospel of our times. And yet the real Gospel is utterly honest about the mess we get into when we do it our own way – all we like sheep have gone astray – and deeply committed to calling us back into His way, the way of the one who would hardly have needed to go to the cross if actually everything was just OK.
Letting ourselves go into the love of God. Some of us slip away from it through fifty shades of grey, as adolescence and adulthood strip away the enchantment of childhood. Grown up, we find ourselves lonely and exposed, anxious and cynical. We have lost our innocence and with it any sense of a deep and abiding acceptance of us. We are not so much beloved as benighted, remembering how things could be, but powerless to restore them for ourselves, Some of us choose to rebel, fearing perhaps that this offer of love is just more domination in disguise, Christian by name but not by nature. We might like real love to be true, but we cannot believe that it can be, and we choose to live in the bleak world of the atheist, without God and without hope. C’est la vie. C’est la guerre.
St John picks up this predicament and goes back beyond it, beyond both our sense of powerlessness and our fear of power. Love, he says, comes from God. God takes the initiative. He loves us long before we even consider loving him. But God also subverts our fearful narrative of domination by showing that love in costly self-sacrifice, in the life and death of Christ.
John’s further thesis is a strong one, and it comes in two halves, both of which represent challenges to a local church. First, he says that it is only by receiving God’s love that we are able to really love for ourselves. This rings true. We are increasingly aware of how in purely human terms a whole variety of mechanisms behavioural and biological mean that a lack of love in, if I can put in crudely, can lead to a lack of love out. We can overcome that to some extent, and we applaud it when we see it, but it is hard going. And how much harder then for us to love if at the very deepest root of our being the belovedness that should be there is replaced by bleakness or benightedness. And yet, because that love is completely genuine when it comes from God, the offer of it still stands, still remains. If we can use what limited resources we have to help one another accept that love, the living water of love can flow again. And when that happens not just for an individual but for a church, it can indeed transform a whole community.
There are plenty of real-life stories of it happening. One that encourages me is about the Eden Project. No not the one with the big domes, but one on some rough housing estates in Manchester. The daughter of some friends of ours, members of one of my congregations in my own vicaring days, was one of a group of young adults who first visited and then relocated there with the simple aim of starting to do helpful stuff in the community to try and break the downward spiral. And little lass that she was, she did it while also working as a bouncer in the local clubs. And it worked. Crime rates plummeted according to the police. And it’s really not so different from a hundred local projects run by churches and church people here in Suffolk, just a bit more dramatic. Research by the Church Urban Fund published last month found that 76 per cent of churches run activities in local schools, 66 per cent help to run food banks, 60 per cent offer parent and toddler groups, 53 per cent organise lunch clubs or drop-ins, and 20% are also involved in helping credit unions in some way. It’s not a choice between saving souls and seeking the transformation of society as recent debate seemed to imply. One leads to the other, it’s there in your own profile, and it’s there in your own lives. You can make a difference, and for heaven’s sake, do.
That’s a bit of a challenge. The second leg of John’s thesis is even more so. If, he says, you are not seeing love flow like this, if your life as a church is no more marked by love than that of the world around you and offers it no hope, not only is that a crying shame but it asks the question, did you know God and his love in the first place? It’s a tough question. It’s one we may well resent, and in some cases it will be unfair. But beware. Our annoyance at it may also betray our inner knowledge that we all like sheep, even we, have also gone astray – what a surprise – and the Good Shepherd is wanting to call us, even us, back into the fold.
Jean and I came across an example of this recently in her family history, which she’s researching. She decided to a be a bit feminist and follow the line back of her mother, her mother’s mother and so on. And she was struck how many of women were married to clergy or missionaries in their own right, passing on the faith and putting into action. Where did that come from? Well where it came from turned out to be the Clapham Sect, the group of which William Wilberforce was part at the beginning of the Victorian era that led to the abolition of slavery and child labour and much more. The suburb of Clapham was just being built with some rather fine mansions, one of which Jean’s ancestor bought, and right by it was the church of Holy Trinity where the Claphamites worshipped. Until their move there is no evidence that the family did much about their faith. After it, things were different. And the turning point was the revival at Holy Trinity that both re-inspired faith amongst those Victorian worthies, and led them to put that faith into action for the benefit of those much less well off than themselves.
Revival then. It’s a big and bold word. But if you mean what you say in your profile, which I’m sure you do, and if we take St John at his word, which I am sure we must, then the campaign starts now: to know the love of God, and to share that love with others. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.