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Sunday, 8 May 2016

The Dance of Love: Living the prayer of Jesus

Here is the sermon that I preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields today:

If you knew you had roughly eighteen hours to live and could use that time to talk and pray with your nearest and dearest, I wonder what you would say and do? It is likely that whatever you did and said in that time it would all be to do with what was of central importance to your life and thought.

That was the situation in which Jesus found himself in the hours before his crucifixion and we know that he used that time to share acted parables and key messages with his disciples, as well as to pray. His prayer at that time, a part of which forms today’s Gospel reading (John 17. 20 - 26), was for the unity of his current and future disciples – that they might be one. So, why was unity of such central importance to Jesus’ thinking and praying at that most significant moment in his life - the time of his death? If we can answer that question, we can reach into the very heart of Jesus’ being and thinking.

When Jesus prayed that his followers might all be one, he prayed this on the basis that his followers might be in God as he is in the Father and the Father is in him. He was praying that we, who follow in his footsteps, would experience the same oneness with God and each other that he enjoys with God, his Father. In essence, his prayer is that we will experience unity, because unity is what is at the very heart of God.

The Greek Fathers called the relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit perichoresis, which “means ‘to dance around one another in relationship’, … peri meaning around, and choreio to dance” (Touching the Sacred, Chris Thorpe and Jake Lever, Canterbury Press). Stephen Verney, a former Bishop of Repton, explored this idea in several of his books (e.g. The Dance of Love, Fount) writing about “the dance of love of the Trinity in which they give place to each other.” “This is the glory revealed in Jesus, as the Father and the Son give authority to each other in mutual interdependence, and as the creator and the creation interpenetrate each other.” Similarly, David Runcorn has described “the Holy Trinity as a dancing community of divine poverty. Each eternally, joyfully, dispossessing themselves; emptying, pouring themselves out to the favour and glory of the other. Nothing claimed, demanded or grasped. They live and know each other in the simple ecstasy of giving” (Choice, Desire and the Will of God, SPCK). At the heart of the Godhead is a relationship of love where love is constantly being shared and exchanged between Father, Son and Holy Spirit and this exchange or dance of love holds them together in unity.

Verney goes on to say that the eternal dance of the Trinity in heaven is reflected in creation and we are invited to join in because it was out of that relationship of love at the heart of the Godhead that Jesus came into our world to open up a way for us to participate in the eternal dance of love constantly shared between Father, Son and Spirit. We are familiar with the idea that God’s love for us is shown in Jesus’ sacrifice of himself for us by becoming human and then dying for us on the cross. We are, perhaps, less familiar with the idea that we can be part of the constant exchange of love in God of which we have been speaking and which Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice of himself enables us to experience. If we live in God, we live in love and love lives in us. We become included in the constant exchange of love which exists in the Godhead and are, therefore, constantly loved no matter what else is going on in our lives.

In the words of Paul Simon, we could respond to this by saying ‘So beautiful or so what’. It’s all very well picturing a beautiful dance at the heart of the Trinity but what difference does that make to us or anyone else?

Firstly, it says to us that we are 100% loved by God, surrounded by and filled by love, and that the more we experience of God, the more we can come to know love for ourselves. I wonder, do we allow the reality that we are accepted and loved by God to seep into the depths of our being where it can and will address our insecurities and anxieties? Do we know this for ourselves? Do we accept it for ourselves? Because ultimately our deepest need is to know with absolute confidence that we are loved and that is what is assured for us through the sacrifice of Jesus and the dance of love which is the Trinity.

Second, we see that love involves the continual giving and receiving of affirmation and authority. The dance of love is not a solo with the spotlight firmly fixed on an individual who garners all the glory for his or herself. It’s not even a picture of the kind of intuitive interaction which we see in ballroom dancing and which has been popularised on TV by ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. We are talking here of reciprocal love or giving which cannot be manipulated by ego, because the gift always moves beyond the reach of the one who first gives it. That is one of the reasons why it is so important that God is Trinity, three persons who are also one.

Lewis Hyde notes in his book called ‘The Gift’ that when giving is reciprocal: "The gift moves in a circle, and two people do not make much of a circle. Two points establish a line, but a circle lies in a plane and needs at least three points.” It is only “When the gift moves in a circle [that] its motion is beyond the control of the personal ego, and so each bearer must be a part of the group and each donation is an act of social faith.” That is what we see in the Trinity and what we are called to replicate in our own relationships. “The Dance of Love,” Verney writes, “is the glory in God’s heart, but it is also the pattern which is reflected in everything he has created.” The more we live according to God’s pattern for life, the more we know in our lives the love and unity of the Trinity itself.

In his prayer Jesus makes a contrast between giving which can be controlled by personal ego or one pair of gift partners and giving which is genuinely reciprocal. He states that the world does not know his Righteous Father and, earlier in the prayer, that the world hates his disciples because they do not belong to the world, just as he does not belong to the world.

When Jesus uses this language of separation in John’s Gospel between his disciples and the world, Verney suggests that he is speaking about two different levels or orders to reality. What he means by this are different patterns of society, each with a different centre or ruling power. In the first, “the ruling principle is the dictator ME, my ego-centric ego, and the pattern of society is people competing with, manipulating and trying to control each other.” In the second, “the ruling principle is the Spirit of Love, and the pattern of society is one of compassion – people giving to each other what they really are, and accepting what others are, recognising their differences, and sharing their vulnerability.” Runcorn puts it like this, “the life of God is non-possessive, non-competitive, humbly attentive to the interests of the other, united in love and vision.” To be God-like, “is not to be grasping” and so “Jesus pours himself out ‘precisely because’ he is God from God.”

These two orders or patterns for society are at war with each other and we are caught up in the struggle that results. Choosing our side in this struggle is a key question for us as human beings, the question being “so urgent that our survival depends on finding the answer.” Verney writes that: “we can see in our world order the terrible consequences of our ego-centricity. We have projected it into our institutions, where it has swollen up into a positive force of evil. Human beings have set up prison camps where they torture each other for pleasure. We are all imprisoned together, in a system of competing nation states, on the edge of a catastrophe which could destroy all life on our planet.”

I was reminded of these words when reading a recent interview that Neil McGregor gave to The Observer. In this interview he made some typically insightful contributions to the current debate about the EU referendum based on research for his book ‘Germany: Memories of a Nation’. He said, for example, that: “German people see the whole purpose of a political leader is to make successful alliances. The proper use of sovereignty is all about pooling it to achieve your aims. The British idea that you should entirely do these things on your own and try to assume total control over your environment is unthinkable.”

Similarly, President Obama suggested, during his recent visit to Europe, that “the people of Europe … are more secure and more prosperous because we stood together for the ideals we share.” As a Guardian article commenting on this speech noted this message runs counter to Europe’s growing populism; “the self-glorification of national egos, the distrust towards outsiders, and the reflex of putting up walls or closing down borders.”

In the UK we are at the very heart of this discussion as the last few years have seen us engaging in considerable political debate about the benefits of collaboration versus independence. From 2010 – 2015 we had our most recent experience of coalition government and, for all the complications inherent in coalitions, many would see that period as preferable to the licence that a majority Conservative Government has had to pursue austerity cuts on those with the least influence and political power in our society. In 2014 Scots voted narrowly to remain part of the United Kingdom rather than choosing independence and this year we are asked vote on essentially the same issue but in relation to the European Union.

Jesus’ focus on unity at the time of his death and the dance of love within the Trinity which is the basis for that focus, would suggest that, as his followers, we should favour collaboration, coalition, alliances and unions over independence, in the way that Neil suggests the German people have come to do. Yet we know, too, that a focus on unity at all costs also can silence voices of dissent and conscience and that power can accrue in unhelpful or unaccountable ways the larger or all-embracing an organisation or union may be.

Here at St Martin’s we know how difficult and complex it can be to create and sustain a community that is both unified and inclusive. We also know how valuable it is to make the attempt and to grapple with the complexities. I know that I have been both impressed and impacted by the way in which St Martin’s grapples with these issues and realise that I need to make changes in my thinking and practice as a result. These issues and complexities are, of course, magnified when it comes to working them through in the context of a union of nations, as we can by being part of the EU.

Nevertheless, the dance of love at the heart of the Trinity and our participation in that dance, as God’s children, compels us, I think, to make that attempt within the communities, organisations and networks of which we are part; whether that is family, church, local community, nation or union of nations. In doing so, we come to know ourselves firstly as surrounded by and filled by the love which overflows from the Trinity, then understand that such love involves the continual giving and receiving of affirmation and authority as we seek to live in and through the dance of love in the complexities of human relationships, alliances, coalitions, collaborations and unions. Like the Holy Trinity, we strive to be a dancing community of divine poverty. Each eternally, joyfully, dispossessing themselves; emptying, pouring themselves out to the favour and glory of the other. Nothing claimed, demanded or grasped; living and knowing each other in the simple ecstasy of giving, which is the unity for which Jesus prayed.


K.D. Lang - Jericho.

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