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Wednesday, 12 April 2017

The form of authentic love

Here is the sermon that I preached at today's lunchtime Eucharist in St Martin-in-the-Fields, drawing on materials from A Soul Laid Bare, Liz Horwell, Alison MorganRandall Nolan and Gregory Wolfe:

“Over thirty years ago, W.H. Vanstone, canon of Chester Cathedral, wrote a book called, The Stature of Waiting. Early in the book, Vanstone talks about Jesus’ betrayal by Judas. The word ‘betrayed’, he says, as when Judas betrayed Jesus, really means ‘handed over’.” He explains that, “The word ‘betrayed’ is used only once in 33 mentions of what Judas did; the other 32 times the phrase ‘handed over’ is used. Where that phrase is used in other contexts of the NT it has no connotation of betrayal – eg the talents are ‘handed over’, Jesus ‘handed over’ his spirit as he died, Paul ‘hands over’ the gospel by preaching it to the Corinthians. The gospel writers use it consistently and automatically; it must have been the stock phrase, perhaps the one Jesus himself used at the Last Supper.”

The gospels show a marked change from activity to passivity, action to passion, at the point where Jesus was ‘handed over’ – a phrase [which was] in common Christian currency in the first century.” According to John’s account … when Judas leaves the Last Supper to set in train the handing over of Jesus, John tell us ‘that it was night’… which must mean that the ‘daylight’ period is over and that the time foreseen by Jesus has come - the time at which ‘no one can work’, the time at which ‘working’ must give place to ‘waiting’…and is also associated, in a most striking way, with the end of Jesus’ freedom from restraint by human hands … ”from working to waiting and from freedom to constraint.” “The handing over of Jesus was His transition from working to waiting upon and receiving the works of others, from the status and role of subject to that of object, from ‘doing’ to ‘being done to’.”

Jesus moves from being active to being passive in the Garden of Gethsemane when Judas hands him over.” “Until Gethsemane … Jesus had chosen to spend the whole of his ministry ‘demonstrating God’s kingdom’ both to individuals and to the people as a whole. And his ‘demonstrating’ invited people to respond. He longed for them to respond by choosing to deepen their relationship with God and work in the cause of justice: but that was their choice, it could never be obligatory.”

Vanstone “tells us that the word ‘passion’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘suffer’: or ‘allow events to happen’.” It means, being passive. “The emphasis is … on being the subject not the object; being a patient.” “The passion then describes the time in Jesus’ life when he stopped taking control of the situation and simply allowed people to respond to him as they chose.” “So Vanstone says: ’The passion is not the pains he endured or the cruel manner in which he was treated by the hands of men but simply the fact that he was exposed to those hands and whatever those hands might do.’”

“This point is important because many people see God as ALWAYS taking control, always active, never passive; yet if Jesus is the perfect revelation of God’s character, Jesus’ passion demonstrates that being passive is also God-like.” “So Vanstone argues that Jesus’ death was the result of his passion, his ‘allowing events to happen’”: ”It wasn’t Jesus’ death that brought us benefits … It was his willingness to spare himself nothing, not even his own life, in the cause of winning the nation to the discipleship of God’s kingdom. He sought from the nation’s leaders that which could not be compelled: the response of discipleship.” “So, when Jesus prays in Gethsemane he still hopes that the priests might respond positively, though he knows it’s unlikely. He prays that God might be able to find him another way through this, another way for his message of love to be heard and understood. And until the moment when the priests come into the garden mob-handed there’s still the slim chance they’ll turn themselves around and support him. But in the garden they make their choice and he’ll accept it for what it is: their choice.”

“Jesus did the only thing that love can do: it can only offer itself out and wait for a response. With love, action must give way to passion, to waiting for a choice to be made. Because, as we know, Love is not possessive: it doesn’t insist on its own way; it never uses force. God offers such a love to us: an abundant, free-flowing, bountiful, love: and he waits longingly for us to want to love him in return. Jesus shows us that God’s love is not only active in showing itself, but passive in allowing us to choose what our response will be.” “The activity of love is always precarious … Herein lies the poignancy of love, and its potential tragedy. The activity of love contains no assurance or certainty of completion: much may be expended and little achieved. The progress of love must always be by tentative and precarious steps: and each step that is taken, whether it 'succeeds' or 'fails', becomes the basis for the next, and equally precarious, step which must follow.” “Love proceeds by no assured programme. In the care of children a parent is peculiarly aware that each step of love is a step of risk; and that each step taken generates the need for another and equally precarious step.”

So, “the hallmarks of the creator’s love for his creation [are] an endless love that must always shift with circumstances to see to the good of the beloved. And a vulnerable love that cannot force a response from the beloved but must watch and wait and hope for a response, whether it comes or not.” “Theologian that he is, Vanstone could not help feeling that these were the characteristics of God’s love for us — a self-emptying (kenosis) love that is always attempting to find out how to address the welter of circumstance that is every individual life.” “In the kenosis, or self-emptying of Christ, nothing is held back, nothing unexpended (Phil. 2:7). In this we recognize God’s love as unlimited. God’s love is also vulnerable. The Lord risks rejection at the hands of His own creatures and is pained by our refusal to accept love. And lastly, God’s love is precarious. By the humble condescension of the Lord, we have power to determine whether His love succeeds or fails in its communication, or its intended effect.” “The vulnerability of God means that the issue of His love as triumph or tragedy depends upon His creation.” This is the form of authentic love. If we want to know 'what love ought to be', we need enquire no further than what the love of God is.

We live in a world which values activity and action over passivity and passion. We have lost [our understanding of what it means to be ‘handed over’]; but perhaps we should recover it, and in recovering it find our human dignity enhanced, our powerlessness removed – for so we can be like God himself, attaining the dignity which is ours because we share in his being, and reconnecting with some of the values we overlook in our emphasis on doing over being.”


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