Sunday, December 25, 2016 Christmas Day
1 John 4.7–16
The text of the readings follows after the comments.
While I’ve been on medical leave I’ve been reading, among so many other things, The Iliad. Not in the original Greek, mind you, but in Robert Lattimore’s celebrated 1951 translation into English blank verse. While some people describe it as “the world’s greatest and most disturbing poem” I’m finding it a bit of a slog. Not all Greek epic is this hard – the Odyssey is a much more interesting tale – but one tires of the arrogant stupidity of the brave Greeks and the irrational heroism of the Trojans. You really wish they’d just sit down and work out some compromise that wouldn’t destroy Troy and cast Greece into the dark ages. Well perhaps that’s the point, eh? Simone Weil wrote in 1940 an essay that the true subject of the poem was not heroism but force and the destruction it wreaks on both the person who wields it as well as the victim. It’s a theme that Chris Hedges picked up in his remarkable book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (2003). Something that gives Weil’s approach some cogency is the fact that even the gods of Olympus seem overcome by force; Zeus rules not because of wisdom or popularity, but because he is stronger than all of the other gods and bullies and beats them into submission. The gods seem downright petty in their favours and petty arguments with each other, standing on pride and not above seduction and lies.
Then there is the God of Israel. As shown forth in Jesus of Nazareth the divine is seen as the all-mighty creator, but also as one who risks and sacrifices. If the kingdom of God is like a woman searching for a lost coin, or a shepherd searching for a lost sheep, God comes across as desperate and anxious for creation. This desperate attachment gives forth in the incarnation, a last ditch effort to reach out to humanity, to show the unshowable in human form.
This action is love. As the First Letter of John puts it today, God is love. This is not a metaphor, but rather an analogy, and what we know of love is in fact a reflection of the originary love of God that is inherent in God prior to creation. Love is the means by which we rest in God and God lives in us. People speculate about what it means to say that we are in the image of God, usually thinking it must have something to do with being a thinking creature with a mind and soul. Personally, I think it may have more to do with our capacity to love, to love God, to love people, and to love things. Love is not about possession, but about letting go while still remaining in relation. It is about surrender.
There is another well known passage in the New Testament that is about love. Paul’s 1 Corinthians 13 is often read at weddings (my mother read it at mine) and at funerals. However, the context is not that of a human couple or the life of a beloved friend, but that of a community arguing amongst itself about spiritual gifts and whether speaking in tongues makes one a better follower of Christ that others. Paul, who spoke in tongues and knew a thing or two about spiritual gifts, wrote:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels,
but do not have love,
I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge,
and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains,
but do not have love,
I am nothing.
If I give away all my possessions,
and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,
but do not have love,
I gain nothing.
Love is patient;
love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.
Love never ends.
But as for prophecies, they will come to an end;
as for tongues, they will cease;
as for knowledge, it will come to an end.
For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;
but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
When I was a child,
I spoke like a child,
I thought like a child,
I reasoned like a child;
when I became an adult,
I put an end to childish ways.
For now we see in a mirror, dimly,
but then we will see face to face.
Now I know only in part;
then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
and the greatest of these is love.
When Paul wrote this passage I believe that he was speaking not of some theoretical love, like the speakers in Plato’s Symposium, but of the love which he had experienced from God in Christ. Likewise, the author of today’s reading from 1 John was also speaking of a divine love that had been poured in him through knowing Christ.
Of course, some would say that love is fine and dandy, but in the real world one has to be hard nosed and calculating. Love is for the young and dreamers, suitable for domestic arrangements, but not the basis on which to build a business, succeed in politics, or achieve anything of great significance. Don’t be naive! But at that point one is turning from God and giving in to other forces – undeniably present in the world, but often of human making, or utterly out of human control. The point about Christianity is that love is stronger than all of this.
+ It is a love which takes a small group of dejected disciples and leads them in three centuries to overcome the Empire which killed their master.
+ It is a love which inspired a host of saints over twenty centuries.
+ It is a love which propels us even now to offer refuge to peoples displaced by war and persecution.
+ It is a love that makes us want to work with the most despised people on the streets of our cities and the most forgotten in our care facilities.
+ It is a love that cares for creation and seeks to preserve it from corruption and pollution.
+ It is a love which is stronger than death.
The message of Christmas Day is that love is with us, and that we can dwell within it. May the light of the world, which is life and creation, who was born of Mary two thousand years ago, be within each of us and all whom we know, and bring us to the full reign of the one who is a servant.
—– + —–
This concludes An Advent Calendar. For those of you who have been with me on this trip, thank you for joining! God be with you.
Sing and rejoice, O daughter Zion! For lo, I will come and dwell in your midst, says the Lord. Many nations shall join themselves to the Lord on that day, and shall be my people; and I will dwell in your midst. And you shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you. The Lord will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem.
Be silent, all people, before the Lord; for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.
1 John 4.7–16
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 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. 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. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all. He testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony. Whoever has accepted his testimony has certified this, that God is true. He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.