Sermon: Sunday 1 May 2016
Sixth Sunday of Easter
The Revd Canon Dr Johannes Arens, Canon Precentor
There is something perplexing and difficult at the heart of the Christian faith. This perplexing something is the central value of the Kingdom of God; the primary, identifying characteristic of the Christian Church at its best and the clearest picture we have of our relationship with God in Jesus and his relationship with us. At the same time, this perplexing and difficult something at the heart of our faith is both the best description we have been given of who God is and the clearest command our Lord gives to us. It’s a quality or a type of relationship, and it’s proclaimed as the greatest, strongest, and most persistent gift we are given.
It’s what the Gospel today talks about. The English word is “love” and that’s really a shame. The early church was smarter than we are. The early church knew that this difficult and perplexing quality of relationship was a special thing, its own thing, revealed by Jesus and in Jesus, the essence of our relationship with God. So, when the early church talked about this new thing, it pretty much invented a new word. The church took a seldom used, vague and antiquated Greek term and used it to describe what it was talking about. The Greek word, we all know, is Agape. It is the worst possible sin for preachers to talk about meaning of words in classical languages as it is such a boring way to tell you how incredibly educated I am because I can read Wikipedia. But it is actually helpful to know that agape was a really weird and unusual word.
The advantage of choosing it was that every time the Church used this word, people would know exactly what was being talked about—they would know that what was meant was the command of Christ, the life of God, the goal of the Christian and the greatest power in creation. There was really no other meaning for Agape.
We call it “love”, a word with a jillion meanings. After all, we love our new iPhones; and we love chocolate; and we love our spouses and our kids; Romeo loved Juliet; we love the Tigers and the Foxes, and – judging from hats – thousands of people love New York.
What does this agape mean, what does it look like? To discover this, we have to look to Jesus and those who were touched by him. We know that, in part, love looks like turning one cheek when the other has been hurt; it looks like going two miles when one mile is unfairly asked; it looks like offering prayers in response to insults.
We know that it looks like a father welcoming home a son who was lost; like paying a full day’s wage to a worker who showed up an hour before quitting time—and it looks like rejoicing in each of these. It looks like losing your life in the hope of finding it. It looks like the previously shy, angry and slightly thick Peter to suddenly preach to crowds in such a way that everybody thinks he speaks their own language. It looks like the narrow-minded and anxious Paul singing hymns in prison. Agape is such an overpowering and healing love that anything else happening is powerless against it.
So, what is wrong in the first place? Traditional theology identify seven main areas by which you can tell that somebody is struggling, that somebody is wounded and somebody’s life is not what it could be. You will all have heard of them: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth.
All of these are worth many sermons, so let’s look at just one very briefly: gluttony. Like the other six, these are not little things you can do or not do, but really deep and involuntary weaknesses and scars – indicators of deeper wounds which make you use inappropriate means to feel less horrible. They are not moral terms in the way of dos and don’ts.
Gluttony is one many of us can relate to in terms of food, health regimes, diets, weight management. It’s a familiar weak spot for many of us and consistently difficult for almost everybody to get right. Gluttony usually means excessive appetites of food or drink – having learned to use food or drink to feel better when I feel low. Thomas Aquinas, the most modern, awesome and radical theologian ever said many hundred years ago that every sin has a counter-sin which is distinct from a virtue. This means gluttony can mean its apparent opposite: obsessive dieting and its feeling of superiority, depriving oneself of food to numb unbearable inner pain. For almost everybody food and drink are difficult areas to get right and it has very little to do with willpower or ‘being good’.
You will all have heard of Alcoholics Anonymous but let me tell you how it started. Rowland Hazard a wealthy man and an alcoholic. In 1931 he was the patient of the famous psychologist Carl Gustav Jung. After a year of treatment Rowland believed himself to be recovered, but he soon resumed drinking. He returned to Jung, and inquired as to whether there was anything else the psychiatrist could do to help him. Jung responded by saying that there was no more treatment available from a scientific or medical standpoint. Instead, Jung maintained that the only way for Rowland to recover was to find a religious or spiritual experience, even though he admitted that such events were rare and not to be found by just going to church or being religious.
The rest is history. Rowland was so shocked by being pronounced a hopeless drunk by the most famous psychologist around that he found his spiritual experience and in 1934 shared it with Ebby, Bill and Bob. AA was born. This didn’t turn them into saints. Ebby started drinking again and died from it, Rowland, Bill and Bob stayed sober. Other weaknesses appeared in their biographies – they struggled with what lied below their gluttony all their lives. Life isn’t that simple, and agape with God isn’t an instant miraculous healing.
What lies below which is so painful that we need to eat when we feeling lonely is so painful, that we need to drink when we feel so low, that we need to starve ourselves when feeling emotional pain is unbearable? So what lies below pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth?
Let’s go back to the beginning and listen to Genesis 3:
Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’
There it is. Shame. They were naked and exposed, frightened and hid themselves and they both lied because they were afraid. Shame is so corrosive and painful that we can’t even look at it and need fig leaves to cover it. It makes our thirst unbearable, turns hunger into torture or makes food so frightening that we starve ourselves. Human beings are wounded and vulnerable.
What is on offer is agape.
They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Therefore say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, says the Lord.