We have been treated in recent weeks to St Paul’s hard earned reflections on love. How as God is love, it’s very essence, made manifest in the life and work of His Son, why the living out truly of a life of love is the fulfilment of all that went before, and the way to be sure we are on the path of real faith.
Love can be lived out in many ways as we know, indeed the many gifts of the Spirit referred to at Pentecost are themselves expression of love. Greek has several very specific words for love, capturing more precisely than English the many aspects love can have. Yesterday I was delighted to officiate at a Nigerian wedding in Castle Acre, celebrated with vivid dress, exuberant worship and much joy. Romantic love however is one part of what love is, and even in the wedding service itself there is the sense that at that very moment the fullness of human love is meant to grow into something available to others, to community, society, family and those in distress. We are often fed a diet of shows that focus on the attractions of people, the starting point, and take little opportunity to go further into the kinds of love the will sustain us throughout our loves, and be a source of blessing not just to us but importantly to others.
Our first reading from Exodus in some ways shows god’s love for his enslaved chosen people, the Passover meal still celebrated by Jewish people the world over affirms God’s passing over of His vengeance on the Egyptians to spare and free His people. It may to some sound a harsh idea of love, but it is a story known to the writers of the Gospels, and informs an idea liberation, and purpose for the Israelites as they seek to follow their God.
Matthew’s Gospel addresses the issue of discipline within the earliest church, how can we address each other’s faults in an appropriate way, that contains love and doesn’t stray into blame and self-righteousness. I am reminded of a friend, the mother of three of my godchildren, who when they were little if words needed to be had took them away to sit quietly and talk to them one to one, rather than in front of others. I was impressed by this, as it didn’t let behaviour go by unaddressed, but did so without shaming or embarrassing the child. And here the same process is in play – speak one to one, if that falls on deaf ears try with another person whose opinion may be valued, but also to test that you are not taking an unreasonable line yourself. If this fails, then let the church itself listen to the problem, and at the very last resort, if change cannot come then the person will have to step outside the Church, even if only for a short period of reflection. As any who have had to deal with conflicts will know they are rarely easy, and yet what is easy is to let ourselves become frustrated and for the process to become something not done out of love or a genuine desire for change, but for less worthy reasons.
Paul reflects that loving is the fulfilment of the law of Moses, and while not setting aside the commandments, argues the golden rule, the goal of real love is to love your neighbor, ie all others, as well as you love yourself. It is a tall order and the implications of what it means I suggest can take a lifetime to imagine. Humans cannot often prevent themselves shaping their thoughts and their immediate world to suit what they find most convenient, compelling or best suited to themselves. Faults we know in ourselves can when seen in others become hugely troubling, actions of pity, mercy or compassion we do we think well of ourselves for, but when they come from others do we give thanks for them, or look for what wasn’t done. We cannot truly ever walk in another’s shoes, know their challenges, we don’t have their temperament, so loving another as ourselves is of course going to need widening our horizons, for everyone lives their lives by their own lights, and it isn’t always easy to appreciate in others what we laud in ourselves. Love says Paul must never harm neighbour, and perhaps that is a good starting point. For we might love and work on acts of love and service and yet may not ever know if that has had the required effect. Paul knows that isn’t the point, it is the attempt to live out the calling of love that is the point, what follows is in the hands of God
So do no harm, do good where you see it can be done, don’t count the cost, and don’t wait to be thanked. For if we all did so we and the whole world would be transformed, and as Paul reminds us the kingdom would be built. These three things abide, faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love