Monday, 30 May 2011

Since Christ is risen there is love

Sermon on John 14: 15-21, St Matthew's, 29th May 2011

The title of my sermon today is ‘Since Christ is risen there is Love’. But on thinking about it I wasn’t sure that this title makes much seAdd Imagense. Was there no love before the resurrection? Well of course there was. I think it means something like ‘Since Christ is risen we can think of love in a new way’ Or ‘Since Chris is risen God’s love is available to us in a new way’.

This sermon is part of a series of sermons all beginning: ‘Since Christ is risen’. We started with Steve showing us that ‘Since Christ is risen there is faith’. Then John explained why ‘Since Christ is risen there is hope’. Then Sally talked on the theme ‘Since Christ is risen there is life’. All these titles sort of make sense I think but ‘Since Christ is risen there is love’…Mmmm… I think Steve has given me a particularly hard title to talk to.

One sermon I think is missing in this series is ‘Since Christ is risen there is happiness’. Now superficially ‘Since Christ is risen there is happiness’ makes much more sense than ’Since Christ is risen there is love’. After all the traditional Easter Greeting begins is Hallelujah: Christ is risen. We’ll just practice that now: [Hallelujah! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, Hallelujah!]

Don’t you now feel a bit happier than you did previously? Just saying the word ‘Hallelujah’ surely makes us feel a bit happier. Just as smiling makes us feel happier. Try it. When we make ourselves smile, even if we don’t feel like smiling, we feel a little happier. Did that work for you?

So before talking about ‘Since Christ is risen there is love’ I want to talk a bit about ‘Since Christ is risen there is happiness’. Or rather I will suggest that there is a good reason why we haven’t got a sermon in the series entitled ‘Since Christ is risen there is happiness’ because this is patently untrue and then go on to talk about ‘Since Christ is risen there is love’ which sounds odd but I think is true, and the more you think about it, deeply true.

And here a bit of a confession and a bit of a plug. I am still, having written this sermon, not entirely sure about why ‘Since Christ is risen there is love’ as you will see. Perhaps love is such a big subject - connected with the fact that God is love – as St John tells us in his letter - that it’s difficult to get your head round. I publish my sermons in a blog if you want to read them. You can find this blog by Googling ‘Mike Rayner Sermons’. And they tend to be slightly clearer on my blog than when I give them in person. So please read this one later in the week and comments would be very welcome.

But first why is ‘Since Christ is risen there is happiness’ untrue? Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, patently unjust trial, mockery, torture and finally crucifixion was – to say the least – a source of great unhappiness to his disciples. So were they happy when he appeared to them? Well yes and no. Of course Mary was pleased to see Jesus when he appeared to her in the garden on that first Easter morning but what about the other disciples? Was Peter perhaps more apprehensive than happy when he heard from Mary that Jesus was back? After all Peter had told the servants of the High Priest, who at that point was interrogating Jesus, that he didn’t even knew his master. And the rest of the disciples had all run away. How were they going to face the risen Jesus?

Moreover does the resurrection just wipe out suffering and usher in lives of pure, unadulterated, happiness? No of course not.

So a few words about happiness. There is a lot about happiness in the news at the moment. This week the OECD – the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development - launched its ‘Better Life index’ (1). Statisticians at the OECD have been working on the Better Life Index for the past decade and it’s supposed to measure countries’ progress in a way that goes beyond purely economic measures such as ‘gross domestic product’. Basically it’s a happiness index. You may or may not be reassured to know that according to this index the UK is the 15th happiest country amongst the 34 OECD countries – sort of average really. Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the Nordic countries score best.

But what is happiness? Well according to the OECD it’s a combination of things ranging from having a lot of money to having someone to rely on at times of need, from having good health to living in a place without a lot of crime.

Some people seem to think happiness is all about having a lot of money. If you paid attention to the adverts you’d think happiness was all about having lots of things. That having lots of things makes you happy. Some adverts are shameless in this regard. Some of us remember the tv advert which tried to tell us that ‘Happiness is a cigar called hamlet.’ Happily this advert would now be illegal. A more recent advert for Lexus cars claimed that ‘Whoever said money can’t buy you happiness isn’t spending it right’. This advert works because of course it’s a joke. Even the owners of Lexus cars know that money can’t really buy you happiness.

Hence efforts by bodies like the OECD to define happiness in a broader way. But even their index still includes wealth as something to have which will make you happy. Their index in the end defines happiness as having stuff. Not just material stuff to be sure but having stuff like health, people to rely on, a crime-free place to live, etc. etc. Contrast this with what the Bible says about happiness.

A good place to start is the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus begins – according to Luke - with
‘Happy are you poor for yours is the kingdom of God
Happy are you that hunger now for you shall be satisfied
Happy are you that weep now for you shall laugh’

Now the poor, those who hunger, those who weep are people who don’t have things: money, food and loved ones respectively. Jesus here is explicitly saying that happiness has nothing to do with having things. What then does Jesus think happiness is? Note that he is not saying that the poor, hungry and those who weep now are happy now. He is saying that they will be happy in the future and that this is something to do with the coming of the kingdom of God.

Out Gospel reading today comes from John’s Gospel where John records what Jesus said to his disciples at the Last Supper. Jesus tells them what is going to happen to him and to them. The disciples are confused at what he has to say to them and not a little disturbed. He tells that in a little while he is going to leave them and that they will see him no more. As the Last Supper draws to close he tells them. ‘Truly, truly I say unto you, you will weep and lament…you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy….you have sorrow now but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice and no one will take your joy from you.’

So here Jesus is saying that the resurrection will bring the disciples joy. It would be true to say that ‘Since Christ is risen there is joy.’ But joy, as Jesus understands it, is something completely different from happiness as we might understand it and the OECD tries to measure it. The joy Jesus is promising his disciples at the last supper seems to be for Jesus much more akin to understanding – the answer to all the questions the disciples have been asking him – than to straightforward pleasure. He seems to be thinking of something much more long lasting than happiness.

This then is why I think happiness is not the be all and end all of life. Even Bob Dylan – also in the news recently - knows this. He says ‘Happiness is not on my list of priorities. I just deal with day-to-day things. If I’m happy, I’m happy – and if I’m not, I don’t know the difference. Knowing that you are the person you were put on this earth to be – that’s much more important than just being happy. It’s not happiness and unhappiness, it’s either blessed or unblessed. As the Bible says, “Blessed is the man who walkest not in the counsel of the ungodly.” Happiness isn’t on the road to anything. Happiness is the road.’ (2)

So if happiness is not the point what is? Well of course it’s love. So back to the title of this sermon: ‘Since Christ is risen there is love’

But what is love? Is it something we feel or something we do? Well if you want a definition you cannot do much better than to turn to that familiar wedding reading from Paul’s first letter of to the Corinthians Chapter 13. Verses 4- 7 say ‘Love is patient and kind, love is not jealous or boastful, it is not arrogant or rude, love does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful, it does not rejoice at wrong but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.’

Note that in Paul’s view love seems to be mainly something we do rather than something we feel: something we do patiently, kindly, without jealousy etc. But is that the whole of it? Of course love shows itself in things we do but surely it’s also a feeling an emotion.

In today’s Gospel reading, as I said, Jesus is talking to the disciples at the Last Supper, about what is about to happen to him and to them.

Firstly he gives them some promises. He promises to send them the Holy Spirit or the ‘Counsellor’ with a capital C as the Greek word ‘parakletos’ is translated in the version we heard today. He also promises that they will see him again: ‘I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me’.

Secondly Jesus apparently gives them some instructions and information about love. He begins by saying ‘If you love me you will keep my commandments’. Now the two most important commandments you will remember are firstly ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and will all your strength’ and secondly ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (3).

But is this ‘If you love me you will keep my commandments’ a piece of instruction or is it rather a statement of fact: something that is going to happen because of what is going to happen to Jesus – his death and resurrection? Jesus goes on to say. ‘He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me.’

In either case here we seem to be back to loving as doing again. But remember that the most important commandment is ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and all your strength.’ So loving Jesus is not just abiding by the ethical principles to be found in the Bible such as the last six of the 10 commandments: thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not lie, etc. When Jesus is talking about commandments he’s not just talking about keeping the 10 commandments and such like, or even loving our neighbour as ourselves he is talking about actually loving God but what does this mean?

We think of the saints as people who really loved God, and not just those who lead relatively blameless lives. Here is story Rowan Williams tells (4). St John of the Cross was staying at a convent over Christmas and was observed by one of the sisters when he didn’t know he was being watched. St John picked up the figure of the baby Jesus from the crib, he hugged it close to his chest and then, with eyes closed, danced around the crib for a few minutes. Well that it seems to me is love of God. A devotion that clearly gives the person an all-pervading warmth and delight but also makes them seem a little mad. Certainly something which is difficult to communicate in words to others. Something not unlike happiness or joy in fact.

Some of us might remember that sort of feeling when we were first fell in love with people who became our lovers. Some of us may still have that feeling for those people. Some of us may feel it for our family and friends. The sort of feeling that makes us glad when we meet someone again after an absence. That makes us want to look after and care for them.

We sing about loving Jesus in many of our hymns and choruses. For example ‘Jesus we love you, we worship and adore you, glorify thy name in all the earth’. Or ‘Jesus we love you, so we gather here, join our hearts in unity, and take away our fear. You can no doubt think of many more. What do we feel when we sing these lines? And are we not back to where we started with. When we say ‘Hallelujah’ or when we smile we feel a bit happier. Don’t we feel when say or sing ‘Jesus we love you’ a little bit more loving towards him?

There are, however, lots of people who think that feelings are not important, it’s what we believe and do that is important. We shouldn’t expect to feel our love for Jesus, that loving Jesus is just about believing in him and being nice to other people, loving our neighbour, but then why two commandments: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart…’ and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. Surely loving God is similar to, but distinct from loving, our neighbour.

So for me just me thinking of the love of God as something I have either just to believe in or enact is not enough. I want some of that love that St John of the Cross seems to have and feel.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus goes on from, ‘He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me’ to say, ‘and he who loves me will be loved by my father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.’ Remember that Jesus is talking to his disciples about what is going to happen: that he is going to go away but then return to them. So here Jesus is promising that his death and resurrection will change – not perhaps the nature of God’s love - but its availability and also how we see it.

I can just about grasp this, as through a glass darkly. I am not like St John of the Cross. I don’t think I am ever going to dance round a crib with the baby Jesus clutched to my chest. I cannot even raise my hands in church in moving hymns or choruses but I know just enough about love – through my love for my wife, my family, my friends – to sort of see what Jesus meant by ‘he who loves me will be loved by my father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.’ I think the point of life is not the pursuit of happiness but the pursuit of love and in particular to find out more about the God who is love and who rather mysteriously seems to love us.

(3) Luke 10: 25
(4) Rowan Williams (1994) Open to Judgement, Darton, Longman and Todd, p27


  1. I remember someone preaching about the word "happy" in the sermon on the mount and pointing out that in most older versions the word is translated as "blessed" - which has a "holier" and slightly more elusive feel to it I think. The word "happy" is perhaps a secular, modern post-French-revolution concept which may well be the exact antithesis of the word "blessed". Didnt someone say that the more we pursue "happiness" per se the more it will elude us? (The American concept of "the pursuit of happiness" surely leads towards permanent dissatisfaction which most of us eventually realise for ourselves - the hard way . . . . .
    to me I think the main source of joy is not so much "understanding" (which you mentioned in a previous sermon) but "belonging". Not so much "understanding" then as "being understood" although I think there is a mutuality there somewhere . . . .

  2. I wasnt quite happy with the concept of "being understood" because its more fundamental than that: more the realisation that we are "accepted" as we are, warts and all. Not so much "being accepted" in some passive neutral way - as when I come back through Heathrow and get waved through by customs - but in an active and totally welcoming way:(a la prodigal son) this is the true nature of love I think, glimpsed by us as through that glass darkly. And it is something incredibly difficult for many of us to accept or really believe.
    Believing IN God is one thing. Believing that He really DOES love us (rather than mere toleration) is quite another and a lifetime's work to boot.