Saturday, 4 February 2017

Love at Candlemas

In 1987, there was a curious court case. The Guardian newspaper took one of the larger London theatres to court. The theatre had a large display outside that said, ‘Best show in town’ --- The Guardian. The Guardian objected: what they had really said was, ‘If you want the best show in town, don’t watch this.’ Context is everything.
      The reading from the Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12, will be familiar to most of us. We’ve surely heard it many times before, usually at weddings. But think context … is the reading actually written for weddings?
      So what is the context? At the beginning of the previous chapter, chapter 12, St Paul says (and here I’m paraphrasing), ‘How is it that you in the Corinthian Church have been misled into following false gods? How can we know the one, true God?’ St Paul then starts a long discussion of ways in which we can see God at work in this, his world. He starts off with the reading we had a fortnight ago, which talks of miracles. Surely, says St Paul, miracles are a fertile soil in which to look for evidence for God? True. But it’s always possible to fake it. That’s what good actors do. Or think of the Exodus when the Israelites fled from Egypt. In that story, Moses and his brother Aaron perform signs of power before Pharaoh … but Pharaoh’s magicians can copy each ‘with their secret arts.’ So miracles on their own do not prove God and his existence. No Epiphanies there, then.
      The second half of chapter 12 talks about unity using St Paul’s favourite theme of the body. His argument suggests that the unity between Christians is so overwhelming, so exhilarating, that it’s simply impossible without God’s help. To a large extent, that is true. When we work together with God’s mighty Holy Spirit as our inspiration and our empowerment, such unity of purpose can indeed seem supernatural. When just about every institution on earth is riven with dissension, and its accompanying gossip, rival and nastiness, so the argument goes, the church must indeed have some­thing extra. But in totalitarian regimes, where fear is so tangible you can almost taste it — any dictatorship ever — this sort of unity is also apparent, although clearly the motives differ. Satan can again mimic the effects of following God.
      St Paul lived at a time of Roman oppression and he must have seen through his own argument, for he then introduces his master stroke. ‘And now’ he says at the start of this week’s epistle reading, ‘I will show you the most excellent way.’ Way of what? Of seeing the work of God in such a way that people must sit up and believe that something so amazing is happening that God must be behind it.
      That way is love. At the very beginning of the Christian era, when it was still a death-sentence to be found guilty of being a Christian, there developed a saying, ‘See these Christians how they love each other!’ The love the Christians demonstrated was so devastatingly attractive that Christianity, although illegal, spread like wildfire. People wanted to experience that love, to receive it … and learn how to give it.
      Today’s list in 1 Corinthians explores the external outpourings of such love — tells us in effect what it looks like — but how can we learn to love like that?
      As we place today’s three readings side by side, we are given to understand that it starts with God the Holy Spirit. Indeed, love is both a fruit of the Spirit as described in Galatians chapter 5, but is also a gift of the Spirit; see, for example Romans 12. And the reason why is brought out most fully in St John’s first letter: 1 John 4:20 says that God is love, so every genuine encounter with God, whether Father, Son or Holy Spirit, is an encounter with love. And if God is love, this love becomes incarnate whenever God enters us and makes his home within us. In other words, every time we see God and experience him, we have been touched by love. Only by immersing ourselves in the Holy Spirit and explicitly asking him in can such love become possible. This love is indeed a sign of God’s indwelling, for nothing in the world can emulate it, copy it, fake it.
      As we learn more of God, in other words, as he takes deeper root in our souls, he shows himself by helping us to see himself in others. So part of our growth into Christ-likeness, which is our birthright and our duty, is to look into the souls and characters of those we meet, looking for something of God. We will (like Simeon and Anna) probably find ourselves waiting, and waiting often. It may require some time before these Epiphanies, these glimpses of God, become visible.
      But every time we see something of God in a human soul, we will experience a thrill of love because God is love; and our response to that love will probably look something very much like the long list in 1 Corinthians 13.
      I’ve talked enough. I’ll finish with a poem by Ann Lewin that seems to takes these threads and weaves them together beautifully:                           
I left my candle burning, lit from light
borrowed from another, it stood there
witness to Christ, light of the world;
a prayer that light would overcome darkness.
As I left, another lit a candle from my light,
dispelling gloom with added strength.
Who knows how many took a step, drawn by the
light of Christ from darkness to new life.

Lord Christ, set me on fire.
Burn from me all that dims my light,
kindle an answering flame in lives around;
that darkness may be driven back,
and glory stream into the world,
transforming it with love.

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