Self-forgetfulness is the key

Sermon preached at Evensong, St Paul’s, Clifton, Bristol, 27 December 1998.

[Two pages of the manuscript are missing; I will insert them if they should show up among Richard’s papers. – SJC]

Some of the best, and some of the worst sermons I have heard have been on the subject of love – especially the nature of God’s love. For example, some preachers may say that God’s love surpasses ours, transcends it, or is wholly different from it. But surely there has to be something in our experience by which we can recognise it. Perhaps then it is more a question of quality and quantity than of type.

St Bernard said that our love of God has four rungs.

  1. Out of fear, fear of punishment.
  2. Because of the marvellous gifts on offer, eg the beauties of nature, gifts of friends or family. All of which may be withdrawn.
  3. Because God is good in Himself. It’s good to have Him around, and the world is made a better place.
  4. The top rung is for those who love God because He enables them to love themselves. Even in our great depths of sin we are still loved, not punished. Surprised? If we have self-respect and value ourselves, then we can in fact love and respect others in that essential self-forgetfulness.

Well, either there is a rung missing from this ladder, or another one is being climbed as if it were the same one.

[Pages missing from the manuscript.]

We know that in an ideal world we should love and care for each other. It’s just that we are not very good at it. We’re not very well equipped. And ‘goodness’ too is often viewed with suspicion – the ‘do-gooder’ is often thought to be a hypocrite. Just in it for what you can get out of it.

Think about it for a moment. People who work in voluntary organisations, those who care for elderly relatives or vulnerable children, those who go round when their friends are in trouble. What do they get out of it? Three possible attitudes:

“Look at me, aren’t I the good one?”

“Right, that’s one you owe me…”

“Poor old soul! Well, just leave it to one who can cope!”

I hardly think so. In true love, the only concern is for the other. The rest is self-forgetfulness.

God’s love is offered to real people, not to fictitious saints. Don’t expect another’s beatification before love is given. “Always for the richness of creation, God is made poor; and for its fullness God is made empty.”

That sense of emptiness often comes into prayer, too.

We long to feel God’s presence, to be excited and amazed, to tingle at the touch of the Spirit… to understand God’s love is to accept a gift freely, but not to attempt a takeover bid. Not to fill up the space with one’s own feelings, but to respond to the implication of love.

Those who seem to love best are aware of two things. First, the reminder from St John, in his letters: “We love one another, because God first loved us.” Second, the action must be linked with stillness. Being constantly on the move, yet they know that they must be replenished by the stillness God which is found in prayer and meditation.

This self-forgetfulness comes only after true self-love. Self-forgetfulness is not self-unawareness. It’s one that needs to be learned if we are to communicate with God and each other. Not just self-forgetfulness, but vocation. It is something we have to do.

St Paul knew this. His mission came from mercy and compassion. Despite the difficulties, he never gives up. “We are often troubled but not crushed. Sometimes in doubt but never in despair. There are many enemies, but we are never without a friend… If he falls, he dusts himself down and gets going again.” Although he carries the death of Jesus with him through the threat of his own, he concludes, “life is at work in you.” Self-forgetting love, again.

In the Upper Room. It was night. Judas had left. Jesus urged his friends to realise that the love in action they will witness over the next days shall characterise them also. The glory was not to come after the suffering, with a sort of relief at having escaped something. The glory lay in the suffering, in the isolation, the rejection. As St Paul said.

And, even when the resurrection occurred, the glory must go on. There’s no time off (though there must be rest and repose and replenishment), and the disciples – and we ourselves – must carry that tripartite experience if the Church is to survive and the Kingdom continues to be established. We perish if we think that the Kingdom is confined only to the Church.

Jesus said, by the way, “the world will believe.” And that brings us to John himself – or does it? Who is John? There’s a tease at the beginning of the Gospel that bears his name: “There was a man who was sent by God whose name was John.” Of course, if you read further, you now that this was John the Baptist, not John the Evangelist. Was it, then, John the brother of James? Boanerges? The son of Thunder? A zealot? The disciple that Jesus loved? Only appears in John’s Gospel – and not named, no, not named. Some commentators suggest Lazarus fits the description.

But I think isn’t it that we fit it just as well? The disciple that Jesus loved. Isn’t that us? Isn’t love our mission as it was his? God, whose only power is love. That’s his strength and his weakness. The weakness that “laid his glory by, born that we no more would die.” The weakness that allowed the Cross seemingly to overwhelm him, and the power of love that became its victory. Our inheritance. Our responsibility. Our endeavour. Our response. Thine be the glory…

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