A man fell in love with the girl of his dreams. They were perfect for each other, except for one minor problem: She was a Southampton fan and he was a Reading fan. He decided to make the ultimate sacrifice and become a Southampton fan. He went to the doctor and asked if there was an easy way to do this. The doctor replied, “Yes, it’s a very simple procedure. What we do is go in and remove half your brain. When you wake up, you will be a Saint’s fan.” The man agrees, and the next week goes into surgery.
After he wakes up the doctor comes up to him concerned. “Sir, I apologize, but there was a mix-up with the scalpel. Instead of removing half your brain we removed 3/4 of it. How do you feel?” The man sat up, looked around, and said “GO Pompey!”
Love is a funny thing isn’t it. Here are some quips about love: I have never understood why women love cats. Cats are independent, they don’t listen, they don’t come in when you call, they like to stay out all night, and when they’re home they like to be left alone and sleep. In other words, every quality that women hate in a man, they love in a cat.
My wife was complaining last night that I never listen to her….. Or something like that…
We all know that Jesus said there are 2 great commandments: to love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself. We remind ourselves of these almost every service. So you’d think there was little left to say about them. But let’s see if we can get a bit of thinking going. So here’s my question:
Does loving God really matter? Is it enough just to love your neighbour? As Jesus seems to say in his parable of the sheep and the goats. Or as James Leigh Hunt says in his poem: Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:—
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the Presence in the room he said
“What writest thou?”—The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered “The names of those who love the Lord.”
“And is mine one?” said Abou. “Nay, not so,”
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still, and said “I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.”
The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.
So what is the use of loving God? As soon as we put it like that we see that we are thinking about this from a certain perspective: the empirical, scientific approach. We want to know that when we do something it works, it’s worth our effort. So is loving God worth the effort?
Jesus clearly thinks so. His response to this teacher of the law, this rabbi, who agrees with him that loving God is the first and most important commandment is “You are not far from the Kingdom of God”, which is about as high praise that Jesus gives anybody in this Gospel. To us, it seems like faint praise, but to this rabbi it was like Jesus saying “You know what you are talking about”.
So why is loving God so important? You could just say: because God exists and created everything so we should love him. But the trouble is that lots of people don’t believe in God, and even those that do aren’t quite so sure that a creation that includes cancer, tsunamis and malaria is good. Yes, if God exists, we should acknowledge him, even fear him maybe, but why love him (or her)?
We should also acknowledge that not everybody who loves God is a nice or even good person. Lots of people are turned off God because they know somebody who claims to be religious and is a noxious character. So if loving God is the most important thing, why do people who love god do horrible things? And so we absolutely need to rescue the value of loving God. Here, then, is a rationale, a reason, for loving God:
We love God because God loves us first. Our love of God is really just a response to God loving us. Loving God isn’t something that we do, so much as something that we can’t stop ourselves doing once we understand the love of God for us. I know this sounds a little corny, but actually this is a hard won revelation. The statement that God is love comes in one of the last books of the bible to be written. You could read a lot of the bible and not actually like the God who is revealed there. So let’s not think that “God is love” is obvious.
My parents took us to see the Oceania exhibition in London last month. It is a collection of art and artifacts from that great swathe of islands stretching from Papua New Guinea to Hawaii. Lots of the images are what those people used to worship, their gods. And I have to say that they are horrible and scary gods. Human skulls, wild eyes, huge reproductive organs and pretty much everything else you can imagine feature in them. They are ugly and fearsome and people worshipped them for centuries.
When the people of Israel are first told to love God, you have to wonder how much they understood that God was love, and how much they just thought that God was their chief who helped them in battle. After all, God had just wiped out thousands of Egyptians. I bet they didn’t think God was love. It’s a little like the ideology of Islamic state – let’s wipe out those who don’t agree with us. This is the picture of God that much of the bible gives.
So we have reached this understanding that God is love painfully and slowly. And the main reason why we dare to believe that God is love is because that is what we see in Jesus. He defies the nationalism of his age. He defies the racism and sexism and violence, and he does it to the point of death. And so we see that God is love, because he alone, Jesus alone, rises from death.
So we love God, because God first loved us. We know this by meditating on the love of Jesus. We don’t see this by looking at the world. Nature is red in tooth and claw. The creation is not full of love. We do not worship creation, we worship a God who is love. This is really, really important.
We all worship something. Worship is devotion. You worship what you give your heart, soul, mind and strength to. Some people worship their family; it comes first in all circumstances. Some worship work, some happiness, some sex, some alcohol, some football, some …
It’s been really interesting reading what some people wrote in response to our vision paper. We’ve had people say “I won’t worship God in another church than the one I like”, that’s like somebody saying I love the building more than God. Others have said, I can’t get up on a Sunday at that time, even though I do it on other days of the week. That’s like saying “I worship, I value my bed or my Saturday night TV, more than God.”
So loving God means that you place God above all the other things in life that you love. And if that sounds like fanaticism, it would be, except that God is love. If God was anything other than love, loving God would be dangerous, as we see in most fundamentalism. But loving a God of love means that we approach everything through a lens of love. When we love God, our basic question becomes “How can I show the love of the God I believe in, in this situation?”
How can I show the love of God in my job at AWE? How can I raise my children to value love above all? How should i shop in the light of the love of God?
What’s the difference between this and humanism? Humanism is the belief that we should love our neighbour, but it is agnostic about God. Humanism is asking the right questions. But by removing God from the picture it is powerless to change us. You see, when we worship God, we are changed.
Humanism is great, if you are a loving, kind, good person. The trouble is that most of us aren’t. I’m petty, jealous, mean, selfish, and lazy – and that’s on a good day. So telling me to love my neighbour gets a yes from me, but I can’t do it. It is just too hard. My neighbours are just so annoying and so needy. I can’t love them with my limited resources of love and kindness. I can play at it. I could maybe impress a few people. But in my heart I would know that it is like when you put one spider out of the window because you don’t want to kill it, but you know that you have knowingly and accidentally killed so many others.
So we love God because it changes us. We know that what you give your time and attention to actually changes your brain. I have this book “How God changes your brain” and what it effectively says is that meditating on the love of God actually makes you more compassionate and empathic. And it’s not written by Christians, it’s written by neuroscientists.
So what does loving God look like in practice? It looks like thinking about God with your mind. It looks like directing your inner life, your heart towards God as you sing and pray and do what we call worship. It looks like having a pattern to your love of God – a daily discipline of prayer and service. In this Diocese we call it a rule of life. This is how you love God with your soul. Your soul is your habits, your pattern of life, your ego. And loving God with your strength is about your actions. It involves getting out of bed on time to get to church. It involves buying the books that will feed your mind. It involves going to a prayer meeting or home group, when you’d like to veg in front of the TV. And especially it involves acts of service, the love of neighbour that you do just because it is the right thing to do, and even when you have no feelings of love.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your mind and your strength. It works. It will make you a better person.