A sermon given at Choral Evensong by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold on the Seventh Sunday of Pentecost.

Christian Ethics – Loving God’s way

[Readings: Deuteronomy 10:12-19; 1 John 4:7-21]

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Tonight is the second of a series of four sermons on Christian Ethics; let me remind you that after the service, those who are interested are welcome to join in a discussion on the general topic in the Cynthia Poulton Hall. This evening my theme is the Ethics of Love. In choosing this I was in part prompted by one of our congregation who had responded to my request for answers to the question: ‘What ethical issues are challenges to my faith?’ by writing of “broken-hearted parents and grandparents (who) see their offspring ‘go with the flow’ into various relationships that are not marriage or are involved in marriage break ups” and asked “how do parents and grandparents cope with these situations and stay true to their own convictions?” as a final note to her e-Mail, she wrote:

And I don’t want ‘love them’ as the only answer!!

Afterwards, in our time of discussion, we can talk about the worry many of us may feel about complex human relationships we encounter and whether or not ‘love them’ is the only answer. In preparation for that, I want to focus on the ethical challenge that the idea of love presents to humanity. In particular, how might we consider a Christian concept of love compared to that of the world. In other words, is there something distinctive in Christian love which not only offers something different to us but also demands something more of us than the world’s idea of love? To start a consideration of this difference, just as I did last week in comparing a Christian view with a fictional extreme, in that case Dr Moreau, let me plunge into another literary extreme.

Playwright Steven Oles has written:[1]

It’s been said that we are all Hamlet. We are all Faust, too, constantly tempted to violate our higher principles for the immediate gratification of approval, success, and all the other glittering prizes the world has to offer. Goethe’s Faust had Gretchen to put in a good word for him in heaven. We may not be so lucky, so it is up to us, every day, to make the right choice.

The Faust story has been reprised many times from the first take by Christopher Marlowe in about 1589. Goethe’s version appeared in two parts; Part One, first published in 1806, echoed Marlowe’s theme of ultimate doom for Faust. However, in the year before his own death in 1832, Goethe wrote a sequel to his earlier work. In Part Two, as Steven Oles has noted, the victim of Faust’s love, Gretchen, ‘put in a good word for him in heaven’. The ‘good word’ Gretchen said on behalf of the man who, by his treatment of her, had led to her dreadful earthly fate, finished with these words:

Allow me to teach him, here, the new light still blinds him so.

To which Faust (by now, in the afterlife, renamed Dr Marianus) responded:

Gaze towards that saving gaze, all you, the penitent and tender, to all those blissful ways, give thanks and follow after.

In summary, what transpired was that the Faust, who had been consumed by earthly passions, had finally been redeemed by the sacrificial love of another, a message which resonates with our reading tonight from John’s first epistle:

In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Our reading then continues with these words of command for us:

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

The way John put this is significant – since God loved us, then we should love. This then is the foundation of the Christian ethic of love: God loved us first and not only are we therefore able to love, but we should love. Faust, while alive had thought he had actually been in love, but what he had felt was not this gifted love of God, he had instead lusted after Gretchen; in simple terms he had only wanted her for himself. His had been a selfish love, a love the world knows very well – indeed a love the world has sought to turn into a virtue, an ethic if you like. This selfish love is at the heart of the sentiment characteristic of much of our age:

If it feels good, do it.

The philosopher, Ayn Rand, in The Virtue of Selfishness, put substance to this sentiment when she wrote this idea of love:[2]

To love is to value. Only a rationally selfish man (sic), a man of self-esteem, is capable of love … one gains a profoundly personal, selfish joy from the mere existence of the person one loves. It is one’s own personal, selfish happiness that one seeks, earns and derives from love.

She then continued:

A ‘selfless’, ‘disinterested’ love is a contradiction in terms … concern for the welfare of those one loves is a rational part of one’s selfish interests.

So here we have a significant polarity between love in God’s eyes versus the world’s view. But there is more to be considered when comparing the two. Our reading from John’s epistle reminded us that the love that should be behind our ethic of behaviour comes from God and is as boundless as God himself; as verse 11 reminded us:

God loved us so much.

God is infinite and so, of course, his love too must be boundless. However, a concept of love derived entirely from human confection can’t mirror that boundlessness, it would be a contradiction in terms, for how can a finite being create an infinite love? Sigmund Freud put this very succinctly, when asked for his comment about loving one’s neighbour, he wrote:

… if (someone) is a stranger to me and he cannot attract me by any worth of his own of any significance that he may already have acquired for my emotional life, it will be hard for me to love him. Indeed, I should be wrong to do so, for my love is valued by all my own people as a sign of my preferring them, and it is an injustice to them if I put a stranger on a par with them. But if I am to love him (with this universal love) merely because he, too, is an inhabitant of this earth … then I fear that only a small modicum of my love will fall to his share.[3]

In other words, to Freud, love was a finite commodity like butter – he recognised that a human love would be spread too thin if it had to be shared too far. By contrast, God’s love is boundless; there is no limit to how far it can be spread or shared. However, in terms of our search for ethical behaviour which is asked of us and informed by such an infinite love, how should we consider it?

Our reading from Deuteronomy tonight gave us this advice:

What does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord …

These words have a very ethical ring to them – ‘to keep the commandments of the Lord’ sounds very much an ethical requirement. However true that is, the reading continued with some specific injunctions namely to execute ‘justice for the widow and orphan’, and to love ‘the strangers, providing them with food and clothing’. Such injunctions are eminently consistent with our view of a loving God; and they should be reasonable characteristics of our own ethic of loving. However, we need to focus on the important rationale given for the loving of strangers in this reading. Listen again to the last verse:

You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Here we are reminded that we are not simply instructed to love another, the stranger in this case, but to remember that we too were just such another, just such a stranger. We were estranged from God until, through his boundless love for us, he reached out to us through his incarnate Son.  

In a short while, we will sing our closing hymn, God is Love: let heav’n adore him. The last verse will remind us that, notwithstanding our estrangement from God, his love indeed reaches out to us all:

God is Love: and though with blindness sin afflicts the souls of all,

God’s eternal loving-kindness holds and guides us when we fall.

Sin and death and hell shall never o’er us final triumph gain;

God is love, so Love for ever o’er the universe must reign.

Receiving such a wonderful, divine payment of love, what receipt should we write with the way we live and show our love? The hymn we sang a short while ago – Gracious God, in adoration – had these words:       

You have made us in your image, breathed your Spirit, given us birth;

Jesus calls, whose cross has given every life eternal worth,

‘Come with wonder, serve with gladness, let God’s will be done on earth.’

Jesus’ ‘cross has given (us) eternal worth’, and so we, coming with wonder, should ‘serve with gladness’ that ‘God’s will be done on earth.’ This is a profound ethical call to all of us who proclaim our faith in Jesus – given that God is love, then the proclamation of our faith should abound in that love. Not the love as tradeable currency which the world espouses, where loving is a transaction; but a love which reflects the grace beyond imagining when God, through Jesus, revealed his love for us.

We have a number of sacraments in our Christian tradition – they include baptism and marriage. These sacraments are so called for they meet the definition of being ‘a religious ceremony or ritual regarded as imparting divine grace’. Yet there is another definition of ‘sacrament’ which is:

A thing of mysterious and sacred significance.

Our sacrament of the Eucharist is clearly such a mysterious, sacred event. So too is the invitation from our reading from John’s epistle tonight:

Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

May we, with God’s love, sacramentally love one another, exhibiting something of mysterious and sacred significance. So, as we encounter the complexity of human relationships in our own lives and those of others, may we know that sacramental love may not be the only answer but it is most assuredly the essential foundation.

[1] Recurrents: The Story of Faust Through History (theepochtimes.com)

[2] Voices for Reason – Ayn Rand on Love | The Ayn Rand Institute

[3] Freud S, Civilization and Its Discontents, Cited in Žižek S et al The Neighbour: Three Inquiries in Political Theology University of Chicago Press, 2005. p2