Let not our capacity to love be replaced by regret

A Sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

[Readings: 1 John 5:1-12; John 15:9-17]

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

Our readings from John’s gospel and his first letter are anchored in the concept of love. Listen again to these words from the gospel reading:

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, abide in my love … This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you … I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

While from John’s first letter we have:

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.

John makes many references to love in his gospel and his letters; for example, Jesus’ command that we ‘love one another’ is repeated ten times by John alone in his scriptural writing; mostly he uses αγαπάω [agape], but occasionally φιλέω [philos] as the word for love. Back in May 2019 I preached on John’s approach to the love to which Jesus calls us. At that time my emphasis was on the great price that this call of Jesus involved, that it was no superficial feel-good emotionalism of the ‘All you need is love’ frame or the asinine ‘love means never having to say your sorry’. Instead, I focussed on the sacrificial nature of his love. This sacrificial love of Jesus and the consequences for us really need to be considered in the context of three episodes. Firstly, at the Last Supper where Jesus said:

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. [John 15:12]

Secondly, on the Cross where Jesus said what must be the most loving words ever spoken:

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. [Luke 23:34]

Then thirdly, after his Resurrection in his conversation with Peter, which was really a conversation with each and every one of us:

Do you love me? …. Take care of my sheep. [John 21:16]

These three represent a different divine threesome – the incarnated Christ, Christ the sacrificed and Christ risen – each, from a different existential perspective, expressing the command for us to love humanity just as he had done, did and is doing.

While there were four Greek words in New Testament which we translate as ‘love’ the two principal ones used are agape and philos. Indeed, in that last recorded conversation with Peter, both these words were used. In Jesus’ first question, he had used agape when he asked Peter if he loved him; Peter responded using philos. The same happened again in the second question. But in the third, Jesus changed and used the word philos to which Peter again responded using that same word.

Agape refers to unconditional love, charity, or God’s love for humanity; while philos refers to fondness, friendship and affection. Why then did Jesus yield to Peter’s preferred use of philos when he asked a third time if Peter loved him? My speculation is that, by changing the word for love which he used, Jesus was communicating to Peter – and hence to us – that God’s love for humanity (agape) which might seem so unreachable, so impossible, could actually find expression in the capacity of human beings to love one another – philos.

This alone is something for us to marvel about and for which we should never cease to give thanks – that the Lord of all, through his incarnated Son, should give a divine re-interpretation to his proclaimed second greatest commandment:

Love your neighbour as yourself.

By connecting it to his own statement:

Love one another as I have loved you.

In the first, our neighbour and ourself are equated; in the second, Jesus invites us to be equated with him.

Walter Rauschenbusch, theologian and Baptist minister from the turn of C20 said this about our relationship with the concept of love in a sermon he delivered:

… in the face of Nature as we know her, it is a tremendous affirmation to assert that God is not only just, but that he is love … Let any man consider what it would mean for his personal Weltanschauung [well-being, place in the world] if he were plunged into the arctic night of a world without love, and what it would mean for the social life of men if it were final and generally understood that the moral impulse and moral law have no other reason for their existence than utility and might be set aside if they failed to be useful. [pp130-1][1]

The ‘arctic night of a world without love’ – what a dreadfully chilling phrase! It chills us to our bones for we know that we live in a world which seeks to reduce all relationships to a utilitarian contract. By his act of sacrificial love, Jesus’ commands us to love one another and so break into that ‘arctic night of a world without love’ demanding more than a mere credal-like acknowledgment that ‘God is love’ by changing the very way we live into a new way of loving.          

I have recently read something said by Allan McDonald, an engineer who was involved in the doomed Challenger Shuttle of 1986. He had indicated before the launch that it should not go ahead for critically important technical reasons; however, he was overridden by his own bosses and, for a time, even demoted.[2] He said:

Regret for things we did is tempered by time; but regret for things we did not do is inconsolable.

His statement may equally well be applied to the concept of love in the way we live our lives. In other words, how great would be the regret, how inconsolable, for situations where we may have failed to show love. Failed efforts at human love may be eased by the passage of time, but what about circumstances where we may feel in hindsight that our actions had not been just failed manifestations of love but had been bereft of its very essence?

How might we ever be bereft of love in its very essence? Surely, when our heart doesn’t break at the brokenness of the world around us. On our nightly news we have being seeing terrible images coming out of India following the dreadful resurgence of COVID-19 in that country. The images before our televisual eyes of people dying for want of oxygen and the non-stop funeral pyres, denuding parks of trees as they try to keep up with the flood of corpses coming in – these images may have shocked us, but have they struck deep into our core as creatures commanded to love our neighbour as ourselves?

Over the past week, 2.7m more people in India were diagnosed with COVID-19, bringing that country’s total to over 22m; while 26,430 people died over the past week, bringing that total to nearly a quarter of a million deaths there since the pandemic began. Both these figures are said to be gross underestimates.

The debate in this country has been heated over the border control consequences of this human tragedy; but our community response to the almost apocalyptic circumstances in India itself has been little more than tepid. We are, no doubt, appreciative of the efforts of our government in sending emergency aid to India, but are we ‘gut-wrenched’ (for such is the etymological origin of the word ‘compassion’) by those news reports?

Of course, we may say that the problem is simply too big for us to comprehend and therefore it is best left alone rather than be a profound challenge to us and our place in the world. However, let me tell you a story of some people who, daunted though they must be by the unfolding devastation of the pandemic on the subcontinent, are nevertheless rising to the occasion. People on the very frontline.

The Christian Medical College in Vellore in Tamil Nadu was established in 1900 thanks to the inspirational efforts of Dr Ida Scudder; it has grown over the past hundred and twenty years to be both a pre-eminent medical teaching institution and health service not only to the city of Vellore but also vast numbers in the rural areas surrounding. My late father, Maurice, volunteered for a few months at the hospital in 1993-4 and so, as a family, we have had the opportunity to know something of its wonderful ministry which is undertaken under the motto of ‘Not to be ministered unto but to minister’. I know too that our own Reuben Jacob has strong personal connections with this wonderful institution.

Looking for information about their response to COVID-19 I came across a publication they have produced about the impact of the pandemic entitled Messengers of Peace[3] In this downloadable document there are quotes from staff and patients of the CMC in relation to the crisis. Here are some quotes, first by a doctor:

Sometimes it feels like we are looking at the virus with a magnifying glass but missing the real problems of our patients. They have lost their income during lockdown. How can they keep social or physical distance in their small houses or slums? There is so much stigma and discrimination against them and their families for having this infection. As doctors we have to understand these factors.

And from the CMC chaplain, Rev Arul Das:

Times of suffering and pain play a significant role in our lives. In literature and philosophy, we learn about the liminal space – a space between a critical incident and a person’s resolution … Often a liminal space is a place of discomfort or suffering, of uncertainty which eventually leads to transformation. Facing the pandemic, the entire world appears to be in a liminal space. For each of us it is uncomfortable from different angles. For a chaplain like me, the miraculous and mysterious impact of the healing touch, the physical proximity which eliminates a sense of alienation, has been affected. My team expressed feeling uncomfortable and guilty for not being able to touch a patient while praying for them.

CMC’s director, Dr Peter, has said that over 1,000 COVID-19 patients are currently under the hospital’s care; in addition, they are also supporting 700 through their Home Isolation and Management program which is run by nursing staff under medical supervision. Furthermore, they also greatly expanded their Manna Meal Scheme (first established in 2015) to reach out to those who due to enforced isolation, cannot afford to pay for their next meal. Altogether, a wonderful, Christ-inspired ministry of love in action.

What should our response be? I know that we should and will pray but, in doing so, let us not forget the words of Pope Francis:

You pray for the hungry and then you feed them … that is how prayer works.

Besides praying, will we so refocus the way we see tragedies like this by making love the watermark on the paper of our lives? If we can do so, then we will bring true meaning to the oft-repeated but too often lazily understood words of 1 Corinthians 13:13:

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

[Link to donate: How to Donate | Australian Friends of Vellore (australianfov.net.au) ]

[1] From Modes of God’s self-disclosure in Walter Rauschenbusch: Selected writings (ed) Winthrop S Hudson, 1984, Paulist Press (sermon later published in University of Chicago’s The Biblical World, Aug 1897.)

[2] I am grateful to a distant relative of mine, Phil Obbard, who drew my attention to this episode.

[3] www.givecmcv.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Messengers-of-Peace-1.pdf