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Love Divine

Easter 6: 10th May, 2015
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Readings: Acts 10:25-6,34-5,44-8; 1 Jn 4:7-10; Jn 15:9-17

I love my Mum! She first loved me. She brought me into the world and nurtured me through infancy and childhood into adulthood. And from before I can remember I've reciprocated that love as best I could. Today is Mother's Day, when we are encouraged to give thanks for our mothers. For most of us we have been blessed with kind and nurturing mothers, but I am also aware that for some Mother's Day can bring back painful memories of childhood.

Human love is a complex thing, but it is something we all experience in one form or another. A definition from the psychological sciences might go something like this:

Love represents a cognitive, behavioural, and emotional stance toward others that takes three prototypical forms. One is love for the individuals who are our primary source of affection, protection and care .... The prototype of this form is a child's love for a parent. Another form of love is for the individuals who depend on us to make them feel safe and cared for .... The prototype of this form is a parent's love for a child. The third form is love that involves passionate desire for sexual, physical, and emotional closeness with an individual whom we consider special and who makes us feel special. The prototype is romantic love. (Chris Peterson & Marty Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: a Handbook and Classification [Oxford University Press, 2004], p. 304).

But there is clearly something missing in these psychological definitions of love. In the words of Charles Wesley we might call it "Love Divine". We will sing this much-loved hymn at the end of Mass today (NEH 408):

Love Divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven, to earth come down,
Fix in us thy humble dwelling,
All thy faithful mercies crown.
Jesu, thou are all compassion,
Pure unbounded love thou art;
Visit us with thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.

Our Mass readings today are rich with reflections on this Love Divine. The Acts reading about Peter and Cornelius essentially tells the story of the birth of the Gentile church. A huge issue for early Christians was whether God's love was just for Jewish people, or if Gentiles were to be included. Peter's vision and a pouring out of the Holy Spirit as told in Acts 10 appears to have sealed the deal. God's love is for all people.

The first letter of John was written to late first-century Christians of the Johannine community who had undergone a schism. Into this pain and division the author writes: "Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God" (1 Jn 4:7). Love Divine draws us into the community of faith, and it is also required to sustain our communal life through the inevitable differences and clashes we will experience. "Abide in my love," the Johanine Jesus exhorts us. "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" (Jn 15: 9b,12).

Love Divine became a central element of Christian theology across the centuries, especially contemplative theology. The late-medieval classic The Cloud of Unknowing, drawing on Thomas Aquinas' hierarchy of virtues, has this to say about "contemplative love" (chapter 24, The Cloud of Unknowing: Contemporary English Edition [Paraclete Press, 2006], p. 37):

Humility is subtly and perfectly discovered in this blind little impulse of love that beats upon the dark cloud of unknowing, with everything else put completely out of mind. The same is true of all the other virtues, including the love of God alone, and loving others for God's sake as you love yourself. The essence of contemplation is a simple and direct reaching out to God. People who pray at this depth do not seek relief from pain nor do they seek increased rewards, but only the fulfillment of God's will. Nothing else shares this simple moment. Thoughts of friend or foe do not distract the one absorbed in contemplation. Everyone is a friend, none a foe. Those who cause pain or grief become special friends.

Love Divine is the mortar that holds the bricks of Christian community together, and which enables us to reach out with that same love beyond our walls. You each know that Love Divine. I have seen it in you; I've heard many of you tell me stories of this love in your lives. But we can't rest on our laurels. Love Divine is a dynamic and powerful force, but it is also gentle and will only come when invited into a place of nurture and compassion.

So, don't give up on prayer. Be inclusive of others; friend, stranger and foe alike. And let's work together to establish God's reign in our lives and in this little church on the hill.

Finish then thy new creation,
Pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see thy great salvation,
Perfectly restored in thee,
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise!


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