Sermon: Faithfulness commended, Lovelessness condemned
The Revd Mark Tanner, Warden, Cranmer Hall
Preached on 22nd April 2012
by The Revd Mark Tanner
Thank you for your kind welcome. I value Cranmer Hall, and St John's College's, relationship with the Cathedral and it is wonderful to know that it is valued equally highly here. It is a joy to be with you this morning.
This time last week I was sitting in a tent on the sea-front at Skegness, with 4,000 other people. It was a big tent. I was attending the Spring Harvest Conference, an annual gathering of thousands of Christians for prayer, praise, teaching and celebration. In a quiet moment, I use the term 'quiet' in a relative way, I turned to this passage from Revelation as part of my on-going preparation for this morning. It occurred to me to wonder what the two congregations would make of each other, the big top at Spring Harvest and those of us gathered in Durham Cathedral this morning. My suspicion is that some would love the experience of the other... and some would loathe it; and that’s OK. One of the greatest glories of the church, the body of Christ is how diverse we are as we gather around the same Saviour. For me, one of the great joys of my current role is that I get to engage in vastly different expressions of Christian worship and find life and hope, joy and freedom.
However, although what we think of each other matters, the really important question is not what we make, the one of the other, but rather what the One who walks among the golden lamp-stands thinks of us?
Or, to borrow the language of the revelation of St John, what would He instruct be written to the Angel of church in Durham?
Now I don't want to disillusion you concerning the wisdom and perspicacity of the principals of English theological colleges, but I cannot tell you exactly what would be in such a letter. However, I can suggest two things from this brief letter to Ephesus that will be relevant to us as we reflect on this vital question.
Faithfulness commended – The Ephesians’ faithfulness is clearly celebrated. What do I mean by this? Were they 'believing right' or 'behaving right'? What is being commended?
As so often we cannot choose between these to, and to suggest that we should is to attempt to establish a false dichotomy. Dogma and praxis cannot be separated in the bigger picture of discipleship. Just as we can’t choose between grace and truth when we follow the One who was incarnate, full of grace and truth. For the Christian, grace without truth is not Christian grace at all, and truth without grace is not Christian truth. It is in the balance, sometimes in the tension, that we find holiness, freedom, authenticity and life. So often, of course, extremism is wrong not because of what it affirms but because of what it denies.
Thus, what we proclaim, what we explore and wrestle with Sunday by Sunday is exactly that which we live out from Monday to Saturday. We may well find that we are swimming against the tide, that we make ourselves unpopular. It happens when we stand up for justice or integrity, when we stand up for the least, lowest and lost, when we speak of a God who can bring change and partner with Him to redeem the world one life at a time. Thus it was for these Ephesian Christians, and thus it will be for us.
However, such following is not enough. Is this not what our Lord stressed again and again? Rules, however good, will not suffice and it appears that this is another lesson we much learn from Ephesus; for faithfulness is commended, but...
Lovelessness condemned – What is it that the One who walks among the lampstands holds against the church of Ephesus? It is that they have lost their first love. Believing and behaving is not enough; Christians are called. We belong to Christ in deep, holy, pure, covenantal and lifelong relationship of love. Forget, ignore, or abandon this and we are nothing. Christianity is not only doctrinal and praxiological, but relational. It is like a marriage.
I am reminded of the story of an elderly Yorkshire couple who had been married for many decades. One afternoon in their retirement they sat watching a film. The husband noticed tears flowing down his wife's cheeks and asked her (only in a more authentic accent than mine), "Ee, lass, what's up with thee, then?" Wiping away a tear she asked why he never told her he loved her, like the man on the screen had just done to his sweetheart. The man sat back and sucked his teeth, thinking, before he replied, "My lass, when I married thee 55 years ago I told thee I loved thee, and if owt ever changes I'll let thee know."
It's not good enough in a marriage, is it? As St Paul wrote to the church in Corinth: I might give everything, I might do everything, I might die a martyr's death, or exhibit the greatest of the charismata, but without love, I am nothing. I could be the greatest apparent Christian in the world, but if I do not love I am only a clanging gong or a resounding cymbal. Without love, life, faith, eternity is empty and meaningless. It is the picture Shakespeare paints in his soliloquy of despair:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
What, then, am I calling you to? Am I advocating excessive displays of emotion? No, of course not: love is far more than that - although perhaps we should fear emotion rather less than we do. As the Reverend N Gumbel observes, the chief danger facing the Church of England today is not that of over-emotionalism. No, what I am inviting us into is a fresh return to our vocation of love.
Love, genuine love, calls us daily and enables us to incarnate afresh the love of Christ. It embodies and enfleshes the heart of the Father in a desperate and needy world. It is faithful, patient, kind and true. It is worship that changes the world, doctrine that recreates hope and redefines reality; it is living liturgy that releases life…
In the final reckoning it doesn't matter what we think of each other, it is what Christ makes of us that counts. Today, just as He did two millennia ago, He meets his disciples with a question first asked on a beach in Galilee.
Simon, son of John, do you love me?
James, Margaret, Stephen, Julie, Rebecca, Rachel and Jeremy, do you truly love me?
Do you love me?