On Life and Love
Sermon for St Martins Community Church Collingwood
theotokos and child 867, st sophia istanbul
Mothers Day (11/5/14)
There is an image that I want to work with today, and it is this image of space: round, circular, almost fluid but with a definite skin, like a one of those ginormous bubbles that warps and wobbles as it wafts through the air. Would you like to outline it with me, like I’m doing, doesn’t matter what size your space is, just use your hand to imagine its roundness, no sharp edges, plump like a balloon.
In the Orthodox tradition of theology, there is an icon of Theotokos – the God bearer, in which you can see this space in Mary. In Orthodox theology Mary is honoured, not as equal to God herself, but as the ultimate model disciple, the one who said Yes to God, and welcomed God into her inmost place. Mary’s love for God brought life and that life brought love into the world. Mary’s womb is a picture of this space, a safe circle of love in which God the Son is given human life. Again, use your hands if you want to, imagine what that space is like, imagine it in yourself, for even if you don’t have a womb, you have a space like that in which God dwells if you have said yes to welcoming Jesus into your life as the Son of God. That is the space into which God has poured God’s own love for you into your heart, through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rom 5).
So, briefly, let me make a few points from the passage from 1 John chapter 3 and makes some links with the whole of the bible story.
1 John 3:1 – See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!
Why are we God’s children? Because we have been loved!
In the first place God loves and therefore brings a people into being, and it has always been thus:
- in creation – In the beginning God-who-is-Love created the heaven and the earth (as described in Genesis 1 and 2)
- in the creation of Israel – In sermons we have recorded in Deuteronomy, Moses urged the new community to obey the commandments of God so that they might live long in the land. This is the first time the commandments were summed up in the shema – to love God and neighbor as self. Keep loving well and you will live well.
- and then in Christ – For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16)
- and finally in life after Christ – As Paul teaches in Galations, I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20)
God’s cycle of life unfolds thus: Love leads to life and life leads to love and on and on it goes.
1 John 3:10 – This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.
If we have life as God’s children, then we will love – love and life go together. We know this by what Jesus taught us: love one another as I have loved you, by this everyone will know that you are my disciples (John 13). Which is a renewal of the two greatest commandments from the Jewish law and the prophets which Jesus came to fulfill: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love Your neighbor as yourself.
As a consequence of the new life we have as Christians, we love, and that in fact is proof of life from God. Life leads to love. Indeed, to return to the image of Mary’s womb, we labour love into life.
1 John 3:14 – We know that we have passed from death to life because we have loved one another
Love leads to life and life leads to love. And on and on it goes.
Interestingly, this life begets love thing is not just a test for Christians. There is a wisdom proverb that suggests this is true in a similar way for all of God’s creatures: ‘He who pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity and honor.’ (Prov 21:21) It’s a fact of life, that those people who believe in love, find love! Though sometimes that requires them to find love in the least likely of places and sometimes it requires bloody hard work!! But why would we assume love does not require self-sacrifice and commitment?
1 John 3:15 – This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.
So, Love and life go together, it is the very cycle of life, the thing that keeps us all going, and it sits within us, in this space, this round bubble of beautifulness, the womb like void of our inmost parts, the pause at the end of the outbreath.
Can you visual again that roundness we outlined with our hands, do it again if you feel like it, pretend it is the lightest of balls, filled with delightful, oxygenated breath. We are going to locate that space in the cycle of our breath.
Pay attention to your breath for a moment. Everyone in the room can do this – if you are sitting near a little one or anyone else who might be struggling to understand my instructions, you could help them to do this with you, even babies can become conscious of their breath, if you do it with them. Take a deep breath in, slow it down a bit, and then a big breath out. Don’t force it, just notice what happens in the cycle. You breathe in – out – and then, notice, notice what is there just at the end of the outbreath – there is a little pause, a little space. Breathe in naturally, just let it happen because you will keep breathing whether you like it or not. Breathe in, and out and there, notice there is a little, natural gap, a waiting, a pause before the cycle of life begins again.
In the cycle of the breath, there is space, a beautiful, womb-like space of rest, and that, is the space where love happens.
Love requires space. If I love you but in my insecurity I move in too close, what will you feel? Smothered. But if I love you and in my insecurity I guard myself too closely and keep my distance what will you feel? Lonely. Love is like fire, it needs air to burst into flames, but too much or too forceful and the flame will blow out! The difficult, painful lifetime work of love, is learn how to negotiate this space.
In silent prayer practice, which by the way, is a very ancient way of praying for Christians and one which we would do well to recover in our time, as a tonic for our chronic addiction to busyness and noise, we learn how to expand that space at the end of the outbreath, so that is grows, not unlike Mary’s womb. It becomes the welcome space for God, the God-shaped hole if you know that phrase, sometimes I think of it as a vast cathedral filled with prayer or even a dance floor where my spirit is deeply moved. In silent prayer we get to know ourselves and our limits. We know where we end and God begins and that space where paradoxically we are fully ourselves and might encounter God fully in Godself, we learn how to love God without smothering or withdrawing. We can sit still and just be.
That is how we must learn to love. Its not a passive thing, if we are to love like Jesus then we must pursue justice and righteousness and serve one another in love, so learning how to maintain an inner stillness before another person involves outward activity. But we must learn that if we stay with whatever is present in the space, the cycle of life and love will continue, and we will be ok.
Mother Theresa, one of the twenty-first century’s greatest example of mother-love. She loved hundreds of thousands of children, knowing every day that there would be no end to their suffering. I can only imagine the burden of going to bed each night knowing that the children you love will be hungry again tomorrow. Your children will be sick and in danger of physical harm again tomorrow. Indeed, Mother Theresa struggled with depression, her love was a burden! And yet, through prayer, through seeing Jesus, through seeking out Jesus in the face of every child, she could get up in the morning and do what she could. She didn’t try and solve everything, and she didn’t hide herself away, she just loved any child that came into her view that day, loved them as if she were loving Jesus himself. We don’t know at least two spiritual tricks Mother Theresa had to keep herself in the cycle of love and life: she knew this space and she prayed to Jesus there, and she loved each person in front of her as if they were Jesus.
Love is never easy, that’s why we who love in the name of Jesus are all called saints.
A final, personal example. It is mothers day and I am here with you without my children, as are many of you – both children who have been born to you and longed for children who have not been born. As we speak, my sons and my own mother are standing in the rain on a soccer pitch in the suburbs, playing sport on a Sunday which was definitely not part of my perfect family plan of years gone by. My sons also have a step-mum, whom they love, who they will phone at some point in the day, to wish her a happy mothers day. And they also have a God-mother (who coincidentally doesn’t have biological children of her own) who they have made a card and gift for and we will make sure they see her at some point in the day today for a special mothers day hug. Now, even just scheduling all those things into the day is a piece of work, but I can tell you it takes a lot more than that for me to facilitate a phone-call from my children to the woman who replaced me as wife! How is that possible? How is it possible to keep loving even when life is not as we would have it?
I do it by breathing. I find that space at the end of the outbreath and I let it calm me. I let whatever is there in that space be there, and I let life continue – the breath in comes regardless of whether the pause in filled with joy or grief. The breath will leave my body eventually even if I try and hold everything in. A funny thing happens when we accept the life for what it is: broken, a work in progress, full of contradictions, we learn that vulnerability is essentially to love, there is no love without risk, but big risk – embracing life in all its glory, results in big love! My life is overflowing with love today – not much of it easy, some of it distinctly uncomfortable, but it is love none-the-less, and the cycle of life and love goes on.