Have you ever fallen in love?
When I was an undergraduate, there was a student who stole my heart. One day (these were the days before mobile phones), I went to her room, and there was a note on the door – “I am in the Library – come and rescue me!” So I hastened to the Library and declared “Rescue is at hand!” – only to be glared at and shushed by the dozen readers close enough to hear my enthusiastic whisper!
When you’re in love, you’ll do all sorts of things for your beloved. Needless to say, I didn’t marry the young lady in question – she married someone else, but we still keep in touch to this day.
Some of you not only fell in love, but did get married. That means you have done a very strange thing. You have stood up in public, and a minister has asked you whether you have ‘resolved to love’ your spouse. A few minutes later you addressed your spouse and said ‘I take you to love and to cherish’.
What kind of ‘love’ is being promised here? Clearly it’s not the kind that propels you to do great deeds whatever the consequences. We know from experience that a few years into a relationship, those strong feelings of passion die down to something less ardent. But while we can’t conjure up strong feelings, we CAN make a decision of the will to communicate to the most significant person in our life that we still care about them. When the Bible uses the word we read as ‘love’ it is using the Hebrew word ‘hesed’ or the Greek ‘agapé’, words that are hard to translate with their full meaning. Imagine a person going to the same lengths to help a stranger as if that person were their own son or daughter – that’s hesed! Imagine the committment made by a volunteer who goes halfway round the world to treat the wounded in a war-zone – that’s agapé!
Now, please take a moment to think of the kindest things you have ever done to help people in need… OK? Now what if you didn’t believe in God? Would you still have done those kind things? Yes? Would a good person do things like that even if they didn’t know there was a God who loved them? Yes? The kind of things you are thinking of are examples of the Second Great Commandment: love your neighbour as yourself.
That’s great… but that means we’ve only covered the second most important thing Jesus asked us to do. And if you only ever remember one thing I preach from the five years I’ve been with you, remember what I ask next: Which things do you do in your life because you believe in God, things that wouldn’t make sense if God didn’t exist? It’s the answers to that question which show how you are fulfilling the First Great Commandment, to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.
Some of us will understand what the Jesuit Gerard Hughes meant when he described a child visiting ‘Good Old Uncle George’. This Uncle lives in a formidable mansion, is bearded, gruff and threatening. Uncle George says ‘I want to see you here every week, and if you don’t come, let me just show you what will happen to you!’ He takes you to the basement, opens a door, and down below you see demons torturing souls in Hell! He then takes you upstairs so Mum and Dad can take you home. Mum leans over us and says, ‘Don’t you love Uncle George with all your heart and soul, mind and strength?’ And you tell the biggest life of your life, ‘Yes, I do,’ because to say anything else would be to join the queue at the furnace. Who could love a God like Uncle George?
Doing religious things out of fear for God is not wrong, but it’s not love. The catch is, you can’t obey the command to love God until you’ve first fallen in love with God. The command is like the promise a husband or wife makes to keep on expressing love even when the passion has died down – we can only joyfully accept the command to love God when it’s an echo of passion we’ve already felt for Him! Once you have fallen in love with God, you will want to come to Mass, pray at home, keep Sundays special and give generously to the work of the church.
Jesus was asked to give us a rule for life. The Hebrew Bible contained 613 commandments; Moses famously gave 10 commandments. Jesus knew we couldn’t all take on board long lists of rules, so he made it as simple as possible – but even he couldn’t boil it down to just one. Like the Cross itself, our rule of Christian living has two dimensions – the horizontal, love of neighbour, reaching out into the world around us; and the vertical, stretching from earth to heaven, reaching out to the Father who dwells in heaven above. Jesus can only command us to love His Father if we have already seen the love, beauty and goodness of the Father reflected in Christ. The command is not to kiss a loathesome Uncle George, but to rekindle the passion of the first moment when we knew the depths of the Father’s love for us.
Have you ever fallen in love? If it’s with the person you’re married to, rejoice – and remember to tell them how much you love them tonight. If it’s with God, rejoice – it will be easy for you to fulfil Christ’s command! But if you haven’t yet fallen in love with God, let me offer you a simple prayer to say tonight: “Jesus, show me the Father.” And if you want to see the Father, find him reflected in the face of Jesus. I pray you will fall in love very soon.
You can also read Revd Lucy Winkett’s reflections on Uncle George.