The Revd Canon Michael Rawson
Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport
General opinion is starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it's always there - fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge - they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I've got a sneaky feeling you'll find that love actually is all around.
These words are spoken at the beginning of the film, Love Actually. I always know that Christmas is just around the corner when the DVD appears next to our television. It has become something of a Christmastime custom at home.
The word love is mentioned 14 times in today’s readings, and I wonder if it’s the same love of which Hugh Grant speaks about in Love Actually? Is St John writing of the type of love portrayed by emojis on a text message and red satin hearts for Valentine’s day or something radically different? In the second reading St John is bringing his letter to a conclusion, summing up his key message that those who come from God, love God, and share that love with those around them. It is this faith which ‘conquers the world.’ John doesn’t describe what this type of love looks like but at the Last Supper he recalls how Jesus demonstrates it in washing the feet of his disciples. He gives them a new commandment, expressed in our gospel reading, love one another as I have loved you. Jesus’ love for his followers, for each one of us, is unconditional and all-embracing as he opens his arms wide on the cross, enfolding humanity and showing us a radical new way of loving and living.
As we break open the words of scripture this morning we hear how the Holy Spirit guided the Early Church to witness to a new truth, with justice, mercy and reconciliation. Theirs was a community built on radical love capable of transforming the world. Love is the agent of this transformation, rather than simply an emotional human response. The Early Church understood itself by integrating liturgy, prayer, service and a call to God’s justice. In many ways it was counter-cultural, showing a very different model of human living and that’s what made it so attractive. In his teaching Jesus opened the hearts of his followers to a new vision for the world where ‘no one has greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’.
Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles the first followers of the Way responded to the call of the risen Christ by a new way of living. Peter was a Jewish Christian and he came to visit Cornelius, a devout Roman Centurion and a Gentile, therefore an outcast. Both of them experienced visions. Peter’s vision was that he must not call profane what God called holy. As Peter speaks to Cornelius and his companions, God’s Holy Spirit is poured out on all the hearers and as a result they are baptised and become part of the church. The boundaries are breached and the Holy Spirit transcends human limitations and narrowness, transforming the Early Church and Christ’s followers. The small circle defining who is in and who is out is widened to draw in all people.
We often sing the hymn,
There's a wideness in God's mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There's a kindness in His justice,
Which is more than liberty.
It goes on to say:
But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.
The Early Church was full of good and devout men and women but their vision was limited. Peter and Cornelius could not cross the borders in their own strength. They needed the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, widening their vision to see a different world, full of new opportunities where bridges were built and walls torn down. Living in the twenty first century boundaries seem to be strengthening rather than disappearing, with plans for building walls along the US-Mexican border and around countries in Eastern Europe. The border in Ireland has become central to the Brexit negotiations. Within the Church there continue to be arguments over them and us, who is in and who is out.
The circumcised believers we hear about in the first reading were stopped in their tracks and were ‘astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.’ What was God thinking about?! Here at Southwark Cathedral we claim to be an inclusive Christian Community, growing in orthodox faith and radical love. The challenge to myself and to each of us today is to ask which voices and vision ought we to be listening to and being challenged by? Which boundaries might the Holy Spirit be prompting us to step across to include others?
We can all too easily limit being an inclusive community to campaigning for the full inclusion of LGBTi people and continuing to open up the threefold ministry to women. That has been, and continues to be, at the core of our values. But that’s only a fraction of the story. Let’s not neglect to give a voice to the youngest members of our community who are equal disciples of Christ, and also to those of riper years (as the prayer book gently describes them); those suffering from dementia or mental ill health; those with limited mobility. How do we more fully include people regardless of gender and ethnicity; of those with obvious skills and those whose abilities need to be uncovered and nurtured? Are those visiting as tourists getting in the way of the worshipping community, or are they to be welcomed warmly as though we were welcoming Christ? What does it truly mean to be an inclusive Cathedral where every single person can feel of value and held in honour?
Jesus never offered us an easy life. On the surface, St John’s words this morning suggest that all we need to do is to love one another. That sounds pretty simple like in the film Love Actually. And yet it is the highest calling and hardest task, to go and bear fruit, fruit that shall last. That fruit is what will transform our church, our communities, and our world. How open are we to allow God’s Holy Spirit to drench us and penetrate our hearts, that we might become agents of God’s transforming love for all?