Once upon a time people loved God but they didn’t love their neighbour. Nowadays people love their neighbour but they don’t love God. In spite of Jesus’s command, we don’t seem to be able to do both at the same time. Let me explain.
1000 years ago people loved God … or at least they believed in God and they tried to please God. They built enormous cathedrals and filled them with gold and glass and fine woodwork. They kept the feast days, and went to Mass. They knew that if God got angry with them then they would be smitten by plagues and pestilence, earthquakes, storms and fire, their harvests would fail and their animals would die. God was a big part of their lives.
They were however not very good at loving their neighbour. The rich lived in castles and they didn’t love the starving poor living in hovels in the woods. Life was cheap, and the powerful sent the poor to die on bloody battle fields to fight their own power battles for them. .. and even the poor enjoyed the spectacle of watching a hanging or a burning or some other form of bloody execution.
Nowadays, however, most of us try to love our neighbour – it seems like a good thing to do. There are almost 200,000 registered charities in the UK alone – and each one is loving people, or animals, or the environment. Ordinary people – people like us – are perhaps more generous in giving our money to charity than any generation ever before. £73 million for comic relief in 2017. … We know and understand that we should love our neighbour. We want to be kind and considerate people….loving people…. but as for loving God- well, that’s something else. 50% of the population don’t even believe in God – so they certainly don’t love God. And what of the 50% who are left? – those of us who do believe in God? We know that God loves us, of course – we’ve been told that in hundreds of sermons for the last 50 years. God is good, God is generous, God gives and gives and gives and demands nothing in return. God saves us from Hell and damnation even when we don’t deserve it. God loves us just as we are …. but that doesn’t answer the question – do we love God?
And I don’t mean do we fear God. And I don’t mean do we obey God. And I don’t mean do we believe in God… I mean do we ‘love’ God… and what does love mean anyway? We can’t take care of God, or send God money or water or medical equipment when God is poor, or thirsty or sick. So what does it mean to love God– for real people, in a real life?
And the more I thought about that rather weird question, the more I realised that no-one has ever taught me how to love God. They taught me how to say my prayers. They taught me how to obey God’s rules. They taught me how to love the Church… but no-one ever taught me how to love God.
So … here goes.
But before we start, we need to know what love is, and that we do know:
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
So if that is love, where does that get us … what does loving God like that mean? We know that God is patient and kind with us – God loves us ..– but are we are patient and kind with God in return? Is it possible to say that we do not envy God or dishonour God. That we do not keep a record of when we think that we have been wronged by God; that we always try to protect God, or trust God, or hope in God, or persevere with God.
Now those are very strange sounding phrases for a Sunday morning, I know ….. but they’re not all that strange. Ordinary people do lose patience with God – they get tired of waiting, tired of not seeing any results, and they feel angry with God when bad things happen, or when their prayers are not answered.
We fail to protect God – we no longer speak up for God with our families and friends and acquaintances… embarrassed perhaps, confused perhaps..
And many ordinary people don’t trust God any more. They don’t think that God can deliver what they need, God has become invisible, irrelevant – they have lost hope – they don’t persevere …. simply put, they don’t love God.
So do we? Do we love God? Are we patient and kind with God. Do we protect, trust, hope, persevere?
Let me offer you three thoughts on how to love God.
The first thing I see when I read 1 Corinthians 13 is that love is a long-term relationship and not a quick fix answer. Nothing in St Paul’s wonderful definition of love makes me think that real love is about getting what we want right now. And everything in it makes me think that love is always holding on to the bigger picture. So loving God is not about our quick prayers being answered, or about feeling good inside … it is a deep and solid patience in for the long game, – trust, and hope and perseverance over a whole lifetime. Loving God in the end means trusting God come what may – for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health…. that’s what love is. Simply put, to love God means carrying on with God by our side, come what may. – When St Polycarp was taken to his martyrdom in the second century he is reputed to have said ‘I have served God for 86 years and he has done me no wrong. How could I blaspheme against my Saviour and my Lord now’ That is love.
Secondly, love does not envy, love does not boast, love is not proud. Again, you might think these are strange things to think of God – how do we envy God? How do we boast before God? But envy, boasting and pride happen all the time in the bible. Adam and Eve envy God – they want to be like God – that is the temptation of the apple. At the Tower of Babel the builders build a tower so that they can rise up to heaven and be as powerful as God. And throughout the Bible the story is always of people, and kings and leaders who are proud, and boastful and who want to be little Gods in their own little worlds…. and not much has changed in the last 3000 years. The world is still full of world leaders who think that they are little gods in their own worlds, and in our own way we are all envious of God, boastful of our own power and proud of what we can do.. We want to be in charge of our own lives and we want to be in charge of other people’s lives too – how often do we tell people what they need to hear, or what they need to do? We don’t want God, or anyone else, to tell us what to do….. and that – envy, boasting and pride, – is not love.
So first and second if we want to love God, then we must trust God for our future, and we must allow God to shape our future and be God.
But there is more, because love is always relationship – the relationship of parent and child. The relationship of lovers. The relationship of friends. If we want to know how to love God and if we want to love our neighbour then we are saying that we want to be with them. We are saying that we don’t want to live separate lives in our own little worlds.
Because to love –- is to connect: As the ancient writers of Christianity wrote in the first centuries, real love of God and real love of neighbour is connecting. It is understanding that we, and God and humanity and all of creation – the world, the planets, the creatures and plants with whom we share this planet, the environment around us – are all connected – we are one.
When our neighbour falls, we all fall. When our planet suffers, we all suffer. When the environment is damaged, we are all damaged. When the universe is harmed, we are all harmed. And ‘God’ – ‘El’ – ‘deywos’ – is the word all religions use to represent this holding together of all things.
The opposite of loving God is not, therefore, modern atheism. Atheists may reject the personal gods of world religions and yet still live with a believe in the integrity of creation and the interdependence of society – the unity that holds all things together. The opposite of loving God is loving nothing at all, and loving no-one, and who would want that?
The Very Rev’d Paul Kennington