“In my heart and in my head”
by John Inge, Bishop of Worcester (CHURCH TIMES) – Posted: 12 Feb 2016
The nature of God is a gift to preachers, suggests John Inge
“ALL you need is love,” the Beatles sang. They were right, in a way. Of the things that are distinctive about the Christian doctrine of God, perhaps the most significant is its conviction that God is love (1 John 4.8).
It is not that God approves of love — thinks that it is quite a good thing — but that love is of the very essence of God. In his magnificent bookAtheist Delusions: The Christian revolution and its fashionable enemies(Yale, 2009), David Bentley Hart demonstrates that this insight was revolutionary in the ancient world. It remains so.
This is a gift for preachers. Although we need to be careful about the nature of the love we commend, most people recognise instinctively that love is the most important thing in their lives. It is therefore a matter of making connections (as is most good preaching) between Christian doctrine and people’s experience. In this instance, it makes sense that, right at the heart and ground of everything that is, we find this same love which we deem all-important. It just needs to be drawn out.
Self-love on its own is an aberration, and here the doctrine of the Holy Trinity comes to our aid. Within the Godhead there is a loving community between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That love is so complete that the three persons of the Trinity are one. The love of the Trinity pours out in creation — love is always creative.
Good sermons should reach not just the head, but also the heart. Stories of self-sacrificial love — like that of St Maximillian Kolbe, for example — show what God’s love is like, and can move people not just to realise the overwhelming attractiveness of God, but to live lives of sacrifice.
WHEN preaching about God, one of the things we have to do is to banish ideas — which remain very common — of a bearded old man or, worse still, a fierce policeman or headmaster in the sky, wanting to catch us out at every opportunity. Our God is not at all like that, as is clear from the above.
Having said that, God is totally other, completely beyond our understanding, and we must be humble in our claims. St Augustine wrote: “What then, brethren, are we to say of God? For if we have understood, we have understood something other than God. To reach out a little with the mind is great blessedness, yet to understand is wholly impossible.”
Since love lies at the heart of it, in preaching we can point out that those with severe learning difficulties can be as godly as those of enormous intellectual prowess: I think of a wonderful woman in a parish of which I was vicar.
That is because, as St Augustine puts it elsewhere: “We know in so far as we love,” or, in the words of the scriptures: “God is love, and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them” (1 John 4.16).
Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester – the author of Living Love: In conversation with The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (Methodist Publishing, 2007).
+John Inge, the Bishop of Worcester, in this CHURCH TIMES article this week, reminds us that all we have to preach is “Christ crucified, Risen and Glorified” – that great and wonderful biblical theme of God’s great love that, we are reminded; “covers a multitude of sins”. This gloriously encouraging fact is often buried in the preacher’s often felt need to warn us about the penalties we might expect to have to undergo, should we stray from the path of righteousness. (Who, among us, is righteous?)
The overall message of the Bible is that God is Love. Yes, God is also Supreme Judge of all people; but first and foremost the God of Love; whose love is so godly perfect that we need to explore every avenue open to us to explain this amazing fact – not only to our congregations, but also to a largely pagan and uncomprehending world outside of the Church. When internal disputes – about the nature and fact of human selfless loving in all its variety of expressions in our world of today – continue to be-devil the mission of the Church, then we should not be too surprised that people turn away – unaware of the wonder of God’s love at the heart of the Christian Gospel.
How many sermons during this Lenten season will begin with words of warning about our unworthiness; about our need to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps if we are ever to earn the love of the God and Father of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ – who died to set us free “from the law of sin and death” ?
How much more people in the pews (and, possibly in the outside world) would sit up and take notice of our homilies and sermons is we were to begin them with the reminder of the wonderful mystery of ‘The great Love of God as revealed in the Son’ ?
In our sermon at Saint Michael & All Angels, Christchurch, at the 10am High Mass on Sunday, the First of Lent, the Vicar began his sermon with the reminder that the Christian God is different from all other gods, simply because of the love and mercy that are at the heart of the Gospel; measured out through the Incarnation, sacrifical life, death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. One could almost feel the sense of hearts being lifted up, and when the time came for mention of the Forty Days of Lent, we were all the more disposed to listen to what was being said about the debt we owe to God for that amazing love poured out for the whole world by Christ’s loving actions. I once heard a preacher say that “Love is the only commodity that increases exponentially when it is given away freely”.
Now how much better this message has prepared at least one Anglican congregation for the Church’s invitation to walk with Jesus through the Forty Days of Lent – entering into Palm Sunday and Holy Week with the enthusiasm of Christian pilgrims on the way to salvation – at the hands and through the mercy of the God who loves us – despite our sins and waywardness. How much better prepared we have become now, to repeat the pentitential petitions at the Mass:
Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand