Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Advent 4 (C)
23 December 2018
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Here we are on the fourth and final Sunday during Advent. We are incredibly close to Christmas as we all realise and indeed tomorrow will be Christmas Eve. We are almost there.
Over the series of Sundays during Advent we’ve been looking at the major themes associated with each of those days: hope, peace, joy and love. Today we will be focusing especially on the theme of love.
Most likely many of the earliest Christians, and especially those in churches connected with the ministry of St Paul, were not familiar with the Christmas stories that we find in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke.
For starters, those two gospels had not yet been written during the lifetime of Paul. Indeed, they represent a stage of early Christianity some decades after Paul: Matthew is perhaps best understood as having been written about 110 while the Gospel of Luke may have reached its final form around 150 CE.
Whatever the dates for the Gospels and no matter how widely the Christmas traditions had spread around by the beginning of the second century, early Christians were in no doubt that Jesus coming among us was a most remarkable expression of God’s love for all humanity.
In Romans 5:8 we find Paul dictating these words to Tertius, his accommodating scribe: “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us …”
A little later, in Romans 8:39, Paul proclaims: “(nothing) will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
We find a related description in Galatians 4 where Paul writes these words:
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:4–6 NRSV)
But this idea that the coming of Jesus was a direct result of God’s love for the world is most famously expressed in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Love is at the centre of the Christmas story, even when there are no shepherds and no wise men, no journey to Bethlehem and no magical star in the sky. All of these legendary elements add colour and beauty to our celebration of Christmas, but what matters, of course, is the underlying message that Jesus is the love of God for us expressed in a human life.
Not only is love at the centre of the Christmas story which we will celebrate tomorrow night, it is also at the very centre of the faith that we practice.
Doubtless we are all familiar with the summary of the law, sometimes called the two great commandments. We often read them near the beginning of our services.
This core teaching of Jesus is generated by a request by religious authorities in the first-century Jewish community for Jesus to make a ruling on what is the fundamental obligation that we have to God.
That’s quite an open-ended question, and it is therefore all the more fascinating to reflect for a moment on all the things which Jesus could have listed but chose not to list:
- Living a good life
- Being compassionate
- Attending worship regularly
- Contributing money to the church or synagogue
- Reading the Bible
- Lighting candles
- Going on pilgrimages
- Kosher food
- Shabbat observance
Most of the attributes that we tend to think of as being at the core of religious practice are simply ignored by Jesus. When he’s asked to define the core obligations of humans as he understood things, Jesus famously replies:
“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29–31 NRSV)
Love is not just at the centre of Christmas it is also at the centre of our faith.
‘Love for God’ means not so much a romantic attachment to some divine figure, but rather us being alert to the depth dimension of life.
Our heart, our soul, our mind and all our strength are to be brought to bear on the great task of asking why are we here, and what does the Lord require of me? This task will involve our whole person (heart, soul, mind, strength), and it takes our whole lifetime to complete the work.
First things first: Love for God.
Everything else flows from that first great commitment to a life lived at depth. Without that commitment, nothing else matters. It is all hollow and empty.
But notice what does follow—not a traditional list of religious duties, but rather the simple call to love other people.
Their concerns and their wellbeing are to matter to us just as much as our survival and our own comfort.
In the car park at the shopping centre …
While merging in the traffic to get across the bridge …
When we would rather be somewhere else …
When we really do not have the time to listen to their story (again) …
Love is the critical DNA of the Christian person:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34–35 NRSV)
The benchmark for our love obligation is twofold.
In the Synoptic Gospels it is the love we have for ourselves: “love your neighbour as yourself”
In John’s Gospel Jesus is represented as raising the bar rather higher: “… just as I have loved you …”
So this week as we approach ever so close to Christmas, we are reminded of the primacy of love.
As we come to the Table of Jesus—the table of love—we feed on that love, we ask God to pour her love into our lives, and we seek courage to be truly loving people in the week ahead:
Loving this fragile Earth and all its creatures
Loving even ourselves