Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Compelled by love

The following short homily was given this morning at our midweek Holy Communion and focused on one of the readings from Trinity 11, Paul's second letter to the Corinthians:

"The love of Christ controls us."  (2 Corinthians 5:14)

The word "control" seems out of place here as it suggests some kind of compulsion that works against our wills. We have all heard of a controlling husband who manipulates or dominates his wife making her life a misery. The same picture arises when we read the word ‘control’ here. It suggests something happening to us against our will.

An alternative word some translators use is the word "constrain". "The love of Christ constrains us" (King James). But again that has an element of being bound in some way. A dangerous prisoner is rendered harmless by a set of constraints he wears as he is led to the courts. These limit his ability to move and restrict him. Can the love of Christ be really seen in those terms as limiting or even restricting us?

There is a third alternative. The word 'compel'. "The love of Christ compels us" (New International version). This is probably the best. We have all been caught up watching a compelling film or reading a compelling book which we have found it hard to put down. Something about it draws us in and keeps us watching or reading. We are fascinated in a positive way by the object of our attention and we give ourselves to it freely.

I think that word is closer to the meaning that Paul is trying to convey here as he talks about being caught up in the love of God for him as he has come to know that love through Jesus. And it gives us an interesting insight into how the Christian life works or should work. There should be no compulsion in religion that works without or against our will. If we do not freely love God, but are made to do so, then that contradicts the very nature of love and God himself, who is says John, love (1 John 4:8).

And yet how many people operate as Christians without an understanding of that God loves them, REALLY love them, and has demonstrated this so wonderfully in Jesus? How many see their religion as something they have to do out of fear, or habit or custom, or because they have been told to follow by parents or under pressure from relatives? The Christian faith must run on love—God’s love for us and ours for God - or it is not Christianity. It is a soulless, empty and potentially soul-destroying thing which the new atheists and others are quite right to condemn and criticise. Without love at the very centre it will not work.

Take for example worship.  How often have I heard some people describe worship as boring? So much so that for them, when they are told that in heaven we will be worshipping God all the time they are quite put off by the idea. What is going on here? What is missing? It is love. Why would you worship a God you don't love or whom you are not convinced loves you?

The same applies to evangelism which is what Paul is talking about here in our passage when he talks about his work of reconciling people to God. Why would anyone talk to another person about the love of God unless they were convinced - as Paul was - that God really loves them and that that love had changed and transformed their lives and their understanding of God?

If this is so then, how can we come to the place where we gain a better understanding of the love of God? How can we know the love of God in or hearts and loves?

St. Isaac the Syrian was a 7th century saint who lived as a hermit for part of his life until he was made bishop of Ninevah. In one of his wonderful homilies he gives this advice. He says:

"Thirst for Jesus, so that he may inebriate you with his love.” (Hom 3, B 34)

If we will seek Jesus—thirst for him, read about him, reflect on his life, pray to him, open our hearts and lives to him - then, says Isaac, he will inebriate us with his love. In other words we will become so full of his love that it will be as if we were tipsy—that time when you feel warm and light-headed but still in control. There will be a liberation in the way we feel about the Christian life and it will have a positive effect on everything we do as Christians—how we worship, pray, speak about God and see the church, his body. When we fully know this love for ourselves, then we will discover the truth of what Paul is saying here in his letter. So let i.e. allow the love of God compel you says Paul. That is true Christianity.

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