What I said last Sunday – Civic Service


Last Sunday St John’s hosted the civic service. This is an annual service which moves about from church to church when the Chairman of our District Council comes to church along with other council members and local dignitaries. They make a public promise to serve the local community to the best of their ability and with God’s help. Councillor Beverley Connolly, Chairman of Tandridge District Council, chose the following readings for the service:

1 John 3.14-18, James 2.1-4, Luke 16.19-31

I decided to preach mainly on the first of the three readings. Here’s what I said for the occasion, and I began with a short passage from Lews Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.

“There are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents,” said Humpty Dumpty, “and only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!”
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’“ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice said.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

Anyone involved in politics will know the importance of clarity, the need to choose words carefully so that your meaning is conveyed clearly. It’s no good being like Humpty Dumpty and being clear what you yourself mean, if you then have to go on and explain to those on the receiving end what you actually meant. We all know how easily newspapers can report, for example, something a government minister has said – only for a few days later for a spokesman to say, “That’s not actually what they said, what they really meant was … !“

We have just heard three readings from the New Testament. And a problem we face when dealing with the New Testament is that it wasn’t written a few days ago. It was written almost two thousand years ago. How can we be sure when we read it that we understand precisely what the original writers meant? Did they use words in the same way that we do? Or are we in the position of Alice who didn’t know what Humpty Dumpty meant?

Today I want us to think about the word ‘love’ and what it means. Love. It’s such a small word and yet so intimately linked with Christian faith. Many people who wouldn’t call themselves Christian know that at the heart of the Christian faith is an understanding of love. But what do we mean by love? And, more importantly, what did the writers of the New Testament, and what did Jesus, mean by ‘love’? When we think about love we probably immediately think about the way we feel about people. We talk about being in love. It’s all about feelings. Perhaps we think of Barbara Cartland and Mills and Boon, RomComs on the TV, Valentine’s Day, a lovely wedding. When relationships break up people will often say, “I realised I didn’t love them anymore.” We think of love as a feeling. Over my years in ministry I’ve had people say to me so many times – it’s all very well Jesus saying that we should love one another but it’s so difficult, you can’t make yourself love other people. The problem is that we think we know what is meant by the word ‘love’.

Humpty Dumpty meant one thing by his use of the word ‘glory’. Alice thought it meant something quite different. The problem we have with the word love is that in today’s culture its meaning is not the same as the meaning that the writers of the New Testament thought it had. The idea that love might simply be about how you feel about other people was quite alien to them. Love wasn’t something you felt, it was something you showed in real terms by the way you behaved towards other people. It was an active thing, not a passive emotion – and you could see the presence of true love in a Christian’s life by the evidence of the actions that they carried out.

Take our first reading today, from the first letter of John. The writer says, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us.” Immediately we see that when God loves us it’s not just a case of God up in heaven feeling rather fond of us and sending out positive vibes. We know the love of God is real, says the writer, because he came to earth in the form of Jesus and died on a cross – a practical demonstration by his action of what love means. And the writer goes on from that to say that Christians too must follow the example of Jesus – by showing love in a practical way. “Little children,” he says, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” He has no concept of love being about feeling. Love is something you show, and you show it not just by talking about it but by living it out in your actions in daily life. And he specifically talks about helping those in need – if you don’t do that then how can God’s love abide in you, he says.

Councillor Connolly will in a short time promise that she will, with God’s help, serve our local District and its people, to the best of her ability, as Chairman of Tandridge District Council. And she will promise to honour God with her life and service. C. S. Lewis, the great Christian writer, said: Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained. I’ll come back to that in a moment. Especially for this service at which she makes her promise Councillor Connolly has chosen personally three readings from the New Testament, and her choice of readings is significant because they all highlight the deep Christian understanding of love shown through action.

We have heard those words from the first letter of Saint John: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” And then, amplifying the importance of actively showing love to all, we heard from the letter of Saint James and the importance of treating all with equal respect and dignity. And then in our gospel reading from Saint Luke we heard Jesus telling the Pharisees a parable about the importance of helping those in need while you have the opportunity. And that choice of readings highlights, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis’s words, Councillor Connolly’s intention in her time in office to work for our community’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.

What more can we ask for? And we, in our turn, will promise today to encourage her and pray for her, and do all within our power to support her, with God’s help. It is so important that we remember the role we all have to play, as we work together to show the love of God in action in our community.

“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”