The love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all (2 Corinthians 5.14)
Like most priests, it didn’t take me long to realise that whatever you say in the sermon at a wedding, it will in most cases be forgotten as soon as the bride and groom and all the guests have left the church. They have other things on their minds, far more important to them that what the priest conducting the ceremony might have to say. Though personally I have to say I can still remember quite clearly what the preacher said at ourwedding.
One wedding that did get people talking after the event was one preached by Bishop Michael Curry. Bishop Curry is the Presiding Bishop and Primate of our sister church the Episcopal Church of the United States of America. And he preached, you may remember, at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. And his sermon was subsequently talked about around the world. In less than fifteen minutes he became, as the Daily Telegraph put it, “the royal wedding preacher who stole the show.”
And what did he do that made such an impact around the world, as well as at the ceremony? Well, he simply talked about love. Just that – love! But I wonder how many people now remember what was at the heart of his message. I do, because I wrote it down at the time.
He said: We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new world.
Unfortunately while those words may have made an impact at the time, if the news stories of this past week alone are anything to go by then they have fallen, in far too many cases, upon deaf ears. In just the past seven days – and this morning – I have read stories in the newspapers, or seen reports on the television news, concerning the ongoing issues of racism, interfaith violence, homophobia, domestic violence, transgender hatred and sex discrimination … why do people find the word ‘love’ so difficult to understand?
Back to those words of Bishop Michael Curry, which resonate so much for me still – but which despite their impact at the time seem, like most wedding sermons, to have been largely forgotten: We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new world.
The power of love, the redemptive power of love. Supremely of course the redemptive power of the love of Jesus on the cross, a love that is there for all because Jesus died not just for some people but for all people. For absolutely everyone without exception.
‘The love of Christ urges us on,’ says Saint Paul in our first reading today, ‘because we are convinced that one has died for all.’ That has always been the Christian message, that Jesus died on the cross out of love for every single person.
Yet despite the reality that all are loved by God and all are loved equally by God society has so often demonstrated by its treatment of some sections of society that some are more equal than others. Some are more loved, and some are less loved, and some are not to be loved at all. Why have people all too often been unable to reflect the all-embracing love of Jesus. If Jesus loves someone, how can we as his followers do anything but the same?
Way back in 1955 – a story I am sure you all know – when the bus was crowded in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks was tired so she sat down. She sat down in the correct section of the bus but the whites only section was full, so the bus driver told her to get up and let a white person sit down. She refused. She was arrested. I’m sure all those involved in the incident thought of themselves as Christian. But where was love in that?
It was a small action by Rosa Parks, but in segregated America it was seen as a huge act of defiance. Yet from that small act flowed a big history of civil rights activity that led to huge changes in that society – and yet the process is still not finished as we have seen only too well. Our own country has not been free from such discrimination.
It’s not just, of course, in the area of race relations that people have experienced discrimination and rejection and downright hatred in the past.
The movement for gay and transgender rights has come at a price for many who in the past were criminalised and demonised or denied basic human rights. Where was love in that?
People with disabilities now have rights under the law, yet in the past so many were denied accessibility to so much of life that the rest of us took for granted. Where was love in that?
I can still remember, as many of you will, a time when to be a single mother resulted in hostility and condemnation and even, as is now becoming clear, children were forcibly taken away from their mothers; or when to live with a partner to whom you weren’t married was shocking to many and criticised as sinful. Where was love in that?
We have increasingly recognised the rights of all sections of our society to be treated equally, fairly, justly, and with dignity and respect. And bit by bit our society is changing for the better. But it’s manifestly clear from the news we get day by day that there’s so much more that needs to be done, so many attitudes that need to change.
Bit by bit our world is changing. But for so many sections of society, for many people, it has been and continues to be, a struggle. There are too many places, too many countries, where love is supplanted by hatred, by prejudice, by discrimination. The love of Jesus embraces all, the kingdom is there for all, yet too often it hasn’t felt like it. And even the Church isn’t blameless in all this!
So where does the Church and its message of love for all fit in to all this? Why am I talking about equality, about dignity for all, about all-embracing love for each other?
Well, bit by bit we have to come back to the message of the Bible that God is love – and to recognise that all people are of equal value and that all are equally loved by Jesus, that all have a right to be treated with dignity, and that all have a place within the life of the church. People will have different views on some of these issues, but whatever our own particular views or the views of others, we love everyone just as Jesus loves eveyone, and treat them accordingly. Some people outside the Church today looking in on the Church do not think that the Church actually believes and preaches this.
We are urged on, as Saint Paul puts it, by the love of Christ, and because we know that one – Jesus – has died for all so we also know that all may live for him who died and was raised for them. The redemptive love of Jesus is for all. The redemptive love of Jesus is fully inclusive. And so the Church must be fully inclusive – or it does not reflect the inclusive love of Jesus. And therefore, our church must be, and is, fully inclusive. All are welcome to come and worship and to experience God’s love for them. And to experience the love we show to each other.
And to pick up on the words of Bishop Michael Curry, as we discover the power of love we are able to make of this old world a new world.
In our gospel reading this morning Jesus tells the story of how the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds when it is sown. Yet, when it is sown, he says, it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. The kingdom grows and grows like the mustard seed until it provides a home for all within its branches.
Like many people we feed the birds in our garden. And it can be interesting watching the different breeds coming and all trying to get at the food. The wood pigeons and the collared doves have to cope with the jackdaws and the magpies. From time to time the blue-tits and great-tits manage to get a look in. Some people, apparently, try to stop the large birds feeding because they only want the smaller birds. And as for squirrels! The lengths some people will go to stop the squirrels eating! I couldn’t care less – they’re all God’s creatures and all entitled to eat at my bird table!
In the same way all are welcome to make their home in God’s kingdom – likened by Jesus to a great shrub where all the birds can come and make their nests..
The Church Army Mission Community, to which Mother Anne-Marie and I belong, has a short two-minute film about its work on its website. In it one of our community members says of Church Army’s work:
We are unconditional, serving anyone regardless of their age, gender, race, sexuality, ability, status or circumstances. Because God loves everyone and everyone is significant in his eyes.See the film here – 11th film down entitled We’re the helping hand, the boots on the ground
That, surely, is a statement that every Christian, every one of us, should be able to make as we are urged on by the love of Christ, because we are know that Christ has died for all. Jesus calls us to serve as he did – and not to pick and choose whom we serve. The love of Jesus for us and the love we have for each other is unconditional and indiscriminate.
May each of us, working together, enable our church to grow like the mustard seed into a place where all can make their home and know that they are truly loved for who they are – by God, and by each other.