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Eucharist, St Mary's Church, Barton-on-Humber
Third Sunday of Lent, 27 March, 2011


Sermon delivered by Peter Large , Diocesan Reader

John 4:42b “We have heard for ourselves and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world."

It is reported that 60 to 70% of persons asked say that they believe in God. But is this in any way reflected in their behaviour? I think not. They believe in God in the same way that they believe in Canada. Unless you happen to have been there, the only evidence that Canada exists is that everyone says so. If you get talking to someone and they say that they have been to Canada, this is somewhat stronger evidence, but it still falls short of personal experience.

The people of Sychar had a unique experience. The Saviour of the world came and spoke to them for two days. No one else before or since has had that experience. The significance for us of this occurrence is immense, as the people of Sychar were Samaritans. They were not the people the Messiah was supposed to rescue. They were heretical, low-grade part-Jews, who only accepted the Law, not the Prophets or the Writings. So when a woman came and told them that standing at Jacob's Well was God's Messiah, they were curious but not necessarily convinced. But when they heard for themselves what Jesus had to say, they realised that Jesus was the Saviour, not of the Jews, but of the world. That same man is our Saviour.

But again unless we have personal experience of Jesus, we, like the people of Sychar, have only other people's word that he is the Saviour. For God's love to be effective, Jesus has to be our saviour too. And it is easier to believe in a man whom people saw and spoke to, than it is to believe in a remote, intangible and therefore unimaginable deity as preached by Mohammed.

By reaching out to us in Jesus, God is showing the reality of his love. You can love another human being passionately, but unless you reach out to them and tell them so, you might as well love a car or a goldfish. By telling someone we love them, we evoke a response in them, which may or may not show that our love is reciprocated. In the same way, God is showing us his love by reaching out to us in Jesus Christ, and if we recognise God's outreach, we will agree with the Samaritans of Sychar that Jesus is the Saviour of the world. But of course there is no obligation for us to respond. And without our response, God's love is being wasted. He won't cease to love us, any more than a spurned human lover will cease to love. But without the mutual recognition of love as a two-way bridge, God's love is like unrequited human love, it reaches out but is not accepted.

Books on theology talk about the many words that exist in classical Greek for the concept of love. All these words are unimportant, except for two: the word ερος, which is love that desires to possess and enjoy something or someone, usually in a sexual sense, and αγαπη, which means self-denying love, in which the object of affection is to be served and protected rather than possessed and enjoyed. These distinctions are not particularly important when we come to look at the Bible, because the word eros is not used in the New Testament and the word agape is always used, not merely in the New Testament but also in the Greek translation (the Septuagint) of the Old Testament. where it serves as a translation of the Hebrew word ahabah.

But the reality of love is more complex than making a crude distinction between the two types of love. If you fancy another person sexually, then okay that is eros. But if you want to marry someone, it is not just because you fancy them, it's because you want to spend the rest of your life with them, so in married love there are elements of both eros and agape, as we shall see presently. Because we are human, our experience of love then, makes it difficult for us to distinguish between eros and agape. In fact I would go so far as to suggest that the distinction is a purely philosophical one, because many hymns and religious poetry also have a blurred distinction, and use the type of language that we associate with eros also about religious love.

You may have heard me before in this pulpit speak disparagingly of the Puritans, and I will be doing so again in a few minutes, but curiously enough that typical Puritan document, the Shorter Westminster Catechism presented to the Long Parliament in 1648, and forced upon the Church of England for a few years during the Commonwealth, employs erotic language. In reply to the first question of the catechism “What is the chief end of man?”, the answer is “To glorify God and enjoy Him for ever.” So even the Puritans got it right sometimes. I will not bore you with the remaining 106 questions of the Shorter Catechism, one just wonders how long the Longer Catechism must have been.

A couple of weeks ago there was an article in the Daily Telegraph by Christopher Howse about religious art, in which he made the point that a major function of religious art is to stir up the emotions and thereby strengthen our relationship to God. Of course love is not merely an emotion, it is a relationship, so in some sense religious art can succeed in bringing the reality of God's love home to our minds as well as our senses.

This is a complex psychological area, but art can strengthen love by making our senses more open to God's outreach. That is why the crude Islamic or Puritan condemnation of representative art as being idolatry and superstition is extremely wrong. Art can and does strengthen our awareness of the beauty of God's creation and the outreach of his love to us and therefore is a very valuable means of making us aware of our Saviour. The representation of a scriptural event in a painting enables us to identify better with the emotions and experiences of the people in the story and can enable us to share with them the experience of God's outreach.

Really powerful love also carries with it a sensation of unworthiness, that we who know our own weakness only too well are constantly amazed that anyone can love us for what we are. And that sense of unworthiness is very valuable, because it brings home to us the strength of God's love towards us. We can learn a lot about God's love by studying good examples of human love, and in that area, literature can be useful.

The consciousness of unworthiness is also valuable in making us more and more ready to sacrifice ourselves for the beloved. Strong married love makes us enjoy the household chores of everyday life, the upbringing of children is made pleasant or at least tolerable, rather than a burden and chore and a spouse finds joy in caring for his or her partner. Lovers will put up with anything as long as they can stay together, and that is a model of how our relationship with God should be. Jesus is our Saviour, and the major preoccupation of our lives should be our joy in our relationship with him.



Last updated: 22 April, 2011.

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