Sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Zachary Guiliano
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This past Tuesday, I was sitting in the choir at Ely Cathedral, about fifteen minutes before the beginning of Evening Prayer, and I found myself thinking over the events of Holy Week and Easter, our Lord’s Passion and Resurrection. And as I meditated in that great temple of the Lord, I kept looking around, and I said again and again to myself: Look at what Christ’s life generated! Look at what he inspired.
In that cathedral, like many ancient churches, I was surrounded by mementos of all the company of heaven, of all those who had lived and worked and died in Ely over many centuries, in the sure and certain hope of the Christian faith.
It is an awesome sight, to see generations of faith expressed and concentrated in beautifully crafted glass and stone, wood and paint, precious metals and gems. People travel the world over to see such things, and in a Christian church what they are seeing is a dazzling testimony to goodness, beauty, and truth — to faith, our faith and that of our forebears. Pilgrims and tourists enter a space where everything is a witness in some way or another to the grace and glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Jesus of Nazareth, a man whose earthly origins were humble, who never travelled more than 200 miles from home, who may have never received a formal education, whose public life lasted only three years until he was crucified at the age of 33 — this Jesus has since inspired and changed the lives of countless men and women, villages, cities, countries, whole civilisations.
How can this be? How can one life, one man, do so much?
What inspired the early Christians to proclaim their faith before councils, kings, and emperors — even unto death?
What drove the finest minds of the late Roman Empire to spend their lives puzzling over something like the Christian Scriptures?
What led men and women like St Benedict and St Scholastica to found and lead communities of intense prayer, study, and service?
What inspired a St Francis or a St Clare to devote their lives to creating a religious order that would live in exemplary poverty and take the Christian faith to every corner of Europe and, indeed, all the world?
It was the conviction that this Jesus of Nazareth was not simply any man, however remarkable. No, he was the Word of God incarnate. His death was no accident, not simply a great tragedy; no, he laid “down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). No one “took it” from him; he laid it down of his “own accord,” for you and for me. And he did not stay in the grave. Death could not hold him; all the powers of the world acting in concert for his destruction could not destroy him. God raised him from the dead on the third day, and the power of Jesus, the living Jesus, the still incarnate Jesus became active in the Church and the world, giving us his “name by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
The energy of the risen Christ, the vitality of his teaching, the power of his death and resurrection are what built cathedrals, and formed saints and scholars, inspired missionaries and preachers, and formed charities and churches, hospitals and schools, and other institutions of faith the world over.
And why? Because that energy, that vitality, that power in Jesus Christ is love. Divine love. As St John said in our epistle reading today, “We know love in this: that he laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). Christ’s act of self-sacrifice, his giving himself to the cross and grave, shows us what love is.
This may sound strange to us, because we all have experienced love already. Haven’t we? The love of a mother or father, the love of a spouse, the love of a friend, even the general love of social worker or a teacher or someone else who serves in a public role. We have some experience of love already: how it reaches out to us, claims us, cares for us, even makes demands of us. These are all parts of love, refractions of love breaking into our world. But true love itself is higher. As Jesus himself said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). And that is just what Christ did for us, his friends, his loved ones.
Now, the love of one for another calls for some response. When we say I love you, we don’t cast our words carelessly into the air. We hope for something. Christ’s love is similar in this way: It calls for a response.
Again, from our epistle reading today:
We know love in this: that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. (1 John 3:16-18)
St John describes in perfect and brief speech how we might respond to Christ’s love — with love for one another, expressed in a similar way as Christ himself. He laid down his life, we should lay down our lives.
And think how eminently practical the lesson is. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods … and yet refuses help?”
Indeed, what is obscured in our translation here is that St John is even more explicit in the original. He does not say “anyone who has the world’s goods” (which would be kala kosmou or agatha kosmou). No, he says “anyone who has the life of this world” (bios kosmou) — the same word from which we get biology. Bios, life. This carries the same idea as “the goods of the world,” but makes the parallel between our self-giving and Christ’s even tighter.
Christ laid down his life, and we are called to lay down our lives — our whole selves, not to mention our possessions — in order to take care of a brother or sister in the Church. This is the response that Christ’s love seeks.
Have you seen this kind of love?
I have known it in this parish church and in others. When I fell sick back in August, do you know who took me to the hospital and stayed with Melissa and me in that frightening time, when I couldn’t walk or hardly speak? It was our vicar, Anna.
Over weeks and months of recovery, the people who made meals for me every day, took me to doctor’s visits, picked up my prescriptions, stayed with me when I could hardly get out of bed; the people who opened their homes to me — they were all church people, most of them from St Bene’t’s or from Little St Mary’s.
I have known this love that St John describes, that Christ exhibited, that we are called to.
When I was in need, Christian people who had “the life of this world” saw me, and “did not refuse to help.” They reached out their hands to help. I have known this love of the risen Jesus, reaching out in the hands of others, reaching out in those who have been made members of his body in baptism. And it eased my fears through many months of illness. I have known this love.
Brethren, the psalmist cried out:
Behold how good and pleasant it is,
to dwell together in unity.
It is like the precious oil upon the head,
running down upon the beard,
Even on Aaron’s beard,
running down upon the collar of his clothing.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
running down upon the hills of Zion.
For there the Lord has promised his blessing,
even life for evermore. (Ps. 133)
Love, the true love of God shared in community, is like nourishing oil on the head, making us shine with beauty, and spilling down in abundance.
The love of Jesus is like a snow-capped mountain range. When the Spring comes and the Sun shines, it holds not its waters, but its moisture runs like rivulets down the mountainside; it brings life to dry and dusty places below; it makes the trees to spread abroad; it brings forth fruit and flower and seed, and provides for the life of many creatures.
Love, in a community like this, is a many-splendoured thing.
If this is what love is — like a fountainhead bursting forth into river rapids, like oil running down — we could never contain this love. We could never keep it for ourselves. We could never box it in to only an hour or two on a Sunday. This love would lead us out, like it has led so many generations of Christians. This love that we have here now can grow and intensify and multiply; it can gain momentum.
And if it does, we may soon find ourselves like the early Christians, like St Benedict or St Fancis, like the builders of Ely Cathedral, like the countless men and women we will join in the next life whose names we may not remember — but who through faith and love overcame this world by giving their lives for it.
They took the message and the love of Christ from shore to shore, across wide plains, to valley, glade and mountain, so that from a small movement there grew something remarkable, the global Christian Church we know today.
This is what love can build. Let us follow where it leads.