The Dance of Love
by Peter Sizer
Sermon preached at St Aethelheard's Orthodox Church, Louth Cemetery Chapel, Divine Liturgy, Sunday, November 12, 2000. 21st Sunday after Pentecost. St John the Merciful. Remembrance Sunday.
READINGS: — Galatians 2.16-20; Luke 10.25-37 & Matt. 5.14-19.
The eighth Sunday of the Luke cycle: the Sunday of the Good Samaritan. The story in St Luke's Gospel tells us what it means to live a Christian life. It is a life based on love of God and love of neighbour.
A lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus tells him he must love God and his neighbour as himself. So the lawyer asks him, "Who is my neighbour?". Jesus answers him by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. The neighbour of the Jewish traveller on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was the man who showed him that he loved him as God loves us. His neighbour was the foreigner who, when he found him lying at the side of the road after he had been beaten up by robbers and left half dead, bound up his wounds and helped him to the inn and looked after him; not his fellow Jews who passed by on the other side. The parable makes clear that our neighbour is the person who needs our help, and the neighbour of the person who needs help is the person who shows he loves unconditional, as God loves all of us.
It is therefore appropriate that today we also celebrate one of the great saints of the Church, John the Merciful (also called John the Almsgiver), a Patriarch of Alexandria of the early seventh century. He was a man like the Good Samaritan, for he gave all his wealth to help the poor and needy of his patriarchate.
Today is also the Sunday after Remembrance Day, when we commemorate those who died in the two World Wars, and the many after conflicts before and since. This commemoration is connected with the main theme of this Sunday in a negative way, for, while the story of the Good Samaritan and the life of St John the Merciful demonstrate what human love is like when we obey God by following Jesus Christ, what happened in the two World Wars reminds us what human beings can do when they are at their worst; when they do not follow Jesus Christ but go their own way, following the forces of evil. When we do God's will, we are capable of perfect love; when we do the devil's will, we are capable of the most extreme hate. Satan is incapable of love.
Recently I was reading a children's book by an American woman author.. It was written about 40 years ago, and is of the same genre as C.S. Lewis's Nania stories, though ostensibly science fiction. (Madeleine L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time, Dell Publishing New York 1962).
It concerns a family of four children, whose parents are scientists - their father a physicist and their mother a biologist and biochemist. The children are a girl of about twelve, ten year old boy twins, and a five-year old little brother, who is a genius (to such an extent that he already speaks in the language of scientific textbooks).
The father of the family has been engaged in a research project for the US Government, in the course of which he has discovered the "tesseract", a means of travelling through space (and time) by means of short cut which makes reaching distant galaxies almost instantaneously. The short cut is achieved by going from our third dimension into the fifth dimension, and then emerging at another place in the third dimension! Or the same thing can be done with time - our fourth dimension.
Father has been experimenting with "tessering", but he isn't very good at it, and has got lost in space. He has been missing more than a year, and this has been causing his children much unhappiness at school, for everyone except his family is convinced he has gone off with another woman. It cannot possibly be true, because, besides being a brilliant scientist, mother is also beautiful (and why not?).
Well, the children encounter three witches. Or rather, they are disguised as witches; really they are messengers acting on behalf of the forces of good. In fact they are angels, for, although the author does not use theological language, it is clear that the ethos of her book is intentionally Christian. It appears that the children's father is up against the forces of evil, what the "witches" call the Black Thing. The devil (in effect), perceived as a sort of black cloud, but possessing a superhuman personality, is determined to take over all the planets of all the galaxies of the universe. Some planets are fighting back, but others have surrendered, and these are called "dark planets".
In the course of his attempt at tessering, the children's father has landed up on a dark planet, where he has been imprisoned by the Black Thing, which has established itself there in a dome (that's ominous!), in the shape of a huge human brain called IT (with two capital letters).
On the dark planet IT had created a perfect world, according to a demonic view of perfection. Everybody was exactly the same. The children of the planet even bounced balls or played with skipping ropes exactly in unison, according to a rhythm emanating from IT. No blemishes were permitted on the perfect planet; no diseases, for instance. Anyone who caught a cold was "put to sleep". Everyone was supposed to be perfectly happy. In fact, everyone was desperately unhappy, because there was no free will. Was it not the sort of world human beings always end up with when they try to make a "perfect world" on their own, without God's help (which in practice means with the devil's help
The 12-year-old girl, her five-year-old brother and the boy from a neighbouring family were chosen by the witches/angels to go and rescue the father of the family from the dark planet. They take them there by tessering, which, of course, the witches are able to do perfectly. They are able to achieve this, but, in the process, the five-year old genius (who is an arrogant little boy, and will not take the witches' advice) falls into its clutches. His mind is taken over while he is trying to outwit the mighty brain. So they have to leave him behind.
The witches send the girl back to the dark planet to rescue her little brother, advising her to "think of what you have got that IT has not got." Arrived again at IT's dome she tries to do this. First she thinks of anger. She is a rather rebellious young lady and has plenty of that. But IT has much more anger and easily defeats her. Next she tries hate, but again IT has much more it than she has (is not the devil the very prince of hate?) and again she is defeated. Then, just in time, she remembers that her parents love her, and so do her brothers and the boy from the neighbouring family, and the three witches, and all sorts of people. And she loves them. So she throws her arms round her little brother, and says, "I love you!" That is too much for IT. For love is just what IT has not got. So the little boy is rescued and they all return home safely.
Now I don't know if there are human beings on planets in other galaxies; nor, if there are, whether they are in need of salvation. Nor do I know whether or not the devil is seeking to destroy the whole universe as well as the earth and its inhabitants. These are matters for speculation, and this kind of speculation is possible only in fiction. As Christians we may read speculative fiction for pleasure, but we must not base what we believe on it. That can be based only what God has revealed to us through his only Son, Jesus Christ, and belief in which is strengthened by the working of the Holy Spirit within us. There was just one phrase that made me quote that story to you. "Love is what IT has not got."
That is a very good negative definition of love. "Love is what the devil has not got". For there can be no love without God, since love comes from God; indeed St John the Theologian goes still further and says "God is love". (I John 4.8b). There are many people in the world who love. Besides Christians there are Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists and people of no religion at all; certainly there are many people who love who are not ostensibly or consciously Christians. But love persists in the world because, and only because, because God is active in it. He is active through the Church of his only Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, established by his victory, when he died on the Cross and rose again from the dead three days later. That is the source of the love in the world; without it love would atrophy. Just as a river dries up when it is cut off from its source.
In a world in which God is active through his Church the forces of evil are active too. So we have had world wars and we still have hatred and violence. Without Christ and his Church the devil would reign in time. We might have "perfection"; of the same order as the perfect world created by IT on the dark planet. We should not have love.
God is love because God is a Trinity of Persons united in one divine Nature - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They are united by a great bond of love in a fellowship so complete that they are said to indwell one another, or "coinhere". The technical term is perichoresis. We are invited to join that great fellowship of love. As Bishop Kallistos puts it in one of his books:-
"The final end of the spiritual Way is that we humans should also become part of this Trinitarian coinherence or perichoresis, being wholly taken up into the circle of love that exists within God." (The Orthodox Way, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, first published 1979. P.34.).
We do not, of course, become persons of the Trinity! We cannot become "gods" by nature. But God invites, through his grace, to share in the status of the Persons of the Trinity; to love God and one another as Father, Son and Holy Spirit love one another.
There is a popular hymn by the well-known modern hymn-writer Sidney Carter in which our Lord Jesus Christ is described (or caused to describe himself) as "Lord of the Dance" (using, I believe, a metaphor taken from an "apocryphal gospel" - one of those early works about Jesus considered edifying but not reliable enough to be included in the New Testament). Perhaps for us human beings perichoresis is rather like a dance which our Lord leads, or a chorus which he conducts. (Actually the Trinity leads, but no metaphor can be perfect). The dance or chorus has an established patter, and each member of the troupe or choir has his or her part. But, unlike on the dark planet, nobody is compelled to join in. Participation is voluntary, and we are even allowed wrong steps and wrong notes while we are learning. So for those of us who have chosen in "perfection" is still far from complete. But when it is achieved it will be God's perfection, not the devil, and that makes all the difference between God's new heaven and new earth and a dark planet. Amen.