Sermon for Sunday 15 May 2022
Fifth Sunday of Easter 2022
‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What would you say if you if there was just one thing to say, if you knew that the ‘hour was at hand’? What would you say before a rending, tearing event that would change you and those whom you loved, forever?
On the big screen—in the blockbuster movies with dramatic special effects so beloved of my generation—these moments tend to be elongated. Our hero or heroine has time to profess undying love for the object of their affection, express all the required emotions (fear/resolution/reckless abandonment to fate) before dashing off to rescue the hostages from the master criminal, defuse a terrible device or halt the onslaught of the dinosaur stampede. Invariably there is a ticking clock somewhere in the background, the cinematic device known as the ‘time lock’, letting us know that the final act of the film is now underway.
Today’s gospel reading has its own time lock. Judas, we are told, ‘has gone out’. The betrayal has been set in motion and there is no turning back; the ‘hour is coming’ (John 16: 32). Mindful of this Jesus is clear that the disciples must attend carefully to his words because he will be with them only a little while longer and he has still has much to say. He distills his thoughts into deceptively simple language—a language that children can understand—and he tasks them with a commandment, avoiding parable or paradox, so that they can follow him confidently. Jesus, in this most important moment of the drama speaks to his disciples of love.
Love—such a simple little word, and yet such a powerful and complex idea. Think for just a moment and I bet that you can come up with a song which features the word ‘Love’, no matter how old, or young, you might be; as The Beatles told us: ‘Love is all you need’. Much of the western world sets a day aside especially to remember ‘Love’. Red hearts, teddy bears, chocolates, Hallmark cards; it can seem like the month of February drowns in a (mostly saccharine) celebration of all things romantic. Romantic love is a marvellous thing and to be celebrated, but human love is wider, deeper and more complex than this one iteration of the emotion.
We know that Love requires an object; when we talk about love we inevitably talk about loving someone or something. Love turns outwards, away from ourselves and towards the object of its desire. Love is not something that we squirrel away and keep for ourselves, because the nature of love is to give. The beauty of love is that we instinctively want to share it. In God we encounter perfect Love—that which exists between Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the relationship of Love that is the Trinity. And because God is Love, he creates us out of that Love. For this reason human beings are capable of Love. We love because God first loved us.
When Jesus commands us to ‘love one another, as I have loved you’ what is he asking of us? We might speak of prayer and self denial, or respond with practical acts of love such as generosity or kindness. All these things we should do and probably (hopefully) we do some or all of them. But this leaves me thinking of the young man who could not leave his possessions to follow Jesus (Mark 10: 17-22). He could not bear to part with what he loved to follow the one who is Love. And yet we are told that on hearing his reply ‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him’ (Mark 10: 21). Perhaps this can begin to help us understand the love that Jesus is calling us to in today’s reading, a love that begins with what I am going to call ‘attentive beholding’.
We spend a lot of time looking, but not a lot of time ‘beholding’. For many of us one of the most excruciating experiences of the pandemic was ‘death by zoom’. Hours and hours of screen time, just looking. And no matter how wonderful your technology might be, looking at someone on a screen is not the same as beholding them in the flesh.
To explain the kind of beholding that I mean let me describe to you a very unusual installation by the performance artist Marina Abramović, born in Belgrade in 1946. Raised by grandparents who were very devout, she continues to have an interest in the religious themes and orthodox iconography that she was exposed to as a child. Her work is controversial, disliked by some, and certainly not for the faint-hearted. She pushes the body and mind—and sometimes the audience—to the limit.
During a retrospective of her work in 2010 Abramović sat in total silence on a chair in a clear white space in the Museum of Modern Art, New York City. She sat for up to eight hours a day, seven days a week, an incredible feat of endurance. Visitors to the museum queued to sit silently opposite her for up to five minutes, and some stayed longer. Between each sitter Marina closed her eyes and lowered her head. When she sensed that the next person had taken their seat she drew a breath, raised her head, opened her eyes and looked at them. They—in turn—looked at Marina. In this silent space something extraordinary occurred, often resulting in tears from the 1545 sitters (and sometimes tears from Marina too). The installation was called The Artist is Present.
I have watched the film exploring this piece of work a number of times, shared it with others in a variety of contexts and I believe it has challenged me to think more deeply about what it is to behold another human being.
Life is busy and our time is precious. We are prone to portion it out in minutes and hours, with people to see and places to go. We can rush from one thing to another. I bought a coffee today, but can I bring to mind the face of the person who served me? I travelled here by public transport, but can I remember anything about the person sitting opposite? Did I look at them? Did I behold them?
It is the challenge to truly behold someone, not to let the gaze slide over, to resist the urge to rush on to the next face, to afford dignity to another human being by acknowledging the space they occupy, not entering it or imposing your own will, needs or desires but simply allowing you both to be in the same place. Put simply, to behold another is to regard them in God—because we are all made in his image. We are called to behold others, and in this beholding is the beginning of knowing. When asked what she was doing when she looked at the sitters at MOMA Marina Abramović replied that she simply tried to look at them ‘with love’.
Jesus also beholds those whom he meets and looks at them with love. This is not the casual glance—this is beholding—stopping to allow for true encounter, such as we see with Zaccheus, or the woman at the well. In these two encounters Jesus is willing to allow himself to be the guest, or to be boldly questioned, to be equal in a conversation. This is a relinquishment of ego and a setting aside of power that is astonishing in its generosity and a challenging demonstration of what it is to behold and to love.
It is precisely this true encounter that is celebrated here this evening at Benediction when we will ‘see’ God and—in some way— be ‘seen’ by Him. We kneel for a powerful and transformative spiritual experience where two things happen. We attentively behold God and he beholds us. The direction of travel is both ways. At that moment it is possible to know the love Jesus bore for the rich young man: ‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him’. Jesus loved the rich man even though he went away sadly, even though he rejected Jesus’s call to follow him, even though he found it too hard to give up all he had. Jesus still beheld him, still loved him. This same loving attention is lavished upon us. We too are called to attentively behold our neighbour. This is the beginning of the challenge of loving as Jesus loved; ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’.
But we are merely human and in order that we might love in this manner we must practice spiritual discipline. We know that to empty ourselves to allow space for true encounter with our fellow human beings—made in the image of God and most precious in his sight—we will need good and holy orientations of the heart, the place where true prayer occurs.
So, how do we begin this task? We might start with asking ourselves the following question: What do you love? As St Augustine observed when we ask whether a person is good, we are really asking what that person loves. So we might begin to think about the things we love and what they might say about us. And we might ask how we allow what we love to shape the human beings we are? God gives us the gift of free will; we can choose what we love. But we must remember that what we love goes a long way to making us what we are, so we should choose wisely.
Choose the love that God offers to us in encounter with Christ Jesus, then chose to behold each other in that love. This is where the love that Jesus speaks of today has its beginning.
‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’
Mother Carol Barrett Ford