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God is love

Sixth Sunday of Easter: 13th May, 2012
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

"Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love." (1 John 4:7-8)

Every race and culture across the ages has dedicated a word (or more usually several words) to this thing we call "love": amour, lieben, aroha, aloha, storge, philia, eros, agape, caritas, ahava, ishq, kama, karuna. It is something so familiar, so familial, something most of us have experienced in some way before we even had the ability to form words to describe it. But what is it? What is love?

Going to the news media generates a vast although at the same time interestingly limited range of possible answers. Entering "love" in The Age search engine yesterday, for example, generated 2085 pages of articles to browse. At the top of the list were those from yesterday's paper such as: "Notes from a lethal love affair" on the new Australian opera Midnight Son based the Maria Korp affair, the suburban Melbourne love-triangle-murder; or "Love at first site, but you're still just worth $4.54 a year" about our love affair with Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg's love of technology that is about to make his company around $US95 billion. Interestingly, when I entered "love of God" into the search engine the lead article was "Getting creative with carcasses" from five days ago. It read: "The daughter of notable Mount Lawley butcher Vince Garreffa has decided to tap into her dad's trade, bringing her slaughtering skills to the stage . . . [she said] 'He taught me quite a lot of knife sharpening skills and I think that's why his idea was if you've spent all this time sharpening knifes for the love of God please don't cut yourself.'"

So, from that quick survey "love" would seem to be about a complex sexual liaison ending in death, social networking, and a father's advice on the use of sharp instruments. Perhaps we need to look elsewhere. What about science? How do scientists define love? In their study of character strengths and virtues, positive psychologists Chris Peterson and Marty Seligman write: "In its most developed form, love occurs within a reciprocated relationship with another person". It is manifest, they argue, in just three prototypical forms: a child's love for a parent, a parent's love for a child, and romantic love. They cite Freud as the first to propose a formal theory about love, but choose attachment theory as their primary theoretical device.

Important as an understanding of human love for one another is (especially on this Mother's Day) there is something quite unique that we as people of faith bring to the table. The elephant in the room, both in the media and among scientists, is another kind of love that has been studied for a very long time but seems to be largely ignored in the modern world. The first letter of John offers a very clear definition: what is love? "God is love." This has been a lived experience of so many people across the ages. Perhaps those who have best articulated it are the mystics. The fourteenth-century contemplative theologian Julian of Norwich, for example, is haunted by a profound visionary experience she had on the 8th May 1373. It draws her into the life of an anchoress, and she chooses to be walled into a small cell for the rest of her life so that she may die to herself and live for Christ. Years later, reflecting on her experience, she writes: "From the time that it was shown, I desired frequently to know what our Lord's meaning was. And fifteenth years after (and more) I was answered in spiritual understanding, saying thus: 'Wouldst thou know thy Lord's meaning in this thing? Know it well: love was his meaning. Who showed it thee? Love. What showed he thee? Love. Why did he show it thee? For love.'"

Another of the great mystics of the Christian tradition, John of the Cross (1542-1591) articulates the almost somatic passion of contemplative union with the God of love:

O living flame of love
That tenderly wounds my soul
In its deepest center! Since
Now you are not oppressive,
Now consummate! if it be your will:
Tear through the veil of this sweet encounter . . ..
How gently and lovingly
You wake in my heart,
Where in secret you dwell alone;
And in your sweet breathing,
Filled with good and glory,
How tenderly you swell my heart with love.

And so we too connect with this God of love today; in our prayers, in our hymns and liturgy, and in the mystery of bread and wine through which we come to share in the divinity of Christ.


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