I’ve got to celebrate a wedding at the weekend. Part of the service has me saying something to the bride and groom and gathered guests. It is usually (necessarily?) about love. It is hard to say something about love that touches deeply and registers at the time of marriage. There is so much adrenalin and expectation in the air and it is hard to listen. More difficult still is the fact that we are here to celebrate the love of this couple and most couples understand their love as the most significant and perhaps profound ever. Most couples cannot see past themselves in this moment and that is understandable. Added to all of this is the reality that love is presented in some very underwhelming ways in our culture. Advertising suggests that if we really love someone it will translate into impressive material gifts – the best demonstration of love is to spend absurd amounts of money on the person we love.
Love is often reduced to the lowest common denominator in TV and movie stories, or pop songs and described in simplistic ways. Some of the nonsensical shows that hover in and around the theme of love suppose that superficial beauty and nice feelings are the sum-total of love. It is mostly look-good, feel-good nonsense that leads to grief and confusion when people believe that this is how things will be – and it turns out differently.
I suspect that love does not truly reveal itself until life and relationships are thrust into the difficult realities of life. Whilst hormones flow and infatuation flourishes – a necessary phase for two people to come together, break through their ego-boundaries and commit to each other – love seems blissful and eternal. What happens when the daily grind of life sets in and the responsibilities, pressures and struggles that we all must face test this love? When we get down to it, what in fact is love? And why is love, in popular culture, most typically associated with couples and sexuality?
On and around Wednesday there were a multitude of ANZAC Day celebrations. Central to many remembrances was sacrifice, along with mateship, working together and looking out for one another. ANZAC Day usually falls somewhere within the 7-week season of Easter and the readings of Christian churches around the world have various themes of love. One of the things that Jesus says is: ‘No greater love has someone than to lay down their life for their friends.’ That is precisely what draws us in through ANZAC Day – the laying down of life for friend and stranger, for their well-being and safety. We stand in awe of those who give so selflessly of themselves, whether in the theatre of war, during bushfires (or other infernos), at the beach, in the pursuit of public law and order and those who respond to danger to save other’s lives.
There was a fellow many years ago. His name, as I remember, was Leighton and he worked at a Christian campsite in south-west Sydney. It was a camp site that hosted a variety of groups and holiday camps and he was one of the leaders who enabled young people to engage in a variety of outdoor activities. One of these included canoeing on the river that ran along the campsite. It was mostly calm and quite safe but further down was a weir and the water got a bit stirred up there, especially after rain when more flowed over the weir. One holiday camp the young people went out canoeing with the strict warning to remain upstream, which they mostly did – except for one girl. For whatever reason she ventured further downstream and too close to the weir. By the time Leighton and other leaders realised she was out of sight, things were turning grim. She went over the weir and the canoe was thrust into faster flowing, spiralling water and the girl was out of control. Leighton was running down the bank and without thought dived into the raging torrent. He was able to push the canoe to the other side but in the process was caught in a down-thrust of water. He disappeared and was drowned. It was an incredibly sad and horrific event, but Leighton was remembered as one who gave his life for the sake of the girl in the canoe. He lived out the creed he taught to others, the creed of Jesus that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for friends.
This story takes love to a different level. It isn’t always about sex, romance and nice feelings between couples. Love is much bigger, deeper and all-encompassing. Love is about relationship and standing with one another through the good and hard moments life throws up at us. Love gives of self for the sake of others – it is selfless and self-sacrificial. As parents and friends this isn’t too large a stretch as most would give as much as possible for those who we are close to and who hold a deep place in our hearts. But what about those removed from us. Leighton, in fact, was probably not a close friend of this girl. His sacrifice was probably for a stranger or one he only met a few days earlier. Love extends beyond our comfortable and secure world, beyond those with whom we know well and are in close relationship.
Love has the capacity to change us and push us into places where we might not otherwise venture. Love enables us to reach out to strangers and see them as human beings, to take space to listen and relate and broaden our perspective. Love inspires in us those feelings when we see news stories of people suffering or when we look into the face of another person who is struggling and feel some desire to reach out.
One of the readings this week is from 1 John 4:7-21 and it speaks profoundly of love. It says that all love comes from God because God is love. It suggests that when a person loves, God is present whether we recognise this or not – because God is love. We are told that God’s love is revealed in God’s embracing of human life, of being revealed through Jesus, the Christ, who dwelt among us. The good news that John wants us to understand is that God comes to us and loves us fully, completely and dearly. He says that in true love there is no fear or guilt, and this is the way of God, because God is love. We don’t have to be afraid because, know it or not, we are held in Sacred love and grace. When our children we small and something scared them, we held them, and they felt protected and safe (we to do this now with our young dog!). God, who is love, is in us, through us, for us and will not let us go – ever or for anything!
God, this Trinity of relational love, cannot help but love. Creation is an act of love – just as the procreation of children in marriage is an act of love, it flows from the love of two people. God, the heart of love, is where we come from and the destination to which our heart yearns. Our journeys through life seem to lead us back to this heart of Divine love. It is where we belong because love is our source and gives us life and being.
So, on the weekend I will have to speak about love and how this most beautiful and potent force is the only thing that will give true hope to the world. It is the essence of God and God is its source and it flows into human life to give joy, wonder – and love!