Sunday 7th September-Pentecost 13-Rev Markus Dunzkofer

As part of my interviewing process to become your rector, I was very graciously shown around both St John’s and the rectory.

And I made a big mistake!

Of course, I knew that this tour of the properties was very much part of checking out the candidates, so I was very self-conscious about what I would say. I did not want to say anything that wasn’t genuinely me. So, when asked if I cook, I very nonchalantly said, I do not.

And this was exactly my mistake!

It was my mistake, because the person asking me this question very much remembered my answer – and after I accepted the call to St John’s I ended up with a wee cooker, which is sufficient for somebody who does not cook much… but it is wee and it is a bit difficult to use when cooking for a larger party…

Now, I was not lying during the interview.

I have never seen myself as a chef. In fact, I once preached about how I almost burnt scrambled eggs… scrambled eggs for crying out loud!

But since moving into Ainslie Place, I have discovered that I like following recipes. It is not at all what Isobel Watson and Sheelagh Brand can whip up so magically – by any stretch of the imagination – but because it is for people that I care about, such as fellow members of St John’s, it is still a lot of fun. 

This is not a plea for a new cooker – so the members of the Fabric and of the Finance Committees can relax. And Grace Durham has done a great job helping me to get the rectory into shape.

But I am sharing this to affirm what many out there beyond of our congregation find hard to believe: yes, church-folk can have fun, do enjoy each others company, love to wine and dine and laugh, and get a lot of pleasure out of living into the beauty of life itself. When we come together it is often a great occasion of celebration and hilarity. And if you check St John’s Facebook page, you might even find a clip of the new rector’s feeble attempts to dance to the rhythm of the Soweto Melodic Voices, which were here during the just-Festival… If I ever get a hold of the person who posted that video, may God have mercy on her!

But, despite of my embarrassment at this, I do believe God delights when we rejoice in each others’ company, because when we so do we not only celebrate life, which God created and said it was good. But we also then celebrate that at the heart of our community is not dogma or theory, but then we celebrate that at the heart of our community is love.

But of course, love is a tricky thing.

There is a bit of an inflation of the word in our society. And as Northern Europeans we avoid it. It is just a bit too sappy, especially when used outside a romantic relationship. If I were to say to you “I love you!” you would get a bit nervous, and rightly so.

But when talking about “love” New Testament Greek is a bit more discriminatory than English. In fact, Ancient Greek differentiates between a number of different kinds of love. There is στοργή, which describes the affection between family members such as the natural reaction a good parent would feel for a child. Then there is φιλία, which describes the love experienced in friendship. ἔρως is used to express a more primal expression of love: a passion that is physical, an attraction that borders on lust. Finally, there is ἀγάπη, which is a bond of love that is self-less, unconditional, even sacrificial.  

Of course, if you have been coming to church for many years, this is nothing new. And I hope you are not tuning out at this point in my sermon, because you have heard it before and because you also know that the delineation between these four words of love is not as strict as I made it sound just now: Aristotle, for example, can use φιλία in his Nicomachian Ethics to speak about fondness and kindness without any affection. Plato, however, uses the same word in the Symposium to speak exactly of affection. And the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament, even goes a step further: In Proverbs it uses φιλία to speak about sexual love, like ἔρως. I guess it needs a biblical text to spice things up a bit…

A fortnight ago I preached about the dichotomy of “fear” and “love.” But when using the world love, I did not talk about ἔρως or φιλία. Rather, I talked about something that in its prominence is quite unique to the biblical revelation: I talked about ἀγάπη, about the love that does not gratify one’s own desires, but looks to find its fulfilment in the other.

For St. Paul, this understanding of love is directly related to grace, which is central to his theology. In the opening eleven chapters of Romans Paul reveals that grace is the act of God’s selfless and sacrificial giving of himself in Jesus: God offers all that he is and all that he has for us, for you and for me, and for our benefit. And God relates to creation through grace, because at the heart of God is ἀγάπη, is selfless and sacrificial love.  

In the twelfth and 13th chapter of Romans Paul then unfolds how God’s grace, which is the product of God’s love for us, will spark in us, who follow God’s way, ἀγάπη, too – and how this looks in practical terms.

And this has nothing to do with mere charity, which unfortunately is the English word so often used to translate ἀγάπη in Paul’s letters. Nowadays, we think of charity as something that is benevolent, but that stops short of systemic change. The Oxford dictionary, for example, defines “charity” as the “voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need.”

This is not what ἀγάπη is about!

When the first verse in today’s reading from Romans speaks of “owing nothing to anybody but love” we can see a glimpse of the radical and holistic claim of ἀγάπη, of selfless and sacrificial love: It is about transforming one’s life in such a way that it does not seek to please oneself or one’s own interests. But Christian love means involving all that we are and all that we have – and do so sacrificially – for the sake of the other.

And we have learned that the definition of “other” is wide: it not only includes fellow members of our community of faith, but it also includes those who ignore who we are or wish us harm. And it even includes creation in all its facets. Yes, environmental stewardship cannot be an act of benevolent charity. It has to come from an understanding of our interconnectedness with all of creation. 

Unfortunately, preachers often forget about the holistic and radical demands of ἀγάπη and rather preach ethical or moralistic sermons. I have done so myself. Do this and don’t do that. The Ten Commandments have been used in such a way. And even liberal preachers sometimes use a concept of love that commands us to do justice, peace, and the preservation of creation, because it the moral thing to do. 

But at the heart of the Gospel is a different understanding of ἀγάπη, of God’s unquestioning, overflowing, non-judgemental love for each and every one of us and for all of creation. In our brother Jesus, God gives himself selflessly to infuse every fibre of our being and every aspect of our lives with love. When we discover God’s ἀγάπη waiting for us, we will learn to love God back and learn to love selflessly our neighbour, whoever that neighbour may be.

This is the summary of God’s law.

And it raises important challenges for us:

As we contemplate our future and seek to be God’s loving presence in the world today, how will we here at St John’s love one another and the community around us in such a way that we will seek the welfare of the other?

As we move closer to the referendum, how will we encounter fellow citizens, with whom we disagree and how will we continue to love if the referendum does not go our way?

As we interact with the world, how can love be our guiding principle as we support those persecuted for witnessing to God’s love and how will we interact in love with those who wish us harm?

And as we once again enter creationtide, how can we not just in this season discover God’s love in everything God has fashioned and what does selfless love require of us to save the planet, which is being abused and pillaged by our loveless behaviour?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said: Love does not seek something from the other, but love wants everything for the other.

In this sense, “let us love one another, for love is of God.”[1]

 



[1] 1 John 4:7