2nd January 2022

First, Happy New Year!

And now, to the second reading this afternoon. The First Letter of John makes is sound that love and God are almost the same thing.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

So an important question is, ‘What is love’. There are many answers to this, depending on how we use the word. But let me recount a story. You may already know it. [See picture, below]

Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish priest, a Franciscan friar, who sheltered Jews in his friary. One day in February 1941, the German authorities closed the friary, and the Gestapo arrested Maximilian Kolbe along with four others. [See picture, below] A few months later he was transferred to Auschwitz as Prisoner 16670. He was repeatedly beaten and lashed. But worst was to come. At the end of July, a prisoner escaped, and in retaliation ten men were picked to be starved to death in an underground bunker. One of the men cried, ‘My wife! My children’, and Kolbe, who had neither wife nor children, volunteered to take his place. One by one, the men died of thirst and starvation until only Kolbe was left. At this point he was just a nuisance to the prison authorities. So on 14th

August 1941, he was given a lethal injection of carbolic acid, and his body cremated the next day.

Now that, I think you will agree, is true love. Not hoping for something in return, not sloppy or sentimental, certainly not romantic – just selfless, self-giving love.

In 1982, Pope John Paul II canonised Maximilian Kolbe, declaring him a martyr and confessor of the faith. [See picture, below] And, in case you think he is just a Roman Catholic hero, he appears in the Church of England calendar for commemoration on 14th August each year, and there’s actually a statue on him on the front of Westminster Abbey.

Love is difficult to define. Gilbert and Sullivan’s Lord Chancellor in ‘Iolanthe’ sings ‘In for a penny, in for pound – It’s Love that made the world go round!’ But the love of ‘faint heart never won fair lady’ isn’t love in the Kolbe sense. But what is the Kolbe love, Christian love? It’s not the affection between family members or between friends; it’s not the romantic passion of lovers and spouses. [See picture, below] C. S. Lewis wrote a book called ‘The Four Loves’. He described these as Affection, Friendship, Eros (or passion) and – finally Charity. By ‘charity’ he meant the love in the Kolbe sense. ‘Charity’ is the word that the Authorised Version of the Bible used for what is now translated as love: selfless Christian loving our neighbour as much as ourselves.

This isn’t to imply that this Kolbe, Christian love can’t appear in our other loves. It’s rightly prominent in the Affection in families; and it’s a horrible state of affairs when it is absent in parents’ feelings for their children, like Arthur and Star recently, and the pairs of twins in the dreadful fire. It can be present in simple Friendship, when there is utter, sacrificial caring by one friend of another. And love, as the ‘many-splendored thing’ described in the song, is wide enough for Kolbe love to accompany Eros or passion in the relationships between husband and wife or stable partners. This is particularly the case, for instance, when they forgive one another indiscretions or give their lives to caring for each other in later life. And it occurs in society around the world and nearer home: [See picture, below] when medics go the extra mile after mile with covid patients, with the risks they run and the extra hours they work, [See picture, below] when volunteers spend cold hours inside and outside vaccination centres (like here in Winchester at Badger Farm).

‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’, Jesus is recorded as saying. And of course that’s exactly what he did – laid down his life for his friends, his friends of the moment and his friends of the subsequent centuries, like us. But why in fact did Jesus lay down his life?

I think Jesus died as a matter of integrity, an example to humanity, standing firm to the principles that he believed were from God, and above all the principle of the love that he proclaimed and illustrated in his life. He showed us that the core value for the world, the nature of the world at its best, the nature of God in God’s very self is love. Jesus’s life rang utterly true to this, his life a magnificent demonstration of disinterested love. And that’s why his followers decided he was God-like, then that he was God’s Son, then later that he was God on earth, God incarnate.

Of course, love sometimes has to be tough love. Every parent knows that. Occasionally, friends have to discover that, if they are to be true friends. Sometimes spouses and partners have to employ tough love if they are to be true to each other. Though woe betides any spouse who launches out too precipitately! And Jesus knew all this too. Do you remember how Jesus encountered the sick man who had been lying by the magic pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem for some considerable time? He gave the lame excuse that there wasn’t anyone to help him into the pool when the spring came to life? ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk’ was Jesus’s curt instruction. Tough love. And do you remember how he castigated hypocritical religious leaders as ‘you viper’s brood’: more tough love, out of integrity and loyalty to the truth.

St John’s Gospel opens with: ‘No one has ever seen God’. But it then goes on:

It is the Father’s only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

When all is said and done, it’s the human person of Jesus that gives us the best and surest portrayal of God, the source of comfort when we’re at our wit’s end and the source of challenge for living selfless lives. Love, in this sense, is truly a many splendoured thing.

And finally, let’s remember one thing: people need love most when they deserve it least – like us! Perhaps that will help the New Year through. What could the world be like, if we all loved other people when they least deserved it?

And that back brings us back to God and us:

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.