May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts
always be acceptable in thy sight,
O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
As you might have noticed in the past week, summer has arrived. For most of us the summer season is a source of happiness and joy. A period of rest and an excellent opportunity to set apart more time to do what we really like. Summer is however also an interesting season in a spiritual way. For some people it is an opportunity to recharge the faith battery, while for others summer can mean a period of dryness. So I thought that for this last Prayer and Praise before the summer the theme ‘living closer to God’ would be appropriate. Especially because I remember that I struggled with this last year when suddenly all church activities and fellowship stopped for the summer break.
Tonight we’re together as believers. But how can we grow in our faith and live closer to God?
In the past week I have asked some people when they felt closest to God (or I draw a conclusion on basis of what they said about the theme). And this is an interesting question to think about for yourself and ask others. I heard some very different answers. Someone responded that, seeing people together singing a Worship song or praying the Lord’s prayer was very powerful. Some other people said that being in a Christian community was very important to them and helped them very much in being open about their faith. A third person said that conferences like New Wine encouraged her and were important for recharging for the rest of the year. A fourth person responded that she feels closest to God when helping another person.
There are many more Christians with maybe many more different answers, and I think that all these answers have two things in common. These two things are the two commandments Christ gave us in the summary of the law. Love God above all, and our neighbour as ourselves. Most of these answers Christians would give to this question have these elements in it. Also because our love for God and the love for our neighbour are connected: As St. John says in our first reading [1 John 4: 7-21 ]: If anyone says, “I love God,” but hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20) At the same time can we only love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). So when we love someone else this is connected to the source of all love, God. So the love for God and the love for our neighbour are inseparable. Therefore this is one of the ways to get closer to God through loving God together with our neighbours.
What is important is that these two elements cannot be separated and are meant to strengthen each other. I think that we often experience God’s love the most when we love our neighbour and that we love our neighbour the most when we focus on our love for God and God’s love for us. And it works the other way around: When we do not love God but try to love our neighbour, or we try to love God but not our neighbour, our love cannot reach its full potential. Our love for God weakens when we do not love our neighbour, and our love for our neighbour weakens when we do not love God. That is also why in our communion service we wish each other the peace of Christ, before receiving communion. A final moment to make sure that we’re at peace, not only with God, but also with our neighbours.
But how can we love God and our neighbour more?
The first and most important thing is to make God and neighbour the centre of our attention, instead of ourselves. By focusing on others, instead of our own needs, we become more like God when he was man. If anyone ever has lived that had the full right to put his own needs and interests first it was Jesus. But He said: Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13) Which He did, when he died on the cross. And it made of Him the centre of the universe. Worshipped and adored by people from all corners of the earth.
Lev Tolstoy writes something interesting of how this works in War and Peace. He describes how the physical unattractive princess Mary Bolkonskaya is astonished and thinks someone is trying to flatter her when that person is complimenting her for her beautiful eyes. Eyes that are according to Tolstoy large, deep and luminous and at times they seem to radiate from them shafts of warm light. ‘But the princess never saw the beautiful expression of her own eyes- the look they had when she was not thinking of herself.’ When looking in the mirror, she was too focused on herself to see the beautiful loving look her eyes had when looking at someone else.
Through the ages there have been many different ways in Christianity to get closer to God. Some Christians became hermits to devote their lives to God. Augustine was one of the first to set up a monastic community. In March we had a Student Weekend here about the discipline of Contemplative prayer and Lectio Divina. There are different styles in liturgy, worship and thinking. We’ve got a lot of Christian thinkers making the Christian faith easier to understand, but also Christians like Tolkien and Lewis who were looking for and found God in pagan myths and legends.
I do not think any of these ways are wrong. The reason for that is that we are created in the image and likeness of God. There is always a bit of godliness left in us, no matter how deep and far we fall. But the closer we live to God, the closer we are to the supreme Good, the supreme Wisdom, the supreme Love and the supreme Truth. And to the source of all that is good, wise, loving and true. It is for this reason that Boethius argues in his Consolation of Philosophy that being a better person is its own reward, because it brings you closer to God. On the other hand someone who does not live well punishes himself by being further away from God, even when he’s doing well in a material sense. But the premise that there can be only one source of good, means that everywhere where we find something good, this must come from God. So if we see other Christians, maybe of a denomination we are a bit suspicious of, but living close to God, (maybe even closer than we are) then we must accept that we can learn something from them. Even though this might not be our own comfort zone.
But this idea could lead to a very moral and philosophical view of God. And our God is not merely a rational, comprehensible, philosophical concept, who sits high in heaven enjoying the eternal truth, wisdom and love present there. And just waiting until finally one of mankind reaches these heavenly values. I found it very interesting how Fr. David in a sermon in December compared the Greek friendship to the Christian friendship. The Greek philosophers thought that you should leave a friendship if your friend had fallen from virtue. The idea of Christian friendship is that you stimulate each other to virtue and you stay together for better and for worse. If someone falls from virtue, this does not mean that this person has lost his or her value. Because this person is still created in the image of God and has therefore always an undeniable value.
And I think that is also how God sees us. He does not look down from heaven, looking at our poor and failing efforts to reach Him. He stretched out his hand to the earth, to us, by sending Jesus. God became man and established a connection so we might not only grow in wisdom and love, but also have a relationship with the source of this. Jesus being revealed to us as the true and full virtue, good, wisdom, love and truth.
When I first wrote this sermon I stopped here, and did not realise that I was leaving out something very important and was very glad that it was pointed out to me. Maybe I left it out because it’s too big and too bizarre. I mean, God coming down from heaven, giving his life for us, is already too big to comprehend. And I think this is why St. Paul asks the Corinthians: Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you? (2 Corinthians 13:5) And I think we, like the Corinthians, also tend to forget this. But this is actually an amazing promise, which we also read in our second reading. Jesus Christ promised to dwell within us. God himself, making his home with us. (John 15:23) This connection is established by grace through faith and baptism. By baptism and faith we become united with God. And by Holy Communion this connection with God is strengthened.
In meeting other Christians, we meet other people that have Christ living in their heart. Maybe that is the reason why people disappointed in Christianity are often disappointed in the behaviour of Christians. When Christians do not love their neighbour, one of the ways God chose to reveal himself on earth, by living in the heart of Christians, is then misdirected and perverted. And this does also point at the importance of a Christian community. It is very encouraging to live in a community of people loving God and having God living in their hearts. And I think we can sometimes, maybe without knowing it ourselves, realise that God lives in the heart of that other person. This could explain why we sometimes feel a love and an appreciation for people that we don’t even know that well. And maybe it is this unconscious realization that we both love God and have God living in us that establishes a connection.
Finally, Lev Tolstoy wrote a beautiful short story about how we can see Christ in our daily life. (Listen to the full text on Youtube by clicking here.) The story is called: ‘Where love is, God is’ about a simple cobbler called Martin who, reading the Gospel at an evening hears a voice saying: ‘’Martin, Martin! Look out into the street tomorrow, for I shall come.’ The next day Christ does appear to him, when he offers tea to an old man, when he offers shelter, a warm coat and food for a poor woman with a baby and when he ends a fight between an old woman and a boy over an apple. [Matthew 25:31-46] By loving our fellow human beings a bit more every day, that way expressing God who lives in our hearts, we are every day a little more transformed and become more like Him who wants us to reach our full potential: To be creatures in God’s image and likeness.