If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love,
I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
1 Corinthians 13:1
In our All Age Worship today we had a young person bang a metal serving tray with a wooden spoon, as loud as possible, and another who was asked to play some sanctus bells very quietly. And you know the reaction, those who were close to the first braced themselves, lots of body language, and tried to move away, but if you were close to the second, your curiosity was peaked and you wanted to draw near, to hear more of this delicate angelic sound.
This can happen in the spiritual life. St Paul says in today’s Epistle that if we speak the right things but in the wrong way we are like a noisy gong or a clanging symbol – others will want to move away. We all know the experience of moving away from someone who is in a bad mood or we brace ourselves when they open their mouths, or how, if we are in a bad mood, tired, we can lash out at people nearby and they move away.
We also know the experience of the “know-it-all”, how even if they say true things, it can be hurtful to be around, we back away. (Someone said recently that parents teach children to speak and children teach parents to hold their tongues! Parents come to see that it is not always helpful to say the truth when a son or daughter isn’t ready to hear it.) St Paul says something astonishing – that he could understand all mysteries and have all knowledge…but if I have not love, I am nothing. In other words, we could get our doctrine just right, but if other people experience from us a cold heart, a self-righteousness, a continual condemnation – then our right doctrine will do neither us nor them any good but only harm.
This is important in our worship: we could get our church building beautiful, our liturgy just right, our music technically just right, just the right words in our sermon – but if it is done without love, it all comes crashing down around us. In fact it would be better if people didn’t come into such a church because these very things that should be leading to the conversion of hearts becomes cold, something filled with pride and vanity – something abhorrent to any soul that is earnestly searching for God. Tragically, they might even conclude the Christian faith is not what will save them.
It is the same in the moral life – we could get everything right outwardly, but it would not be an example to others, in fact off putting, if inwardly we are full of self righteousness, of pride, of condemnation of others. (Jesus saved his strongest condemnation for the Pharisees, whom he called “white-washed tombs full of dead men’s bones.”)
But, if people sense a loving heart, and that a person has a certain reserve and care before speaking, they will move towards that person to hear more – it is a pleasure to be with such a person.
How will we get a more loving and wise heart?
The Greeks and, since then, the Church has understood and taught that we are changed or we grow in virtue, love being the primary virtue, not foremost by knowledge itself, but primarily by example and by practicing love. (This is not to say that knowledge of the Good is not key, but that it is of no value unless we act upon that knowledge, that we will it.)
Two things strike us as we prepare to begin Lent on Wednesday.
First, we go up to Jerusalem to watch the ultimate example on earth – Jesus Christ to see his witness and be moved by His greatest act of love for us in His passion and death on the Cross.
In today’s Gospel (St Luke 18:31-43) Jesus says to his disciples and to us:
Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.”
It then says not once, but three times, that the disciples did not know what Jesus meant. We know the facts already – but we are not always moved to act upon those facts. We are blind as they are to the full implications.
Right after Jesus tells the disciples what will happen to him, a blind man desired to draw near to Jesus. He cries out for mercy and the response of the disciples, Jesus’ followers, is to rebuke him, telling him to be silent. Imagine, the great apostles, rather than bringing the blind man to Jesus, tell him to stop wining for the great master who has more important things to do. For three years they had followed Jesus, they ate and drank with him, they listened to his words in private, they saw the miracles, and yet their hearts were still far from Him. And this is surely the case with each of us sometimes in our daily lives, in our encounters with one another and with strangers – we can sometimes even become obstacles between other people and God, rather than instruments to draw the two together. And when this is the case, our pilgrimage with Jesus, our journey of faith has become loveless and so in vain.
So we will keep our eyes on Jesus, on his example, and have our hearts broken and moved once again or more deeply by His love.
Second, we enter into a Lenten fast. This is another way we can do something, and in that doing we are changed.
On Wednesday of this week, the Church proclaims, as it has from earliest of times, a forty day fast. We do this not to save ourselves, our salvation in Christ is through faith alone, but because we know ourselves to be somewhat blind to God and his ways (now I see in part), and because we see ourselves as sometimes cold hearted and yet we desire the renewal, the deepening of love in our hearts. We want to see the return of Spring in our hearts.
How do we do a fast? We give up something we love on earth that is not God or our neighbour – and we redirect that same love to God and our neighbour – that same love of an earthly thing, unsatisfied, becomes the wings of our desire stretching out to God and those around us.
It could be giving up some kind of food, or to eat less each day (skipping a meal), or eat plainer food. It could be watching less television or limiting internet use, a kind of fasting of the mind from the myriad of images and ideas that we overstuff it with. It can be a combination of things. If we take a moment to pause, we might also think of something in our life that is out of order – that can be something to attend to this Lent.
Everyone can fast… Medical reasons are not a reason not to fast, it may be a reason to change the nature of your fast – not necessarily less calories but how we receive the calories we receive. (Would any medical doctor condemn giving up desserts?)
We fast outwardly, so that we might feast inwardly, spiritually. And that spiritual feasting could include time to read the Bible, if we’re not doing that now; attending to a time of quiet for prayer and reflection; perhaps joining our weekly Bible study on Lectio Divina. It could be contributing a little more to some charity or giving time in some way to the well-being of others. Perhaps some combination of these: fasting – prayer – almsgiving. These are the main ways suggested by the Church to observe a Lenten fast.
This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, a day the Church has suggested can be a day of solemn fasting (no food, only drink, unless you have medical reasons) and prayer as we begin Lent. Again, what is key in any spiritual discipline – whether fasting or any particular kind of prayer, or in the expression of generosity – is that it is motivated by love of God and love of our neighbour.
In the Gospel today the blind man cries out to Jesus because he has faith that Jesus can help him, because he has a holy hope that his current limitations can be overcome by Jesus, and he has certainty that the person he is petitioning will look upon him with mercy, with love. Faith, hope and love abide in him – and Jesus does not disappoint him. If we have faith, hope and love, Jesus will bring about the opening of our eyes and a change in our hearts.
St Paul tells us what perfect charity or love looks like in his most well read passage on love from today’s Epistle. When we hear it, we know it is true…
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
God grant that when Lent is over and we celebrate the great Feast of the Resurrection, our hearts might know greater joy and be more filled with His love for our neighbour.
O LORD, who has taught us that all our doings without charity are worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever lives is counted dead before you: Grant this for your only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.