s106e00 Somerton Park Third Sunday of Easter 7/5/2000
"Do not love the world or the things in the world ... the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches" 1 John 2:15,16
We need to be careful in interpreting this passage of scripture for we are told, by Jesus (or John - it is a little uncertain) that "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son" (John 3:16). So if God loves the world, we are bidden to do likewise.
But care in the interpretation of this passage should not make us timid. Clearly there are two forms of loving going on here - the sort of love that humanity exhibits and that which God shows.
It is plain that the sort of love that humanity exhibits is an acquisitive love. We want things as possessions, we want things for ourselves. St John tells us succinctly that the things of this world are: "the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches." And it doesn't matter what things we might wish to acquire. It may be material things, like money or goods. But we might also wish to acquire other people as pawns for political status or spiritual authority. We can wish to acquire God as a useful ally in a tight situation.
And many of the sayings of Jesus about relationships touch on precisely this. So Jesus tells us "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26). So often we can view those around us as our own possessions. How often do I say "my wife, Catherine .." or "our boys, Philip and Timothy ..." But I do not own them - they are each individuals in their own rights. I suspect that the saying "everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:28) is based around the common conception that women were the possessions of men.
God, on the other hand is not acquisitive. God loves, not wanting us for him (or her) self, but by doing the opposite of acquisitiveness, by giving of the divine - by giving Jesus to us and to all and for us and for all.
So God is not the eternal scrooge in heaven, counting up the followers and rejoicing if the numbers are up or angry if the numbers have fallen. God is not like humanity, for ever wanting more.
A similar tension we see between "Do not love the world or the things in the world" and "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son" is reflected between other passages in the Bible.
So in Exodus (20:5) we are told "I the LORD your God am a jealous God" but St Paul tells us in 1 Cor (13.4): "love is not envious" so God cannot be jealous.
Indeed St Paul tells us love "does not insist on its own way", so neither can God. (1 Cor 13:5). This is quite a remarkable statement, when we really consider it seriously. How often do we look to the Bible to give us directions in life - and it is indeed good to do so - yet neglecting the fact that God does not insist we do everything God's way. It is good that we do consult other people as we live our lives - particularly as we think about major decisions. The wisdom of the Bible is an excellent resource, along with the teachings of the Church and the wisdom of people around us we trust. Sometimes the decisions we make after due consideration may be contrary to scriptural teaching, but these words tell us God will respect our decisions none - the - less.
Richard P McBrien in his opus "Catholicism" states: "This ... was also reflected in mediaeval theology's remarkably provident teaching on the inviolability of conscience, even when it is in opposition to ecclesiastical law." (Vol 1 p148) and quotes the Second Vatican Council's "Declaration on Religious Freedom" (which) "declares that we are bound to follow our conscience faithfully in all our activity, and that no one is "to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience, especially in matters religious"" (Vol 2 p1003).
Now it follows that God cannot regard us as possessions, nor can God want us to put ourselves in the position of possessions. We are meant to be free agents. We are meant to use our intellect to determine our paths in life. In the end it does not matter a scrap to God if we are the most highly skilled and paid computer expert or an unemployed person. Everyone has an opportunity to love those around them and share with others the blessings God has given each of us.
On the other hand, that which is not of God - however that which is not of God is pictured - personified in "Satan" or "the devil" or whatever - does seek to possess us. Indeed of course we still say in common speech, someone "is possessed" - meaning that they are not in control of their own lives through mental illness or whatever. We are not meant to be God's automatons - where God clicks the divine fingers and we jump.
God gives us guidelines, true enough, but by far the bulk of those guidelines deal with how we are to live with other people. Little or none of the Bible is about what we have to do to be acceptable to God.
It is important that we recognise that God does not love us more, the more we put ourselves in God's service, for we can cultivate a relationship with God for a multiplicity of purposes. The reality is that humanity as we are, still loves acquisitively, so we can follow God to suit our own purposes, and generally these centre around getting our own way. And we hope to get our own way, so that others don't get theirs. Idolatry is alive and well.
"Following" Jesus means following him to where he visited ... and that is always towards others, and in blessing not in criticism.
God is the pauper par excellence, for God considers no one his (or her) own.
So we do God no favours by trying to get others committed to God. We do ourselves a favour by trying to get on with those around us.
Indeed we do God a great disservice by ascribing to God human acquisitiveness, particularly in the light of the Cross and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We make our faith into just another club, desperately looking for new members.
And God doesn't do things in this world, either now or in the time of Jesus, to get people to believe. God acts graciously because that is God's nature.
We often think that God is hiding - the Psalms picture God as asleep - else otherwise why would not God act for the chosen people? It is, I am sure that so often, we want God to act for us against others. So the Bible tells us one day when "Joshua was by Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went to him and said to him, "Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?" He replied, "Neither; but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come." (Joshua 5:13-14).
Indeed of course real love for others means loving them for themselves rather than how we might benefit from their friendship. Real love for others means giving others space to accept or reject our friendship. I am told that the philosopher Kahlil Gibran said: "Let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you" (Gibran, 1971 p15). This is the sort of God I worship.
Links to other sites on the Web:
About the author and links.
To a Lectionary Index of Archived Sermons.
To a Scriptural Index of Archived Sermons.
Back to a sermon for next Sunday.