Sunday August 28th. 2011
Romans 12:9-end/Matthew 16:21-end
Rev’d Mark Wakefield
Let Love be Genuine
For good reason we have heard rather a lot about gangs just recently in the wake of the riots. Of course anyone who has spoken to members of our youth team will have known for some time that even here in Primrose Hill we have gang culture on our doorstep. Even so, it still came as a shock when rioting broke out so close to home. Just this last week we have been reminded of a particularly awful gang-related crime. Learco Chindamo, the then 15 year old who murdered headmaster Philip Lawrence outside his school in Maida Vale in 1995, hit the headlines a few days ago for at last admitting to the killing and expressing some remorse for it. We can but hope that this has brought some relief to Frances, Mr Lawrence’s widow.
You may recall that Mrs Lawrence famously forgave Chindamo at the time of the killing. More than that she went on to set up the Philip Lawrence Foundation with the expressed intention of helping young men like Chindamo who came from disadvantaged backgrounds. When I set out to include this story in this week’s sermon I thought I would have a heartwarming story of Christian forgiveness to share with you. In reality the path of forgiveness has proved a hard and stony one for the still grieving Mrs Lawrence. Sixteen years on she feels that her efforts have been thwarted by what she regards as an insensitive legal system and the workings of the Human Rights Act and she is, at times, pretty angry and despairing about it. As she put it candidly in an interview a few years ago “I think I have always forgiven Chindamo – it is the dealing with it that is difficult”.
There is something heroic about this, the way in which Mrs Lawrence has tried to be true to her faith while never flinching from being completely honest about just how hard it all is. It is a painful example of the genuineness of love of which Paul speaks in today’s reading from Romans – don’t repay evil for evil, don’t seek vengeance.
We talk an awful lot about love in the Christian faith and it is – or should be – its defining characteristic. To quote the 1st letter of John “God is love and those who love live in God and God lives in them”. But Mrs Lawrence’s story prompts the question of how far we really engage with what love means. And one suspects that if we did more to do so we might speak with more authority than we often do. To practice love that is genuine is, clearly, very hard indeed and yet so often we give the impression that Christianity is about a rather fey, soft-centred, sentimental kind of love – “let’s just be nice to one another”. Well, I am sure we are all for being nice to one another but the question is the extent to which our niceness can stand real testing. As Paul says in that famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13 “love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things”. What kind of love is it that we have in our hearts – that kind or the pale imitation?
The really hard thing about genuine love is that it expects nothing in return. What was so remarkable about Mrs Lawrence – and other mothers since in similarly dreadful circumstances – is that she simply forgave Chindamo. What she did was not conditional upon his repentance. And yet, as her public utterances have made so painfully clear, it is very hard not to get anything in return for such generosity. As she puts it:
“I must value the person that is Chindamo the same way he must value me. When we lose that connection with one another dreadful things happen”.
Hard as it is to imitate Christ in this way it is vital to understand that God’s forgiveness always precedes our contrition. It is entirely gratuitous. It is critical that we understand this because we somehow have it in our heads that God’s love is dependent upon our being good or saying sorry. You hear people outside the church say things like they aren’t good enough to go to come in. And even amongst believers there is often an implicit assumption that if you’re not good enough you won’t go to heaven. And yet, the bible clearly tells us that genuine love works in exactly the opposite way to this. In today’s reading from Romans Paul tells us to bless those who persecute you; to not repay evil for evil; and to feed your enemies if they are hungry. Please note, it’s not a question of feeding your enemies if they say sorry for whatever it is they have done to you. It’s a matter of simply feeding them.
And of course, this experience of gratuitous love is precisely what Paul himself had experienced. When he had his vision of the risen Christ on the Damascus Road Jesus did NOT say “if you say sorry to me for persecuting me and mine I will forgive you”. Instead, Jesus asked him a simple, puzzled question: “Saul, why are you persecuting me”? It wasn’t the threat of damnation or a demand for contrition that caused Paul to turn his life around. It was Christ’s offering of himself to Paul that enabled him to see that he was on the wrong path. You see the same kind of love operating in the healings. Look across the New Testament and you will see that Jesus simply heals people in need. It is not conditional upon contrition although that often follows.
As any parent knows, the trouble with making forgiveness dependent on contrition is that it encourages a going through the motions, a saying sorry through gritted teeth, an abasement of the child in the face of parental authority. In other words, it does not encourage or help a true change of heart. And a change of heart – a real, profound, life-changing, life-enhancing, change of heart is what God wants for each and every one of us.
Because God is genuine love his only means of effecting change in us is to simply and patiently offer love and forgiveness long before we have seen the need for either. Ours is a God who proceeds by love, by patience, by gentle persuasion, not force or threats or bullying. It is the unconditional offer of love and forgiveness that enables us to recognise our need of God, not threats of force.
You see this at its clearest in the gospel story leading up to the crucifixion. Everyone, even his closest followers it seems, thought Jesus was going to lead the Jews in an insurrection of some kind. In other words, that he would succeed by force, just like everyone else did. But in everything he said and did he eschewed the way of the world. The only way he knew how to do this was to submit to the most brutal force imaginable and show that it was ultimately powerless when confronted with genuine love – “father forgive them, they know not what they do”.
That’s why Jesus rebukes Peter in today’s gospel. Peter’s thinking in the old way, the way of the world and as ever getting hold of the wrong end of the stick, whereas in his midst something new and wonderful is dawning.
It’s this patient love that bears all and endures all, that has no truck with vengeance or force, that suffers endless rejection if necessary and yet still stands firm that we are asked to imitate. And when men and women do imitate it, even ever so imperfectly, the effects are profound. Some of you may have heard a Thought for the Day this last week by John Bell of the Iona Community. In it he spoke of meeting Allan Boesak, the S. African cleric and academic who suffered grievously under apartheid. He asked Allan Boesak how it was that S. Africa had made the transition to a multiracial democracy in spite of its bitter past. In answer Boesak said that there were a number of reasons and that chief among them was the fact that black S. Africans are in the main people of faith and this was for them the moment when they were given the opportunity to prove that reconciliation was more godly than revenge.
Now clearly South Africa is far from perfect – particularly for black South Africans – but even so what has happened there is nothing short of a miracle. It’s the kind of miracle that happens when genuine love is practiced. So how can we show this kind of love, because it’s on the genuineness of their love that Christians will rightly be judged? It goes without saying that it will be difficult as the stories of Mrs Lawrence and South Africa show but for starters we should dispense with the idea that we can or should do anything to earn or deserve God’s love and forgiveness. That is nothing short of a distortion of our faith.
The true goal of our spiritual life is to develop the awareness of God’s entirely beneficent presence in our lives and our total dependence upon him. For we can be sure that as we do so we will recognise our true need of him and that in so doing our hearts will be broken not for the sake of making us feel miserable or guilty or of us bending the knee to some angry or vengeful God but for the sake of setting us on the right path, the path that leads to abundance of life and the exercise of genuine love. Blessed indeed are they that know their need of God.