Toorak Uniting Church

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Love’s Essence

Easter Sunday
Luke 24: 1 – 12
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
31 March 2013

 Rembrandt - 'The return of the prodigal son'

I’ve take the title of my sermon this morning from the last lines of C Day-Lewis’ poem, "On Not Saying Everything." Cecil Day-Lewis was poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1968 until his death in 1972. But today he is probably better known as the father of the award-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis. I read his poem again this week and I heard in it something that resonated with today…Easter Day, the Day of the Resurrection of Jesus. The poem ends with these rather enigmatic words, "Love’s essence, like a poem’s, shall spring / from the not saying everything." I have pondered those words for the last few days. "Love’s essence….springs from not saying everything."

I suppose for most of the history of Christian faith, the answers to every religious question have tumbled from the top down. When it comes to this celebration of new life and the raising of Jesus from the dead, there has been explanation upon explanation as to how this "non-natural" event could have occurred. But as for most religious dogma, the explanation only holds if a person gives over their spiritual authority to someone else, to a religious hierarchy, and does not really think about the explanation or seek an experience of it.

That has been so in the past. But now, in this generation, we can see that we need to question traditional interpretations and indeed today the questions are as important as the answers. And to some questions there are no simple answers and so we hold the questions and allow them to do their work in us.

Rainer Maria Rilke, in his Letters to a Young Poet, picked this up well when he wrote:

I beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, some day far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Not Knowing Everything
As bold as we may be on Easter morning and declare with conviction that Jesus has risen, we know that there is more to this story than the simple narrative we find in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke. So let us also be bold and say that we do not know everything and that even this story, central to Christian identity, is bigger than these few verses at the end of Luke’s story. And thank God for that! The story of Jesus alive in the midst of his followers in the 1st Century remains pivotal to the life of the Christian community in the 21st Century. But friends, it can never be fully dependent on just an historical narrative because the impact of the resurrection of Jesus must be experienced within our own lives or else it will be abandoned to the mists of time.

The truth as I see it is that this story holds the powerful and life-changing idea that while fear and hate crushed the body of Jesus, the essence of love lived on beyond his mortal life, and found its home in those who embraced Jesus and his message of radical love. The American writer and poet Maya Angelou (a favourite of Oprah Winfrey’s) suggests this when she writes about the rise from slavery to freedom:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust,
I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise. (abridged)

From Believing to Faithful Living
Much of my theology is done on the run before Sunday's preaching. In fact, I have never had much time for systematic theology. I prefer unsystematic theology. Something that is pragmatic and responsive to both Spirit and human experience. So I can at times tend toward aphorisms. Such as, "Don't tell me you believe in the resurrection; tell me, are you living a resurrected life?" Or perhaps, "The resurrection is best understood as the Spirit of Jesus let loose in the world; no longer limited to one time or one place."

So I think that if we had a picture of Jesus as he rose to new life, it would not be a photograph or realist painting, it would be in the art form of impressionism or expressionism. I suggest that the resurrection of Jesus is best displayed by, say, Vincent Van Gogh's Starry, Starry Night. That’s because the original witnesses and authors of the gospels were gripped more by a feeling, a sensation or an emotion; rather than just by an historical person, a moral code or even an inspirational teacher. It wasn’t for those first followers a matter of just believing in Jesus; it was more that they had somehow or other touched God and been touched by God, through this human being. Jesus became a stream, a river of life between them and the Divine, the sacred.

Is that possible today without ever meeting Jesus in the flesh? Well, I suppose that's why the Apostle Paul is such a compelling witness in the New Testament. He never met Jesus in person; he met the living Spirit of Jesus after Jesus’ death and found in this spiritual encounter a power beyond his imaginings; and the power he discovered, experienced and encountered was the power of love.

I hope there is no doubt in the minds of any gathered here today that Christ’s central message was that love is both the question and the answer. Has the church lived that through the last two thousand years? Certainly not! The church has been an abysmal failure at living its central message and its reason for being. Of course there have been bright flashes of love’s essence expressed in the lives of those who are followers of Jesus, but honesty demands that we confess that we have not risen to the place of love to which Jesus has called us.

Paul Tillich, the great German/American theologian of the 20th Century, recognized that we are called to be raised to love. He wrote in his book The New Being:

"Those who abide [remain] in love abide in God, and God abides in them." God’s abiding in us, making us His dwelling place, is the same thing as our abiding in love, as our having love as the sphere of our habitation. God and love are not two realities; they are one. God’s Being is the being of love and God’s infinite power of Being is the infinite power of love…. The only ultimate criterion is love.

Love is God shown in our Lives
I will conclude with this story that Paul Tillich shares in the book I mentioned before, The New Being:

Elsa Brandström was the daughter of a former Swedish ambassador to Russia. But her name in the mouths and hearts of hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war during the First World War was the Angel of Siberia. She was an irrefutable, living witness to the truth that love is the ultimate power of Being, even in a century which belongs to the darkest, most destructive and cruel of all centuries since the dawn of mankind.

At the beginning of the First World War, when Elsa Brandström was twenty-four years old, she looked out of the window of the Swedish Embassy in what was then St. Petersburg and saw the German prisoners of war being driven through the streets on their way to Siberia. From that moment on she could no longer endure the splendour of the diplomatic life of which, up to then, she had been a beautiful and vigorous centre. She became a nurse and began visiting the prison camps. There she saw unspeakable horrors and she, a girl of twenty-four, began, almost alone, the fight of love against cruelty, and she prevailed. She had to fight against the resistance and suspicion of the authorities and she prevailed. She had to fight against the brutality and lawlessness of the prison guards and she prevailed. She had to fight against cold, hunger, dirt and illness, against the conditions of an undeveloped country and a destructive war, and she prevailed. Love gave her wisdom with innocence, and daring with foresight. And whenever she appeared, despair was conquered and sorrow healed. She visited the hungry and gave them food. She saw the thirsty and gave them to drink. She welcomed the strangers, clothed the naked and strengthened the sick. She herself fell ill and was imprisoned, but God was abiding in her. The irresistible power of love was with her.

And she never ceased to be driven by this power. After the war she initiated a great work for the orphans of German and Russian prisoners of war. The sight of her among these children, whose sole ever-shining sun she was, must have been a decisive religious impression for many people. With the coming of the Nazis, she and her husband were forced to leave Germany and come to this country [America]. Here she became the helper of innumerable European refugees, and for ten years I was able personally to observe the creative genius of her love. We never had a theological conversation. It was unnecessary. She made God transparent in every moment. For God, who is love, was abiding in her and she in Him. She aroused the love of millions towards herself and towards that for which she was transparent— the God who is love. On her deathbed she received a delegate from the king and people of Sweden, representing innumerable people all over Europe, assuring her that she would never be forgotten by those to whom she had given back the meaning of their lives.

It is a rare gift to meet a human being in whom love—and this means God—is so overwhelmingly manifest. It undercuts theological arrogance as well as pious isolation. It is more than justice and it is greater than faith and hope. It is the presence of God’s self. For God is love. And in every moment of genuine love we are dwelling in God and God in us.

God and love are not two realities. Love is God shown in our lives. To be raised to God is to be raised to Love’s essence!


© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2013

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