Sermon Delivered by the Most Reverend Allan H. Johnston, 29 June 1980, Synod Eucharist
I wonder what you expect of me this morning after some 45 years of ordained ministry. It might be tempting to lay down elaborate or authoritative lines of future possibilities for the Church--to assume that the increase of years brings an increase of wisdom!
But if you come with that expectation, I am sorry that you may be disappointed. Again, I would like to share with you some of the privileges allowed me over the years, particularly those opportunities of ministering to men and women, boys and girls, in all sorts of circumstances. I cannot be thankful enough for all such sharing of those deeper concerns in which a priest or bishop is allowed to minister--to be a shepherd or guardian.
But in all of this I have been only a very unworthy instrument--and should any help have been given, that has not been from me--but from him whose commission was given me.
So I turn to what the Church herself sets before us this day--and thus to find what I hold to be the secret of all joy and all-purpose and meaning.
Matthew 16: "Whom say ye that I am?" "The Messiah": at once the word of recognition and yet of tragic misunderstanding. There was a tradition of the Messiah's coming which would by the exercise of worldly power command the obedience and the loyalty of followers. But the keys of the Kingdom were not to be found there.
When Jesus makes clear his vocation--the vocation of suffering love--the response is far different. Peter called the Rock, for his recognition of Jesus as the Messiah of God--is now as Satan so far as the Kingdom is concerned. For he had as yet to learn what taking up the cross should mean--for him as for others.
But there came a day when Peter could meet the ultimate question: "Lovest thou me?"--not once--but a terrifying three times--which means, I imagine, a continuing meeting with the crucified and risen Lord of Life and of Love--at this point of no return.
And the commission is given in answer to the response of willing love--"Feed my sheep" the pastoral invitation to share in the divine mission towards the people of God. This is bound up with the prophecy of that reward of a death in which by a simple obedience he would share with his Lord in glorifying the God who called him. Scripture speaks of the Redeemer as emptying himself. Christology speaks of his coming as the divine self-emptying Kenosis- the perfect picture of God. The poverty and humility of his earthly life points to that quality of love in the very heart of God.
In a rather off-hand way we sometimes speak of a labour of love. In the strictest sense such a labour is truly seen only when we are profoundly aware that our redemption--our identity if you like--has been achieved at the cost of a labour in which are disclosed all the limitlessness, the vulnerability and the precariousness of ultimate love.
This love of God--seen not only in the work of redemption but with whole of that activity of God--the ground and origin of all that is.
Within the creation itself, we find the beauty of God totally expended--in a work of love--without residue--without reserve--expended in endless and precarious endeavour of which the result--as triumph or as tragedy--depends upon the response, which his love receives. That response will not destroy or diminish his love. But it will mark it as triumphant or tragic love. Hence the responsibility of our stewardship.
Redemption--the loving action of God in Christ--is a part of creation. It is the task of winning back--which is always present in the risk of creation. And the Word of God by whom the heavens were made is that same Word of God who suffered to redeem our loss. We may say that Christ the Incarnate Word discloses to us at the climax of his life what word it was that God spoke when he commanded and they were created. It was no idle or light word. But the word of love--in which for the sake of another--all is expended, all jeopardized, all surrendered. The Cross of Christ discloses to us the poignancy of the creation itself, the tragic possibility that when all is given in love, all may be given in vain.
The Word of God dwelt among us, full of grace and truth! In him the truth of God if disclosed with graciousness. He discloses to us--on Good Friday and Easter Day--both the tragic and the triumphant possibilities of the love of God. But the disclosure is made graciously--Easter comes after Good Friday--tragedy is swallowed up in triumph--and mankind, having seen the tragic possibility, is called away to devote his faith, hope and service to the possibility of love's triumph.
The Word of God discloses to us at Christmas the helplessness of love at the hands of its own creation--the fact that it is in their hands--vulnerable to their hands--dependent upon their hands for its own triumphant or tragic issue. But this is made known graciously in the form of a child. The helplessness of a child is a manageable helplessness--about which we may know what we may do--by which our heart and our will are touched. It is not a harrowing helplessness--and yet it could be. Bonhoeffer wrote of a God 'poor and scorned, without shelter or bread, whelmed under weight of the wicked--the weak--the dead.'
The limitlessness--the vulnerability--the precariousness of love. You see, crucifixion is about daring to let go. It is about daring to let go of self-sufficiency and independence--daring to love, daring to accept the consequences. It is an awesome and frightening experience. Little wonder that we search for some other way--an alternative path--less vulnerable--more secure--a way, which will leave us admired but not exposed. We may long to communicate--but are terrified of lowering the defences.
But strong defences not only keep unwelcome intruders at a safe distance--they tend also to imprison those who have sought sanctuary within. Yes, it is comforting to be beholden to no one--but it can be frightfully lonely. We are not anxious for others to have claims on us--neither do we wish them to find out too much about us. But we do want relationships--we want to love and to be loved--in all the wide range of relationships, which that small word implies. But to love is to become vulnerable. It means leaving the safety and the isolation of the barricade--taking a step towards other people. Then you become a sitting target. Those who love only a little can usually be hurt only a little. But those who love greatly--warm and open in their dealings--who do not fear what people think--generous in their judgments and in their deeds--who accept others for what they are--these live in peril. Love begets love--but sometimes rejection.
The shock of rejection and the absence of love--that's crucifixion.
God dared to let go of his divine self-sufficiency, when in love he formed the creation. Christ dared to let go of the divine glory of the Father's immediate presence, when in love he was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary. And the life of Jesus was spent in a continuous attitude of openness--acceptance and compassion which was love incarnate. All other ways deliberately set aside. Steadfastly he sat his face towards Jerusalem. Love was denied--love was betrayed--love was crucified. And love was undefeated.
Fronts and barriers lead to petty, impoverished little lives. Love--friendship, companionship and service lead to enriching relationships--beyond measure without price. Rejection--misunderstanding--abuse--exploitation--ingratitude should be met with courage and meekness and forgiveness. Not once only, but over and over again. For the acceptance of crucifixion is the door to resurrection.
Yes, God is love. If the universe is his creation then for the sake of the universe God is totally expended in precarious endeavour--of which the issue--as triumph or as tragedy--has passes from his hands. For that issue--as triumphant or tragic--God waits upon the response of his creation. Having given all, he waits as does the artist or the lover.
When the issue is tragedy--there remains only the unbelievable power of art or love to discover within itself the power which not there before--of further endeavour--to win back and redeem what was going astray.
When the issue is triumph--there remains only the will of God to surrender triumphant self-sufficiency in yet larger, more distant and more generous endeavour. Always--for the richness of the creation--God is made poor. And for the fullness, God is made empty.
Always his helplessness waits upon the response of the creation. To anyone who does not understand this--or cannot accept this--'You have not weighted the cost of love--the cost of creation.'
But be prepared for your love to be put on a cross--and you will find there is more love in the world than you had ever dreamed.
Love that gives, gives ever more
Gives with zeal, with eager hands.
Spares not, keeps not, all outpours,
Ventures all, its all expends.
Drained is love in making full,
Bound in setting others free.
Poor in making many rich
Weak in giving power to be.
Therefore He who thus reveals
Hangs, O Father, on that tree.
Helpless, and the nails and thorns
Tell of what thy love must be.
Thou art God, no monarch thou
Throned in easy state to reign;
Thou art God, whose arms of love
Aching, spent, the world sustain.