Sermon for Healing Vespers at St Marylebone on Sunday 3rd April at 6 pm
Eve of the Annunciation
My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
In the course of twenty years of preparing candidates for baptism and confirmation, I think I have discovered the doctrine that is the hardest one for people to believe. It isn’t the existence of God; it isn’t the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth; it isn’t the resurrection from the dead, or any other clause of the Nicene Creed. The hardest doctrine to believe is this: you and I are loved by God.
We may glibly say that we believe this. We may quote the scriptures confidently.
The First Letter of John, read at the beginning of every wedding, says God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
The most famous verse of John’s Gospel says God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.
I Corinthians 13, probably the most quoted passage in the New Testament, concludes with the words, And faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
We know the theory. But the practice is rather different. Again and again I have sat with people so filled with sadness, regret and despair that they cannot begin to see themselves as beloved children of God. Human love has failed them, and they cannot imagine that they are loveworthy. It is hard to argue about this. There is no proof that we are worthwhile in the eyes of God. It isn’t a rational conclusion.
It is what the Christian faith calls a revealed truth. We only know it because God has shown it to us. The way God shows us that we are loved is through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Christ, we are brought into the family who call God Abba, as a child addresses a parent. He taught us to do this when he told his disciples how to pray to Our Father. He revealed God’s love for us when he went to his death as an innocent victim and returned from the dead with forgiveness and peace for his betrayers.
Until Jesus showed us that we are loved, the natural tendency of human beings was to placate the gods, or the elemental spirits as Paul calls them in his letter to the Galatians. We have probably all felt the temptation to touch wood or cross our fingers or follow some other superstition to ward off bad luck when speaking of a future event that we either long for or fear. If we do manage to rise above that primitive response, we may still believe deep down that we reap what we sow, that we get what we deserve, and therefore we’d better do something to earn the favour of the powers that be and avoid offending them.
In everyday life, of course, these rules are meant to apply. The government is always reminding us of the different outcomes that should result for hard-working families and so-called benefit scroungers. But even the most powerful government cannot control the facts of life, giving health and happiness to the deserving and keeping illness and misery for those who have failed to do the right thing. And no amount of placating the elemental spirits will do anything to alter this.
So we have to look elsewhere for the truth about our lives. On this eve of the celebration of the Annunciation, transferred from Good Friday to tomorrow, we recall that when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.
Every day at St Mary the Virgin, Primrose Hill we ring the bell for the Angelus, the prayer that reminds us of the angel’s message to Mary that she was to bear his Son to redeem us from slavery to law. We need to hear this message every day in order to get into the habit of believing it. It goes against everything in our nature to accept a totally free and undeserved gift, without looking for the catch.
It is our nature to live under the law, to accept the difference between the deserving and the undeserving, to look for a fair division of rewards and punishments. But God breaks apart this human way of looking at things. Instead, God enters our world as one of us, undergoing the unfairness and suffering that life entails, in order to reveal to us something that we could never have concluded by examining the facts. And that revelation is this: you and I are loved by God. We are children in a family, loved not for what we do but simply because God is our Father. The ultimate truth of our existence is not about what we pay for but what we are given.
If we practise believing this, if we act as though it’s true, we’ll be astonished at the results. We can drop all the worry and stress about being good enough to be acceptable. We will understand that we cannot manipulate God to do what we want. We will be liberated to live the resurrection life with Christ, rejoicing in the fullness of life whatever our outward circumstances may be.
The health of our mind, body and spirit is rooted in God’s love for us. No instant cures for our troubles are promised. We have no guarantee against grief, loss, illness and depression. But when we dare to believe that you and I are really loved, we allow the work of healing to begin. The Holy Spirit is at work in us, drawing us all into the heart of God where Jesus rests in the Father’s love.