A Sermon Preached by Reverend Aaron Kennedy
1 Corinthians 13
1 Corinthians 13; John 15:1-8
Grace and I have been together for about 10 years now,
and we have enjoyed our fair share of romance.
It is a wonderful gift that I am deeply grateful for.
However, not once in those ten year have we ever celebrated Valentine’s day.
We agreed early on that it just wasn’t for us,
feeling that it had become just another commercial opportunity
just another ploy to get us to spend our hard-earned pennies
on overpriced roses, boxes of chocolates and meals out.
We also feel that Valentine’s day, as we know it, trivialises love
reducing it to warm fuzzy feelings
which anyone knows come and go like the weather.
Why wait, anyway, until the 14th February,
to tell your beloved what they mean to you?
When any day of the year will do.
Something else we are agreed on
is that the joy of connection, the union between two people,
and the bonds of care and affection in a relationship,
which Valentine’s day seems to promise for so many people,
is not achieved by one day of ostentatious gifts a year,
– no matter how expensive the gifts –
but by active, persistent, daily,
and largely unromantic acts of love.
I wonder what your feelings about Valentine’s day are.
Maybe it’s unproblematic for you, not a big deal.
You’ve found your anam cara, your soul friend,
and you feel complete.
Or perhaps the fires of your love do not burn as hot as they used to,
and it’s a source of discomfort.
Maybe you find yourself feeling left entirely out on Valentine’s day,
excluded from an experience you long for?
That you’ve yet to meet the person of your dreams,
that you are somehow incomplete.
Or maybe you are completely indifferent about the whole thing.
There will be a whole range of experiences here this morning/evening,
All are valid and important.
And even if you can’t relate to any of this,
it is likely that Coronavirus has separated you from some of those you love;
perhaps for long periods of time,
perhaps at a crucial moment – such as at the time of death,
or the birth of a child.
No, the story we tell ourselves about romantic love
through the cultural tradition of Valentine’s day,
especially in the light of the global pandemic,
is not one we can – or should, as Christians, blithely repeat.
We must find a way to put Valentine’s day,
whatever feelings we have about it,
into the bigger context of God’s all-encompassing love.
We must look beyond the merely erotic dimension
to what we might call the eros dimension of love,
a broader category of love
defined by the reaching outside oneself toward another,
to express care, compassion, connection.
St Valentine himself is a somewhat obscure figure,
but tradition remembers him as a bishop,
who lived, not far from Rome, in central Italy
in the 3rd century.
This was before Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire,
and Christians were still being persecuted.
Bishop Valentine – whose name means worthy and strong,
was famous for helping such people whenever he could,
despite the punishment of death that was payable for such crimes.
One of the services he rendered
was to perform the nuptial rites for Christian couples,
which is partly why he originally became associated with romantic love.
Eventually he was put in prison for his offences,
but while there he talked to his jailor about Jesus.
The man put him to the test,
and said that if through his prayers
he was able to heal the blindness of his stepdaughter,
he would believe in this Jesus.
The girl was healed, the jailor and his whole household were baptised,
and Bishop Valentine was released.
He was however eventually brought before the Emperor Claudius himself
who commanded him to renounce his faith in Jesus or face death.
Valentine, true to his name, would not renounce his faith,
and was beaten with clubs and beheaded.
This is not the impulsive love of overpriced roses, heart shaped cards,
and expensive meals out,
exclusive to those in a romantic relationship,
and with sufficient money to spend.
No, this is a very practical, indeed sacrificial form of love,
a love which everyone here can put into practice,
and from which no-one is excluded.
It is a love St Paul describes in some detail
in the famous, and very beautiful passage of 1 Corinthians chapter 13.
This love is patient, kind, not envious, boastful or rude.
It doesn’t insist on its own way, is not irritable or resentful,
does not rejoice in wrongdoing but in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Without this love we are just what Valentine’s day – at its worst – is reduced to:
mere frippery and superficiality.
Or as St Paul says, a resounding gong or a clanging symbol
– a big bright, distracting noise, to be sure
but without any lasting music or rhythm or substance
to feed the soul.
Romantic love is often looked upon by those from the outside
as being the real love. The essential love.
And we can allow ourselves to feel despondent and hopeless
if that has not been our experience.
But St Paul makes clear that for any kind of love to be genuine at all,
it must be grounded in the more universal kind of love.
The kind that all Christians are called to.
The kind that animated St Valentine.
We do not fall into it,
we practice it, daily.
And Paul is insistent on this.
It doesn’t matter what you can do or what you have.
Whether that’s romantic love,
or the gift of prophecy, or of wisdom,
the faith to move mountains,
the willingness to give all one’s possessions to the poor,
to suffer physical hardship.
Without the universally available outreaching eros form of love,
and it’s practical, every day, building of relationships of care,
we gain nothing, he says.
Our gospel reading uses a different language for this,
and brings the whole issue into even clearer focus.
This is another famous passage from the bible,
where Jesus describes our relationship with himself, as God,
using the analogy of a vine and its branches.
Just as a branch which is separated from the life-giving vine, will die,
so we, when disconnected from God, the source of all life,
can do nothing and will also wither and die.
But those who stay connected,
who truly remain “in love”,
will bear much fruit.
And what does it mean to be connected as a branch is to the vine?
Jesus uses the phrase “abide in me”. Stay in me.
Remain connected to me.
In other words, stay in love.
Keep making the choice, having received God’s love,
to love him back,
and to love our neighbours as ourselves.
To keep being patient, kind, not envious, boastful or rude.
Not insisting on our own way, not irritable or resentful,
not rejoicing in wrongdoing but in the truth.
Bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things.
We live in a world where through social media
we are encouraged to admire other people and the lives they live,
as seen through the narrow and highly selective lens
of their Facebook or Instagram profile.
Even if we are already in a relationship,
but especially if we are not,
it is so easy to be filled with envy,
and riven with a sense of incompleteness,
as we drool over others’ supposedly perfect lives.
Hashtag no filter.
Other people seem to be living our dreams.
When will it be our turn to enjoy the union, the connection, the intimacy?
We mustn’t spiritualise the whole idea of romantic love.
It is an important aspect of life for many – though not all, of us.
And some of us experience more fulfilment in that department than others.
But the truth is that it is only one aspect of the whole area of the erotic,
which is about so much more than simply sex.
It includes the desire to live a meaningful life;
to be present to one another;
to integrate mind, body, and spirit;
to create communities that embody the loving message of Christ,
making it more tangible in our day-to-day living.
It includes our passion for beauty, peace, harmony,
and, above all, the urge to express care, compassion, tenderness, and support.
Indeed there is a whole tradition of spirituality in the church
concerned with exploring the depths of eros,
and the union of God with the human soul.
Jesus and St Paul call us to enter into this union with the divine
through the active, persistent, daily practice of love,
so that we abide in Christ.
Such a path is not superficially or immediately gratifying
but it is the core consolation, the core comfort of the Christian path.
The well-worn road that leads to Calvary yes,
but beyond that and into resurrection too.
Some lines from one this country’s most outstanding Christian mystics, Julian of Norwich,
whose book is all about union with the divine. She says:
“The soul is preciously knitted to Him in its making
by a knot so subtle and so mighty
that it is oned into God.
In this oneing, it is made endlessly holy.
Furthermore, He wants us to know that all the souls
which are one day to be saved in heaven without end
are knit in this same knot and united in this same union,
and made holy in this one identical holiness.”
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