Love without limit

A Sermon by Revd Katherine Hedderly
Readings for this service:Esther 7. 1-6, 9-10, 9.20-22; James 5.13-end; Mark 9. 38-end

At Open House London last weekend I ended the church tour in the Dick Sheppard Chapel downstairs.  The last thing I showed our many visitors was the wonderful St John’s Bible, this volume of the Gospels that we read from here every week.  I had it opened at the beginning of John’s Gospel because, if you read about the making of the St John’s Bible, the first strokes of the calligrapher’s quill were not the first words of Genesis, but the first few words of John’s Gospel. In the beginning was the Word….

I had started the tour outside on the portico, with the ‘In the beginning….’ Sculpture by Michael Chapman, with the vulnerable baby set on its great slab of Portland stone that you pass on your way in, with those first words of the gospel running around it. That baby in stone shows us the vulnerability of God come to be with us as a defenceless child, the word out in the world, with us in our vulnerability. It was a wonderful message with which to start and finish the tour, and gave the context to the rich and varied ministry of this church that had been shared with them, its beauty and history.

Our life together, and the life of the church, is centred on that humble, hopeful love of a small child who is God with us.  It is a self-giving, defenceless love that Jesus offered on the cross to transform our world.  It is a generous love that opens the door to God’s kingdom here and now in bread and wine.  It is a love that we are each invited to share, in his name.  We are invited to welcome that love of Christ, to live in and through us in such a way that we don’t set limits on his love its strength and gracious generosity, either in the life of others, in the life of the church, or in our own lives.  Rather we are invited to receive and share in his love, to set others free.

That image of the vulnerability of God that sets us free was helpful this week as I prayed with someone in the chapel, offering them prayers for healing and the laying on of hands and anointing, following the tradition of the church since earliest times, that we hear about in the letter of James today.

“Allow God to be with you just as you are, with all that you are experiencing and feeling”, I said, “God came to be vulnerable with us so that we can simply be ourselves with him.” As well as using words that spoke into their particular situation, the prayer I used is one I was given when I first received and then some time later was invited to offer prayers for healing myself: ‘In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, who laid his hands on those who came to him for healing, I lay my hands on you. May Almighty God grant you wholeness and healing, in body, mind and spirit, fill you with his light, and joy, and peace, and keep you in eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’

This prayer reminds us that in this ministry, which we offer after this service here each week, we speak and act in Christ’s name. But it is his healing. In exercising this ministry I know that my role is simply not to get in the way of what God is doing with the person with whom I am praying, anointing and laying my hands upon. I have confidence to speak in Christ’s name but know I am there to be a channel of Christ’s peace; not there to put boundaries or limits around what God is doing with this person through healing prayer; to use words when needed but not to crowd the person out with anything that is unnecessary, so that Christ can come close to them. Often some time of silence is helpful. God knows the real need and the deeper healing they are seeking. Touch is an important part of the ministry of healing – the gentle hand on the shoulder, the oil marked in the sign of the cross on palm of hand or forehead.

In his letter James encourages the church to be what it is, a community of prayer, of praise, involved in acts of healing and forgiveness and grace, calling one another back to the truth, to the presence of Christ in their midst and the power of his love.

He says; ‘the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.’ God in Christ can act powerfully and effectively through the church, through us.  Our role is not to limit that. We are called to act and speak in his name but not to limit his grace.  We are to make ourselves open, to that vulnerable love, so that God’s grace can be received freely and generously by others and they can be set free.

How does Jesus teach his disciples about not limiting his love? Our Gospel reading picks up from where we left it last week where Jesus had taken a small child into his arms, saying; ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.’ The disciples had been arguing about who was the greatest amongst them. Jesus’s response is to show them that true greatness comes not in power and influence and might, but in humble service to others, and in welcome and care for the least amongst them.  It may well be that Jesus was still holding that child as he continued his words to the disciples that we hear today.  If so they would have been particularly powerful.

The disciples desire to put limits on God’s love is something that Jesus is keen address. John, who speaks up first, gives the impression that he expects to be praised for stopping someone who had been casting out demons in Jesus’s name.  “He wasn’t one of us!” he says. Jesus response is much more hospitable than his disciples, he is inclusive, welcoming and non judgemental. This is the pattern for the life of the church from these early beginnings.  He tells the disciples not to put up boundaries. Don’t allow your own understanding of who is in and who is out to limit the actions of God in others. They are not to be an exclusive group. God will work in and through whoever he wills. “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Our Encounter lecture series, is encouraging us in our being open to God’s presence and actions in others, especially those who are different from us, expectant with “a sense of respect, delight and gratitude in one another’s presence”, as Rowan Williams put it.

It is this sense of freedom and openness that the church is living out, in so many contexts, in its compassionate care and welcome for those considered the ‘other’ in our society. This is where we meet God’s vulnerable freeing love and is a way of living that our world, and our society so needs at this time.

Jesus is not precious about ‘his name’ and who uses it, he is only precious about God’s freeing love and what it can do.  Even the smallest actions, done in love, by whoever does them, will be noticed. Words of Brother Lawrence, in his “Practice of the presence of God” reflect this same attention; “We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work but the love with which it is performed.”

And what about ourselves and the limits we place on God’s love in our own lives. I don’t think we are expected to take that list of startling metaphors literally, no one is expecting any amputations any time soon. But they do make us sit up and take notice and challenge us, as they would have done in Jesus’s day. Seeking to lead holy lives matters and Jesus invites us to look to our own stumblings and failures that prevent his freeing love being present in us.

I cannot be a doorway to Christ’s love for others if I am blocked by attitudes and behaviours that deny that love in myself. We seek to address these things by being part of a community that seeks the best in one another, and calls out God’s love in one another, even when that is costly and we have to face things in our own behaviour and attitudes which we would rather not. We do it in our own life with God as we seek to walk more closely with Christ, with a humble serving heart.

If we do not address these things we might ourselves be the cause of stumblings in others.   And we know what that is like, when someone else’s actions have caused us to be crushed, or hurt, or have our freedom and dignity denied. The testimony of Dr Christine Blasey Ford this week was a powerful reminder of that.

The image of Jesus holding the small vulnerable child can show us all we need to know about this. He will not let us go. He stands on the side of those who are abused and oppressed, whose freedoms are taken away, whose lives are crushed at the hands of another.  He shows us how to stand alongside the oppressed and weak and vulnerable.  His love cannot be bound by evil, or hatred, or fear but comes to set us free. That is how he holds our world. That is how he holds us.

Allow that love to be set free in you, in the life of the church and in the lives of those you meet.  Then we will know the power of that vulnerable love, a gift for the world, and be able to act in his name.