How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, --- I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! --- and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
I want you all to do something. Don’t worry, it doesn’t involve getting up and moving around. It doesn’t even involve talking to anybody else. This is just an exercise that you can all do on your own, and I promise, I won’t be asking for feedback or anything afterwards. So relax.
I want you to think back to a time in your life when you felt an incredible amount of love for somebody, or something, maybe a pet, or, maybe even, a religious experience that was centred around a feeling of great love. Don’t think about it using words. Just try to experience the feeling you had, once again. If you’re like me you’ll probably feel it in the pit of your stomach.
I want you to imagine that you have to tell somebody about the way you just felt. Try to come up, in your own minds, with the words you will need to describe fully the feeling you felt inside of you.
Now, I am completely certain that, even if you are as good a poet as Elizabeth Barrett Browning you will fail miserably in conveying what you felt inside. You will only scratch the surface and end up saying to the other person, “Well, you know what I mean, you know what it’s like.”
The thing is, it is difficult enough to describe a physical object to somebody else. When it comes to describing emotional stuff we are, always, at a loss for words.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us so that God could, through Jesus Christ, tell us of his great love for us. God wanted us to understand and feel his love for us because he wanted us to feel such a love for him. Not because he needed our love but because he wanted, from out of his love, to give us the opportunity to feel and enjoy in ourselves, divine love.
But, being in human form, God was restricted in exactly the same ways as us, when it came to talking to people about love and other emotions. So, like a poet would, Jesus used imagery and metaphor, parables, stories, miracles and even physical actions to give people, at least, a glimpse of God’s amazing love and how loving God would make us fully human.
We do know this. We all know this. Those of us who were brought up in the church learnt as very, young children that the parables were a means employed by Jesus to convey a message that lay underneath the story. However, we often act and think as if we don’t know this. We read the Gospels and search for literal meaning and we have, to a great extent, built our churches and our worship on what we’ve taken from the surface of scripture and have ignored the greater treasures that lie underneath.
It’s only natural. People will always look for the obvious before they expend any energy on looking for deeper truths, I think this because, in part, we are naturally lazy, but also because we fear things that are abstract and undefined. People prefer things to be straightforward, and, as life is so confusing, it’s hardly surprising that we like to get some definition in our lives. The problem is that, by its very definition, faith is abstract, it’s emotional, it’s nebulous, spiritual, ghostly.
But we lose out on so much if we do not try to get past the literal and, what’s more, it’s difficult to understand scripture and its many paradoxes if we only view it as an instruction manual and not as the great work of poetry that it truly is.
Today’s gospel reading is a case in point. Nicodemus comes to Jesus and Jesus tells him that to enter the kingdom of God he must be born again of water and the spirit.
“Don’t be stupid,” said Nicodemus. “Do you expect me to crawl back up into my mother’s womb?”
Not a nice image, but Nicodemus did get his point across rather well.
But don’t we feel smug? “Ah,” we say, “That Nicodemus is taking Jesus literally. Jesus didn’t mean ‘born again’ physically, he was talking about being born again in a religious way.”
And, of course, we’re right but we shouldn’t get too cocky because when it comes to the water and spirit bit we become very literal minded. For example, in the Church of England, there are still debates going on about what happens at our baptism with water. Do we change in some way when we are baptised? Are our sins forgiven, when we are baptised? If somebody dies without being baptised do they go straight to hell?
And, in evangelical churches, especially within charismatic congregations, there is a very strong emphasis on being born again of the Spirit, which they regard as a real event happening at a specific time, and they will tell you that a Christian’s salvation is dependent on this experience.
Now, don’t get me wrong here. It’s not that these two experiences are in any way invalid. They are gifts that have been given to the Church by Jesus to help us worship, to help us get closer to God and to help us understand God more fully. Also, I’m sure Jesus did use these two sacraments in his conversation with Nicodemus because he believed they could be understood literally. However, I am also sure that they were very much the surface meaning of his words and not the deeper, truer meaning, which was what he was really trying to get across to his visitor. In fact, I think baptism by water and/or the spirit are just two ways that God has given us to obtain that which Jesus is really talking about in this passage - namely, being born again. And I think that we can translate “born again” as meaning “entering into something new.” In fact, more than just that, I think it means becoming something new and different ourselves. And this difference comes about as we move from the literalistic and mundane context of an earthly life without God, into the kingdom of God.
You see, as Christians, we believe that the kingdom of God is not just in the future, or on some separate, spiritual plane. We believe that it is with us now, and that we can experience life in the kingdom of God, now.
You may think that I’m deluding myself here. I mean as we look around the world we see wars, and injustice, children shooting children, women’s bodies being traded and all sorts of horrible things. How can this be the kingdom of God? Show me the kingdom of God in all this obscenity! But again, I think that would be falling into the trap of taking the words of Jesus far too literally.
A different word we could use in stead of the phrase, “ kingdom of God”, is “heaven.” We know little about it and nothing about it for sure. But, if we accept, basing our acceptance on the gospel record, that Jesus came to tell us that God loved us, I think that we can be pretty certain that heaven is primarily a love affair with God, and so that must also be true of the kingdom of God and the kingdom of God in the here and now. And if that is true it means that despite the horrors of this world we can live in the kingdom of God if we live in the love of God. But to live in the love of God we have to change, change our attitudes, our beliefs, our actions. We have to become new, we have to be born again.
When two people fall in love all of that happens. Or it should do if they want their relationship to be loving and long lasting. When two people fall in love, they are born again. And it’s the same when we fall in love with god. We change and it’s heavenly.
In a few weeks it will be Holy Week. It is then when we contemplate the death of God on the cross. There are all sorts of theories about what happens when Jesus dies and then is raised from death by God. Different people find different ideas helpful. I don’t think there’s any one explanation for what happened at Calvary. But I do think there is one absolute that every Christian does agree on. Jesus died on the cross because he loved us. He became flesh because he loved us. He came to tell us that God loved us. He accepted death because he loved us. Love is what it is all about.
How does God love us?
You couldn’t count the ways.
Poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Sermon by Jonathan Hagger