So, for all of those positives in Bishop Curry’s sermon, why did so many people express concerns about it? Were they just being kill-joys or theological pedants? In this third article I want to look at what those concerns were.
- Love is …. ?
The Bishop talked a lot about love, the power of love and the redemptive power of love. At one point he said “We were made by a power of love and our lives were meant and are meant to be lived in that love.”
This meant that the sermon opened and the context was set by an ode to love, an ode to an emotion, an ode to an abstract concept. Describing God as “a power of love” certainly leaves me feeling uncomfortable. I’m not uncomfortable because of the word “love” but because of the loss of personality in that phrase which actually destroys any meaning to the word love. It seems to equate God with the concept/attribute. God is defined in relation to the attribute. This is wrong because God is not “a power.” God is a person. God is all powerful. God is love. Do you see the difference?
I remember reading John Stott’s commentary on 1 John 4:8 where he pointed out that “God is love” is not reversable. We don’t say “Love is God.” This works exegetically -the Greek grammar and syntax can only be read one way. It also works theological in our wider reading of Scripture. On Saturday at Faithroots Live we discovered that God is simple. This means he is not a complex being made up of parts that you can remove whilst still keeping his godness. A God without love is not a loving God, he is a non-existent God. But “God is simple” also means that just as love is essential to his character, so too are his other attributes, his power, his eternity, his wisdom, his justice, his holiness. We cannot reduce God down to one core attribute.
It matters pastorally too. The Bishop quoted a poem that says “where true love is, there God is.” Well, yes “where TRUE love is” but there lies the problem. You see even the phrase “true love” has been reduced to a Disney mushy, romantic concept and in terms of the context of a fairy tale wedding, “true love’s kiss” is exactly where our minds and emotions are in the royal wedding.
The risk is that we start to define God by our concept of love. This leads us fitting God into our box. This is important because there is a back story. The US Episcopalian church have been part of the politicisation of love specifically around their endorsement of same sex marriage. When we decide what love is and then announce that “where love is, God is” what we do is we co-opt God into our morality. Now let me give you some examples
First of all, a man can decide that he truly loves a woman and be willing to give everything for her and provide for her. He may convince people that this is true love. Sadly, men and women walk out of marriages and leave behind children because they believe that only now have they discovered true love. God is co-opted to support adultery, divorce and desertion.
Secondly, a man can love his community and his neighbourhood with great and exclusive passion. This may well be “true love.” Yet some of the greatest atrocities, injustices and coverups have happened in the name of this love. Was God present in the sense the poem wants to suggest as endorsing and being revealed and known.
The Bible says that God is love, not the other way round and to make sure we get it, the Bible defines what love is.
“In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.”
Love is defined not by our concepts or experiences but specifically in God’s love, sending Jesus, redeeming us by him taking or place and bearing our punishment.
Now it is worth noting that the bishop did mention the Cross. So, let’s look at that:
- What was the Cross all about?
The bishop said
“He didn’t die for anything he could get out of it. Jesus did not get an honorary doctorate for dying. He didn’t—he wasn’t getting anything out of it. He gave up his life. He sacrificed his life for the good of others, for the good of the other, for the well-being of the world, for us.”
Now there’s something to be said for that little paragraph. I’m glad that the bishop talked about Jesus dying. However, I wish he hadn’t stopped there. You see, here’s the problem. A lot of people are prepared to see Jesus as an incredibly good man, as someone who was sacrificial and who died at great cost for the good of others who he put first. That’s fair enough but that little Bible passage wants to push us further and at this stage we don’t get to hear it.
The Bible is clear that the sacrificial love is not just an example, not just a good man being servant hearted or heroic.
The cross is about the incarnation, about the Father sending the Son about no ordinary man but God himself taking on human nature and dwelling among us.
The Cross does offer an example (see 1 Peter 2) but more importantly and prior to that it is a propitiation – atonement is made. Jesus is our substitute taking the penalty of sin upon himself. We can’t talk about sacrificial love or redeeming love without talking about sin is about.
There’s another angle to this. You see, I think a lot of those who struggle to say this about the Cross, struggle to do so because they don’t really grasp the resurrection. No, Jesus did not get an honorary doctorate, but nor was he just giving up his life as a noble sacrifice. Jesus was defeating sin, death and Satan. Jesus did not stay dead, he rose from the grave. A lot of people who struggle with the Cross also struggle with the Resurrection too. They accept that there is a story of resurrection which gives hope that death does not win or that some-how Jesus ‘lives on in all of us.” But too many theologians and priests are a bit woolly on the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus. Now, I don’t know what Bishop Curry’s take in it is but exactly because that’s the risk, it’s important that if we believe Jesus rose from the dead that we make it explicitly clear that we do.
- What exactly is the Gospel?
The complaint is that the bishop didn’t bring the sermon home, didn’t bring it into land on the true hope of the Gospel. The response is that he only had 13 minutes and that it was a wedding sermon. It wasn’t his job to go full on with an evangelistic appeal, it wouldn’t have been right to preach to another agenda, after all, it was a wedding, that would have been to use the platform for his own agenda.
That would be fair enough except that he did bring his sermon into land, he did find space for an appeal to everyone instead of a personal application to Harry and Meghan. He found a lot of passion and enough time to say something that wasn’t about weddings. He gave us “a Gospel.” This is what it was:
“If you don’t believe me, just stop and think and imagine, think and imagine, well, think and imagine a world where love is the way. Imagine our homes and families when love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way. Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce when love is the way. Imagine this tired old world when love is the way.
When love is the way, unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive, when love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again. When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the Earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more. When love is the way, there’s plenty good room, plenty good room, for all of god’s children because when love is the way, we actually treat each other well, like we are actually family. When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all and we are brothers and sisters, children of God. My brothers and sisters, that’s a new heaven, a new Earth, a new world, a new human family.”
There’s a promise of peace here, there’s a promise of a new creation, hope is offered, justice is offered. It’s not that he didn’t go on to preach a gospel. He did. He said “There’s good news, there’s a better future.” So where and how is that hope found. If I listen to that sermon, then I’m left thinking it is found when you and I do better at loving. It will happen if we follow Jesus’s example. Then, we will have peace.
Explicitly, the New Heaven and New Earth comes not when Christ returns and not through his death and resurrection.
That’s why some people concluded that he did a good job of preaching “law.” We are exhorted to love God and love our neighbour. The correct response to that is “Okay, that’s all well and good bishop but we’ve tried that and it didn’t work.” We’ve tried to be loving, we’ve tried to love God with our whole hearts but we find that we are finite and fallen, we are selfish, proud, jealous. We can’t love like that.
That’s where the Gospel comes In, that’s where we bring the sermon into land “Too right we cannot do that. And that’s why Jesus came. That’s what redeeming love is all about.”
- What we want to hear and what we need to hear
Now, why does all this matter? It matters because when we preach this form of law we are telling people what they want to hear. A gathered group of privileged, wealthy people, of celebrities, stars and public figures heard the message “You can make the difference” “You can change the world.”
And that’s what they want to hear isn’t it? And that’s why the sermon was neither gospel nor prophetic. Our celebrity culture thinks that if they can influence politics and get people who have the right image and right words into power then they can change things. Our celebrity culture thinks that if we allow a few selected commoners to come into the courtyard and gaze at the powerful as they are welcomed into the building then we’ve done our bit for equality. Their gospel is virtue signalling and their Scripture is twitter.
The idols of our post-modern age were invited into the chapel and there they were baptised by the sermon.
It’s what we want to hear too isn’t it? We want to be told that we can save ourselves.
Now, I know time was short and I know that an all out gospel message or exposition was not the order of the day. However:
- The preacher is already seen as a convention breaker -why not go the whole way?
- There were plenty of ways that a few extra words or phrases could have been both gospel sharp and pastorally helpful.
There are some great examples doing the rounds now. Some focus helpfully on the song of songs reference and the marriage that Christ offers his bride (how about a quote from Luther?)
Here’s another possible ending…
“Meghan and Harry, you live in a world where you are promised that just a bit of love will change everything. You’ll be encouraged to believe in fairy tales, love’s true kiss will solve everything. But both of you know that this isn’t true. The love you feel now isn’t going to get you through the ups and downs of life. It’s not going to hold things together when you feel under siege from the paparazzi. Nor is it going to enable you for all your genuine and wonderful desire to do good to fix the world’s problems. That’s why the Bible talks not just about love as a principle or feeling. That’s why it tells us that God is love and we need his love. That’s why you are going to need to know for your marriage that Jesus died for you, not just a generic sacrificial death for the good of others but a specific intentional act of love to rescue you from sin, to reconcile you to God and to give you lasting hope.”
 1 John 4:9-12