Preached by the Revd Canon Peter Moger, Sub Dean, on Sunday 5th May 2024.

(Image: Early 14th century mural by Duccio di Buoninsegna)

No one has greater love than this, 
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
(John 15.9-17)

Today’s Gospel is one that’s likely to strike different chords with different groups of people. For church musicians, it’s possible that it will leave them with an earworm of John Ireland’s anthem Greater love hath no man than this. For those with a military background, it’s likely to resonate with ceremonies such as yesterday’s Turning of the Pages in the cathedral, in which the remembrance of laying down life for comrades and friends is particularly poignant. And for some, it will call to mind the marriage service—their own, maybe. Because a part of this passage has been the appointed Gospel reading at weddings for many generations. That’s hardly surprising, because it deals with one of the great themes of the fourth gospel, and of John’s writings in general: love.  In John’s first Letter, we are reminded that

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, 
and God abides in them. (1 John 4.16b)

And in today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches the disciples about the ‘new commandment’ – to love one another as he has loved them. This teaching takes us, as St John’s Gospel so often does, right into the heart of God’s nature, and the truth that, as human beings who bear God’s image, we all reflect God’s character—albeit in a limited and fallen way—but, as John points out, ‘those who live in love live in God.’ To love as humans is to share profoundly in the divine nature.

This isn’t a love born of sentimentality, or even the affection which might exist between friends, but a love which is deep and (above all) self-giving. The Greek used by the Gospel writer (and in John’s first letter) is agape, a love characterised by self-sacrifice:

No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Let’s pause for a moment and reflect. Jesus, who embodies God’s character entirely—and God is love—lays down his life for his friends. For his disciples and, by extension, for you and me. But I wonder how easy we find it to think of ourselves as God’s friends.

I particularly enjoy the novels of Catherine Fox. For those who don’t know her work, she writes very well around themes connected with Christian theology and the church. In her third novel, Love for the lost, the central character, Isobel, a young priest, suffers a crisis in her life and seeks the counsel of her bishop. He asks her a disarmingly simple question:

‘Which of the following would best describe you: 
child of God, servant of God, friend of God?’ (309)

We might ask the same question of ourselves. Child of God? Maybe. Clearly, we are part of God’s family, members through baptism of the household of faith, and that’s wonderful, but is there sometimes a sense that, as a child, we think we should know our place: that we’re not quite a grown-up?  Servant of God – with lots of important work to do? Many of us (and probably quite a lot of clergy) find ourselves attracted to this model. We tend to think that if we work hard at what we think God is calling us to do, we might somehow find favour. But therein lies a slippery slope towards the heresy of Pelagius, and a denial of the truth that God accepts us as we are. Or Friend of God – chosen (as friends are), and in a relationship so close that like Abraham of old, and like Adam and Eve in the garden, we walk and talk with God: the easy conversation of friends. This is perhaps more difficult.  To quote another character from Catherine Fox’s same novel:

Do you think God might quite like your company,
even when you’re not trying to serve him? (309)

God does choose us not primarily as servants, nor even as children, but as friends. God has chosen you; God has chosen me. Not someone else. And not only some of us. In his love for us, God chooses us all. And such is God’s desire for friendship with us that his Son lays down his life for us—his friends.

That is the quality of the love God has for us, and by reflection, that is the love Jesus says we should have for one another. 

This is my commandment,
that you love one another as I have loved you.

And where love—self-giving love—is allowed to flourish, God is himself there. The timeless words from the Maundy Thursday liturgy sum it up:

Ubi caritas et amor: Deus ibi est.
'Where there is love and charity: God himself is there.'

So what about the Church? As the body of Christ on earth, one might hope that it would be a place (an institution even) where love abides and abounds, and where God’s love, reflected in human love, is celebrated and enabled to flourish in all its fullness. Would that it were always so.

Since moving back last year to the Church of England from ministry in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I have had to make a few adjustments. One of these was getting my head around the fact that adjacent provinces of the Anglican Communion do not yet agree on how human love should be celebrated within the Church. In Scotland, for some years now, the Church has married both opposite- and same-sex couples, with no distinction made between them. 

There are some important principles at work here. One is that God is a God who shows no partiality. And another is a recognition that love is love, and that those who commit to lives of self-giving love with another person are (at least by St John’s definition) living within the love of God. Holy Matrimony is a Sacrament: a divine gift through which God’s grace is known and lived. A gift for all who choose this way of life? Or only for some?

The Church has something of a track record of putting up barriers. A generation or so ago, it was often difficult to re-marry in church after divorce. As recently as 20 years ago, the parish where I was the incumbent was bordered on two sides by parishes where the priest would not perform second marriages. (The result was that our congregation grew!) 

Now, after a change in the official C of E line, things are different. But the debate has moved on. And we now the fault line is around whether or not we should offer the Sacrament of marriage to same-sex couples. 

At the end of last year, there was something of a shift when, after a long, tortuous and painful process, the House of Bishops commended Prayers of Love and Faith. These are offered to the Church ‘as resources in praying with and for a same-sex couple who love one another and who wish to give thanks for and mark that love in faith before God.’

Unlike our sister churches in Scotland and Wales, we still cannot marry same-sex partners in church, but we can now legally seek God’s blessing on a partnership. The new prayers represent a clear direction of travel. In this Diocese we have been given a strong lead by our Bishop. Bishop Steven became a leading advocate within the House of Bishops for the liturgical celebration of same-sex partnerships, and has nailed his colours firmly to the mast.

Locally, it’s up to individual churches to decide whether or not their wish to use the new prayers. And so, towards the end of last term, Chapter discussed this, and we resolved unanimously that we will do so. This means that a same-sex couple with what we would call a ‘qualifying connection’ to the House will be able to have prayers in the Cathedral, seeking God’s blessing on their partnership and their life together. 

Prayers of Love and Faith is designed to be used within pre-existing services. We are not yet allowed to hold a ‘stand-alone’ service of blessing, but must use the prayers within one of our existing services: Morning Prayer, Evensong or the Eucharist. We might feel that this is still quite restrictive, but we are bound by Canon Law and, at present, it would seem that we should at least offer as much as we possibly can within the lawful provision.

There are, of course, faithful Anglicans who will believe the House of Bishops (and the Chapter) are wrong. Opponents of the new direction of travel might claim that the Church is selling out to secularism, or abandoning so-called Scriptural principles. But the Church of England has always encompassed a breadth of opinion, and one of the greatest challenges for us as Anglicans is that we are committed to working with and alongside those with whom we disagree.

This move, though, (small though it is) is significant because it is grounded in the character of God himself, which character the Church is called upon to reflect. And if we really believe that:

those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

then how can we deny the celebration of that love in God’s house? The Church is called to be a place where all—all God’s friends—are welcomed and invited to share in life in all its fullness.

This is my commandment, 
that you love one another as I have loved you.

Let us pray. A Prayer from Prayers of Love and Faith.

Gracious God, 
from love we are made and to love we shall return. 
May our love for one another kindle flames of joy and hope. 
May the light and warmth of your grace 
inspire us to follow the Way of Jesus Christ, 
and serve you in your Kingdom, 
now and for ever. Amen.