Sermon for High Mass 5th Sunday before Lent Sunday 3 February 2019
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
5 before Lent
We’ve already done Candlemas on Friday evening, so, much as I love Simeon and Anna, I’m going to focus on 1 Corinthians 13.
We think of this as possibly the purple passage of the whole New Testament; and it is well-placed at the end of the greater Christmas season as a reminder of why we bother to come here on a Sunday and why, I trust, we keep working on ourselves for the rest of the week. It is also a hymn. And it is Paul’s version of John 1 and 1 John. Let me unpack all that a little.
This chapter is written in a rhetorical poetic idiom comparable to ancient hymnody, and the poetry takes music as a metaphor for the heart of God. St Augustine famously wrote that if we sing we pray twice. One or two people here have been known to enjoy a tune. Several of you are better qualified than I to talk about that, so I’ll turn to George Herbert, the accomplished English poet-parson who was also a keen musician, to fill out the thought. Izaak Walton, in his life of Herbert, records Herbert’s regular trips to Salisbury and his membership of an amateur music group:
His chiefest recreation was music, in which heavenly art he was a most excellent master, and did himself compose many divine hymns and anthems, which he set and sung to his lute or viol: and though he was a lover of retiredness, yet his love to music was such, that he went usually twice every week, on certain appointed days, to the Cathedral Church in Salisbury; and at his return would say, “That his time spent in prayer, and cathedral-music, elevated his soul, and was his heaven upon earth.” But before his return thence to Bemerton, he would usually sing and play his part at an appointed private music-meeting; and, to justify this practice, he would often say, “Religion does not banish mirth, but only moderates and sets rules to it.” In another walk to Salisbury he saw a poor man with a poorer horse, that was fallen under his load: they were both in distress, and needed present help; which Mr. Herbert perceiving, put off his canonical coat, and helped the poor man to unload, and after to load, his horse. The poor man blessed him for it, and he blessed the poor man; and was so like the good Samaritan, that he gave him money to refresh both himself and his horse; and told him, “That if he loved himself he should be merciful to his beast.” Thus he left the poor man: and at his coming to his musical friends at Salisbury, they began to wonder that Mr. George Herbert, which used to be so trim and clean, came into that company so soiled and discomposed: but he told them the occasion. And when one of the company told him “He had disparaged himself by so dirty an employment,” his answer was, “That the thought of what he had done would prove music to him at midnight; and that the omission of it would have upbraided and made discord in his conscience, whensoever he should pass by that place: for if I be bound to pray for all that be in distress, I am sure that I am bound, so far as it is in my power, to practise what I pray for. And though I do not wish for the like occasion every day, yet let me tell you, I would not willingly pass one day of my life without comforting a sad soul, or showing mercy; and I praise God for this occasion. And now let’s tune our instruments.”
Love is a much-used word, and a couple of things have happened to it. It has been cheapened by saturation-bombing in popular culture, and it has been disembowelled by psychology: some are sceptical even of its existence, given what we understand about the complexity of our nature and the mixed motives behind so much of what we do.
S. Paul’s lyrical outpouring is a paean to the truth of love beyond those mixed motives; without it, as he says, our actions, even our good works, are diminished, even to the point of meaninglessness; but there’s also a symbiosis between the practice of our faith and our participation in this essence of God’s being, like that between faith and works (harmonizing S. James with S. Paul, as we should).
So, since we are only just done with Christmastide, perhaps we should go back to the beginning of the season and recall the blueprint of love we’ve been given: John 1, the Christmas gospel,
‘the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory’.
This is a statement of commitment and involvement; a choice to accept us and be faithful friends to us. To love us; the most Godlike and therefore the most perfectly human thing we can do. Love. For
everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. 1 John 4
John never wavered from this glimpse of glory, this knowledge and vision of God in which he is supposed to have survived other people’s attempts to give him a more conventional martyrdom.
St Jerome writes that when age and weakness grew upon him at Ephesus so that he was no longer able to preach to the people, he used to be carried to the assembly of the faithful, and every time he said to his flock only these words: ‘My little children, love one another’. When they asked him why he always repeated the same words he replied, ‘Because it is the word of the Lord, and if you keep it you do enough.’ Alban Butler
St Paul’s hymn to the love of God, 1 Corinthians 13, reframes this incarnational theology as the necessary rule of life for a Christian; the detail needs no amplification – just read it. In these few verses Paul fleshes out for us the flipside of ‘the word becoming flesh’: this is about how we enter into the life of God as he, in perfect love, has taken on our struggle, that true humanity which Henry James called ‘the pain of consciousness’.
1 Corinthians 13 is a recipe for the ordinary endeavour of Christian living for every individual, regardless of our state of life, illuminated by those chinks of light, those glimpses of glory which keep us going, so that we may live gloriously. Remember George Herbert:
The thought of what he had done would prove music to him at midnight; and that the omission of it would have upbraided and made discord in his conscience.
May we all cultivate that musical conscience, and find that harmony.