If you love me - St Bride's: Reflection

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St Bride's: Sermons

If you love me

In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Before I was ordained, I worked for a short time as a secondary school teacher.  And the night before I was due to begin my teacher training course, I can remember waking up in a cold sweat when the terrible realisation dawned that I would probably end up having to teach children like me.

Because, as a secondary school pupil, I was a bit of a nightmare, to put it mildly.  For much of my school career I was lazy, insolent, and unmotivated.  But the more that I thought about my experience of school during that long sleepless night, the more I realised that that was far from being the whole story, particularly during my early years as a secondary school pupil.  There were in fact little pockets of time when I had actually worked quite hard and done well.  And I also started to recognise that the relationships that I had had with individual teachers played a large part in this, for good or ill.   That is why Geography and RE were always for me, a complete write-off, because at my own school they were not well taught.  At times I did quite well at English and History, when I had teachers whom I liked and respected.  But most revealing of all was my experience of being taught maths.

I've always found Maths quite a challenge, partly because it does not come very easily to me, and partly because during my school days, I often struggled to see the point of what we were being asked to do.  (You must bear in mind, dear children, that this was in the days of slide rules, and an age when much of one's time was spent acquiring useful life-skills involving the calculation of furlongs, poles and perches.  I doubt that many people these days have even heard of a slide rule, let alone had to use one!)

Anyway, very early on during my time at secondary school, I was blessed with an absolutely wonderful maths teacher.  She was quite robust, and she was certainly nobody's fool; but she was also very patient, very kind, and absolutely committed to every pupil in her charge.  She spotted straightaway that I was struggling, and so in a very simple and straightforward way, she supported and encouraged me.  She took no nonsense, but nor was she ever judgmental or critical.  And, as a result of her positive attitude towards me, I gradually started to 'get it'.  I began to glimpse how one can derive real satisfaction from discovering mathematical patterns, and through problem-solving.  In fact, I made such good progress in her care, that at the end of that year, remarkably, I was promoted to the top maths set. 

At which point my mathematical fortunes changed dramatically.  Because my subsequent maths teacher, who was universally, and unaffectionately known as 'Basher,' was feared and disliked by all.  In a subject in which I was still quite vulnerable and insecure, I spent the entire year that I was in his class petrified and doing my very best to remain completely invisible.  Indeed, the one thing worse than the prospect of having to do my maths homework, the very thought of which had me shaking with fear, was the experience of receiving it back: mostly my exercise book was hurled down on my desk with an accompanying snarl of contempt - 'Is that the best you can do!'  My fear of that man not only overshadowed the whole of that year for me - it also left me with a lifelong block about any maths-related task, that I have only been able to shift relatively recently.

Now, just in case you are wondering, there is a reason why I am regaling you with these anecdotes from my distant past, which, strange though it may seem, is to do with the nature of God, and the nature of human flourishing - particularly as revealed in the opening phrase of this morning's Gospel reading, in which Jesus says to his disciples: 'If you love me, you will keep my commandments.'  Let me explain.

It always surprises and depresses me that so many intelligent and educated people in our society who are clear that they have no time at all for religion, carry with them a set of assumptions about the Christian faith that are not only a caricature, but are in fact seriously misplaced.  Namely, their misbelief that Christianity teaches that if you are good and well-behaved, then God will reward you after death by allowing you into heaven.  Whereas if you are bad and misbehave, then nothing but punishment and wrath and eternal damnation awaits you, imposed by an angry and vengeful God.  Hardly surprising that so many people dismiss the whole package without even taking the trouble to explore it further. 

Incidentally, this also helps to explain why one rather tedious and equally misguided refrain that I have heard endlessly over the years is the phrase, 'You don't have to go to church to be a Christian.'  What the speaker usually means by this is of course, you don't have to go to church to be a good person.'  But the point about the Christian faith, as I have often said before, is that it is not about being good, it is about being loved.  And yes, of course that will have implications for how one lives one's life, and for the choices that one makes in life - but it is love that comes first, and it is love that defines all else that follows.  It is emphatically not about reward and punishment in the kind of simplistic sense that is so often wrongly assumed.

And we see love literally placed first in our words from Jesus: 'If you love me ... keep my commandments.'  Note that the sole reason that Jesus gives for keeping the commandments, has nothing to do with the hope of earning a reward, nor of avoiding punishment.  It is simply love - love for him. 

Think about it for a moment.  If what motivates us is pure self-interest, and the hope of some kind of reward - then where in any of that is the incentive for us to grow in love and grace?; to reach beyond our selfish concerns and interests?; to do as the Christian gospel requires us to do?  Conversely, as in the example of my dreadful maths experience, if our actions are primarily governed by fear - whether the fear of punishment, or the fear of failure - our life will invariably be diminished by that, and never enhanced.  Christ promises us life in all its fullness, a promise that is utterly incompatible with any regime that is fundamentally ordered through punishment and fear.  Which take me back to the example of my wonderful maths teacher.

Thinking back, I can now see that the reason why I worked so hard for her, and gave of my best for her, was not because I wanted to achieve any kind of reward.  Nor was it about competing with other pupils; and it certainly wasn't driven by fear.  Rather, I wanted to do good work for her purely and simply because I liked and respected her, and because I wanted her to know that I really was doing my best.  It mattered to me that she thought well of me, because she mattered to me.  And the reason why I felt like that was because from the outset she had shown an interest in me.  She cared about me, as she did about all her individual pupils. 

This came across in the way she related to us in every single lesson.  There was no such thing as a stupid question in the classes she took, because she took us all seriously.  No child was ever ridiculed or diminished by her.  And in that kind of context, I was able to grow; I was able to discover new things about myself, and about my abilities.  If you feel loved, then you find yourself wanting to respond in the way you behave, and my world was enhanced, and enriched, and enlarged, as a result of that.

And her example is a far, far better model for understanding the nature of God's love and care for us, and our call to respond to that love in the way we live, than any kind of 'bribe and punishment' sort of theology.  We are charged to keep God's commandments; to transform the way we live; to model our lives upon Christ and to follow him - not because we will get a reward for doing so; nor because we are scared of not doing so; but simply out of love.  And once we know we are loved, the resources of love within our own hearts are opened up, and set free.  And we can grow, and we can flourish, and we can each discover the person we truly are; the person we were called to be.

And, importantly, we do not do so alone.  Jesus's charge to his disciples is followed by a promise: he will send to them the Spirit of Truth, who will be with them for ever, even after he has gone from their sight.

Know that you are loved and valued by God for who and what you are; know that he wants you to discover true fulness of life; to discover true freedom - freedom from all the shackles of fear and anxiety, and anger, and envy, and despair, that can keep us in chains.  Follow in his steps; strive to keep his commandments.  But do so not with the aim of being rewarded; nor from the fear of punishment.  Do it simply for love. 

Amen.

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