In my heart and in my head

12 February 2016

The nature of God is a gift to preachers, suggests John Inge

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Ancient of Days: plate from Europe a Prophecy by William Blake, first printed in 1794

Ancient of Days: plate from Europe a Prophecy by William Blake, first printed in 1794

“ALL you need is love,” the Beatles sang. They were right, in a way. Of the things that are distinctive about the Christian doctrine of God, perhaps the most significant is its conviction that God is love (1 John 4.8).

It is not that God approves of love — thinks that it is quite a good thing — but that love is of the very essence of God. In his magnificent book Atheist Delusions: The Christian revolution and its fashionable enemies (Yale, 2009), David Bentley Hart demonstrates that this insight was revolutionary in the ancient world. It remains so.

This is a gift for preachers. Although we need to be careful about the nature of the love we commend, most people recognise instinctively that love is the most important thing in their lives. It is therefore a matter of making connections (as is most good preaching) between Christian doctrine and people’s experience. In this instance, it makes sense that, right at the heart and ground of everything that is, we find this same love which we deem all-important. It just needs to be drawn out.

Self-love on its own is an aberration, and here the doctrine of the Holy Trinity comes to our aid. Within the Godhead there is a loving community between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That love is so complete that the three persons of the Trinity are one. The love of the Trinity pours out in creation — love is always creative.

Good sermons should reach not just the head, but also the heart. Stories of self-sacrificial love — like that of St Maximillian Kolbe, for example — show what God’s love is like, and can move people not just to realise the overwhelming attractiveness of God, but to live lives of sacrifice.

 

WHEN preaching about God, one of the things we have to do is to banish ideas — which remain very common — of a bearded old man or, worse still, a fierce policeman or headmaster in the sky, wanting to catch us out at every opportunity. Our God is not at all like that, as is clear from the above.

Having said that, God is totally other, completely beyond our understanding, and we must be humble in our claims. St Augustine wrote: “What then, brethren, are we to say of God? For if we have understood, we have understood something other than God. To reach out a little with the mind is great blessedness, yet to understand is wholly impossible.”

Since love lies at the heart of it, in preaching we can point out that those with severe learning difficulties can be as godly as those of enormous intellectual prowess: I think of a wonderful woman in a parish of which I was vicar.

That is because, as St Augustine puts it elsewhere: “We know in so far as we love,” or, in the words of the scriptures: “God is love, and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them” (1 John 4.16).

 

Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester. He is the author of Living Love: In conversation with The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (Methodist Publishing, 2007).

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