Love has the primacy
in Christ’s Body
The Bishop of Ebbsfleet preaches about the challenge of building the Church in love.
‘We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.’ These words of a famous Russian archbishop, Anthony Bloom, capture what at this point I want to say to you, as I, like St Augustine of Canterbury before me, jump out of the boat and stand for the first time on Ebbsfleet beach.
An unfamiliar shore
We can imagine him, chilled to the bone, standing on that unfamiliar shore, shivering as much at the prospect of the mission ahead of him as at the wind-driven rain behind him, saying to his Benedictine brothers: ‘Brothers,’ and history doesn’t record any sisters foolhardy enough to make the trip, ‘this won’t be easy; but we should try to live here in such a way that if these Gospels that we have brought with us on our journey are lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.’
Well, we believe that Gospel Book was not lost, and is safelyconserved in Cambridge. Nonetheless the Gospels that arrived under Augustine’s arm on Ebbsfleet beech that day remain every bit as much in need of being embodied in us if the world is to see and to believe.
‘If the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.’ In that brief sentence we can touch what the Church is: not an organisation, not an association for religious or humanitarian or secular purposes, but a living body; limbs and mind and heart, a community of sisters and brothers in the body of Jesus Christ, who unites us all in himself. To experience the Church in this way, almost to be able to touch with our hands the power of his truth and love, is a huge gift; a source of great joy and courage when many speak only of the loss of the Church’s attractiveness and the shortening of its reach.
An incomparably precious gift
In this body, love has the primacy; only where love is given and received is the kingdom of God is seen and felt. It is an incomparably precious gift, without which we would be dead in our sins. Jesus taught his hearers that this kingdom of love is like the precious discovery of hidden treasure or a pearl beyond price. When it is glimpsed and recognized for the incomparable fortune it is, the wise choice is to leave everything, sell everything, to get hold of the kingdom, to gain the greatest possible blessing.
As Paul says: ‘For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ’ (Phil. 3:8). Again, Jesus said it’s like a mustard seed or leaven, it has inner strength and potential; it is in the nature of the kingdom to grow dynamically and unseen, from small beginnings. ‘We are children of God, but what we will be has not yet been made manifest’ (1 John 3:2; cf. Col. 3:3, Mark 4:27); all this, but only when love is what circulates around the body, when love is what is exchanged, when love is the cause of our Eucharist and our service. The body of the Church, says St Paul (Eph. 4:15): ‘builds itself up in love’.
That is why it is our constant challenge, one we often fail abysmally: to give love the primacy in the Church’s life; for love to be the currency we give and receive. God’s love is not a ‘love’ like ours, a love for people like us; not something completely bound in with our identity and belonging. It perseveres when it’s not returned; it’s lavishly poured out on people who are unlovable, and in case you were wondering, ‘unlovable’ here is not them, it’s us; it’s un-deflected when it’s rejected. God’s love for the world is astonishing, without cause, totally free, and awesomely unreasonable; and it’s what we are invited daily by Christ to be part of, sharing in his Spirit by the gift of his body and blood.
So, the treasure we have discovered turns out to be both the thing we most long for, and a challenge to our thinking: to rethink love, rethink our belonging, rethink the capacity of the body of the Lord. Instead of saying: ‘These are the people who belong with us, these are the people who are like us, so they are the ones we will like and who will like us’, we are compelled to say: ‘we’ve got to go out’. We have got to find more ways of belonging with the people who don’t belong; people who may be estranged from us, fear us, or are hostile to us, and draw them into the catholic body of Jesus, the embodiment of that astonishing, inexhaustible, causeless love. That, to mention the bishop for a moment, is where the episcopate comes in.
Guardianship of the faith
Each ordained ministry is the sacramental presence of Christ ministering to his whole body: the deacons, endowed with the spirit of service; the priests, endowed with the spirit of sacrifice; the bishop, endowed with the spirit of oversight. The bishop is there to be a witness to the resurrection of Christ and the motivating force of Christ’s love for all, in and through the body of his disciples; the bishop is there to ensure that love has the primacy in Christ’s risen body.
The tools of his ministry are the presidency of the Eucharist, the guardianship of the faith, the assignment of ordained ministries: but all these things converge on one ministry: to remind his brothers and sisters constantly of the primacy of love; love for God, love for one another, love for the body of the Lord, love for ‘the other’, love for the world he died to redeem.
I believe that at this point when a new pastor has been added to the Lord’s Church, two in fact today, as we must pray for Bishop Martyn Snow too, we need to be reminded that the Church is an article of our faith. Without it, despite its obstinacies and divisions, despite the sins and infidelities of its members, our salvation would be impossible; this infinitely precious, wounded-yet-risen Body is worthy of our adoration and witness.
At a time when we’re aware of the great responsibilities that lie ahead of us, the challenges that present themselves; when we are very aware of what obedience to the Lord may require in an uncertain future; we need to remember always the primacy of God’s love in us: ‘we should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.’
Homily given by the new Bishop of Ebbsfleet at Benediction at St Alban’s Holborn, 25 September 2013, attended by clergy and people from the Ebbsfleet parishes and others who had attended the ordination earlier that day in Westminster Abbey. This homily is based on the Goapel passage read at the Ordination Eucharist and at Benediction: Matt. 13:31-33, 44-45