Sunday, May 06, 2012

Love is Stronger than Death

We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another… We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. (1 John 3:14,16) 

On Thursday night Mary-Marguerite Kohn, co-rector of St Peter's Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, Maryland, and Church administrator Brenda Brewington were shot in the office of that Church. Brenda Brewington was killed instantly; Mary-Marguerite Kohn has no hope of recovery and remains on life support only so that her wishes for organ donation can be fulfilled. The perpetrator seems to have been a distressed homeless man, Douglas F. Jones, a frequent visitor to the food program run by the parish, whose body was also found in woods nearby with a self-inflicted gunshot wound; a victim himself, surely, as well as killer.

Clergy and other Church workers are used to thinking that the cost of a vocation is unreasonable hours and mediocre remuneration; this seems to take us into different territory. As we commend these two – these three, rather - to God, they offer us a sobering question about the nature and the cost of Easter faith.

Easter begins with a question and an answer about Jesus; it ends with a question and an answer about us. The presence of the risen Christ among his followers answers the question of Jesus' own life and fate, but it poses a question about theirs – ours.

One thousand six hundred years ago, another group of Christians were considering these questions and the same epistle reading from the First Letter of John. They were at Hippo in modern Algeria, and the preacher who commented on them week by week was the great teacher and theologian Augustine.

Like us, his congregation was also reading the Acts of the Apostles at the same time. Their questions seem to have focused on the contrast between the spectacular action of the Holy Spirit in these stories--like today’s (see Acts 8), where Philip experiences divine air travel without additional fees for checked baggage— and their own experience.

Augustine, commenting on our Epistle, referred to Pentecost story and his congregation's recent celebration of baptism and confirmation at the Easter Vigil to address the problem. He said:

In the first days [of the Church] the Holy Spirit came down on believers, and they spoke in languages which they had not learned. ...These were miracles suited to the times. … When we now lay on hands so that people receive the Holy Spirit, do we expect them to speak with tongues?  … And if the presence of the Holy Spirit is no longer proved by miracles, how is it proved that they have received the Holy Spirit? Let each ask in their own heart; if they love one another, the Spirit of God abides in them… There cannot be love without the Spirit of God (Augustine, Tract. in Io. Ep. 6.10).

Love is the consequence of the resurrection, and the call of the Christian. Love is the greatest miracle to which the Church can give witness now. We do not have exclusive rights over love - we believe that, as Augustine said, "there cannot be love without the Spirit of God."

Our Easter faith is not merely that Jesus rose from death, but that he demonstrated the victory of love over death itself. This victory is not made known in escaping or avoiding death, but in affirming life, which is to love.

And in the real world, love is not merely difficult but dangerous. We all hope that our lives will have a quality and length about them that fits with what we believe would be God's intention for life well-lived. But we risk turning such a legitimate aspiration into a desire to achieve it for ourselves. Love challenges our own and others’ alternative ways of running the world, the ways we seek to entrench and protect ourselves using power and privilege at others’ expense, not least at the expense of the Douglas F. Joneses of this world. If the fulfilment of our aspirations is gained at the expense of others, we lose sight of the reality that life, every day, is gift and grace.

In the Paschal mystery, Jesus has shown us a different way, which at first seems frightening. English Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe said "if you don't love, you're dead - if you do, they'll kill you." Faith is not the contradiction of this difficult truth, but rather its transformation.

God willing, few of us will be called to love quite as Mary-Marguerite Kohn or Brenda Brewington were this past week. But Easter life and faith are not the avoidance of risk; they are the affirmation that love is the real quality by which our lives are to be lived and judged, whether long or short, successful or simple. And the risen Christ is our assurance that even death itself cannot triumph over love; for since Christ is Risen, we know that love is stronger than death. +

[From a sermon preached at Christ Church, New Haven, CT, on Easter 5 2012]

2 comments:

  1. Thank you, dear friend. I hit the limits of my compassion daily, and have no idea how to love--in any meaningful way--the sort of person who in a fit of anger fueled by brokenness shot my friend and Brenda. When I told Siobhan about this last night she, too, was jarred, and we remember Mary Marguerite as a bright, funny, deeply compassionate light from our fraught days at St. John's.
    How to move through my compassion fatigue, when the very real trails of living on the knife-edge of homelessness and poverty, and responsibility for another young, innocent being sap my reserves? Love may be stronger than death, but I and many others must do all we can to stay alive for the sake of others.
    This is not coherent, I know, but it is heartfelt and emerges from the depths a confusion and despair about vocation, purpose, and faith. Events like this one--and who among us ever thinks such horror will strike someone we know--raise all those questions is stark relief. Anxiety is real; the question, then, is how to live with it rather than retreat into nihilism?

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  2. Mary-Marguerite was the interim assistant minister at St. Stephen's, Pittsfield, MA (USA) soon after I left that parish in 2000.

    I met her in (about) 2001 when I traveled back to Pittsfield for the funeral service of the parish Deacon, the Revd. Jack Fickling.

    Oddly enough I mostly remember her wild earrings - a symbol of her "wild goose" spirit.

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