I’ve just come back from Syria. I went there with a heartfelt hope that I might be able to visit Yarmouk – the infamous Palestinian refugee camp just south of Damascus that UN Secretary Ban Ki Moon says is “the deepest circle of hell”. I wanted to see whether the reports of violence being done them by the Syrian Arab Army were true.
I knew when I left for Syria that my chances of getting to Yarmouk were not good. Nonetheless we managed to achieve this by only our second day in the country (courtesy of the Syrian Minister for Tourism, whose portfolio [sadly] leaves him with enough spare time to devote to other good causes).
We found at Yarmouk, as I’d expected, that people were indeed suffering, but that the real protagonists were the Islamic State militants who had overrun the camp. The Syrian Army, whatever other role they might have been playing in the conflict, were the ones ensuring that those fleeing Yarmouk were being fed and sheltered.
Having achieved the primary goal of my trip by only day two of my visit, I let my imagination run wild as to what else I might be able to accomplish while I was there, and the crazy idea I came up with was to do a one-on-one Fighting Fathers interview with the Grand Mufti of Syria, Dr Ahmad Badr Al-Din Hassoun.
I have been a great admirer of Dr Hassoun since I first met him two years ago. I appreciate that many people accuse him of being a puppet of the government and even label him as a violent war-monger. This is not my assessment of him at all! Certainly he preaches tolerance and peace, and is outspoken in his views on the importance of inter-religious harmony (for which he is much hated by the Islamic extremists who are currently doing their best to tear apart his country).
On the second-last day of my time in Syria I had the chance to see this wish come true too, as I spent a full half hour with the Mufti and with some of his senior clergy. And he spoke to me of his hopes for peace and reconciliation in his country, and about how he saw all human beings as brothers and sisters, and he also told me why he loved Islam above its alternatives (all of which he said he respected).
The great thing about Islam, he said, was that Prophet Muhammed insisted that all his followers must recognise and respect all the other prophets who went before him, including Moses and Jesus and the other prophets of both Judaism and Christianity. Islam, as the Mufti understands it, insists on recognising the legitimacy of each of the Abrahamic religions – a view which, as I say, wins him no fans amongst the jihadists waging war against Syria.
And I asked the Mufti, as I always do in my Fighting Fathers interviews, what his fight record was, to which he responded by saying that he used to play volleyball in high school but now had no time for sport. I suggested that he nonetheless looked rather fit, to which he replied that he believed in the power of love!
In other words, whatever might be the psychological and spiritual benefits of love, according to the Grand Mufti of Syria, love can also keep you in great shape!
“No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:12)
The words of the Apostle John, taken from the fourth section of his first letter to the early church, written well after all of the other letters contained in the New Testament had been published (except perhaps the other letters penned by him)!
John, it is believed, was the only one of the disciples not to meet a grizzly death at the hands of the authorities, and he apparently lived to a great age. Tradition has it that in his later years his students would carry his arthritic body to various meetings where his message would often be no more than three words – “love one another”!
Those three words evidently embodied what John in his later years saw to be a core Gospel imperative, and his letters, likewise, written after many years of faithful service to his Lord, and after many years of faithful service to the church, likewise embody this same core message – love one another, for God is love!
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In 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. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” (1 John 3:7-11)
For John, love is the ultimate spiritual reality, and he stresses the spiritual benefits of love for all who live in love. Even so, I don’t think John would necessarily have disagreed with Dr Hassoun either as to the physical benefits as, in John’s reckoning, love is fundamentally something you do.
God’s love is revealed to us, John says, in God’s actions towards us. God sends Jesus into our world to be with us and to help us. This is how God defines love for us. It is not pretty words or even heartfelt emotions. It is action and, inevitably, sacrificial action.
“This is how we know what love is”, John says again, “that he [Jesus] laid down his life for us.” (1 John 3:16)
If we want to understand what love is, we have to start from the divine end of the love spectrum. Love is something that is seen concretely in the coming of Jesus. Love, in other words, is something God does for us and not a feeling God has for us! If we begin our understanding of love from the human end of the spectrum we find that we are dealing with something different – with romance or even just with eros!
I wonder by my troth what thou and I did till we loved.
Were we not weaned till then
But sucked on country pleasures childishly
Or snorted we in the seven sleepers’ den?
T’was so, but this all pleasures fancies be!
If ever any beauty I did see that I desired and got
T’was but a dream of thee!
(John Donne, The Good Morrow)
John Donne manages to capture something of the miracle of human love in a way that simple prose can’t contain.
This is love, when understood from the human end of the spectrum – it is passion, it is that gut-wrenching, all-consuming, intoxicating, overwhelming feeling! It is, as the Song of Songs says, the ‘fire of God’ (Song of Solomon 8:6). It is something ecstatic.
As Roland Barthes said “the gesture of the amorous embrace seems to fulfil, for a time, the subject’s dream of total union with the loved being: the longing for consummation with the other!” And what does that joyous and many-faceted human miracle have to do with the love of Jesus as spoken of by the Apostle John? For better or for worse, absolutely nothing!
When John say ‘This is how we know what love is” (ie. real love) and directs us to the sacrificial death of Jesus, he is pointing us to a form of love that is higher and deeper and indeed far more significant than the human love that we are more familiar with, even if it is less fun.
This indeed is the title of my sermon today: ‘Love is not fun’.
That may not sound like a very inspiring title to many of us. Nonetheless it is important, I believe, that we recognise the distinction between the love-is-a-drug-that-I’m-feeling type of love and the love that the New Testament speaks about that is not fun or, at least, not always fun (and indeed I’d say not often).
One reality I have become very familiar with over my last 27 years as a Parish Priest has been dealing with families who are grieving over the death of a family member. And I find myself saying the same thing to grieving families time and time again – ‘if you didn’t love them it wouldn’t hurt!’
Losing someone only hurts when you love them. If you’re one of those girls that just wants to have fun then for God’s sake don’t love anybody!
I had someone come to me recently for some pastoral counselling – a very good man who has been serving God and the church faithfully for more years than I’ve been alive, and he said “I’m just going through the motions. I’m not feeling good or fulfilled about anything that I am doing!”
My response to him was “well, this is what true love is all about! It’s doing what you’re called to do even when you’re getting absolutely nothing out of it!”
That is what real love is, isn’t it? It’s not just spending time with someone you find exciting and intoxicating. It’s caring for your aging mother who is crabby and cantankerous when you could be spending time with someone exciting and intoxicating! Love is not fun!
One of the things I find most inspiring about Mother Theresa was the fact that she apparently struggled with a terrible depression throughout the later part of her life! My friend Father Elias apparently knew a little of the inside story on her and he said Theresa’s counsellor gave up on her! She told her that there was nothing more she could do for her!
I was quite shocked when I was first told that. I had always assumed that Mother Theresa bounced around, full of the joy of the Lord, singing hymns out of the abundance of her heart, as she poured herself out for the poor and dying. That was quite an inspiring image for me. But what was even more inspiring, on reflection, was that even though she was getting absolutely nothing from the experience herself, she continued to pour herself out anyway! That is love!
“This is how we know what love is”, says the Apostle, “that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” (1 John 3:16)
Love is no fun. Laying down your life is not meant to be fun. When we understand love through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross then we realise that love is supposed to cost us everything we have! Indeed, according to the Apostle, if your love isn’t costing you then you don’t know real love, and so you don’t know the real God!
“All you need is love!” That was one of the first great hits of The Beatles, if you remember, and I do believe that all you need is love – but not the sort of love that the Beatles were singing about! As I say, I’ve just come back from Syria and I don’t believe that there is any lack of romance and eros over there – a country that’s aflame with passions of one sort or another.
All they need is love – true enough – but the love that they need is the love of Jesus that John speaks of – the not-fun love that involves laying down lives for others.
Now I could talk more about love. Indeed, I’m sure I could talk about love all day – analysing the different Greek words used in the New Testament and reflecting on the varied theological nuances found in the different epistles, but I think that would be to miss the point. The challenge John offers us is not to understand love but to live it!
And that, in truth, is what I love most about Grand Mufti Hassoun too, for he, in my view, not only preaches love and forgiveness. He embodies it!
For those who don’t know, three years ago the Mufti’s 21-year-old son, Sariya, was gunned down while on his way home from Aleppo University. He was a gentle boy, the Mufti says, who “had never carried a weapon in his life”.
Dr Hassoun’s funeral oration was recorded and is on YouTube for those who haven’t heard it, though it makes for heavy-going listening, most especially when the Mufti tearfully forgives the men who killed his son and calls on them to lay down their weapons and re-join their country.
Apparently two of the four assassins were caught a year later and the Mufti went to see them in court. Again he offered them forgiveness, and he asked the judge to forgive them too, though he was told by the judge that it wasn’t up to hm as his son’s murder was only one of dozens that these men were responsible for. Even so, this is the kind of not-fun love that gives me hope for Syria and hope for our world.
“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. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:10-12)
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 3rd of May, 2015.