God so loved…

This must be one of the most famous and oft quoted verses of the Bible –; ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life…’

I’m sure that most of you could recite it, could sing it, and know it well. And on Mothering Sunday, when we think about the love of parent and child and the kind of self-sacrificing love that is possible and that we might have known in some ways in our own lives, this sense of what God’s love might be like has a particular kind of slant… God so loved the world. It is expressed in our English translation in male language, but it could be the love of a mother for her child that offers us some of the deepest glimpses of the wonder of the love that God has for us.

But, familiar though this verse is, it is not easy to understand or to explain. Christians have argued about it. What did it mean for God to ‘give’ his Son so that others might not perish? And the Gospel writer seems to be linking God’s love to Jesus being ‘lifted up’ – which must be about the cross, right? How on earth are we to understand that?

I know that we also have in our heads, if we’ve been going to church for most of our lives, all those hymns that tell us that the cross saves us because Jesus paid the price for our sins.

There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin

And we’ve all heard the theory that goes something like this; that God, being a just God, demanded a penalty for human sin.  There was no one alive good enough to pay such a penalty, who could offer a sacrifice good enough.  So God sent his own son to pay the penalty, to take our sins upon himself and pay the price that we could not pay. So now that the price has been paid, sin and death can no longer hold us and God is free to love us. I imagine that you’ve all heard a version of that.

But there have been many who have also said that this way of understanding the cross is just not right. Is it morally right that an innocent victim should pay the price for the sins of another? Isn’t the greatest offence committed in the slaying of an innocent, even and especially the Son of God? And how could Christ’s suffering, the suffering of one person, somehow cancel out the suffering of millions over the centuries and pay for the crimes of many? Could we really love a God who killed his own son?

We know that the cross saves us, that somehow this lifting up, this story, this overwhelming event in history, has power to change people’s hearts and lives, power to heal the sick, power to cast out evil, power to release and liberate, power to save. We know this and we’ve experienced it for ourselves. But how can we understand it?

Today I will tell you the story of one great Christian who loved God and who loved the cross of Christ, but who understood it very differently for the way I’ve described. He was born in Brittany in 1079. He was a clever student he soon realised, with all the courage of youth, that he understood more than his teachers. He quarrelled with them and started giving his own lectures and many came to hear him speak. He was the brightest intellectual star of his time in Paris. When he was 36 he agreed to tutor the teenage niece of one of the canons of Notre Dame Cathedral. There was a scandal and a secret marriage. Then she was forced to go to a convent and one night, a band of hired thugs broke into his rooms and assaulted him terribly.  After this he became a Benedictine monk and he carried on writing and teaching theology. But his theology was always controversial and he was accused of polluting the minds of his students with heresy. He died on a journey to Rome to appeal to the Pope not to condemn him. His name was Peter Abelard and the woman he loved was Eloise. The story of their romance (if we would call it that now) is probably better known than the story of his theology. But love is the theme that links them.

Abelard’s theology was so controversial because he believed that what happened on the cross was not that justice was satisfied by the sacrifice of an innocent man. He did not believe that Jesus paid the ransom price for us, either to deliver us from the devil or to satisfy the demands of a wrathful God. He believed that Jesus’ death on the cross was instead a demonstration of the love of God for all humanity. Its saving power lay in its ability to move hearts and minds. He wrote so beautifully and powerfully of the love of God shown in Christ.

“..our hearts should be set on fire by such a gift of divine grace… our redemption is that deeper love within us which …….secures for us the true liberty of the children of God, in order that we might do all things out of love rather than out of fear – love for him who has shown us such grace than no greater can be found…”

This was ‘love to the loveless shown..’. This was the greater love which lays down its life. Abelard saw in the cross of Christ the most profound presentation of the love of God for the world and ..for him.. for you.. for me. Knowing that God loved the world so much, Abelard knew that he was loved and that love could save him.

In the medieval age, most Christians saw the cross as a symbol of the powerful victory of God over sin and the devil, like a victory standard displaying God’s glorious triumph. And so they carried the cross into their own battlefields, and in the name of Christ and for the love of the cross, shed blood on many a foreign field.  Or they saw the cross as a sign of the terrible suffering and pain that true faith means. And so they displayed in their churches pictures of Christ’s tortured body. In this fevered culture Abelard’s beliefs looked strange. Perhaps they looked not ‘manly’ enough somehow. The thugs who attacked him castrated him. Abelard saw in God a deep and gentle love, a love that showed itself not in triumph or in glory or in paying a ransom, but in unlimited and tender giving of itself.

In commentating on Paul’s letter to the Romans, Abelard wrote

“Every one is made more just, more loving towards God after the Passion of Christ than he had been before..” and ….

“I think that the purpose and cause of the incarnation was that he might illuminate the world by his wisdom and excite it to love of himself.”

Love moves us. Love begets love. To be loved, to know that we are loved, transforms us and makes us new.  Some say to talk of love as the root of salvation is too sentimental. But those who call for something other than love have nothing more powerful. The very unsentimental St Paul told us that love is the greatest gift of all in his first letter to the Corinthians. And this same apostle puts love at the centre of his theology of the cross. ‘God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us’. And the writer of John’s Gospel framed the verse we are thinking about today, ‘God so loved the world..’ God loves us.

It wasn’t until 1892 that someone decided to revive the memory of Abelard by preaching a sermon in Oxford. A preacher then spoke out against understanding the crucifixion as vicarious punishment. He told his congregation that the atoning, saving work of Christ, was not just his death, but the whole revelation of God constituted by his life. Jesus shows us what God wants us to be. The story of Jesus, and the story of his cross, has a real effect upon us, it makes us better. It makes us better.  It is the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ, opening wide his arms upon the cross, that makes us better.

You may still say, as many do, that this is not enough. This will not do as a theory of salvation for a world in which we have known the Holocaust and many other terrible sufferings and atrocities. The hearts of men and women are not always moved to love. Mothers still weep for the suffering of their children.

And it is true, that the work of salvation is not yet done. But it is also true that the cross of Christ, that the life of Christ, has already saved so many by revealing to them – to us – the depth of God’s love. Of all powers, love is the most powerful while it is still powerless. And it is the truth shown forth by the sign of the cross.  It is the sign that says from God, ‘You can even crucify me and I will go on loving you’.  A love like that could save anyone. A love like that could save the world.

Just as the love of any human being may save you from loneliness, despair and decline and lift you into the light, so may the beautiful and wonderful love of God. The whole story of Jesus, if you make it your own, will change and transform your heart and your life. The work of salvation is not yet done, but Christ calls us to join with him in proclaiming and offering the love of God to the world.

I am so glad that we have a new sign up at our church, and that it is the sign of the cross. I see it now not pre-eminently as a sign of a ransom paid or of the memory of a Roman execution, but as the sign of God’s arms outstretched towards the whole world.  Crosses were first intended by the Romans as signs of warning to passersby, but now the cross should be a sign first of all of love. For God so loved the world. That’s why Jesus came. That’s what he declared. And that is what we stand for. On Mothering Sunday, or any Sunday, Amen.