Sunday, 29 August 2021

My Beloved


Today’s OT reading from the Song of Solomon(2:8-13) is beautifully romantic, isn’t it?

It is a passionate, poetic dialogue between two lovers:

·         The one cries out, “(I hear) the voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.

·         The other responds, “‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.’”

Nothing can persuade me that this is about anything but the physical desire the couple have for one another – they are lovers, and they are in love. Which is why my wife Marty and I chose this passage, sharing the voices between us, at a service in Killodiernan Church to bless and celebrate our marriage, a quarter of a century ago.

But, you may ask, why should such passionate love poetry be read in church? Indeed, why should the ‘Song of Solomon’ be included in our Bible at all, since God is not mentioned in it even once? The early church chose to view this Jewish text as an allegory for the love between God and his people. Later Christians read it as an allegory of the love of Christ for his Church. And we may do so too.

But I prefer to see the inclusion of the Song of Solomon in our Bible as a sanctification of passionate human love, a recognition that it is a holy thing, inspired I feel sure by the Holy Spirit.

In our 2nd reading, James addresses his audience as ‘my beloved’, which no doubt explains why the lectionary pairs it with this reading from the Song of Solomon. ‘Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above’, says James ‘coming down from the Father of lights.’ The essence of passionate human love is surely the generous giving by lovers of themselves, one to the other. Such love is a perfect gift from God. Without it, loving, stable human families would not be possible.

Let us look at today’s 2nd reading (James 1:17-27) a bit more closely.

The author identifies himself as ‘James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ’, and he is writing to ‘the twelve tribes scattered abroad’. It is traditionally attributed to James the brother of Jesus, also known as James the Just. St Paul describes him as ‘one of the pillars of the church’ in Jerusalem. James remains in Jerusalem and writes to Jewish Christians in the diaspora, at the same time as Paul travels among and writes to Gentile Christians.

It is God’s good purpose, says James, to ‘(give) us birth by the word of truth’. I am reminded of the opening words of John’s Gospel: ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth … grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’.

‘So that’, James continues, ‘we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures’.When we offer the first fruits of the harvest to God, we intend them to be the best of the good things he has graced us with. And similarly, God intends us, through the word of truth he has given us in Jesus, to be the best people we can be. James pleads with those he writes to, and to us: ‘Rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls’.

‘Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger’, says James, ‘for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness’. There is a great deal of anger about just now, isn’t there? And not just anger about secular things. For instance, Christians who disagree about how to respond to God’s word in the way they treat the LGBT community are furious with each other, even in our own Church of Ireland. But James tells us that such anger is unproductive, it does not produce positive results. Instead, we should respond to God’s word with meekness, with humility, not use it to bludgeon each other in argument.

But our meekness must not result in passivity. We should ‘be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves’, says James, ‘Those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers  - they will be blessed in their doing’.

‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this, says James: ‘to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world’. Listening to God’s word in church on Sunday is worthless – worthless - if it does not cause us to act upon it. Our response must be twofold.

·         First, we must generously support the poor and the marginalised – and for me that includes our LGBT brothers and sisters. If not, we deserve the rebuke that Jesus gives to the Pharisees and scribes in the 3rd reading (Mark7:1-8,14-15,21-23): ‘You (are) hypocrites. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’.

·         Second, we must resist the pressures of the world to be complicit in evil. We must guard and discipline our hearts as well, for as Jesus teaches us, ‘It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come…. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person’.

I finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word:

Cleanse our consciences, O Lord,
and enlighten our hearts
through the daily presence of your Son Jesus Christ,
that when he comes in glory to be our judge
we may be found undefiled and acceptable in his sight;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen


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