“I love you!” What a wealth of meaning lies behind those three simple words. How much heartache, how many songs, how many tears stand behind them?
I wonder if you have ever longed for someone to say, “I love you.” And I wonder if they ever did. So many stories and films are based around this seemingly simple concept. I even found reference to the challenge of these words in the pantomime we attended shortly after Christmas, Aladdin. Do you remember the three things you can’t wish for in the story? (You can’t wish for more wishes; you can’t wish to kill someone; and you can’t uses wishes to make someone fall in love with you.)
It even came up during the extensive training we had before we were allowed to adopt our son. (I do feel the need to apologise for repeated references to our adoption but it dominated our lives for SO long that it often comes to mind!) During our sessions with other prospective adopters, we were told on several occasions by the experts not to expect our child to say, ‘I love you’ anytime soon, and if they did, to recognise it as a mechanistic response designed to protect themselves from harm. At that time, we boasted to ourselves that we were rational folks and wouldn’t mind what he said or didn’t say. We thought we would understand that because of the trauma he’d suffered he wouldn’t be able to reciprocate the commitment we’d made but that we’d be fine with it.
As the weeks and months went on, though, and after all the hard work and heartache we endured, we began to long for those simple words more than anything else in the world – except possibly sleep! Every night, we’d faithfully say, “I love you, son.” (Even if we didn’t especially feel like it after the day we’d had!) One night, just as were creeping out, we were bitterly disappointed when he said, “I love you … teddy.” (We could have throttled that bear!) Like so many others, we had to learn the hard way that you simply cannot make someone love you, just as the Genie warned Aladdin!
Eventually, after many months, we were lucky and the words finally came and when he repeats them – as he does on rare occasions – then it is a precious moment and we treasure it accordingly. We know, though, that for many adoptive parents this magical moment simply never happens. The child has been so damaged by what has happened to them in early life, and they have seen so much abuse and cruelty that they cannot grasp what true love might actually mean. It will take an enormous amount of help and selfless care – and probably many false steps along the road of life – for them ever to be even capable of loving someone.
Of course, this inability to reciprocate is not limited to adopted children, and I am sure we can all think of similar experiences from our own lives, and those of friends and families. People suffering from dementia, for example, who suddenly lose the ability to reciprocate the love they have shared with a partner for decades.
To say, “I love you,” is one of the bravest things we can do because it inevitably exposes us to the potential of the cruellest pain and heartache. It makes us incredibly vulnerable and means that we risk terrible heartache and loss. That, of course, is why some people can never say those simple words. It is a standard element of many films and sitcoms that one person says those words first and then waits in vain for the other to respond.
I had cause to reflect on all this earlier the other week, when I spent two days at my local primary school in Putney. It is not a church school and they spend two days each term studying the major world religions, and it was Christianity’s turn on this occasion. So, I spent the time very happily going from class to class talking about stories like the Lost Sheep and the Good Samaritan, and answering the children’s questions. For the eldest year groups, the RE co-ordinator set me the very challenging task of tackling the entire Bible! She wanted them to have a grasp of how the whole scriptures hang together and developed over time. Despite my misgivings, it turned out to be quite good fun in the end. I used some of the resources I had picked up through the years – including a large-scale map of the Biblical world (see below) – to talk about the different parts of the scriptures and how they formed part of an ongoing story.
At the end, I asked the classes what they thought the ‘big picture’ of the Bible actually was: could they sum it all up in a single sentence or a few words. As usual with children, the answers were very thoughtful and creative: “It’s all about kindness.” “It’s the story of God.” “Jesus!” I suggested two ideas, with which they seemed to agree. The Bible is a story of God’s ongoing revelation to God’s people. We might also say it’s a story of a relationship between God and God’s people, centred on our theme of covenant.
To have a relationship, to love someone truly, requires both revelation and covenant. It requires us to show our true selves to the other person; to reveal who we really are and hope that the person won’t shy away. And though we may not use the formal, and slightly old-fashioned, word ‘covenant’, true love requires commitment and promises. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, saw the relationship with God in Covenant as being like a marriage between human beings on the one side and God in Christ on the other (Ephesians 5.21-33). His original Covenant Prayer echoed the wedding vows, and required believers to take Christ “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, for all times and conditions, to love, honour and obey thee before all others, and this to the death”. If we then view the Bible in that light – as a history of the relationship between God and humanity – is it going too far to see scripture essentially as a love letter from God?
In the beginning, God reveals himself to Abraham (or Abram). He seeks him out specifically; he shows something of his true nature to him; and he asks for a relationship, a true covenant. Like any couple in a relationship, there are good days and bad. God continually reveals more to humanity about the world and God, and when all is well then they are both blessed. Continually, though, humanity withdraws and shows itself unwilling to accept the commitment required to be in a true relationship. Through the words of Jeremiah, God offers hope of a new relationship – based not on legally-binding commitments or pieces or paper – but on a covenant of the heart. In Christ, that promise is fulfilled, as humanity finally encounters its God face to face, and sees the true depth of divine love.
Sadly, like so many films and stories, one side of the relationship finds it so hard to respond to that offer of love. We pull back, afraid of what that commitment may mean; where it may lead us; what it might require of us. It is that offer of true relationship, though, that we celebrate and renew today. For me, the best image for Covenant Sunday is the one we often use on our website – and something that has gone by the wayside during the pandemic – a handshake. The story of Covenant in the Bible is of God holding out his hand and offering us a relationship. It is not the promise of untold wealth, endless happiness or an easy life; it is indeed ‘for better or worse, for richer and poorer’. But it is the offer of a lifetime: the offer of unconditional love and a relationship built on the firmest of foundations. The challenge for us all once more today is how will we respond? What is our answer to God’s “I love you.”?
This is the Covenant Sunday sermon I preached this year at Putney Methodist Church and Holy Trinity Roehampton, part of the Ecumenical Parish of Roehampton which includes Roehampton Methodist Church. The texts used were: Genesis 17:1-7; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Mark 14:22-25.
For many years, Methodists have begun the year in a very distinctive way with the Covenant Service. It draws on the important concept of covenant that can found throughout the Bible, celebrating God’s gracious offer to Israel that, “I will be their God and they shall be my people”. This offer was then extended beyond Israel to all women and men in Jesus Christ, who also provides the supreme example of what it is to live in such a relationship with God.
This idea of Covenant was basic to John Wesley’s understanding of Christian discipleship. He saw the relationship with God in Covenant as being like a marriage between human beings on the one side and God in Christ on the other (Ephesians 5.21-33). His original Covenant Prayer involved taking Christ as,
my Head and Husband, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, for all times and conditions, to love, honour and obey thee before all others, and this to the death
Wesley recognised that people needed not just to accept but also to grow in relationship with God. He therefore emphasised that God’s grace and love constantly seeks to transform us, and so we should continually seek and pray to grow in holiness and love.
Over a number of years Wesley gradually saw the need for some regular ceremony which would enable people to open themselves to God more fully. He first created a distinctive form of service in 1755, drawing on Puritan examples. It emphasised both the individual and corporate nature of the covenant, and the earnest response required of all those who participated. From its earliest days, it was celebrated alongside Holy Communion.