From the Heart
Suppliers of greetings cards, chocolates and red roses will be celebrating this weekend. Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and for weeks the tills have been ringing joyfully. Although St Valentine is officially on the Church calendar of saints (He’s down as St Valentine, bishop and martyr) Churches rarely celebrate St Valentine these days partly because, among so many different stories about him, it’s difficult to distinguish fact from fable. There are actually at least half a dozen saints with this name, the stories varying from a priest who secretly married couples, a soldier, a bishop who really impressed Emperor Claudius but fell from favour when he tried to convert the Emperor. One tradition has Valentine, imprisoned for his Christian faith, falling in love with his Roman gaoler’s blind daughter. He sent her a letter, which miraculously restored her sight and signalled the conversion of the gaoler and his family to Christianity. The letter was signed, “From your Valentine”. Whatever the facts, a Christian saint is now firmly associated with love. How appropriate, since that’s what the good news of Jesus Christ is all about!
The Heart’s role in Jesus’ teaching:
Today’s extract of Jesus’ teaching is sometimes referred to as ‘The Beatitudes’ i.e. the blessed attitudes, and they are about giving hope to his disciples who had left everything to follow him; so they were poor, needy and grieving over what they had left behind. But this passage may be an extract from the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew’s Gospel known also known as the Beatitudes. And they are all about what’s in one’s heart and what ensues from love in one’s heart. For God is love and his love is for all of us; and through us for others… “significant others” or not!
Perhaps those Valentine hearts should remind us that the core of Jesus’ teaching is about the heart. He stresses the importance of what goes on inside us: our thoughts, our feelings and not just our outward appearance and actions. Our attitudes to God and to other people are what define us as Christians.
What we may not appreciate is that this concept would have been seen as scandalous, as it was believed that one was blessed by being obedient to the Laws given through Moses: blessed with long life, health and wealth. But when legalism replaces love in religion it becomes dark. When there is no compassion or mercy or forgiveness or kindness in religious practice then evil takes over. Such instances as the Inquisition, the burning of those accused of witchcraft, the burning of Catholics, the expulsion of Jews from this nation and antisemitism in the church are all such examples. And, of course, the torture and crucifixion of Jesus is the most poignant reminder of the awful consequences when love is missing from religious practice.
As Jesus put it, ‘Love, is the fulfilling of the law.’ Of course, the Mosaic Law was meant to be an expression of God’s love for his Covenant people in which justice, fairness, hospitality towards the stranger and respect of one’s neighbour are foundational principles. And the two great commandments to love God and one’s neighbour as oneself are enshrined in that law (in Deuteronomy). Sadly somehow, a heartless application of that law came into being and was systemic amongst the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. We have to be so careful not to become slaves to the law – legalistic in religious application, rather servants of its loving purpose.
It is, perhaps, wise then that the Church of England has given us guidance rather than rules during the pandemic restrictions, so that each church could interpret that guidance locally through the application of the law of loving one’s neighbour. In fact, it is this law of love that has guided our decision-making throughout these recent challenging times, and I pray, will continue to guide us always as we go forward.
Back to Valentine’s Day. If we turn our attention away from the cardboard hearts to the ones that beat inside us, we have a better chance of developing good relationships with one another as human beings. Each of our hearts was created by a loving God who values us all and gave us the capacity to love our neighbours and thus to become more like God. The whole of the Bible is a love letter from God. Its entire message can be summed up in those three little words: I love you. Jesus lived, died and was raised to new life for us, because God loves us. The Spirit breathes God’s love into our lives today.
Some of us may not send or receive a Valentine card, but every one of us can be sure of a love that will never falter: the love of God. How we respond to that is a matter of individual choice, but God shows his love for us in reaching out to us through His son, Jesus. Are you willing to respond to that love? Here? Now?
The Rev’d Hugh Ellis, Vicar & Team Rector