From the first letter of John: God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
Those who abide in love… not those who know love or who express love or who share love, but those who abide in love. To abide in love, to live in accordance with; perhaps to immerse oneself in; to shape and frame life and its decisions within. This isn’t about an expression of love as and when an emotion arises within us, it’s about making love central to who and how we are, making the outworking of our love for God central to the ways that we engage with other people.
And we do that in a whole range of ways. We express love for other people on an individual basis. That may be for a partner or children; our parents or siblings; our closest friends or extended family. I tend to think about a kind of spider’s web of connections and some of those bonds are very close and very tight and some of them are a bit looser and more distanced, but there is a collective forming of almost a bubble of care and support that is an expression of love and compassion.
There is almost nothing we wouldn’t do for the people we love most. When children are sick, parents will often express that they would willingly swap places and experience suffering themselves rather than finding themselves watching a child deal with pain and the challenges of ill health. People find that they are able to achieve things they never thought they could manage if the alternative is that a loved one is harmed in some way. So there are stories about people finding herculean strength for instance, or bravery that they had no idea they could access.
Moving out from that innermost circle of people whom we could name and with whom we tend to have reciprocal relationships, there are the many people we know a little, or perhaps don’t know at all but to whom we can offer a moment of kindness, a working out of God’s love, whether it’s named as such or not. We may express those acts of care on a 1:1 basis – helping out a neighbour, speaking to someone at the bus stop – or to a group of people. Listening with the Samaritans; cooking for homeless people; helping at the Food Bank. All are expressions of our love for God’s people, attempts to make a difference in the lives of people whom we don’t know.
The next step away from our inner circle of love is when we join with other people to express love and care. That may be a practical expression – working with a team to collect for Christian Aid week for instance or it may be at the level of trying to make a difference at a governmental or strategic level. Supporting campaigns for prisoners of conscience; taking the time to join with others to have a collective voice about something that matters. All ways of expressing our love for other people and our love for our Creator.
Within the Cathedral, we’ve been trying to develop ways of expressing something important about God’s love as we build partnerships with external agencies. One good example of that is Edinburgh Street Assist who are working out of the Walpole Hall two nights a week. They are teams of volunteers, some of whom are medics and paramedics; all of whom are trained in first aid and mental health first aid, and who take care of people in the city centre who have become incapacitated. They work with the police and the city council to offer non-judgemental and appropriate care and support to people who’ve got into difficulties. They’ve told me that it’s important to them to be supported by us in prayer; it’s important for us that our space is used by groups that are seeking to make a difference for other people.
On a personal level, we know what makes a difference – whether or not we always do it – and we recognise expressions of love and care when they come our way. But our Cathedral isn’t just our gathered community, it’s also our buildings and land and the space that we occupy within our city. We occupy a large and imposing building and we’re blessed to have a considerable amount of land that surrounds it. Lots of people love and care for the building and the grounds in a range of ways. People volunteer to help look after our building; they see things that need to be done and just get on and do them. Volunteers ensure that are grounds are maintained and developed. And the building itself experiences random acts of kindness. Over the past few weeks, someone has been bringing in vases of fresh flowers. I’ve never seen the donor so far, but I have seen the gift they have left – and the colour and pleasure that those flowers bring.
A Cathedral, a building that is open every day of the week has a particular role within its wider community. We have a calling within our city, to offer space and hospitality, to witness to the love of God, and we evidence that in who we welcome and how we are able to offer that welcome. So a building that is obviously cared for; grounds that have been tended and thoughtfully planted; notices that give some idea of our ideals and direction of travel – all of that tells people that we have something here that matters to us, that is loved and cherished – and that we want to share. Because love isn’t something to hold to ourselves; it doesn’t flourish if we hide it away and try to protect it from the world out there. Love for one another, love for the places that are important to us, love for the risen Christ, love for the Creator God – love grows and flourishes when it’s given oxygen.
That verse from the letter of John: those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them. As that is true for individuals and the important people in their lives, it is also true for significant places in our lives. People talk about loving their homes; loving particular holiday destinations; loving favourite places to walk or picnic or whatever. And many people love this Cathedral. As we find ways to point towards the love that is bestowed upon our building, we are pointing towards the love that we experience for and from God. This isn’t an optional extra, it’s a fundamental responsibility. We come into this place knowing that we are loved by God. Week by week we say, ‘we love because God loved us first’. God loved us first and we then have a responsibility to create an environment within which that love can flourish, an environment within which our wider community can know that each one of God’s people is loved equally.
Love is at the heart of our story and our witness. Love abides within our Cathedral and its external space, love that is of God and points to God. As we were reminded at the end of our reading: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. Our mission as a Cathedral community and building is to witness to that love and in so doing to witness to the love of God in our midst.