During a weekend at theological college last year I was presented with the idea that it is a fallacy to think of the love of God and the love of neighbour as two separate things. In a far more articulate way than I can do, Professor John Hull, (with whom I have the privilege of going to church) explained how he saw the love of God collapse into the love of neighbour so that the two loves become one (to quote the Spice Girls.) As he says in his essay Only One Way to Walk with God: Christian Discipleship for New Expressions of Church: “It is not a matter of loving God first and then as an outcome loving our neighbour but rather the biblical model is that as we love the neighbour and seek justice for him and her, our love to God finds concrete expression, is enriched, and finds a closeness with God who has commanded us so to walk.” John argues that the walking with God is a horizontal relationship of steady fellowship and that loving your neighbour is the only way to love God.
There is a lot about that which I find tempting but I do have some questions about the role of Church, of worship, of prayer and of religious experience. I might well find answers to those questions if I read the rest of the essay. But this weekend I found myself thinking about the theory the other way round.
Over the last few days Simon and I have been in Shropshire surrounded by family and friends to celebrate our 20 years of marriage. We had such a lovely couple of days that they almost felt unreal. I felt like God was smiling on our weekend not least because of the beautiful rainbow that welcomed us to Wilderhope and the stunning mist that floated over the landscape in the early morning. But where I really saw the love, presence and grace of God was in the love of my neighbour. Here are just a few of the wonderful ways people embodied that love: the way those who did not know each other mixed and connected; the way they helped out with the running of the weekend and particularly our parents who spent a lot of time in the kitchen; the way generations mixed, chatted and danced together; the way people who could not make it remembered us with cards, texts and presents; the way they created such a wonderful atmosphere on Saturday evening that led the barn dance band to say it was the nicest event they had ever played at; the way they sang our favourite hymns; the way David, our vicar, prayed gathering all our hopes into a few short sentences; the way my Dad led the renewing of our vows – his 80-year-old voice strong, familiar and faithful and the kindness showed to him when he needed a hand on a strenuous walk.
Being surrounded by the love of so many friends and family and celebrating the love of our marriage, it was impossible to forget the love of God that I see as the source of all love. God’s love was being breathed in every burst of laughter, reflected in every smile, transmitted in every touch and shared in every small act of kindness. It was breathtakingly tangible and seemed to wrap around the weekend like a gentle mist.
So in a way the weekend became an unofficial sacrament of our life together. It made plainly visible the blessings that we share and the goodness that we have received. It filled us with gratitude and hope and humbled us with its undeserved generosity. So I don’t know if there is only one way to walk with God but I do know that, in the words of the ancient hymn made popular by Taize, ‘Wherever love is, there God is.’