The very first sermon I ever preached was on the love of God. I remember it vividly because I was in my last year at boarding school and was asked to preach in front of the whole school, where there were also several ordained ministers present. It was a nerve-wracking experience. The passage I chose came from the first letter of John where he speaks about the gift of God’s love given to us, and goes on to say, if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. What I took from that is that while love is a gift given to us and also by us to others, it is also a choice that we make, and that when we make that choice over and over again, our love becomes less self-focused.

Bernard of Clairvaux, a medieval Cistercian monk, wrote a lot about the love of God. He also had a deep insight into human nature. Some might see in his thought early insights into psychology and centuries before Piaget he developed a kind of developmental framework that he called a ladder to heaven, or ladder of perfection. He said that human beings generally begin by being completely focused on themselves. We love someone for what we can get from them, and then slowly over time we come to love them for who they are, unless something happens to stop that progress. The same happens in the spiritual life, we begin my loving God for what we can get from God and slowly over time we come to see and love God in a very different way, learning to love God for who God is.

In Paul’s famous passage on love, used so often at weddings, we hear him say something about a transformation that takes place in us as we love. He says, “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part, then will I know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Paul is speaking from his own experience as he began as an angry, judgemental persecutor of the early Christian Church, and through his conversion the love of God lit up his life and renewed his whole world view. He literally saw things and people differently because of his encounter with the love of God in Jesus Christ. And so in our New Testament reading this Sunday Paul speaks about this when he says, we regard no one from a human point of view.

Some people say pessimistically that you can’t change human nature, but Paul disagrees. Paul knows that from his own experience that God can change us in Christ. We are continually influenced through others in whom Christ is alive and at work and through the love we give, the patience, kindness, goodness and self-control we offer one another we nurture a culture if you like that builds one another up in Christ. That’s what we offer to all who are baptised in our church when we say, We will live out our baptism as a loving community in Christ nurturing one another in faith, upholding one another in prayer and encouraging one another in service.

I remain firmly committed to the conviction that one of the most vital and important missional strategies of the Christian Church is baptism, not only for those coming for baptism, and the instruction and pastoral care offered to them, but also to those of us who vow to live into our baptismal vocation to be people of reconciliation, people of good news, people who echo in our lives and life together the love of God. Paul speaks of this vocation by calling us ambassadors for Christ. Yes it sounds very lofty and at the same time demanding and it is, for it demands the very best from us and expects us to reflect the image of God through how we live.