Well known religious verses sometimes seem disconnected from the real life actions of typical Church members and congregations.
There would be few regular congregation members who hadn’t at sometime heard Jesus’ familiar words as reported by John: “If you love me you will keep my commandments”. Whether or not the same congregation members would be described by objective observers as giving priority to those same commandments in their attitudes and actions might not be as obvious as we might hope.
If we find ourselves members of a group of Christians struggling for a recognised place in a society, particularly where Church means less than it once did, it is all too easy to start focussing on the Church itself rather than the commandments that Jesus insisted we should be following. Like car manufacturers and distributors there is always the danger we become obsessed with points of difference and may even start to think that selling our beliefs while identifying weaknesses in rival faiths is what it is all about.
Jesus cuts through all that and simply takes us back to the centralities of his teaching. Notice, that asking his followers to keep his commandments is very different insisting on a defined set of religious beliefs.
We ignore his leading at our peril. History shows clearly that focus on differences in religious beliefs have traditionally divided human kind and in the past have provided the excuse for ill treatment or rejection of those who do not share one’s own particular interpretation of scripture or cultural setting. Jesus does not support such focus on differences. Nowhere for example do we ever encounter Jesus in his role of wisdom teacher saying anything like: “ if you love me you will sign up to a particular denomination, or recite a creed, or sit at the feet of some great preacher or teacher”.
Inviting us to refocus on following simple commandments also raises a suspicion that maybe that detailed beliefs are not critically important for discipleship and even offers the possibility that limited or even wrong belief may not prevent us from finding a way of life that picks up the essence of what Jesus was on about.
Since as far as we know Jesus was able to summarise the two main commandments as love God and love one’s neighbour as oneself, it doesn’t take too much reflection to realise both commandments are helpful in coming to a personal philosophy which is designed for the benefit of the human race.
The act of loving God – or if you like responding positively to the creative forces on which the whole of life in its myriad forms is based, presumably means we should tread very carefully before imposing alternative ways of exploiting our environment. Burning forests, destroying soils, ravaging the bounty of sea and land, filling the atmosphere with choking poisons are all wrong at a number of levels, and following such courses of action would hardly fit the notion of expressing love of God. In this sense loving God gives a responsible outlook that rejects the option of seeking short term gain and long term harm. The implied notion that we should respect life is not so much religion as good sound thinking. We can hardly expect others to care about our environment unless we are prepared to do the same.
That much maligned poet Shelley did us good service when he reminded us that loving God is not some form of simplistic enslavement. In his poem Prometheus Unbound he pictures that sort of enslaving false God as Jupiter, obsessed with triumph and self glorification, and one who keeps mankind forever at his mercy, with “knee worship prayer and praise” and with “fear, self contempt and barren hope.”
Shelley contrasts this with what Prometheus has to offer when released from his chains.
“To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite,
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power which seems omnipotent
To love, and bear; to hope till hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates….”
Love of this sort of God gives an insight into why John defines God as love itself.
Richard MacKenna in his book God for Nothing, suggests that church rituals for all their limitations need to be the guardian of this sort of vision. “In the stillness and mystery”, he says “we begin to sense the presence of the Holy which underlines the simplest everyday things and people” (P149)
MacKenna doesn’t say so but perhaps this is where the oneness of Jesus becomes the oneness of God. Finding God in the realities about us gives us new respect for creation and opens up the possibilities for growth in understanding. Loving God then becomes a way of discovering and safeguarding wonder in all.
Loving one neighbour, similarly, makes for a much more harmonious community, especially when we remember each time Jesus explained or modelled such behaviour, he used as his examples those who we are not normally thinking of as friends. Being deserving of loving is not the same as being lovable. When Jesus said “Samaritans” when he talked of neighbours, his listeners would have been picturing those they distrusted, or even feared. Jesus was insisting that those deserving of care and consideration must include those his listeners have previously chosen to see as enemies.
When Jesus talks of the need for his disciples to be following his commandments, this includes the awkward commandments. When it comes to identifying our unlovable neighbours, these days those under suspicion might include communist enemies if we see ourselves as capitalists, those who have carried the flag of enemy nations, and those who have adopted alternate life styles. We are not entitled to make exceptions for abortionists, homosexuals, or those who are born into alien religions.
In Jesus’ day the sort of neighbours he seemed to have in mind were those on the margins who mainstream society had rejected: the invading Romans, the tax collectors, women who had rejected the conventional norms, and this included the prostitutes and adulterers.
These days I guess there is much more variety. Easy travel means an abundance of those who don’t share our culture or religion. We take for granted and precarious economic system that makes not just millionaires but billionaires of a comparatively few while paying lip service to assisting the much larger group of underprivileged whose numbers show few signs of reducing as the years go by.
I have sometimes wondered at those who can with clear conscience pray for the starving in the safety of a well heeled suburban morning congregation and do virtually nothing to follow through with any form of practical action. Wealthy congregation members who place a few small items of food in an offering basket before tucking in to a substantial morning tea are at least doing something but the question about whether or not this really represents love for neighbours still remains. In my own home town Papakura I take heart from the regular community meal organized by the mainstream churches for the homeless and poor of the city, but I also happen to know that most of the homeless are not known by name by more than a few of the local Christians.
Loving one’s neighbour has to go a step further beyond simply having benevolent feelings. We need to go that one step further and ask ourselves if our actions are already such that we ourselves will be recognised as neighbours by those we say we love. And yes, this is a tall ask. Maybe we need total honesty and admit when we have not yet arrived at that point.
Being at one with Jesus’ wisdom is probably at best understood as something that we might grow towards – however uncertainly.
Again I find encouragement in MacKenna’s take on this.
“The call of life to be his soul is (only) the start of the religious journey. The call of Being says, “ Be” yourself, do not try to be a saint, fainting at the sight of anything human, but get on with life, loving people, accepting them, making mistakes, getting dirty, fighting against all the pressures of the night to be on the side of healing.” (Ibid P 148)
Jesus as reported by John is anything but obsessed with religious observance. For those of us who seek the solace and comfort of public prayer we should not simply ignore Jesus’ caution about those who like to pray in public. When he commissions his followers here he is saying: . 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
Perhaps we need reminding those commandments are not focussed on Church attendance, chorus singing or arm waving. The themes Jesus has as his focus are the practicalities of life. Forgiving our enemies and turning the other cheek, looking after the widow …. these are dealing with every day dilemmas. Reaching out to the leper precedes healing and even feeding the five thousand can only begin if someone first offers up some morsels to share.
Love is not merely an abstraction to be admired. If it is not part of daily attitudes and daily actions, we can hardly pretend it makes a difference.
If a bishop is better appreciated by his congregation when robed and wearing his mitre, that is fine…and if we can listen to a magnificent pipe organ or be uplifted by the sonorous music of the choir so much the better….. always provided of course that we don’t get carried away with the sense of occasion and forget the primacy of those commandments.
Dress and religious customs can only take us so far. Even the scriptures are only there as a starting point, because it is only what we do in response that has any hope of helping our neighbours and the created world which surrounds us.
The gospel is forever potentially revolutionary because the world for all its progress and potential is still slow to realise what Jesus had to offer. Jean Vanier in his 1991 work Community and Growth, observed that “Rich countries themselves have to be awakened to the fact that happiness is not to be found in the frantic search for material goods, but in simple and loving relationships, lived and celebrated in communities which have renounced that search” (Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, London: Darton, Longman and Todd 1991, p309.
Perhaps he might also have added that those simple and loving relationships are nothing more nor less than the result of adopting Jesus’ commandments as a means to beginning real life.