Saying warm familiar words in the context of a Church service can indeed lift the soul. Unfortunately when those familiar words are a call to action in the outside world and when no action eventuates, those same well-loved words risk becoming trite and vacuous.
The scene here is the last supper. Judas has departed to do his work and the shadows are gathering. Jesus finds words of commission. “So you are to love one another, as I have loved you.” Perhaps Hollywood is partly to blame for us missing the hard edge to this most familiar text. Love, Hollywood style, is full of warm fuzzy happy ever after feelings. By contrast, love Jesus style is action born of compassion….and what is more action in the midst of life’s gritty realities.
Perhaps we need to get real and admit we should be uncomfortable both with the word “as” and with the tag Jesus has added. …. Does he really want us to do as he did when he added that bit about…. “as I have loved you“?
If we think of how Jesus showed love, it was anything but warm and fuzzy.
Where authority was showing lack of compassion, Jesus challenged that authority…and at every level. Whether or not we would be comfortable joining him in such a challenge is not so clear. Going in to bat on behalf of those who can’t cope is not a certain path to popularity. Where Scribes and Pharisees were using religion as a means of self advancement to parade their status and advance their social position, Jesus did not shrink from the confrontation. Challenging Church or government leadership may not get us crucified today but nor would it bring us public approval. Notice too, that where culture and tradition were used to exclude, Jesus stepped forward. The lepers were touched. He made time for the Samaritan woman, the tax collector and the prostitute. Today’s equivalent might be something like helping those with social diseases like AIDS, or speaking up on behalf of those belonging to unpopular racial or religious groups any one of which carries its own stigma.
As an outside observer and one at a distance I would have to say my current impression is that one major political party in the US (via the election positions of their candidates) and a considerable portion of the Bible belt (as portrayed in our media) leave me the impression that at least in the United States there is widespread rejection of this particular challenge by Jesus.
When Jesus dealt with those society rejected we may note his lack of condemnation. Remember the woman caught in adultery, the tax collector up the tree, the lepers…. Whether or not we can find the same lack of condemnation in our own words and actions today may not be so clear. Locally, I hear plenty of Church based condemnation of homosexual marriage and street prostitution. While I have often heard the catch cry, “we love the sinner but we hate the sin”, I can’t honestly say I have seen those identified by the Church as sinners congregating in Church in large numbers in response to the stated love. To refuse to get close enough to know the name or personal situation of the street prostitute, or to prefer to present a petition against homosexual marriage rather than become friends with a gay, these actions do not tell the prostitute or homosexual that anyone cares about their situation.
The contrast with quiet organ music or a civilised cup of tea with respectable friends at the end of a Church service could hardly be greater. This is not to say love does away with the need for the cup of tea and sharing time, but it strongly suggests we must never think that is all that is needed.
When it came to his disciples, Jesus took those he loved well out of their comfort zone. When the disciples entreated him not to return to an area where the crowd had been angry, he disregarded the disciples’ desire for safety. When they counselled against continuing towards Jerusalem, Jesus simply kept walking.
Doing what is best for people, does not always mean leaving them comfortable and unchallenged. Nor is the vision to which we are called the equivalent of a series of neatly predetermined GPS locations.
At best the analogy would be that of an occasionally glimpsed compass needle. We set up our course according to a general direction but the voyage itself is largely into uncharted territory.
Jesus left those he loved with genuine challenges. He had modelled attitudes of valuing justice, forgiveness and compassion – and wanted his followers to do the same. When Peter’s nerve failed him –according to the gospel, Jesus simply set him further tasks. “Feed my sheep” he said….At this safe distance in time we can think of it in terms of offering warm support to newcomers in faith, but when John was writing his gospel, Israel was in crisis and the wolves were eying the sheep. The new Christians were going to need support in their acts of witness and those identified as leaders of the new movement would be attracting anger and genuine danger.
Love, for Jesus, was never just a feeling. It was proactive and highly visible. “By this all will know you are my disciples”. And we can understand this point. If someone is hungry and lonely, knowing that a group from a well fed and comfortable congregation have said a passing Amen to a worship leader’s prayer of intercession mentioning the hungry and the lonely would never convince the lonely and hungry anyone cares. But someone prepared to make friends –to offer food and give the hungry and lonely the time of day …. now that would start to mean something.
We are very likely to fall short when the going gets tough, and nor I suspect could it be otherwise. Even the saints of history had their failings. Yet without the emphasis on acts of love the Church becomes an irrelevant social club. A moment’s thought reminds us that in some situations we are all atheists. By this I mean that with so many versions of God on offer, there will always be some we reject. The evangelists can preach all they like but unless what they are preaching is given integrity by lived lives why would we want to listen? As an Archbishop of Canterbury once put it : “We make our version of God believable to the extent we are the people we are”.
We can hardly relegate this instruction on how to love to an incidental requirement of the disciples because this verse appears 13 times in similar form in the New Testament. In today’s reading it was the also last wish of the farewell discourse to the Disciples at the last supper. It occurs several times in the Gospel of John, and the need to love one another is reiterated several times in John’s first and second Epistle with the theme of doing so in imitation of Christ, while Paul says in Romans 13:8 “He who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the law”.
The primacy of love as an ideal is easy to find in the New Testament teachings. “… The greatest of these is love”, said Paul in chapter 13 of first Corinthians, and elsewhere in Colossians 3:14, “above all clothe your-selves with love”. A great ideal, but if believe we appear so clothed, perhaps we might give passing thought to why those known to be prostitutes, drug addicts or habitual drunks rarely seem to seek out traditional Church congregations for acceptance. I suspect that it is at least partly the suspicion that in a church they are more likely to encounter judgement than understanding. I have heard it suggested that sometimes Christians confuse their ability to desire the best for themselves and reject the worst – with their tendency to judge others on the basis of their behaviour.
Even if we are non judgemental ourselves, (which from personal experience I would admit is far easier said than lived), the frequent publicity generated by some of the more vocal Church moralists as they lead their crusades against parole for serious criminals, against those who offend traditional religious mores and against those whose sins are visible to the community is its own advertisement.
No wonder the pariahs of society don’t automatically seek out the church as their first choice for solace or care. In practice the drop-outs and the unloved turn to the gang houses, the pimps and the mates at the pub – where at least there may be a degree of understanding and sympathy. And where they do turn to the Church, is it surprising that they turn first to those who set up the night shelters and those who help by providing showers and a change of clothes? If we fail to first find the unsurpassable worth in those to whom we wish to minister, how can our intended love be expressed with integrity?
Because we are not alone in the Church, it is also interesting to wonder how we might come across collectively. Because we are groups with commonality of purpose claiming the same teaching for inspiration, it is interesting to reflect on what we do as a group. Are we set up for others or ourselves? At the 2012 annual Church Conference, the New Zealand Methodist Church set up a ten year commitment to a new programme entitled Let the Children Live. This programme was intended first to draw attention to the growing percentage of children in the country whose future is blighted by poverty and associated problems, then to commit to action to address the problems.
There are already some hopeful signs, with individual congregations educating themselves and becoming involved with helping programmes at a local and national level. If I am honest, I would also have to say that thus far some congregations have continued exactly as before.
The call to love as Jesus first loved others, does not assume a positive response. When Jesus left the call to love with his disciples, each of them had to work out their own response in the days and years to come. Should we expect it to be different with ourselves. The call has to be a continuing challenge – and what’s more a challenge which promises genuine difficulties if we choose to accept. It is also a challenge of the sort that needs frequent revisiting, for yesterday’s journey is now behind us. Today and the weeks ahead have the potential to bring new possibilities. How we choose to respond, and whether or not we can find room for the actions of compassion, these cannot be done for us. It is, and always has to be, our response, because it is our journey.
Jesus said to his disciples – and I guess also says to us: “love one another …. as I have loved you” Now it is our move.
(A Note from Bill: At present I am updating my year C sermons, but I suspect some of them need a radical rewrite. I am putting out a plea to my regular readers to feed in comments suggesting new ways of developing some of the themes and grounding them in current situations. I also need reminding where my scholarship is incomplete or where I have overlooked important implications of the lectionary readings. Remember your views are just as likely to be important to the readers of this site as mine are likely to be.)