In the gospel reading for Sunday there is the famous commandment from Jesus: Love one another as I have loved you. Together, in the noon SLT service, we looked at what this might mean for us as individuals and as a church. Just to make sure that everyone was listening, there were two places in the sermon where those present were asked to contribute their thoughts! It was really good to share together.
The readings were Psalm 98, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17.
This morning I decided that I didn’t want to go to church. That’s not a decision I make often or lightly. However, today I knew that if I went to church I would be going for the wrong reasons. I was not in the right frame of mind and I knew it was unlikely I would benefit from it. I know that we don’t go to church to benefit necessarily, but to worship. However, to go today just because it was the right thing to do didn’t seem right to me. So I stayed at home and did some gardening. During my time in the garden I was talking with God, thinking about my decision and thinking about what I would say at this service.
The result of my chat to God was that I realised I would not have changed at all as a result of going to church this morning. I was not of the right mindset to take anything on board. However, in my time in the garden I was receptive to God and more able to listen and learn.
Let me ask you something: If I suggested to you that you go and burn all your Bibles, what would your reaction be and why? Perhaps you would like to share your thoughts.
The reason I would want to keep my Bibles, apart from not wishing to destroy something that had cost money, is that I want to be able to read God’s word. I want to read it to learn what it says and how that should affect me. I need it to change me.
Last night I was studying the second half of the first chapter of the book of James with friends. In there it says that: ‘If anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.’
Going to church and not being changed in any way seems to me to be a waste of time. I need to go expecting to fully take on board what I hear and incorporate the learning into my life in the form of action. It’s the same when I read the Bible – I need to internalise the message and allow it to change me, rather than reading and forgetting like the man mentioned in the letter of James.
Having ruminated like this with God as I hauled up some prize thistles, I began to ask myself what my words would do for those who would sit in this service. Usually I am told by those who attend that they have enjoyed the sermon or been challenged by it or some similar comment. As you can imagine, I find that encouraging. But how much have people changed as a result of listening to sermons in the past, whether mine or other people’s? I also realised that the gospel passage is a very familiar one. Most of us have probably heard it or parts of it many times before. When things are very familiar we can easily let them roll over us while only paying scant attention to them, much the same as I would have done in the service this morning at church. I would like to think that after the 10 minutes or so we spend together looking at this passage in John’s gospel we will each be changed in some way.
Jesus is giving his final words to his disciples before he is arrested and crucified. We can assume that what he is saying is very important indeed, something that he really wants to stick in the memory of the disciples, that will stay with them after he has left them. Within this passage is a commandment: ‘Love one another as I have loved you’. Jesus is making provision for his kind of love to carry on in the world even when he is not bodily in the world any more. The way that will happen is by his disciples loving as he has loved them. Jesus also explains that he has loved the disciples in the same way that God has loved him. Effectively the disciples, and that includes us, are being asked to love as God loves. Only in as far as we do this are we Jesus’ friends.
The word ‘love’ is overused in our society; it becomes ‘lurve’ which is sung about and desired greatly as leading to wonderful happiness or devastating sadness when it goes wrong. Couples who find that the initial feelings of love are fading, often decide to end the relationship. We see people who engage in serial monogamy, rather than working on relationships, accepting that love can be hard work. Tony Campolo tells couples in this situation to list ten things each day that they would do for their spouse if they were in love and then do them. By doing loving things, the loving feelings return and sometimes marriages are saved.
It doesn’t make sense for Jesus to command us to create the feeling of love in ourselves. Of course he is not commanding a feeling; he is commanding us to take action, loving action. He’s using the word ‘love’ as a verb, not a noun. The way we know what that action should look like is to look at Jesus and copy him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The New Testament answers the question, ‘What is love?’ quite unambiguously by pointing solely and entirely to Jesus Christ.” This is where you need to do some work. When we look at Jesus’ ministry, what do we see him doing that is proof of his love for everyone? I invite you to share your thoughts.
Jesus did so many things to show how to love others. Even in this small passage, we can see how he loved his disciples and we can find things to copy. We are to wish joy for one another, to pray for one another, to give up our lives for one another. If we choose to obey this commandment our churches, including this one, will be changed. Let’s each look at ourselves and ask if we wish all our fellow Christians joy, even if they annoy us? Do we take the trouble to know them well enough to pray for them? Are we willing to sacrifice enough to compromise with those who disagree with us because we care for them? Jesus trusted his disciples to look after the future of his message. Do we trust those who make decisions on our behalf?
In 1978 Mother Teresa spoke to some German bishops and told them that the call to discipleship is ‘the call to become carriers of God’s love’. That call is ours as much as it was the call of the first disciples. It’s up to us to choose to obey. We may not feel like great people capable of doing great things, but we probably have that in common with those first disciples. As Mother Teresa also said, “No one can do great things for God. We can only do small things with great love.”