My sermon for today was based on John 15:9-17.
To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.
There is a problem with the way love is spoken of in the Bible, particularly when Jesus talks about it. The problem is that the type of love the Bible talks about is often impossible for we mere mortals.
Think of 1 Corinthians 13 (Love is patient, love is kind...). That is an impossible love, because sometimes, love is impatient. Sometimes love is unkind. Sometimes love gets angry. I would risk saying that any loving relationship that has never experienced any conflict or disappointment whatsoever is shallow at best, disingenuous at worst.
That does not mean we should not try as hard as possible to love one another, and there is a very good reason for this that has nothing to do with making God or Jesus or Allah or Vishnu happy. It actually has to do with making ourselves happy. More on that later.
Jesus says something in the Gospel passage for today: "A new commandment I give to you: love one another as I have loved you". This is a statement that fails to impact us as 21st century Christians in the way it would have impacted his listeners because we have been raised with this statement.
His listeners, who consisted almost exclusively of observant Jews, would have been shocked, however. Remember there are 10 Commandments in the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament). These Commandments were given to Moses by God, and there were 10 and only 10. Sure, there were a bunch of peripheral rules found mostly in Leviticus, but only 10 Commandments, and these were the foundation, the very bedrock of all Jewish (and Christian) law.
Then Jesus comes along and says quite casually, "Yeah, I have a new one for you". The gall. The audacity.
Notice that he does not say, "I give you another one". He says, "A new commandment I give to you". He is not giving us number 11. He is wiping away the other 10 and replacing it with this one: "Love others as I have loved you".
It has been said that it is a sad testament to human nature that we had to write the 10 Commandments down. "Don't kill". Really? We had to write that down? Don't steal, don't lie. Yup, had to commit those to paper (or to stone, as the case may be).
The 10 Commandments have been called "The Laws of Common Sense". Just about every world culture seems to have developed those same laws (with minor variations) independently of one another because in theory they seem to be written on the majority of our hearts by nature.
But of course, there are some people who do not have them written on their hearts, and that is why we had to write them down.
But if we loved one another perfectly, as Christ calls us to do, there would be no need for the other 10. If we loved one another, we would not want to lie to, steal from or kill one another.
At a stroke, Jesus wipes away all the other Commandments and gets to the heart of what the Commandments seek to preserve: love for one another. He invites us to push the Law deep into our hearts rather than just meet them on the surface.
But why should we? Certainly, if you look around at the wealthy, the powerful, the famous, the people that seem to be most worth idolizing, we are being told that we should just have as good and fun a ride as possible, and screw our neighbour, future generations, the sick and the needy. We are being told that we should look after ourselves first, foremost and only.
There is no other species in nature that shares food with old or sick animals. There is no other species that gives to charity. Why should we? Are we not simply animals?
No, we are not. Yes, we are part of nature, but as far as we know, we are the only animal that has developed a sense of charity, responsibility and morality with regards to other members of our species who are not our own offspring.
We give to charity, feel a desire to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, even though we reap no reward and even though is does not benefit us at all in the hunter-gatherer sense of the term,
So why? Jesus tells us the reason why: "So that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete".
The fact of the matter is that we feel good when we do something for other people and we feel bad when we abuse or neglect other people. It is no more complicated than that. It is not about pleasing God or Jesus or getting into Heaven. The simple fact is that it is a source of joy for us to be of service.
I gave my parish a piece of homework this week: go out and commit a random act of service, but keep it between you and God. Don't tell anyone. Just note to yourself how you feel.
I think you will find that Christ's words do indeed ring true.