Saturday, 14 May 2022

"A New Commandment"

How would you describe the history of the Christian faith? A small group of believers, who were convinced that - against all logic, science and sense - their leader was alive, whose conviction was so great that they were prepared to die themselves for this claim. And even though the forces of an empire were against them - and even though you were better off socially and economically if you stuck with the established religion - yet the power with which they told people about their leader was such that they spread like cow parsley in an ornamental border. After 2,000 years of persecution - by others, of others, and of each other - the followers of Jesus eventually reached the point where they could hold church meetings that could spend hours discussing what power replacement light bulbs they should use in the church toilets.

Something gets lost, and has to be rediscovered over and over again.

And it's not the structures and attitude of the early Church. We have Paul to let us know that the early Church was as prone to argument, selfishness, and sheer silliness as we are. When church groups claim they are trying to reproduce the early Church - which early Church are they considering recovering? Galatia or Corinth? That's why the Primitive Beaker Folk sect have such a problem. How can you go back to a Primitive Beaker Christian movement that existed before Jesus himself walked the earth? A lot of imagination, obviously.

And yet we know we have constantly to be called back to our roots. Called back to what we fundamentally know forms the basis of our faith.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another." (John 13:34) 

Now, "love one another" is in one very important way not a new commandment at all. When you consider what is called "The Golden Rule", do to others as you would have them do to you - that's all over the world's religions. And that's pretty much the definition of loving one another. The "Second Commandment" as defined by Jesus is there  in Leviticus 19:17-18: "Love your neighbour as yourself." So what's new?

"As I have loved you".

How has he loved us?

All the way from heaven to earth. Because Jesus's love is not just like our love. It's the love of God the Son giving up all rights to become one of us. A human like us. Not a god in disguise - the actual God who is actually a human.

All the way to a cross. Because "love one another as I have loved you" is not just about being nice. Jesus's love for us is in the end a total sacrifice. And I struggle to define how that love as sacrifice works. There are so many models for it, and yet not one can capture the sheer depth of what Paul called "a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks." But the idea that things can only be made right when a god dies is written deep into our human condition, I believe - scattered across so many religions in fragments of truth as gods die. And this God dies with our names carved in his hands - the death he did not deserve, the love we did not deserve.

All the way from the cross to the dead. Not just dead as in a human body devoid of life. Beyond that. When the Apostles' Creed declares, "he descended into Hell", I take that to mean - the completion of that cry on the cross, "My God, my God - why have you forsaken me?" The separation from the Father - the loss of that relationship that Jesus had known naturally his whole life, a life lives as the man who was also God. And so "he dscended into Hell."

But as the Roman soldiers took the cross down ready for its next victim, and the demons crowed in victory, the discovery was made in Hell. Jesus had smuggled God in even there, hadn't he? 

Now, I know some people believe that every word of the Bible is literally true. But when King Hezekiah said "Those who go down to the grave can no longer hope in your faithfulness", as quoted in Isaiah - he didn't know everything, did he? Would have been better off listening to King David:"even if I go down to the depths, you are there."

How has Jesus loved us? All the way to an empty grave. Beyond all hope, as the bravest of women weep as they approach their teacher's tomb - and they find there is nothing there. In the midst of death, Mary Magdalene finds life.

So we are called - as we always are with Jesus - to an impossible standard. How can we ever love one another as he has loved us? Well, then in that case we know how to love - as if others are our neighbours, knowing that Jesus's love is measured in its costliness, its generosity, and its power. And knowing that what love we give comes from God. If we love one another, simple as that is, then we are sharing in the love that the Father has for the Son. Sharing it out as the Spirit uses us. Being remade in the image of our three-in-one God who loves us, has always loved us, and will always love us. That other book with John's name on it says, we love because he first loved us. So we we are called to love other people with a love that is a reflection of Christ's love, as moonlight is the reflection of sunlight.

That's all a long way from most of what our behaviour as Christians tends to be about. So if we are to love as Christ has loved us, we always need to start with repentance - with turning from what we'd often rather do - bitch about each other, score points - and look again and again at how Christ has loved us. To love is not - as CS Lewis said in the Four Loves - a safe place. To love makes us vulnerable. Well, see Jesus on a Cross. To love means to care for the good of those we don't like - well, Jesus died for people who hated him. To love means to be caught up in the love God gives, and to share the love God gives. Well, that's a taste of the immortal. If we are sharing God's love, we are preparing ourselves and others for heaven.

"As I have loved you, so you must love one another." It's an impossible command. But it's the one to live.

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