We human beings are great at missing the point of things. I know, for a start, that we hear the criticisms people make of us more than we hear any affirmation. That’s why we all need to be a whole lot better at affirming each other than picking each other apart.
And sometimes we hear what God says to us all wrong too. I used to be struck every time anyone came into our church and saw the two tablets on the wall that they would notice the ten commandments and comment on them, but they never noticed the blessings… never said a word about them! We are strange creatures. When we hear Jesus speaking we have a great big tendency to hear the commandment without noticing the blessing… So Jesus says..
‘This is my commandment; love one another, as I have loved you.’
And we go – ‘Oh no, another commandment I can’t keep!’ Before we’ve even heard the bit about ‘I have loved you.’ We don’t hear what Jesus says about calling us friends (friends!) and we just keep fretting about how we can serve him, what we can do, what things we ought to be doing or should be doing. We hear the commandments and the job description, but we don’t hear the love.
And so we have another go at being a better and more loving person, and we are full of good intentions and resolve – but almost immediately the difficult reality trips us up. We find ourselves terrible at loving and so we feel wretched. We can’t keep those darn commandments – and especially a commandment that says we should love people. Perhaps we could manage to do a few good works, but to love…. Doing justice perhaps but love?
In the other Gospels than the one we’re read from today, Jesus even makes it clear that enemies need some loving too. And how on earth are we ever going to face up to that? It all seems impossibly idealistic, and a recipe for neurotic guilt.
I know I’ve lived with a constant and persistent sense of failure. One of the prayers I remember most strongly from my childhood was the prayer of Ignatius of Loyola.
Teach me to serve thee as thou deservest;
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to seek reward,
save that of knowing that I do thy will.
My big problem with Christianity then was not that I found the creeds difficult or that worship was boring. I loved all that. I just knew that wasn’t up to being Christian. I found I couldn’t give without counting the cost, I found that I did need rest, and that I needed more reward than simply knowing I was doing God’s will. And I found it hard to love my family every day, to be always a good friend – and I just prayed that God would not send me any enemies, because I knew as sure as anything that I would fail to love them. On my journey through life I have met some people who did seem to be able to do these things, or some of them – but I find it hard, I’ll be honest.
But what I have learned since those days is that the Christian faith is not first of all a faith of commandments and demands. We hear the commands, but we rush over the Gospel. We are quick to condemn ourselves, but slow to hear that God does not. We’re daunted by the challenge, before we hear the good news.
This passage in John’s Gospel is a good example of what we tend to do. Reading it quickly, we see the command to love and the verse about laying down your life for your friends. It reads like another of those impossible challenges. But if you read this passage another way it is actually much more about the love of God for us, about the love which Jesus had for his friends, and about the love which we might receive from one another and from God.
Only those who truly know that they are loved and worthy of love can be loving themselves to others. And what God always tells us first is that we are loved – and only then does God ask us – or even make it possible – to show love to friends, enemies and whoever lives next to us as neighbour. It continues to amaze me how so many people have such an aching sense of their own unworthiness. But then, why should it surprise me, since I know what that feels like? Somehow we learn that we only become worthy of love when we love others. But, that’s the wrong way round. The truth is that when we discover that we are loved, we find the sure place from which to love others. As the writer Audre Lorde wrote, we have to
‘Know we are worthy of touch before we can reach out for each other.’
This knowledge of your own belovedness is the only ground from which you yourself can love and accept love. On the front of the order of service you have the words ‘Love is love’ in Scrabble letters. On my desk I have this word in Scrabble letters – Beloved. I’d give you all one if I could. I know that it’s little use anyone commanding us to love, until we ourselves know that we are beloved of God – all of us. This passage from the Gospel is first of all a promise to the disciples that they are loved – and that someone once laid down a godly, human life for them. And for us too. This is the Gospel we need to hear first. Jesus says, ‘I love you’ before he asks for our love – and then he asks for love not for himself, but for other people, because he knows how much other people need it. He asks the disciples ‘Dwell in my love’ – and then we run away with another impossible thought – that we’ve got to live as those who can be as loving as Jesus was. But maybe first we have simply to live for a moment with the thought that God loves us – dwell with that – and see what such knowledge will do within us. Jesus calls us friends, which means that he loves us. Live with that thought for a moment – dwell in that reality and see what happens. And when you know that you are loved, when you really know, it will be different somehow – this whole matter of loving of others. Because you won’t be doing it to feel better about yourself, but simply because you know the secret – that all that God has made is beautiful and holy and good.
Many of struggle to believe that we are loved. In John Donne’s wonderful sonnet he begs God to ‘batter my heart’. He knows that he labours to admit God, to believe what God is and says – that somehow he defends himself against it. Using a scandalous metaphor he says to God,
‘Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthral me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.’
Donne knows how hard many of us make it for God to love us. And he knows how we forget that it is God’s work to save us – and not our own. We can’t do it ourselves, but God can.
Many of us feel helpless before the apparent demands of the Christian life. And we are helpless if we only look within ourselves for help. But before the great mystery of love played out in the story of creation and the story of Jesus, it might be that we come to know at last that we are really loved by God – and knowing this, we might turn and reflect a little of love’s light to others. Not because we are love’s champions, but because we are love’s target and love’s prize ourselves.
So today let us hear the Gospel – not first the unrelenting and impossible commandments, but first of all, very first of all, the unrelenting and overwhelming love of God towards us. Amen.
Almighty God, who have given us a new commandment that we should love one another, give us also grace that we may fulfil it. Make us gentle, courteous and forbearing. Direct our lives so that we may look to the good of the other in word and deed. And hallow all our friendships by the blessing of your Spirit, for his sake who loved us and gave himself for us, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.