When Jesus first called together the group of the 12, he was the focus, he was the magnet. All their hopes and desires and love were focused on him. In this passage from John’s gospel
he now says that he is to be taken away, and they are to find their focus now in loving one another. They are being launched from the nest. Loving one another is going to be so important that Jesus says “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples”.
Loving each other of course isn’t at all simple. It embraces the terrible and the wonderful. What do I mean by that?
I can illustrate it by looking at the old Testament. There, on the whole, either the people of Israel are being judged, condemned and punished, or they are being loved and exalted. Generally speaking, you get either the one or the other.
With Christ the two dimensions are brought together in a new and surprising unity – they are melded. To follow Christ is to get both, rolled into one. You will suffer, your sins will drag you down, life will at times be excruciating. But these things are inseparable from the the glory and the joy of life with Christ. Take up your cross and follow me – this is the way that leads to life. In Paul’s letters we see time and again the inseparable bond between suffering and joy, conflict and love, a life of constant struggle always shot through with the life of the resurrection. This is ingenious. God has brought two opposite things together, in a way that we can’t fully grasp, because it is so counter-intuitive.
It’s just the same with the incarnation – how can God, the creator of the universe, become an ordinary human being with ordinary human limitations? God breaks through all the normal laws of human logic to bring an ingenious and dramatic new reality. The incarnation is the great inspiration for so much Christian sacrifice and service of the needy.
This bringing together of incompatibles tells us something about the heart and nature of God.
We have to say that love too belongs there at the heart of God. Love is like this too, the bringing together of incompatibles. “Love your enemies” for instance – nobody had ever thought of that before.
We have to be careful to remember that human love is different from the divine love. This commandment of Jesus doesn’t simply mean go and practice human love. Purely human love can be possessive, manipulative, superficial, unaware, and many other things. We must try and be aware of how we are loving. That could leave us so worried about doing it wrong that we are paralysed, so self-conscious that our love becomes stilted. What Christ is talking about ultimately seems to suggest being natural with people. So how do we grow up into the divine love? The divine love is always bigger than us and following Jesus is about growing up into this greater thing. St Augustine famously said, “love God and then do what you like”. He implies that God will foster in us the right habits, the right sense of judgement. It all has to be founded in the love of God.
There is something very important to remember here. Christian love is not simply personal love. It’s not just a case of me trying to be better at loving. It is about us not me – us as community seeking to be a community of love. Given the kind of society we live in, we tend to turn faith into a very personal journey, but that is hardly Christian. The personal journey has its place, but we have a tendency to enthrone it rather than put it at the right place on the ladder. It’s in the community of the church that the way to God’s love is to be found, and in all that the church brings us. The body of Christ is a school of love.
Often unfortunately it seems to be a school of argument and conflict – ‘twas ever thus. We are back at the double-sidedness of love: it is both darkness and light; love is the cross and the resurrection. When I find other people in the church difficult, I can be tempted to take a negative attitude towards them. To criticise, to defend my position, to judge them. Christ however is to be found when we don’t criticise our neighbour or sit in judgement on them or enter into conflict with them, but seek to listen and to build bridges……
There can be many uncomfortable things about love.
Christ is to be found in the very difficulties. I like quoting a story about St Bernard, the great monastic founder in the 12th century. He once visited a monastery where all the brothers said they had a very good community life, in which they all loved each other and got on very well, with no problems. St Bernard didn’t think much of these claims, and he said that they had better start recruiting some difficult people – so that they could grow in patience, in charity, and in self-knowledge. The difficult person always has something to give us, to teach us, that we are not aware of.
Love is not so much about being lovey-dovey. After 10 years in parish Ministry, I remember joking when I came to this Community that it was a relief not to have to smile at people any more…… God’s love is to do with the scrunch of life. Life as it really is, and us as we really are, the imperfect sinners that we all are.
To quote the words of Jesus in St John again, “just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples”.