Sunday, April 24, 2016

as I have loved you

May my words be in the Name of Almighty God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

GK Chesterton, the famous writer and Christian apologist, once memorably said that: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” No where does that statement find more resonance than when it comes to some of the words that we hear Christ speak in our Gospel reading today: ' I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

This commandment stands at the heart of our Lord's Good News; and which of us would seriously contend that it has been put faithfully into practice? What a different world we would live in if it were! No war, for there would be no reason to ever take up arms for their would be none to fight against; there would be no injustice, for all would prefer to see themselves wronged in some way rather than see another receive less than the full measure of justice; and no hunger or want, for the greed that allows one nation or group to stockpile food while others go hungry would be such a hideous thought that it would never occur to anyone to even consider such behaviour. So let us look over this commandment carefully today and see how we might do better in following it.

First, let us consider why Christ calls it a 'new commandment'; after all, does not the Old Testament tell us to love our neighbour? However, as St Augustine points out, our Lord adds something radically different to these words; he says that we must love one another 'as I have loved you.' That is what makes it new. We are to look to the example of love that Christ sets for us and do likewise in the love we show to our brothers and sisters. So what is that example?

Well, that is too great a topic for a single sermon; but here are some aspects that we may consider. What is it that we see Christ doing earlier in this chapter of the Gospel? He washes the feet of his 12 Apostles; God made man does the work of the most menial slave. We may also think of why he came into the world – For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. ' And we know that Christ died on the Cross for our sins so that we might have that eternal life. So we can therefore say that the love we are called to emulate is a love that is both humble and self-sacrificing, a love that is willing to do anything, even suffer and die, so that others might have eternal life.

But we must also keep in mind that the love that Christ has for mankind requires him to speak the truth. And sometimes that truth can be hard to hear. Think of the passage in John 6, when having taught them that if they are to have life in them they must eat his flesh; and some of his followers say to him 'this teaching is difficult; who can accept it?' And they leave. But Jesus does not change the teaching. For in love there must be truth or it is not love; loving someone and telling them what they want to hear is not the same thing; real love requires that the truth is spoken, even if, or indeed especially, the one you love finds that truth difficult to hear. Who, for example, wants to be told they are a sinner?Yet we hear Christ doing so many times in the Gospels. When the woman who was taken in adultery was brought to him, he saved her from the crowd; and then he told her to sin no more. Saving her life was a prelude to saving her soul; for what is the point of gaining her a few extra years in this life if when she comes to the end of her days she should find that she has been lost to eternal life? Would she have been grateful then that our Lord had chosen to spare her feelings by not speaking the truth and warning her to give up her sinful ways? I think not.

This does not mean that Christians are to berate and harass every person that they think is not living up to their ideal of what it is to be a Christian. We may usefully think here of the wise words of instruction that St Benedict had for abbots as to how they were to deal with wayward brethren: 'In administering correction he should act prudently and not go to excess, lest in seeking too eagerly to scrape off the rust he break the vessel. Let him keep his own frailty ever before his eyes and remember that the bruised reed must not be broken. By this we do not mean that he should allow vices to grow; on the contrary, as we have already said, he should eradicate them prudently and with love, in the way which may seem best in each case. .'

We are none of us, of course, abbots; and those around us are not monks. They are, however, children of God and our brothers and sisters; and we are, to answer the question of Cain, very much our brother's keeper. We have a responsibility towards them; and that responsibility has as a part of it the duty to present them with the truth they need to attain eternal life. It is indeed difficult, as Chesterton said; but we dare not leave it untried, for Christ himself gave it to us as a commandment. And those who love Christ know that he will by his grace sustain us at times of difficulty. And we may take comfort from the knowledge that by loving others as Christ loved us that not only will all the world know that we are his disciples; Christ himself will know it also, even as he welcomes us into his Father's house on the last day. Amen. 

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