Letter from the Vicar (May 2009)
The commandment to love is at the heart of the moral teaching of Jesus. In Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus quotes the Old Testament command to love our neighbours as ourselves.
In John’s gospel, however, the form of the commandment is subtly different.
Here he commands us to love one another. And the commandment is given, not in the public arena where all and sundry gather, but in the upper room. It is given, in other words, to the close circle of Jesus’ followers. In all John’s writings in the New Testament there is great emphasis on the theme of love and the need for it among the followers of Jesus. Division and hatred in the Church is something to be resisted because it runs contrary to the spirit of love which must exist among those who belong to Christ.
There are some who find the whole Johannine atmosphere a bit uncomfortable. It has been described as “intense, fetid and insular.” I think that is a bit strong, though there is some truth in it. The reason why John’s community was rather turned in on itself was because it was trying to establish its identity. Those early Christians were trying to explore what it really meant to belong to the company of those who were followers of Jesus. They were seeking to find out what it meant to be church. This is something we need to do today. For many centuries what it meant was obvious. The church was just there. It was part of the landscape in every sense - geographical, intellectual, cultural, moral. But that is no longer the case. The church no longer has any profile in most people’s lives. So, like those early Christians whose ideas John reflected in his writings, we have think about what it means for us to belong to the Church today. In doing so we have to explore again what it means for us to obey Christ’s command to ‘love one another’.
Certainly we must show love to our neighbours who do not belong to the Church, but surely we must also endeavour to love our fellow members. What kind of love are we called upon to manifest? Is it different from the kind of love we should have for those who are not church people? Should it be more intense? More spiritual, perhaps? Well if spiritual means ethereal or airy-fairy, then it certainly shouldn’t be like that! Love is practical and hard-edged. It has to do with the way we live our everyday lives. But more intense? Perhaps. For John, love is the cement which binds the life of the Christian community together.
Now that community lived in a world that was overwhelmingly non-Christian. We live in a world which is predominantly the same. And it was the character of the life of the early Christians that was evangelistically powerful, at least as much as direct proclamation. “How those Christians love each other!” was the cry of the ancient world. Today I believe that we must manifest the same love for each other. Jesus calls us friends, not servants. He calls us to friendship with him and with each other. The church is called to be a community of loving friends. Such a community is often the foundation for renewal in the Church. And I believe that this applies to our church, to Holy Trinity and St Nicholas, to all its congregations and members. We need to take the message to heart, that we are called to be a close-knit loving and caring community. And of course in many, many ways we already are. There is a great deal of caring and loving among us.
But in recent times I have increasingly been thinking that we need to work harder at building up our life as a close-knit community, as a family. This has practical implications. A number of people have said that our church life is too fragmented and there’s probably a lot in that. That is why in the coming months I want our congregations to get together more. People have also said that we’re not great at welcoming people into the church and making them feel at home. There’s some truth in that as well. And often we just don’t know our fellow Church members. I say to someone who’s been coming for donkey’s years, “O speak to so-and so”, but they don’t know them even though they’ve also been around a long time. And so on.
I often say to people preparing for confirmation and others new to Church, “We don’t go to Church, we belong to the Church.” But if we belong to the church we belong to each other, because we are the church. So let us endeavour to respond more and more to Jesus’ commandment to love and so to experience the depth of God’s love which may be found in one another.