Sermons from St
Fr Dennis Smith, Sunday, May 21st,
Words from today’s Gospel: ‘If you love me you will obey my commands’, and also from St John’s Gospel, chapter 13 verse 34: ‘I give you a new commandment: love one another; as I have loved you, so are you to love one another.’
In these recent Sundays after Easter the Gospel at the Eucharist is from St John. His is a Gospel which turns entirely upon the experience of loving and being loved. Whether the author is John the beloved disciple or not, what cannot be denied is that the man who wrote this Gospel grasped at the very centre of his being the overwhelming truth that he is loved. That God in the person of his Son has said to him: ‘I love you because you are you.’ And his whole Gospel is therefore a sustained reflection on what it means to be loved by God, and in turn to love others.
If you ask me to define this love as we are both to experience it, then I would say that it is at the very least the recognition of the true value of each human being in all his or her uniqueness and singularity.
It doesn’t primarily have to do with feelings. It has to do with perception – how you see – and with behaviour. It has to do with how we act towards each other: in a word, with a desire to serve and be of service. That’s why where the other three Gospel writers see the climax of the Last Supper as Jesus sharing with his disciples the bread and wine of the Eucharist, St John tells us instead of how on that last evening with them Jesus lays aside his coat, puts a towel around his waist and begins to wash their feet.
‘There.’ says John. ‘There you see what the majesty of God is like. The Word was made flesh,’ says John,’ and we beheld his glory. And if you ask him ’when?’ he replies: ‘When we saw the Lord down on his knees washing our feet. For here, in this humble act of service, is an image of the meaning of love. Here is the love seen in God’s action in giving his Son for the world’s salvation. The love which is seen at work in Jesus’ action in seeking out men and women and drawing them into a loving relationship with himself and one another. The love which is defined in terms of living for others and – if need be – dying for them as well.
So the fact that Jesus kneels before them as a servant, tells them and us more about the nature of God than a thousand sermons. God becomes man: this is an act of profound humility, the act of a God who makes himself vulnerable, a God who suffers. It is the act of a lover who will go to any lengths to capture the heart of the beloved. And having shocked them at last into a glimmer of understanding, Jesus says: ‘Now I give you a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you. Because that is the only way people will recognise you are followers of mine.’
Another way of putting this new commandment ‘love one another as I have loved you’ would be: ‘go about your life as those who are loved.’ So what is new about this new commandment? What is new is that this love which is seen in serving others – this love that Jesus requires of his followers – is to be of the same kind with which he has loved and served us. He is describing the quality of life as God intends it to be: life in God’s Kingdom of which the Church is to be the sign and of which life in our local communities is to be a foretaste.
And the more we know ourselves to be loved and valued by God in all our uniqueness and singularity the more we shall understand what it means for each local church to be a community of loving service. When Jesus gave ‘a new commandment’ he wasn’t speaking to the world, where all are enjoined to love God and love their neighbour. That’s the old commandment and it remains valid. He was addressing his disciples, and he was speaking of the special brand of love which should unite all Christians: a love like that of Christ for each of us; a love which then spills over in service to the community. If we rally were to go about our lives as those who are so loved, the power of the Church’s witness would be irresistible. And out of that nucleus of self-giving love would flow the power to make others see what it means to love their neighbours as themselves.
I end with some words of a former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, who, in Canon Brierley’s incumbency, preached from this very pulpit in 1939. He said: ‘The old commandment, “love your neighbour as yourself”, stands as the universal, and universally neglected, requirement; the new commandment “that you love one another as I have loved yo” has a narrower range and an intenser quality. When we Christians keep the new commandment, the world may keep the old.’