This week the lectionary gave John 13:31-35, the beginning of the farewell discourse in which Jesus gives the “new commandment” to “love one another”. This is a somewhat surprising passage in that the instruction to love is not exactly unknown in the Old Testament. What are we to make of Jesus claiming this to be a “new commandment”?
One answer is to take seriously the place and time in which it is given. This command to love is given to the 11 disciples immediately after Judas leaves the Last Supper. Jesus has washed the feet of the 12 and predicted (or commanded?) Judas’ betrayal, Judas leaves, and then Jesus starts to tell them about what is to come and what they are to do.
It is not often enough noticed and stressed that the command is given to the disciples, to the Church and that in John’s version there is nothing about loving everyone, or loving enemies. Jesus’ instruction here is quite specifically and particularly about relations INSIDE the Church. They are to love one another and to love one another as Jesus has loved them, loved us.
This is not a love indifferent to the particularities and concreteness of the human other. It is love of those specific people to whom we are bound as members of the one body, the Church. Furthermore it is not “love” in the abstract but the kind of love that Jesus has shown. In this case it is a love expressed in the very specific act of foot-washing that immediately precedes it.
In this act Jesus:
- acts as a servant, performing an action at once servile and intimate
- insists on doing so over the protests of the person served
- sets limits on that service (the feet only not the hands or the feet
- links this symbolic action to the idea of purity and cleanliness
If we think about what this implies for the contemporary Church we might come to some surprising, even uncomfortable conclusions:
- the internal life of the Church is of primary importance in determining its faithfulness to the instruction of Jesus: “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another”
- this internal life should be marked by humility and mutual service
- this service is, though, demanding of those served, they have to accept both what is done for them and the limits of what is to be done
- this service is oriented primarily towards “cleanliness” however we might interpret this and especially, I would argue, to the inner meaning of the sacrament of baptism,
The reason that I think these might be uncomfortable lessons for the contemporary Church revolve around two salient features of that Church:
- the bitter divisions within most of the older (in American terms “mainline”) denominations on questions of ethics and especially of sexual ethics in relation to “holiness” and ordination and the related question of same sex marriage
- the extent to which the Church is divided into mutually uncomprehending sections: the old Protestant denominations with their strong liberal influence and integration with mainstream culture; the “evangelical” wings of these denominations and their allies in independent evangelical churches and some new movements; the denominations and churches which have their roots in Pentecostalism; Roman Catholicism; Orthodoxy
Do we all love one another along the lines of our servant master? I would suggest not. On the whole every grouping of Christians, whether defined denominationally or in some other way, seeks to defend and promote its own particular interest as institutions. I see little evidence of service of the Last Supper kind across the whole Church. Instead even those who were involved in the ecumenical movement have withdrawn from their inter-denominational activities to shore up the identity and integrity of their own tradition and organisation (shamefully even we in the URC did so by taking the decisions we did about training institutions, concentrating our students at our own three centres).
We sometimes distract ourselves from the centrality of the inner life of the Church and our failure to prioritise this kind of love by acting as if we thought our denominations could be identified with The Church and by stressing missional service outside the Church. There is some justification for both these ways of thinking and speaking but fundamentally they are wrong. Loving all our brothers and sisters in Christ in a way that leads us to serve them selflessly is a precondition for being a disciple and witnessing to the gospel.
Equally we are unwilling to be served when this service makes us uncomfortable or challenges our ideas about what it is to follow Christ. When someone from a different party of tradition challenges us how many of us react by assuming that there must be something in what is being said. We should listen to others who follow Jesus in a humble spirit that accepts their service. This does not mean that we can’t disagree, we do and we will. It does mean that we should not impute motives other than a sincere struggle for discipleship, even where the views expressed discomfort or distress us.
We should serve and be served not in ways that promote and address our interests as “the world” understands them. The language of “rights” has no place in the Church. We have no rights as against God and that is what matters within the Church. We should strive only to show forth Christ’s love, not to advance ourselves. That is what is wrong with many of the arguments that seek to defend the ordination of those others would exclude, whether women or homosexual people. There is no “right” to ordination (or to consecration as bishops).
I am in favour of affirming the call of these people but the arguments in its favour should not, I think, have recourse to the liberal discourse of rights. When the apostolic church made the decision to admit the uncircumcised it did not do so because it thought they had a “right” to baptism. It did so because it believed God had refounded his people on a new basis where the old markers of difference were no longer relevant. If we are to change the conditions of entry to the ministry (and I think we should) it must be on the basis that a distinction that was once thought to be important is now seen not to be, in the light of Christ.
These discussions, what’s more, must be discussions within the whole Church and conducted in love. That does not mean an exaggerated deference that shies away from hard truths and hard words. The fact that people are hurt by what we say does not prove that we are not loving, sometimes truth and love hurt. But we all need to examine ourselves and say are we acting out of love. If not we are implicitly excluding either those we do not love, or more probably ourselves, from the Church.