John 13:31-35 | Remember: Love One Another |
A reflection by Dan Spragg
We are at the moment in this period of seven or so weeks following Easter where we try and make sense of who this risen Christ is for us now. Who is Christ? Where can we expect Christ to be? And along with this connections like the church being the body of Christ in the world emerge. We have a small study group going as part of The Gathering and one of the ideas that came up for discussion last week was the idea of Holy Communion as the place where the body and blood of Jesus are re-constituted in us. We discovered that to be a little uncomfortable if you look at it literally, (how does that work?!) but symbolically, it starts to gain some traction. We remember at the table of Jesus, we are re-membered, if you like at the table of Jesus. The table is the place where we remind ourselves that we are one body, welcomed by Christ, brought together and empowered to be the living breathing body of Christ in the world. I heard an interesting fact recently (I can’t recall where from!) that the word ‘remember’ is mentioned in the scriptures, five times more than the word believe. That’s interesting! According to scripture, the work of remembering is more important than the work of believing. Apparently a key component of facing forwards in the life of faith is the practice of looking back. We remember, so that we can continue living.
I was surprised, with this emphasis on remembering in scripture, how much a big deal is made of ‘believing’ in comparison. Why is it, when remembering is so important, that believing is elevated to being the key component of faith by quite a number of voices throughout various Christian traditions? In times of struggle we have been told to ‘just believe’. Popular culture has even joined in on the hobby horse of belief telling us all to simply ‘believe’ in ourselves. Backing ourselves is one thing, but if we take scripture seriously, it may be better to participate in remembering. Remember grace encountered in the past, remember experience and scripture telling us that God is unfailing love, always present, always active. Remember in order to move forward. To wake up and remember who God is, and who we are found with God, now that is powerful for us and those around us.
A few chapters earlier to today’s reading, in John 8:32 Jesus says that if the disciples hold to his teaching, then they will know the truth and the truth will set them free. The word ‘know’ and its translation in Greek implies simply more than just knowing facts and ideas. There is a sense in the meanings of this word that while it is about ‘head’ knowledge, that knowledge comes from a sense of experiencing something. If the disciples follow Jesus’ teaching they will then experience the truth of it, and this knowledge, this deeper understanding that comes from having lived through something, will indeed set them free. I wonder if this is a good understanding of what belief is. Belief is not simply a mental ascent to an idea but rather we believe because we know it to be true. Unfortunately for most of the church’s history we have equated belief with mentally agreeing with set statements of belief. Doctrines, creeds, defending the truth, categorising, and setting rules and boundaries around right and wrong. This has taken up a surprising amount of energy. Along with this emphasis on belief has of course been the emphasis on behaviour. The thinking going is that if you believe the right things then you will behave the right way. Behaving the right way has been important because we must be seen to be doing the right things, we must be seen to be successful. If so, then all glory to God. It’s interesting that modern psychology and Jesus are actually in agreement and the church throughout history has been the odd one out. For Jesus ‘knowing’ was about experiencing, it was about living through something, it was about living the life of faith in order that one would come to see and believe. In modern psychology they talk about behaviour being far more influential on what we believe than it being the other way around. How we behave shapes what we end up believing. Sometimes popular slogans do get it right; ‘fake it till you make it’ is actually quite sound advice.
The church of course throughout the ages hasn’t always got it wrong. Remembering has been at the heart of many things that we still engage in today. We will come to the Lord’s Table soon and it is there, as I said, where we remember. We baptise too and recall the covenant promise of God. From time to time we are encouraged to remember our own baptisms, to remember ourselves found in this promise. Many of the church’s acts of remembering are just that, they are acts, practices that we engage in that seek to shape our living as we face forwards. Week in and week out we worship; we praise, we confess, we pray, we sing – these acts of remembering seek to shape how we live. The church has since its beginning encouraged its members to engage in activities of daily prayer, and of kindness and compassion. Our faith is a lived out faith and always has been, these threads have quietly been bubbling away throughout our history. The loudest voices, often those demanding clarification of belief, it turns out aren’t always the ones we should pay attention to.
Today’s reading isn’t a straight forward one. But there’s two things in it I’d like to play with a little. While remembering isn’t explicitly mentioned it is implied. Jesus says to his disciples to love one another as he had loved them. In their love towards one another they were to remember the way of Jesus and take that into their being together. That’s the first thing. The second is to notice what the point of this was. It was so that the world would see who they belonged to, in order that the glory of God would be seen. Despite my initial reactions when reading this passage earlier in the week, loving one another and the glory of Jesus and the Father are in fact connected. Glory is commonly understood as the receiving of praise and approval in a public setting. It has a sense of fame and overwhelming public favour and boasts of many chests being beaten and tail feathers displayed for all to see. Jesus, of course, wants to redefine common thought. A chapter earlier in John’s gospel the Pharisees say ‘look the world has gone after him.’ Jesus was already receiving plenty of glory (12:19) and it seems he felt it needed an overhaul. The scene where our passage today takes place is just after Jesus has washed the feat of his disciples – not a very glorifying thing to do in common thought. And he is talking already of his departure. The room is anxious and Jesus is telling them what he is anticipating will happen, Peter (of course) argues with him, and they ask for clarification ‘where are you going?’ Add into this the shock that Judas had just been outed and his plan to betray Jesus had been revealed and it’s not a happy scene. Glory will come Jesus is saying, not through self-promotion and large scale public approval, but rather through acts of humility and self-giving love born in the midst of betrayal, chaos, uncertainty, and ultimately death. ‘Love one another, as I have loved you.’ It is a fairly pivotal teaching moment for them. In the midst of chaos, uncertainty, fear, and anxiety Jesus speaks in tenderness and compassion, ‘little children,’ ‘friends,’ love one another as I have loved you, this is how the world will see that you are my disciples, this is how they will see and come to know the glory of God. And what is the glory of God? Not empty self-promotion but rather the presence of self-giving, transformational love; the presence of the new creation breaking into the midst of the here and now no matter how afraid we are, or how uncertain things are. In the midst of all this mess, Jesus doesn’t offer them a parable or a paradox but rather tells them what the most important thing is. Remember how I have loved you? Well, do that. Love one another and this is how the world will know… perhaps in other words, this is how you will fulfill your purpose, this is how you will live out your calling. Action shapes belief, our own and that of those around us.
Loving one another as Christ loves us as Christians is central to our life as Christian community, it is what makes us who we are and how we are to be known. Unfortunately we are most often known by the rest of society for what we are against, not what we are for. And among ourselves we’ve tended to identify one another and distance ourselves from one another with certain beliefs or theological persuasions. The great debates in the church have been about what we believe or don’t believe rather than how we are going on our mandate to love. Human nature tends to head towards fear and anxiety on mass scales and so it could seem comforting to reach for clarity of thought, to nail down what it is we believe, to try and force some sense of certainty and security, as we see the disciples doing. Into that space though, Jesus didn’t say ‘they will know my disciples by what they believe…’ He didn’t command them to get their heads together and form an opinion, rather he commanded them to act in remembrance.
This command of Jesus, is spoken to us today, with as much gravity now as it had then. It’s a bottom line, it should be our default setting. Love one another, as Christ loves us, and the world will see and come to know the glory of God – the real presence of transformational love and grace. Remember Christ’s love for us and act this out as the living breathing body of Christ in the here and now. Self-giving love and humility is of course hard work but it is by engaging in that work that we will come to know the glory of God, and so too for those who are around us.
Ok, so, a quick word on what it might look like. What’s distinctive about this Christian love? Is it about just being nice to one another? Or remembering our manners? Or making the odd casserole or two? Or is it something else? I suspect, because there are plenty of nice people around, that this loving one another thing is not simply being good, nice, Christian people (how boring anyway!). Jesus spoke these words to the disciples at a tough time. We as the Presbyterian Church in Aotearoa are facing a tough time, and will face tougher times ahead. How are we to be in this? A community that remembers and puts into practice the presence of self-giving love, openness, welcome, hospitality, and grace. These as opposed to arguments of opinion and exclusion may go a long way towards a positive future. We can only begin of course, among ourselves here in our own Village and ensure we relate with love towards one another, and from here remember that our neighbouring parishes, our presbytery, our national church, and of course all those who follow Jesus no matter what denomination are included in Jesus’ definition of ‘one another’. Even if it is hard work, and perhaps counter intuitive to act in this way at times, it is in this way that the transformational glory of God will become known in us and in those who see us in action.