5th SUNDAY OF EASTER
19TH MAY 2019
Rev Tony van Vuuren.
Carrying out this new commandment is the centre of Christian life; the standard and pattern of Jesus’ life has to be the standard and pattern of our lives as well. Love is one of the great preoccupations of life.
Personal relationships, and the warmth and security they provide, are a refuge from an outside world which is in many aspects uncaring and devoid of love. There’s a hint of desperation in the efforts of some people to avoid being left “on their own”, which suggests that there’s an element in our culture which generates loneliness or fails to meet the human need for meaningful companionship and communication with each other.
There are many TV reality shows that illustrate this sad need. The way the Christian gospel understands love, and the way that our society in general understands it, are often two different things. One basic distinction between our Christian outlook and the outlook of non-believers is that along with Christ, and along with all the authors of the Bible, we see God as being the original source of love. Saint John says elsewhere in his Gospel; “God is love, and whoever lives in love lives in God, and God lives in him”.
Love is not something we create out of the resources of our own human nature. Human nature can be pretty brutal and unloving. The world news is always full of stories that show the depths of loveless behaviour that human beings are capable of sinking to. For us, as believers, love is the spark of divine life in each of us that permeates our whole character and personality and our behaviour more and more deeply. We don’t keep God’s commandments so that he will love us; we do so because He loves us!
To become less self-centred, and to direct ourselves more towards other people and their concerns, is really the main sign of genuine conversion, in our Christian understanding. The main impact God has on us, and the main way that he draws us into his own life, is by way of this conversion. And the person who is genuinely trying to seek God and to be open to God’s influence in their life recognises this.
The second big difference between Christ’s notion of love, and the way our culture understands it, is that for Christ it’s mainly a matter of will, not a matter of feelings or emotions.
Christian love is more to do with a kind of reverence for others as fellow sons and daughters of God and a practical dedication to their welfare as spiritual beings. The ethos of Christian community life takes shape when every individual takes this attitude to everyone else: when each serves the others.
But this takes place in our wills, not in our feelings. Christian love doesn’t mean getting deeply emotionally involved with everyone that we meet. That’s not humanly possible. It’s not what Christ did himself and it’s not what he asks us to do. The effort we make to show concern and to give comfort to people when they’re vulnerable is certainly a way of showing genuine Christian love – but it’s not necessary to link up our own personal emotions with people’s anxiety or their grief. We can identify with people when they’ve suffered a loss, but that’s not the same as actually feeling the loss ourselves.
When people are distressed it’s far more helpful to express sympathy in a down-to-earth way. They don’t need to be bombarded with a lot of gushy stuff about how we’re totally devastated and won’t be able to sleep and how we’ll be worrying about them all week. The main fault of that is that it’s really a form of self-indulgence. It’s not actually directed to the welfare of the other person at all. And as Christians we’re supposed to root out self-indulgent tendencies, not cultivate them.
So if that’s not what Christ’s new commandment is about, may I suggest two simple ways that we can carry out this instruction that Jesus gives us in the gospel today. The first way is to surrender some of our own demands and ambitions about what we want out of life, and attend more to serving other people – not in grand gestures of self-sacrifice, but in small and manageable ways instead.
Maybe being more generous to people with our time and attention. When we do that, all our small actions build up into a habit, and we begin to assume the overall pattern of love and service that Christ puts to his followers as the way of living in communion with God.
Something else we can do, as an act of Christian love, is: we can pray for people. God wants us to turn to him with our own needs as well as with other people’s needs, because he wants us to communicate with him constantly about the plans and activities that we’re involved in.
If we can get into the habit of praying for other people – asking God in ordinary language to make himself present in their lives and help them in whatever way they need – then he also makes himself more present to us, and changes us, at the same time. He makes us gradually more detached from our own wants and desires, he changes our priorities and our sense of what’s important, and he reinforces this whole attitude of concern and service to others.
When we refuse to love, we build a wall around ourselves. But we ourselves are the first to suffer. We condemn ourselves to a winter of loneliness and unhappiness But when we love, the wall falls down. We open ourselves to others. And we ourselves are the first to benefit. We experience a springtime of friendship, goodwill, peace and joy.
“Love one another even as I have loved you.” That sums it all up.