2 Cor 4: 1-10 John 13: 31-35

THE COMMAND TO LOVE

Sermon preached at St Philipís Norbury and All Saints Sydenham: Pentecost 11, Year One August 3rd

I give you a new commandment. Love one another just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this love you have for one another everyone will know that you are my disciples.

Jesus is recorded in at least two other places in St Johnís Gospel as having "commanded" his disciples to "love one another".

This sounds very puzzling to present-day ears: the combination of the ideas of "command" and "love" appears at best to be a paradox, at worst a contradiction in terms.

The modern mind thinks along the following lines:

Either you just "love" someone; or else, well, you just donít. Whether you in fact love someone depends upon the presence or absence of a range of feelings which we experience towards them. These feelings may come to the surface when we are in the presence of that person, or it may only need their name to be mentioned to evoke these feelings within us. Someone has only to say "Peter" or "Rosalind" or "Jessica" or "Juliet" and whole host of associated feelings, good or bad starts to well-up inside us.

And it is those feelings, the presence or absence of them and their intensity, that the modern mind supposes to be the yardstick by which we know whether we love someone or not.

The Scriptures talk a good deal about "Love" too, but not very much about love as a progression of feelings. When the Bible talks about human Love the word very often forms part of a commandment: Love the Lord your God; Love your neighbour as yourself; Love one another; Love righteousness; Love the brotherhood.

And when the Bible talks about Divine Love it usually does so with the intention of reminding us of the practical consequences of Godís love for us: God so loved the world that he gave his only-begottne Son; Hereby we perceive the love of God because he laid down his life for us; Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us that we should be called the sons of God.

Love, in other words, turns out to be in Godís eyes something quite different from what the modern person understands by the word. So far from being a series of benevolent feelings, love in the Christian vocabulary, both in its human and its divine aspect is more like a duty, a debt or an obligation, which find their fulfilment in a series of positive actions.

For instance, "loving our neighbour" means binding up his wounds, going out of our way to leave him at an inn, paying the innkeeper to look after him and returning later on to see that heís all right. Godís love for us entails emptying himself to become one of us and submitting to death, even the death of the cross.

"Loving God" means (amongst other things) believing in him and in his promises, trusting him, keeping his commandments, doing his will, worshipping him and thanking him for all the blessings of this life, not least "the means of grace and the hope of glory".

Now itís hardly surprising if love entails doing all these things rather than just feeling benevolent feelings that love should be in rather short supply today. For the culture in which we have too live is one which has tried, with some success, to play down or eliminate the concepts such as "duty", "obligation", "obedience", "service" and "worship" with which true Love (in its Divine sense) is necessarily associated.

Thereís not enough time left this morning to explore why this state of affairs has come about with a culture which is so inimical to the Christian Gospel. That will need another sermon or series of sermons to itself, so if you want to know more about it youíd better ask Fr Washington/Ardleigh to invite me to come back again. Suffice it for the moment to say that it is closely linked with the present preoccupation with the pursuit of "justice" and "peopleís rights". When people stop thinking about righteousness and duty and think instead about "my rights", or when they start looking to God for "Justice" rather than mercy and forgiveness then itís a sure sign that the mind that thinks this way has gone badly off the rails.

So letís look briefly instead at one or two of the things that the author of Psalm 119, which might be called the Hymn to Righteousness, has to say. The Psalmist says things like the following:

Behold my delight is in thy commandments : O quicken me in thy righteousness

and: I have had as great delight in the way of thy testimonies : as in all manner of riches

or: The law of thy mouth is dearer unto me : than thousands of gold and silver.

or again: Lord, what love have I unto thy law : all the day long is my study in it

and: I opened my mouth and drew in my breath : for my delight was in they commandments.

Now itís natural to suppose that the Psalmist lived in a very different kind of world from ours, a world where life was altogether simpler and more straightforward. But not a bit of it. The world that the Psalmist had to live in, like that world that Jesus and his disciples inhabited was just as difficult as the world of today. There was as much dishonesty, just as much deceit, just as much dereliction of duty and striving to be top-dog. We forget that the virtues and values of two or three thousand years ago, things like honesty, compassion, mercy, truth, penitence and forgiveness were startlingly similar then as now. Values like these are permanent values which never change from one generation to the next.

People may forget them, yes; people may know them in their hearts but choose not to practise them or to ignore them; they may even try to teach each other that such things are "old-fashioned" or "out-of-date". But deep down everyone except the wilfully blind recognizes that the commandments of God remain firm for ever and ever. "I the Lord, change not, therefore ye sons of men are not consumed".

That is why there is a much closer connection between love and duty than most people suppose. So far from being opposed to each other they are, as we say complementary.

Duties performed without love are dry, barren, stale, unattractive creatures; whilst love that does not embrace duty as its helpmeet quickly decomposes into sentimental trash, of which there is so much floating around the world at the present time.

Love and duty are the two facets which make human and divine relationships really work. Therefore, as we might expect since the words come from the lips of the Tremendous Lover himself, Jesus Christ, there is no ultimate contradiction in his words to us: I give you a new commandment: love one another just as I have loved you.

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