Many years ago, I led a house group for members of a church congregation looking to explore their faith a little further. One evening, we were discussing the role of faith in decision making. There was general agreement that the world would be a better place if everyone lived according to the Ten Commandments. They must have caught me on a bad day. I asked, casually, whether the Ten Commandments formed a significant part of their decision making, of their personal ethical code, and they looked a little nervous. When I asked them if they could recite them, or write them down, there was panic. I will confess that, with the benefit of twenty years hindsight, I do now wince at my own brutality.
Once we had established that none of them could recall all Ten, we re-read them from the book of Exodus and had a good discussion. One woman confidently told me, after the session had ended, that the commandment most often broken was: ‘Don’t work on a Sunday.’ I was, genuinely, puzzled. We had, after all, just read them. But the commandment, ‘Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy’ – God’s desire for every person to set aside time for rest, echoing the divine rest in the story of creation – had been transformed in her mind into ‘Don’t work on a Sunday’. She told me that she felt guilty doing the ironing and housework on a Sunday, but that this was the only day available to her. A long and interesting conversation about her life ensued.
But, with the benefit of hindsight, I am struck by the way in which the word ‘commandment’ is used. A prohibition, a ‘don’t’, an order. To be fair, if you read the Ten Commandments, they do sound like a series of prohibitions and orders, but only if you read them as a list, and if you forget where they came from and who gave them to whom. The commandments are the beginnings of God’s law for his chosen people. And the law is what binds God to the people in covenant. In other words, God’s law is what cements the relationship between God and the people. The relationship already exists.
I’m saying all of this because when we read of Jesus’ new commandment, this is the way in which we need to think about it. ‘I give you a new commandment,’ says Jesus. ‘Love one another.’
If this is an order, then it is impossible. We cannot be ordered to love. That is not how love works. Love, that warmth of affection, kindness, good will and compassion that exists between people cannot be ordered. It emerges from the quality of the relationship we have. It can only be understood, acknowledged, and lived out.
So, perhaps a better word would be invitation. Jesus gives an invitation, that his disciples might live with the same appreciation of one another as equals, as friends, as he holds for them. Not so much a ‘don’t’ then, as a ‘come and see’, or ‘abide’.
Jesus wants his disciples to understand that he loves them in the way that God loves them. He tells them that they are not servants of a spiritual master, but his friends, gathered to him, called by him, equals with whom he has shared everything that he has heard from the father. For whom he will lay down his life. This is the relationship he wants them to understand.
Once we understand that God loves us, how God loves us, how God, in Christ, walks with us and calls us his friends, then the most natural thing in the world is for us to acknowledge this. We do this in our prayers, when we meet together and declare our faith, when we worship.
We understand that God loves us, we acknowledge this openly in our worship and prayer, but then we are invited by Jesus to live out that love. ‘Love one another,’ he says.
We can only truly live out the love of God in the here and now, in practical action. Go out, says Jesus, and bear fruit that will last. In the diocese of Worcester, we talk of the fruit of the kingdom in terms of love, justice, compassion and freedom: branches of practical responses to faith. Go out and bear fruit. Do it, live it, live out this love.
Jesus’ commandment to love is not a ‘don’t’ sort of commandment. Much more of an invitation to ‘do’ – to live as people who understand God’s love, who acknowledge it in worship, and who demonstrate that relationship we have with Jesus, day by day.
- Can you describe, to yourself or to someone else, what it means to know that Jesus calls you his friend as well as his disciple?
- What words or prayers might you offer to give thanks to God for the love in Jesus? Are there hymns or songs you particularly appreciate that put your thanks into words?
- Give an example of how someone has shown God’s love for you in what they have said or done. It does not have to be something big – sometimes the small stuff is what shows us the greatness of love.
- How will you try to live out your relationship with God in practical ways? You might like to reflect on the diocesan priorities of love, justice, compassion and freedom, and what those words mean to you and your life.