‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
Jesus, John 13:34, 35
‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.’
Jesus, John 15:9-17
Love one another.
Love one another. This is the way in which it will be apparent to everyone looking on that you are those who are learning how to live from Jesus.
Sunderland Minster is a fascinating place. Whereas many urban churches tend to bring together like-minded Christians from one particular tradition or other, the congregation at the Minster reflects the breadth of the Church of England under one roof.
So in a congregation served by four clergy, two women and two men, we have those who rejoice that the Church is moving closer to the day when women will join men in serving as bishops; and those who are deeply distressed by this development, and wonder what is becoming of the Church. Each are wrestling with what it means to follow Jesus, not as individuals but as a community. Each points to their understanding of scripture and tradition and reason and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Not to win an argument, but to navigate the life of faith.
Likewise, we have among us those who in good conscience believe that the Church cannot affirm same-sex marriage; and those who in good conscience believe that it is a gospel imperative that the Church does so; and, indeed, those who in good conscience are not yet able to come to a settled opinion.
As with many other issues, these are things on which those who are trying to follow Jesus today find themselves of differing opinions. As with many other issues, we are unlikely to arrive at agreement any time soon.
And some are concerned that our lack of agreement presents a lack of unity, a divided house that cannot stand, dishonouring Jesus before the world.
Jesus, however, seems to have a different concern altogether. According to him, the world has rejected him anyway, and therefore his disciples should expect it to reject them too. But what will draw people to him is not a united front, but a deeper unity: our being united by loving one another. This is both the acid test of our devotion, and the means by which the world will be transformed.
Jesus shows us what that looks like. He shares bread with Judas, who will betray him. He shares bread with Peter, who will deny even knowing him let alone being one of his closest followers and friends. He shares bread with the rest of the twelve, who will all desert him. And look again (John chapters 13-17) at the words he speaks to each of them as he does so: he recognises that their decisions – to betray, to deny, to desert; but also to abide, to love, to remain in the world – come with a cost; not a trivial cost but a massive cost. He speaks words of encouragement, and he sets the example by laying down his own life for them.
For each one of us, there is a cost to following Jesus; a cost to following him within the company of Sunderland Minster; within the wider family of the Church of England. And for each one of us, that cost is at times so great that we find ourselves asking, is this cost worth paying? Can I bear that level of pain, of confusion, of being misunderstood, that rejection?
As you face your cost, Jesus invites me to lay down my life for you: to love you, whatever it costs me. As I do so, I pay a cost of my own – and Jesus invites you to lay down your life for me.
We didn’t choose Jesus, he chose us. He chose us not as individuals, but as members of a community – and we didn’t choose one another, either. He has brought together an unlikely band of brothers and sisters; and he has declared the Father’s intention to prune back what is fruitful in our lives, in order that it might grow back bearing more fruit, and to prune off what is unfruitful, in order that it no longer draws life away. Again, we don’t do the pruning, or decide what needs pruning.
But we do get to choose whether we will love one another, by sharing bread with one another and by recognising the different cost it costs each of us to do so.
The thing about love is that if you invest all that you have, it produces a return, a gain – a greater amount of love, to be re-invested in its turn.
It might even yield enough love to joyfully hold together people who disagree with one another about things that matter to them very deeply; who might hurt one another and be hurt by one another, and be restored to one another.
And in a divided – even polarised – world, that might just be truly noteworthy, and truly transformational.