I’m well aware that whenever I go away to any course or conference, there are some people in the church who are dread this, simply because they worry about what new ideas I’ll have come up with.
I think that’s rather how the disciples were feeling in this week’s reading. We’re eavesdropping on a conversation between Jesus and the men who’ve followed him along dusty roads and through crowded villages for the past three years. They’ve heard him tell incredulous crowds that they must love their enemies. He’s laid down the Law in the form of the commandment to love God and your neighbour. And now, surely, they freeze in anticipation as he utters the fateful words: “A new commandment I give to you …”. What bright idea will the wretched man have come up with now?
Before we look at that bright idea, we should consider the context of the passage.
Despite all the economic difficulties of our current age, even if we are currently avoiding a triple dip recession, we still live in a time of relative plenty. Few of us know what it is to be truly, gnawingly, frequently hungry – unless we are engaged in trying to lose a few pounds. In the time of Jesus, things were much harder for many more people.
In this age, the triumphs of science and technology have largely shielded us from a truth that would have been obvious in previous eras – indeed since the very appearance of life itself on our planet – that to live is to a lesser or greater extent to compete. And to survive is to win in that competition. Whether you believe that life on earth is four thousand or four billion years old, there is no getting away from the fact that we’re the descendants of those who survived long enough in life to breed. For some that will have been easy, for others it was a hard won achievement. And in every age there will have been many living creatures who failed in that competition. It is, quite literally, a fact of life.
Life finds a way to fill every niche, to multiply until abundance becomes scarcity, scarcity becomes competition and competition becomes conflict. It’s written into the genes of every living thing, including us, that to be last to life’s food counter is to go away hungry. Every cell whispers to us that our first duty is to survive.
It is important that we understand the truth of this, in order to make any sense of the extraordinary nature of what Jesus says. A new commandment I give to you: that you love one another as I have loved you. How on earth, you might still be thinking, is this commandment new? Jesus has been banging on about love since he first appeared on the scene.
But this love is something different again. It’s not even loving others as you love yourself. Jesus himself describes it and is about to do it: the greatest love is for someone to lay down their life for their friend. The greatest love is for someone to deny the whole basis on which life exists and instead of surviving at the expense of others, to sacrifice themselves so that others might live. That is the love that Jesus showed for the disciples, for you and for me. And it’s a love which turns the universe upside down. And it’s still new because in the long history of our universe, or the shorter history of our earth, or even the brief history of our race, the time since that extraordinary command was given is barely the blink of an eyelid.
So here we are, among the first of an extraordinary new race. Those who’ve decided to try to live their lives in total conflict with the way the universe encourages us live. And it has to be said that we do it with only limited success – each one of us in the secret places of our own hearts know just how limited that success has been. But before we beat ourselves up too much – just a little is OK – let us admit that part of the problem is that it’s hard.
This command of Jesus goes against everything that billions of years of evolution have drilled into every living being: before even the first bacterium divided and divided again and soon discovered that there wasn’t enough food for all the bacteria that wanted to come into existence and so learned to shoulder the others aside or, in a stroke of brilliance, realized that it would be a neat idea to start eating the other bacteria.
That understanding, that compulsion, is written throughout our characters, far beyond what we shall eat and drink. Life for us is competition. We co-operate to achieve ends that would be impossible on our own but, when the chips are down, we’ll try to survive and thrive, even at the expense of others.
And it’s no help to pretend that there was some golden age from which we have somehow fallen, or that there is some perfect human life of which we fall short. Except for thirty short years in a hot and dusty country a few thousand miles and two thousand years away, that perfect life has never been lived. It’s no use looking back because it is still a new thing we are doing.
Each generation has to work out how to live the life of sacrificial love that Jesus patterned in a way that no-one before has ever done. No-one has ever tried it in a time of such wealth and such poverty, of nuclear power and text-messaging, of genetic engineering and global warming and chocolate fountains. No one. We’re the first generation in this age.
And it’s hard. It’s hard, not least, because even to begin we have to broaden our horizons – to welcome as friends those whom we once excluded. It’s easy enough to learn to love those who are like us, but then we learn we have to love Gentiles, other nations, other races, we have to learn to admit slaves to the family of humanity, to recognize the rights of women, to accept the humanity of those who love in different ways to us. We discover that we have neighbours in Somalia and Syria. All this when it’s hard enough for us to love the people next door, the kids hanging around on the corner, the people at the office – especially the ones who want our job or give us orders. Hard enough sometimes even to love the people closest to us.
But that’s OK, it’s meant to be hard; good things often are hard. It’s meant to be like birth pains. The whole of creation is waiting, longing, tingling with anticipation and eagerness waiting for us to get it right – to come into our own, not as children of the universe but as children of God.
What will it be like? We don’t know, we can’t know. After all, in the late Archbishop Michael Ramsey’s wonderful words, we’re only early Christians. We’re just the pioneers whose faithfulness and love, or lack of it, will shape the whole of the future. We are the ones to whom people will one day look back in envy and ask – how did they do this new thing? It’s a good question. Can we, and people like us, really buck the whole of the history of life? Jesus believed we could. In fact he commanded it.