Sermon for High Mass – Easter 6 Sunday 6 May 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
No more biblical images about sheep or vines today: Jesus just tells it straight. He lays down his life for his friends as a proof of love; we are his friends if we do what he commands. Love one another.
Is this friendship as we know it? He ‘chooses’ us and ‘appoints’ us to a task, the basis of twenty centuries of Christian theorizing about vocation. Yet he insists that we are not ‘servants’ but ‘friends’: surely friendship is a relationship which is freely accepted and two-way.
In fact Jesus says that we are not slaves, but friends. We still translate this word as ‘servants’ (while every Greek speaker who heard the original could only hear ‘slaves’) because 19th century American protestants were touchy about the people they happened to own at the time. That’s a side issue this morning, but worth recording and correcting.
This teaching isn’t so much about who chooses the relationship as about the alternative. ‘Slave’ is the opposite of friend here because this is the rejection of blind obedience to a ‘command’ morality and its replacement with a new model of respectful, loving friendship.
Slaves are told to do something, and if they don’t understand why they should do it, they’re told, ‘Â“You don’t need to understand why, just do it, you’re a slave. I, the Master, know why I want it done, and your ways are not my ways’.Â”
Morality has very often been taught like this, but the simple assertion of a command no longer convinces many people. Friendship is different; it involves invitation and acceptance; there is give and take. So the analogy may be imperfect: and we know that in the Christian economy we become not only friends of the one who inaugurated the project, but brothers and sisters, heirs, the ultimate insiders, fully adopted into the life of the Son, loved unconditionally. So it’s a word which Jesus uses to mean ‘the opposite of slaves’.
The command to love one another is not just another new commandment, but a new type of commandment. Jesus didn’t give many direct commands and when he did they were mostly big sweeping principles, like ‘love one another’, rather than detailed rules about how to live correctly. When he offers detail he usually states a fact (such and such a behaviour is a sin) but he doesn’t routinely add a command. And when we hear him talk of sin it must be remembered that his overarching theme is always forgiveness: all discussion of sin in Christianity must be heard in the context of his proclamation of forgiveness and acceptance. His Sermon on the Mount, which Matthew offers as the teaching of the new Moses, is not cast in Moses’ commandment form, ‘thou shalt’ or ‘thou shalt not’, but ‘blessed are the meek, the poor in spirit, the merciful…’
Jesus taught by describing the world as God sees it, ‘the Kingdom of God is like this’. If, as a Christian (and therefore a citizen of heaven rather than a mere earthly patriot), we see the world through God’s lens then we have a reliable guide to ethics and morality.
Because Jesus taught in this way it is never safe to seek out, emphasise and blindly enforce specific commands or prohibitions as a matter of blind obedience. We learn the moral life by immersing ourselves in what he taught and glimpsing the whole world-view – the view of the world as it could be if we all saw with God’s vision, the vision of glory. Jesus is offering us precisely Godly morality: not because God commands it (the fundamentalist reading), but because he invites and seeks our flourishing, safety and ultimate good. That is about love, as Fr Julian said last week. Consent and avoidance of harm are core elements of that, way ahead of blind obedience. Love, and therefore the gospel, is relational; it is personal, particular and local. It is not a theory: it requires action, in Jesus’ case, action even unto death for those he loves.
This truth, this point of intersection of human and divine, has been repeatedly obscured by the bloodless theories of Christian doctrinal orthodoxy, theories of the atonement or papal authority or whatever, which are usually about preserving the integrity of the institution rather than the person. But, as David Jenkins wrote, fifty years ago,
On matters of fundamental importance, persons must gain a hearing for arguments. Christians, therefore, cannot hope to regain evangelistic effectiveness simply by renovating the terms or the types of their argument.
[or, I would want to add, the styles of their worship]
We have to demonstrate authentic practice before we can hope for effective preaching. …
Jesus was discovered to be the Word of God and the Logos of the cosmos in and through his personal embodied living. God makes himself known in human practice. Those who believe that it is in the following of Jesus that God is above all to be known and shown can scarcely expect to find any other effective way of learning for themselves or of gaining a hearing from others than the way of involvement and practice. The Glory of Man, 115
In today’s gospel we do hear the language of command and commandment, but it may be almost an ironic use. As we know from elsewhere, Our Lord’s attitude appears to have been ‘You want commandments? Here’s mine: love one another.’
Jesus locates the reason for all rules of life in the overarching truth of enacted love. It is relational, responsive and gracious: ‘as the Father has loved me so I have loved you’; ‘love one another as I have loved you.’ He acted that out in washing his disciples’ feet on Holy Thursday and above all on the cross (‘no one has greater love than this…’).
This is a change from two to three dimensions, from words on a page to the Word of God, the person to whom we continue to relate in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. The incarnation, God coming among us as one of us, changes everything.
As we hear this morning this leads to a new relationship with God – not slaves but friends – and a fresh understanding of friendship, where there may seem to be an initial imbalance but where the outworking is all in our favour. Slaves are commanded; friends are loved, in a relationship which depends on consent and the avoidance of harm and seeks mutual flourishing.
The distinctive commandment in Jesus’ morality is to love one another. We have to work out the detail, with God, ourselves in the business of daily living. Being a Christian is not about correctly performing the tasks of command-morality, any more than it is just about coralling people into membership. As Fr Julian said to us last week,
The fruit of the vine is not missionary success; it is to live the ordinary life of a Christian in whom Jesus lives. By this is God glorified.
Jesus says to us this morning that this glory is ours too and it is the fruit of love.