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Thursday, 29 June 2017

One Commandment: Love one another

Here's my sermon from today's Eucharist at St Stephen Walbrook:

I imagine that some of you have been watching Broken, the gritty drama on the BBC about a Roman Catholic priest and his parishioners. The series feels very real as this priest grapples with his own demons, while seeking to be with and minister to the issues and needs in his parish.

In last Tuesday’s episode, Father Michael had to mediate when one of his parishioner’s Helen Oyenusi, the mother of a son with mental health issues who has been killed by the Police, was visited by her devout brother, Daniel Martin, who then clashed violently with her gay neighbour, Carl McKenna, as all were trying to come to terms with her son, Vernon's, death.

The conflict between Carl and Daniel unfolded with horrid inevitability. Hurt feelings fed by a lifetime of bullying clashed with bigotry fed by scripture, and the result promised to be devastating. Pride—a constant theme of this series—threatened to cause yet more pain. Instead, urged by Helen and Father Michael, Carl’s magnanimity gave us a happy ending. Carl repaid Helen’s kindness and demonstrated his own by dropping the charges against Daniel, a man puffed up with faith-backed intolerance. In a moving statement Helen spoke about the way in which Carl’s mother had loved her son and simply accepted the reality of his sexuality. She said that, ‘Her love was unconditional and that’s exactly how it should be.’

That is what the writer of the Letter of John (1 John 3. 13 - 24) also says: ‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.’ He also said that ‘We know love by this, that he [Jesus] laid down his life for us.’ That is unconditional love, and, as a result, ‘we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ because this is Christ’s commend to us – God’s commandment is ‘that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another.’

Jesus and his first disciples lived in a culture where there were 613 commandments in the Torah, the Law of Moses, divided up into 248 positive commandments (Thou shalt's) and 365 negative commandments (Thou shalt not's). The Pharisees had then taken these 613 commandments which were to do with the detail of life - shaving, tattoos, clothing, work, food and drink, farming, money and so on – and multiplied these commandments by creating detailed instructions about the ways in which each of these commandments was to be kept. Keeping all of these additional rules was a heavy burden for all who tried to do so and a point of tension and conflict for Jesus and the Pharisees.

Jesus, by contrast, taught that love was the fulfilling of the Law. Instead of keeping the endless detail of the regulations created by the Pharisees, Jesus said that we should simply love God, ourselves and our neighbours and that all the Law of Moses is actually designed to that end. This was liberating teaching which brought rest for those weighed down by the burden of trying to keep hundreds of commandments and thousands of additional regulations.

When asked to name the greatest commandment, Jesus endorsed the summary of the Law which speaks about love for God, love for ourselves and love for others. St Paul took this teaching to heart and wrote in his letter to the Church in Rome (Romans 13. 8 - 10) saying: ‘The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.’

He repeats this in his letter to the church in Galatia (Galatians 5. 14) says: ‘the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’ He concludes that, ‘in Christ Jesus … the only thing that counts is faith working through love.’

As Christians we are not called to keep 613 specific individual Commandments and are certainly not called to practice the additional detailed instructions relating to them devised by the Pharisees. Instead, there is one simple command which fulfils all the Law, when genuinely practised, and that is the love of which Helen Oyenusi spoke, unconditional love.

The commandment of God is that we should ‘believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.’ All who obey this commandment abide in God, and he abides in them. We know what this love is like because Jesus laid down his life for us and, therefore, this one commandment requires everything of us; that we, too, ought to lay down our lives for others.


Bruce Cockburn - Strong Hand Of Love.

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