One thing you learn early as a preacher is when to turn the lapel microphone on. In my case, I check that the sound operator will fade my microphone down during the hymns, as I wouldn’t want to add to the congregation’s agony by inflicting my singing on them. Many and legion are the stories of preachers who turned on the microphone too early, disappeared to a small room before the service, only for the entire congregation to learn where they had gone.
Sadly, our Prime Minister has not learned that lesson. This week, Gordon Brown has been The Preacher In The Loo.
I refer, of course, to what has become known as ‘Bigotgate’. I pass no comment on whether Gillian Duffy’s question about eastern European immigration was racist, nor on whether the PM was right to call her a ‘bigoted woman’. Nor do I deny that many people in all kinds of occupations let off steam about difficult individuals when they [think they] are in private.
But what I think cannot be denied is that the Prime Minister was two-faced. When talking with Mrs Duffy, he praised her to the heights, but made his disdain for her known afterwards. If he had simply maintained a level of politeness with her publicly but not told her how wonderful she was, this might have been a lesser incident, rather than a potentially defining moment in the General Election campaign. Anyone who holds a position of responsibility that depends in some way on the favour of those you are meant to lead will surely have some sympathy with Mr Brown, because you sometimes find yourself having to be polite to someone when you’d rather not be. But Gordon Brown went beyond that to the point of contempt, in my opinion.
At the same time, isn’t it frightening to reflect on all those who have been quick to criticise, as if they wouldn’t do anything of the sort? Some chance. No doubt they are correct to say that the Prime Minister is a man with a hot temper – there seem to be too many other stories confirming that. But are we to imagine he is the only politician like that?
Isn’t it something, then, that we come to a famous passage in John’s Gospel this week about love? There’s never much love lost in a General Election campaign. The handshakes at the end of the televised leaders’ debates have to rank amongst the most insincere you will ever see.
But what about us in the church? Let’s go back to those words of Jesus:
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.’ (Verses 34-35)
I simply want to reflect on two aspects of this teaching about love. Firstly, what is ‘new’ about this new commandment? I think that’s a fair question to ask. It’s not the first command to love in the Bible. It’s not even the only reference to it in Jesus’ teaching. Elsewhere he was asked what the greatest commandment was. He replied that it was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. He then sneaked in a second one: love your neighbour as yourself. So hasn’t he already made the command to love plain?
I find that comes over to me strongly in one of the Methodist communion services, where we speak of hearing the ‘commandments’ before we confess our sins. What commandments do we read? These two – to love God wholeheartedly and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Then, tacked on after them, we hear the command in today’s reading, to love one another. How in heaven and earth can Jesus add a new commandment onto the two he has given as combining to form the greatest commandment? As the great theologian Tom Jones might put it, “What’s new, pussycat?”
Principally what is new here is a new standard of love. Our standard for love is the example of Jesus. ‘Just as I have loved you, so you should love one another’ (verse 34). If we want any idea of what love means, we need to look at Jesus and how he loves. It wouldn’t take us long to think about a number of ways in which the love of Jesus challenges us to deeper love.
To begin with, take the way in which he took on human flesh and lived among us to bring God’s redeeming love to us. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14) or in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, ‘The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood’.
When I was serving in my first circuit, there was a painful split at the local United Reformed Church. Some had good and necessary reasons for leaving a damaging situation. Others left, they said, to set up a new church on a poor housing estate where there was no church building. They began to hire the St John’s Ambulance hall and hold services on a Sunday afternoon. However, they made little impact on that community.
It wasn’t hard to see why. None of these Christians moved onto the estate. They commuted in from their more comfortable estates every week. They weren’t prepared to pay the price of love that Jesus paid in becoming flesh and dwelling among the very people he wanted to love.
Because that is what love looks like, according to Jesus. You can’t love from a distance. Jesus loved close-up. It’s why I say we can’t expect to spread the love of God in this community unless we are taking that love into the community, rather than simply putting on attractive programmes here and expecting people to flock to our doors. Love Jesus-style doesn’t work like that.
It’s the same in terms of love for any person in need. In another previous church, we once had a mission team visit us for a few days. They partnered some of our members in visiting local houses and pubs, looking for opportunities to share the Gospel.
At the end of the time, we held a service, and afterwards I was sitting down, talking with a young mum who had just joined the congregation, along with her husband, daughter and son. She was telling me how she had lived in fear for the previous six months, because she had found a lump in her breast. Worse, by profession she was a radiographer and she was sure she knew what it was.
Sitting in the row in front was one of the mission team. He overheard this and swooped in with all sorts of platitudes about how she was failing to trust in God. Today, eleven years later, the memory of that incident still makes me mad. That mission team member made no attempt to get alongside Carolyn in her pain and fear. He just launched sentiments and Bible verses like missiles. He didn’t ‘dwell with’ Carolyn, as Jesus would have done. But that’s love ‘as he has loved us’. Hands get dirty. Time and energy are spent. Money and possessions are deployed for others. Because we move into the neighbourhood of those who need love.
Which means also that Jesus-style love is sacrificial. For, as we know, ultimately he loved us by laying down his life for the world. Love is a lot more than dewy-eyed teenagers looking forward to another romantic liaison. Love comes with a cost. It cost Jesus everything. It is hardly likely to cost us any less.
We know how seriously the early church took this. Famously one Christian from around the end of the second century to beginning of the third called Tertullian said, “We share everything except our wives.”
Another early story is of the Christian craftsman who, in order to make ends meet, had accepted a job to make idols for a pagan temple. When challenged about this by a church leader he replied, “But I must live!” The leader replied: “Must you?”
We could find countless examples from other places and times of Christians who knew that real love meant a willingness to sacrifice, even to lay down one’s life – because that is what Jesus had done in love for the world.
And that is why the second aspect of Jesus’ teaching in this passage is about the outcomes of love. Loving one another according to the pattern of Jesus isn’t just a new standard of love, it’s about a new order. The outcome is described in verse 35:
‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
The mark of the Christian community, according to Jesus, is love. It is what distinguishes us. Just as Jesus and the Father were so united with each other, so the Christian church is to be bound up as one with each other in mutual love. As the pagans looked at the early Christians and wondered, “See how these Christians love one another!” so that is not meant to have changed.
Some of you have told me examples of when such sticking-together, sacrificial love has been the gift of this church to you in times of need. Most notably I have heard people speak about such love here in bereavement or in chronic illness.
Nevertheless, it’s always good to be challenged and stretched. As Christians we cannot be complacent and opt for the kind of faith that is merely comfortable and just looks all the time to be patted on the back and sent on our way rejoicing. Given the importance Jesus places here on the world being able to tell that we are his disciples by our love for one another, it seems apt to raise a few simple challenges about our love for one another.
Let’s name a few, then. If Jesus and his Father were and are so at one in their love for one another, isn’t it time to drop all the talk about whether we are ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ a particular person?
Or – if we see how wrong Gordon Brown’s behaviour was towards Gillian Duffy, is it worthy of us to tell people to their faces how wonderful they are, all the while behind their back running a campaign against them?
Similarly, if we truly believe in love like Jesus did, can we treat people as objects, or as means to an end, or even just as bait to attract others?
And if love unites us, can we entertain the idea of cliques in a church?
Oh – and by the way, if these examples shock or surprise you, I have based every one of them on incidents or attitudes I have witnessed in Methodist churches.
What should we do? If we have hurt someone else and they know that it was us, then we need to ask their forgiveness. The sharing of The Peace in a few minutes’ time could be a time for that. If the boot is on the other foot, and we are the wronged party and the other person knows they have hurt us, then in love we need to offer forgiveness. Again, The Peace would be a good time to do this.
Naturally, if one party does not know about the hurt, that might not be advisable. If the other party is not present today, loving offers of reconciliation in repentance or forgiveness need to be offered outside this service.
If one party does not know about the hurt, then perhaps it is best simply to settle this privately with God, unless he directs us otherwise.
But however God leads us, let us remember this. It is not by our beautiful buildings that the world will know we are Jesus’ disciples. It is not by our attractive programme of events that the world will know we follow Jesus. It is by the quality of our love that the world will see our devotion to Jesus.
Nothing could be more important.