Bible: John 15:9-17
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 have 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.
He sits in the middle of the church, at the front. He is large, loud, and smelly. His appetite is voracious; woe to any tray of scones that is within reach!
The congregation is remarkably tolerant of him. His tourette-like yelps, the foot tapping, and the loud, barely intelligible questions are accepted week after week.
He is a problem at the end of morning tea, never wanting to leave. I think it's safer in the hall than out on the street; for all his bulk, he is like a little child, and probably at risk of harassment. It took two of us twenty minutes to persuade him out last Sunday. Hours later, one of the congregation who was going past, noticed he was still sitting outside on the bench.
Some of the frailer folk who are on duty worry about how they will manage him. And soon, there is to be a special service. Dignitaries will attend, and not just from churches. There will be lots of food. Our friend may be a surprise for them!
The worship committee spent some time today, wondering what to do. They could simply put someone on the door, and not let him in. They could ask the police to take him away. But the committee sat down, and tried to work out a strategy to let the church be his place too. How can he be welcome at church in a way that will not be too confronting for our special visitors, who may not understand? How, for real love is intensely practical, can we protect the food?!
Suggestions were made about giving him his own special pew, with a label, near the back on one side. It would need to be on the side of the church away from where visitors usually enter. Maybe we need to assist visitors to a seat that's out of odour range! Perhaps we could roster a friend, one of the larger, but more patient men, to sit with him each week. Could there be a small lunch for him to take away after morning tea- on the understanding that he leaves the hall?
This is Christianity at work.
In another place, some people were uncomfortable with the attitudes of a new member in the congregation. He did not seem to be fitting in. His ideas about women were inappropriate. He was "stand-offish," and would not engage in conversation with them.
This was a time of self searching. Imagine being a shy person, in a place where everyone spoke rapidly, in a language you could barely manage. How hard to talk with young women you would not have approached in your own culture, who would never have come up, and begun talking with you! It was especially difficult to realize that his attitudes toward women were very respectful, and perhaps less conservative than some of our own! He would never have been as rude and chauvinistic towards a woman as some of our anglo men; we did not want to hear the real problem was the colour of his skin. The shy white men were fully acceptable- just shy. And the rude white men were hardly noticed. Being black made all the difference.
In the combined congregation, the people who had always been there, sat around the morning tea tables each Sunday. The in-comers stood, and had to push in, to reach the milk, sugar and biscuits. The old hands kept leaving the hall doors open, so that the children would go out into the busy street. The young parents kept closing the doors. Sometimes an old hand would walk over, open the hall door, and then go back to their seat!
When the minister described this weekly dance at a congregational meeting, the young people all nodded. Far too many of the old hands sat in hostile denial.
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.
This week's gospel from John suggests the key obedience and discipline before God- this is my commandment- is to love one another. At this point there is nothing about justice to the stranger, or the wider world. Simply love one another.
When we consider how uncomfortable it can be to really love the unlovely among us, perhaps just loving ourselves is more than enough work!
If we can truly love the in-comers, who challenge how it was always done by their presence alone, perhaps loving those more distant will become easy by comparison. We might really love them, and not merely appease our consciences.
When we face our own unconscious xenophobia, in our own church hall, perhaps then we can speak with integrity about racism.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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