On John 15:9-17
Here is a sequence of events from the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke which do not on the face of them have much to do with our reading today from John.
While he was out and about performing miracles, Jesus found a man called Levi ‘sitting at the tax booth.’ He invited that man into his growing circle of friends. The tax collectors (the ‘publicans’) were representatives of the corrupt Roman government -- hideous agents of the Jewish people’s oppression. They were so disgusting to true believers that Jesus was asked how he could even countenance having dinner with Levi, let alone enlisting him for God’s kingdom (Matthew 9:9-13; Mark 2:13-17; Luke 5:27-32).
Then as his fame grew Jesus told his friends, Levi among them, that they must arrange a boat for him so he could escape the crowds (Mark 3:7-12). They did, and when they were off alone together Jesus appointed twelve of them to be his closest allies, his ‘disciples.’ Levi was one of those, and so was Simon, a Zealot. The ‘Zealots’ were a splinter group whose hatred of the Roman occupation was so powerful as to become violent. But the publican and the Zealot were now on the same team: together in one intimate association were an executive of the despised imperial state, and a rebel who thought such executives deserved to die (Matthew 10:1-4; Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:12-16).
There was not, at least according to the Gospels, any grand reckoning between these two. I have not left out a scene in which they discuss their differences and reach a mutual understanding. Before commissioning them to prepare a boat, Christ did not demand or even recommend that Simon and Levi reconcile their diametrically opposed worldviews.
Observe what Jesus did do instead. He gave them a task to accomplish together. Go, and prepare me a boat -- you, reviled for your profession, and you, ready to kill for your faith, help me broadcast God’s love. Notice also that the task Christ chose was one which would make the least empowered among the twelve into the leaders with the most relevant expertise. It was the common fishermen, men like Andrew and James, who would have to direct this operation, while wealthier men like Levi would need to watch and learn just how it is that one prepares a boat in the first place. When they reached the opposite shore, Jesus was ready to turn these men from bitter enemies into fellow missionaries. He said nothing that we know of about how they could accomplish that transformation. Perhaps he did not need to say anything.
Which does after all bring us to today’s passage. ‘Love one another, as I have loved you,’ says Jesus on the verge of his death to those same disciples who have followed him since that day with the boat. Here are a few things which that apparently does not mean. It does not mean ‘find ways to tolerate one another.’ It does not mean ‘love one another if you can resolve your disagreements.’ Nor does it mean ‘walk with each other unless one of you holds views or undertakes practices which the others find appalling, in which case never mind.’
After all, that is not how Jesus loved his disciples. No, Jesus was ready to die for his friends -- one of whom facilitated his execution while another disavowed him completely. He did not heal and sanctify his disciples on the condition that they avoid such loathsome behaviour. Quite the opposite: he performed his great act of love for them in the very moment when they were at their worst. In the wake of that act the disciples were commanded to do likewise -- to seek one another’s good even if and when they found each other abhorrent.
Our own Christian church contains people who disagree so strenuously as to deplore each other. There are all sorts of issues which cause this to be so, but there is one of which I happen to have some personal experience, and so I’ll use that as an example. I am gay, and I am not celibate. I have encountered fellow Anglicans who refuse to share communion with me because of this fact. I have also encountered those who consider such refusal unconscionable. In the innumerable conversations I have had on the topic, I have repeatedly heard people from both sides say that the other side is simply beyond the pale. They wonder whether at some point soon there will have to be a schism in the church. It seems we cannot bear to acknowledge that we might be irrevocably united in one faith with those who contradict us on this question.
And yet I am certain that this is exactly the case. Obviously I am on one side of this issue and not another: I think that you can be fully gay and fully Christian. But that is not actually the point. The point is, though I sometimes find those who think otherwise distasteful, I am entirely convinced that they are my brothers and sisters in Christ. Because each of us relies on this man Jesus, this son of God, for the forgiveness of our sins and the resurrection of our bodies. And Jesus has not demanded that I and my sociopolitical adversaries come to an agreement. He has not demanded that we draft legislation which will satisfy us both, or that we forge an understanding or a compromise. He has given us a task, just as he gave his first disciples the task of preparing him a boat. Our task is, to love one another to the furthest extremity of love.
When I ask myself what that might look like -- what it might mean for us to offer our lives for our friends -- I find myself envisaging things to which my sexuality or my neighbour’s politics are by and large completely irrelevant. You do not have to approve of someone to get together with him and give food to people on the streets. You can do that alongside someone who thinks you are going to hell: I know, because I have. In such cases I have often found that those whom I might otherwise disdain can teach me a lot about how to do what we are doing, just as Andrew had much to teach Levi about preparing boats. Many acts of love -- maybe the most urgent ones -- can be done in union with people you do not like very much at all.
I do not mean to offer you empty and unwarranted optimism today. I know that the disputes within the church are substantial and might prove too much for us to weather. I know that the church is the Body of Christ, which in this fallen world must be wounded and even torn apart. I know that not all aspects of shared practice can remain untouched by the conflicts to which I have alluded. But I wonder whether the really pressing tasks before us -- feeding the hungry, declaring forgiveness, preparing boats which will carry Christ into the world -- might not be simpler and more important than the scandalous controversies in which we like to embroil ourselves.
Two chapters before our reading today, Christ says that loving one another is the mark whereby every man shall know that we are his disciples (John 13:34-5). That is, this is a shockingly distinctive kind of community which is to set us apart from a world in which solidarity depends upon philosophical agreement or interpersonal harmony. Our solidarity does not depend on those things. It depends upon the fact that you and I, though we may have nothing else in common, are both washed clean by the same blood which we share again at this table now. We do not have to agree with each other; we have to love one another. In fact the more impassioned our disagreement, the more astonishing and noteworthy it will be when we work towards common goals out of the common love of Christ. That would indeed be a remarkable sight for a world sick with partisan infighting and resentful sectarianism. Our faith is supposed to be visible proof to such a world that there is another way: the true way and the life of messy, uneasy collaboration among sinners saved by Christ crucified. I wonder whether we are strong enough to bear that witness. I pray to God that we are.