How do you get on with your neighbours? As I look back over the years I have always been very fortunate with neighbours. They have been the kind of people who have been willing to turn lights on for me when I am away, and collect the post.
When I was a small boy, I remember that one of our neighbours used to scrub the porch for us the day before we returned home from holiday – I cannot imagine anyone doing that now! It is good to have good neighbours, and to be a good neighbour as well. But we only have to open our newspapers to find out how bad some people can be as neighbours, whether we are talking about the people who live next door, or the country which is next door. Around the world, people practice very poor skills at being neighbourly.
Jesus says, “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.” Elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus teaches, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Love your neighbours, even if those neighbours are your enemies.
In one sense, the commandment which Jesus gives his disciples is nothing new, but it is easy to see that it may well have been forgotten, or submerged under all the more pressing religious matters which needed to be dealt with at the time. Jesus takes as his text a law given by God to Moses in the Book of Leviticus. We tend to think of the Old Testament as being pretty loveless when it is all said and done. But Jesus takes a law, which should be kept, and turns it into a commandment, a command that must be kept by those who follow him. It is right there in the early days of the Jewish tradition, “you shall love your neighbours as you love yourself,” but Jesus brings it alive for us again today in our Gospel reading in the most vivid of ways.
The scene which we entered into through our Gospel reading this morning is back before his crucifixion again, and the disciples are gathered around the table for the Last Supper. Jesus has given them bread and wine – symbols of his body and blood, and he has washed their feet. The very acts which we remembered together in Holy Week on Maundy Thursday. But something deeply shocking has happened as well. Jesus has predicted that one of his disciples will betray him, and in John’s account he has pointed this person out, but the disciples seem unaware of what is going on.
Judas has left the meal and gone out into the night. He has gone to find those who will take Jesus away, on the final stage of his journey to the cross.
What would you do if you knew that you were being betrayed by one of your closest friends, the
neighbour of all neighbours? We might like to think that we would love them as they betrayed us, but I certainly know that if it happened to me, love would be the last thing on my mind.
The fact is that whilst we try to live a good life, whilst we try to love our neighbours, in the main we only ever really love those who love us in return. There is a deep selfishness that is part of our human condition which makes us feel that it is necessary for us to be loved too in order for us to love others. Love that is not returned with love, will eventually wither and die.
But Jesus, at the very moment when he knows that he is being betrayed says to his disciples that he has one more teaching to give them, and this last teaching is the greatest of them all. “Love one another,” but not in the, way that you see others loving their friends around you: not in a selfish way – no, “love one another as I have loved you,” totally, unconditionally, for your neighbours good and not for your own: love, just love.
When we hear Jesus’ words in the fullness of the situation in which he was in, they are so powerful and challenging, that I at least, just want to shrink back and hide.
Even the Church has, at different times in history lost its nerve about them. ‘The idea of loving our enemies is one of the teachings of Jesus which in the past was separated into a special category called the “counsels of perfection,” which meant that they were not applicable to most people, but only to those few who had discerned a call to lead a religious life in a monastic community.
The idea was that such noble virtues could not be let loose in our imperfect world, but were to be modelled fully, only by those people who had already given up the world to live in the enclosure of a monastery.
When the compilers of our Gospels came to remember the sayings of Jesus, the graphic image of the cross would have been foremost in their minds. As we have talked about before, it is only in the light of the reality of his death, and their experience of his resurrection, that those early followers of Christ came to understand the importance of what he had said to them earlier. That is especially real for all of us in this festival season of Easter. The editors of our Gospels knew the end of the story ‘before they began to bring together in one place each of the events which preceded it. So when they heard these words, this challenge to love, regardless of the response, they knew exactly what he was on about: because they had seen it lived out in Jesus.
They would have understood the whole ministry of Jesus as living out that message of love. They would have seen the close connection between Judas’ betrayal and Jesus’ final teaching – that even at the point of betrayal we must love those who let us down – and Jesus doesn’t just say it once, he says it a number of times in John’s Gospel as he spends his last hours with his closest friends.
And they would have remembered Jesus’ words from the Cross, in the midst of the agony and pain of his final moments: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing!”
I don’t know about you, but somewhere deep in my very being I want to scrub those words from our memory and instead cry out, “no God! Don’t forgive them, don’t forgive those people who murdered our Lord, because they did know what they were doing!” But Jesus does not do that, he does not respond like we might have done. Yes, even in the final moments of his life, Jesus lives out the life-giving, resurrecting message which he has come to share with humanity: “love one another, as I have loved you.” Even when the disciples experience him in the glory of his resurrection, when the powers of death have been destroyed, we hear nothing from Jesus about vengeance, or revenge, or the destruction of those who killed him.
So for those earliest readers of this text there was no doubt about what Jesus meant; Loving your neighbours – whether they’re your friends or your enemies – means the way of the cross. It means us taking the initiative of restoring relationships with our neighbours – here and now in the vulnerability of the messy-ness of our lives. It is the whole reason for Jesus coming amongst us. Humanity had become alienated from God, and from each other, and so God comes to be one of us, to be our neighbour, to love us and to draw us back into that relationship which had always been intended. And yet even when God came in so intimate a form, God was rejected, as the love which was offered in Jesus was rejected – unconditional love, nailed to a cross. But that was not the end the unending hymn of alleluia’s rings on. The love of God, offered freely by God and yet rejected by humanity, could not be destroyed. Death could not hold it.
God calls us to love our neighbours in the same way that we have experienced God’s love for us in Jesus. If we are the body of Christ, then the love which we give others, is offered not only on our own behalf, it is given on God’s behalf, because it is God’s love which we share with those around us. Jesus calls us to be good neighbours. To love those who love us too, and to love those who are our enemies in equal measure. This is the mission of the Church. Through our love everyone will know that we are disciples of the risen Lord.