John 14: 15-21
“Simpkins, don’t do that! And certainly don’t do that! And don’t even think of doing that, its disgusting! OK you are sorry are you, you snivelling little wretch, well we will see whether you deserve to stay here another term – you had better buck your ideas up and we will see!”
Does this feel familiar? Is this your idea of how Christianity has been portrayed to you in the past? Like the 1950s schoolmaster with a gown and a cane exacting divine retribution on people who won’t toe the line and do what they are told? And be a good boy….
Sadly, I do think this is how Christianity is perceived by many outside the church and perhaps by some in it.
And unfortunately I think that the first few words of the reading that we have just read in some versions may have contributed to this perception. In the King James Version of the Bible John 14 verse 15 reads as follows: “If ye love me, keep my commandments”. Today I am going to explain why I think this wording has been misunderstood and has contributed to God being portrayed as the angry schoolmaster holding the cane.
You see I think that this expression “If ye love me, keep my commandments” means, if you keep his commandments then that will prove to him that you love him, even though you don’t actually. You may not even know what ‘loving Jesus’ means.
So for years and years we hear at church the same message – keep his commandments! This is the key! We know from Matthew Mark and Luke (the synoptic gospels) that in Christianity there are two great commandments – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your mind (described as the greatest commandment in Matthew) and the second great commandment ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.
To be honest we tend to skirt around the first one – perhaps because loving God seems such a difficult thing to understand – what does it mean ‘to love God’ – to love what some people may see as an abstraction? So we concentrate on the second one: loving neighbor. And then we leave church every Sunday with every intention of doing just that. Thinking – if we grit our teeth and by sheer self-discipline, we love our neighbor as ourselves, then we are proving to Jesus that we love him. ‘If you love me, keep my commandments’ – it makes sense doesn’t it?
But in reality it is so hard isn’t it?
Before coming to the parish, trying to work out what the issues facing people within the Valley were, I interviewed a number of people who have dealings with the people in our sort of rural area. In particular I interviewed the local police. They pointed to the low crime rate in the area. But they said that the big issues that they see (apart from the loneliness of the elderly) are disputes between neighbours.
It astonished me that these could escalate into actually calling in the police, but apparently they do, frequently. It may start with one throwing snails and slugs over the garden fence and the other throwing their grass clippings back. He plays his music loud on a Sunday morning, so she calls in the noise abatement officer and ultimately the police. A spiral of lack of forgiveness and hate develops and feuds begin between families which last for years and years. These are all painstakingly recorded in police files – absorbing huge amounts of their time and our taxes.
You see, I suspect that the real problem is that we just don’t want to love our neighbours as ourselves. And here of course I don’t just mean the person next door – I mean everyone we come into contact with – as the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us.
And although we may have every intention of loving neighbour when we leave church on a Sunday, we just don’t because its SO DIFFICULT and in any case its unfair and he shouldn’t have done this or that and I am certainly not going to behave well to her if she doesn’t to me. They never change. We never change. And the dispute just goes on and on until one of us dies or leaves the Valley.
But perhaps we have totally misunderstood what Jesus is saying in this passage and a re-reading of this sentence will help us to transform our relationships with others and our ability to love our neighbours as ourselves.
There are a number of original Greek manuscripts of John and some of them say what is said in the KJV: ‘If you love me, keep my commandments’ – a command, meaning ‘if you want to prove that you love me make sure that you keep my commandments – to show that you do’.
But then there are other original Greek manuscripts which say something different. They say ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’. Cause and effect. If you love Jesus then the result is that you actually want to keep his commandments. There is a change of heart. A transformation. A change of will and keeping Jesus’ commandments is just what we want to do and so we do. ‘You will keep my commandments; you just will…’
So the real question is how do we love our neighbour when they are so awful but how do we love Jesus because if we love him then we will have no problem loving our neighbour?
Well how do we love anyone? We need to start by getting to know them. It’s really impossible to know someone unless you have encountered them? But how do we encounter Jesus – a person who died 2000 years ago – even if we believe that he was resurrected (which I hope most of us do here) if we cannot see him – so how can we encounter him?
Locked up in prisons all over the country you have a lot of people who have failed to love their neighbours as themselves and done terrible things to others.
But prison has a poor record for reducing re-offending – 46.9% of adults are reconvicted within one year yr of release. This is the official figure. But, apparently, if you speak to the inmates, they say the reoffending rate is something like 98% – it’s just that the police have not caught and convicted others yet. But the same percentage of prisoners say that they don’t want to reoffend.
It is so difficult to change our behaviour. But even more difficult if you have got caught up in that spiral of addiction and violence that seems to be behind so much crime.
So when we see examples of transformed people from the prison system then we should pay careful attention.
If they can be transformed then so can we.
Many many thousands of people from all over the world (including Lucy and I) have found that they encounter Jesus on a course called Alpha, which we will be running in this parish from the end of September.
I love reading stories about these encounters. I am going to read one of these stories to you. About Shane Taylor.
Shane speaks of his love for Jesus transforming his behaviour. He now wants to love his neighbour as himself. Shane was of course a really extreme case. But Lucy and I did the Alpha Course in 1998 and our lives and relationships with each other and others were entirely transformed as a result.
So how about us?
Do we love Jesus?
Do we love our neighbours?
Do we even want to show them the grace that J shows us? Maybe there is someone you cannot forgive? Maybe there is someone to whom know that done a wrong. Maybe you have a difficult relationship with someone or you find relationships difficult in general.
Take the opportunity to encounter Jesus on the Alpha Course we will be running in September at St John’s Itchen Abbas.
Try Alpha and all your relationships may be transformed.