28 April 2013, 5th Sunday of Easter
Many years ago, as a student in Nottingham, I experienced something that continues to remind me of Jesus’ words that we read this evening. “Love one another as I have loved you. By this shall all men know you are my disciples, if you have love, one for another.”
A vicar and his wife offered me accommodation in the rectory flat. I accepted the offer, because I took an instant liking to David, the vicar, and Pixie, his wife and their four children. I discovered that the flat was rent free but it was also semi-derelict, and completely bare. Its walls needed stripping, and it had no kitchen and no furniture. I returned to Sri Lanka for three months due to family illness and began to worry about how I would sort the flat. Then Pixie emailed me: the church would take care of it.
When I returned from Sri Lanka the flat was transformed. The kitchen was painted and fully equipped, and the fridge and larder were fully stocked (thoughtfully with rice and curry); there was even a washing machine. The cement floors had been stripped and painted, and the entire flat furnished down to CD player, large desk with an angle-poise lamp for studying, linen and even warm clothes and £20 in an envelope for use as I arrived. When I walked into the bedroom there was a bowl of fresh roses and when I got into bed to rest after the long flight, I found hot water bottles warming my bed. I was so overwhelmed that I sat down on the bed and cried. I had never met the congregation, and had met Pixie and David only once for an hour.
My friends in the University were stunned. They couldn’t understand why anyone should do that. They assumed I would have to agree to be a member of the church and were even more taken aback when I said that David had specifically said that although I was welcome, I shouldn’t feel obliged to come to the church, just because I was living in the flat.
This love and generosity was a powerful outworking of Jesus’ commandment to “love one another”. To them, I was a member of God’s family – and they treated me as a “family member”. They not only gave financially and of their belongings, but they gave their time in painting and preparing the flat. It reminded me of the early church, soon after Pentecost, where generosity and love for one another poured over and beyond what was required. But the Christians in Nottingham, by their giving, also reflected the Old Testament principles we read about in Leviticus – the principle of gleaning, of helping others. I was a stranger, new to the country, and they exercised generosity. They were loving their neighbour as themselves, as it says in Leviticus, and as Jesus reiterated.
God’s laws in Leviticus are about how his people were to live, how to treat their neighbours, how to think of wealth and resources. The word translated “neighbour” actually means fellow human being. When asked which Law was the most important, Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.” The second Law, he added, was similar: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” And then he explained: “on these two commandments rest all the Laws and the Prophets.”
Jesus was effectively condensing the Old Testament laws and commandments into two basic principles. Love for God and a corresponding love for our neighbour. Our neighbour, he pointed out in the parable of the Good Samaritan, was the human being who needed our care and support – or the human being who helped us when we were in need.
We should be known by the love we show. “By this,” Jesus said, “all people shall know that you are my disciples, if you have love, one for another.” Today, this is not the norm. Most of us, Christians included, feel that the world is a place we take from, not a place we give to.
Walter – our previous rector – once challenged Paul and me to think differently about how we view financial stability. We were talking to Walter about building work we were doing and our savings being depleted. I worried that we should not have spent our savings during a time of recession – I was seeing it as a win-lose situation; we had work done but lost money. Walter pointed out another way to look at it. It was a good thing to provide employment for those needing it, during a recession when work was scarce. We had been blessed enough that we could help ensure others economic survival. It is a great blessing to be able to give. For us this was a paradigm shift. It has begun to overturn our perception of financial transactions.
An acquisitive mindset is a cancer that destroys not just our world and its resources, but its people. Not only are the world’s resources squandered, but injustice is established and encouraged, so that the powerful may more easily exploit the weak.
This same mindset is responsible for the terrible tragedy this week in Bangladesh. Insidious greed grew into a callous disregard for human life. The principles of safety, fair wages, and good working conditions were ignored by the Western Brands that ordered the goods, as well as by the Bangladeshi factory owners who in turn exploited the labour. Primark and Asda, amongst others, were complicit in the disaster. The companies exploit the workers for maximum profit, and we buy at bargain prices. We assume everyone is happy, but someone has to pay the real cost. And those who pay are among the poorest people on earth – like the Bangladeshi workers.
In this context, and in a global world, the workers in Bangladesh are our neighbours. They labour for us, and should be treated by the principles of God’s laws of love and care spelt out in Leviticus. You shall not defraud your neighbour; you shall not steal; you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a labourer till morning; you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbour. As I watched survivors and bodies being found in Bangladesh, I realised that they were the paying for the failure of our world to treat our fellow humans by the principles God requires. They were paying the price for the greed and sin of our world.
After the resurrection of Jesus, and after Pentecost, the early church took the words of Jesus seriously. They began to love one another as Christ had loved them. I suspect this is part of what drew people in their thousands to the Christian faith in the early church. What the watching world saw was something that went beyond the Old Testament commands to love their neighbour – beyond almsgiving, duty and obligation.
The book of Acts relates a wonderful example of Christian love and generosity in the early church. Thousands had been added to the church after the day of Pentecost. Many of the new believers were far from home; they had travelled to Jerusalem for the Passover, had heard the Gospel, believed in Christ, and then stayed on to learn more about Him. They had not planned to stay, and they had no money for food and accommodation. The early Christians solved this problem with acts of incredible generosity. They sold all they had and brought the money to the Apostles, for it to be redistributed to meet everyone’s need. You can imagine the shock of the watching world as they saw believers sharing what they had, not with family but with strangers. Like the church in Nottingham did with me. The Law was indeed being fulfilled!
“Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus said. “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.”
The Kingdom of God has been described as both “now” and “not yet”. We are Kingdom people, called to build God’s kingdom here and now on Earth as we wait for Christ’s return. The two commandments Jesus gave us – summarising all the law – are the “constitution” of the Kingdom. We are called to make Christ known to a watching world. By our love for one another as the family of God, by our love for our neighbours far and near, by our care for the poor and vulnerable, by our lives that model the justice and righteousness and love of God.
There is a wonderful image in the book of Revelations of the new Heaven and the new Earth, where God says, “I will be their God and they will be my children.” There will be no more pain and suffering, no more tears. But until that day comes, God has called us to establish His Kingdom here on earth.