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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Easter 5, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
April 28, 2013

Psalm 148; John 13:31-35

New love

At its best, the reality television show The Voice is about responding wholeheartedly to a Spirit of music, beauty, truth, humanity, humility, redemption, connection. The Voice of the title may be heard as the Voice of God. I said that last week. This week I need to think it anew. It hardly needs to be said that The Voice, for all its virtues, is bombastic and hyperbolic – and all but destroys the thing it seeks to nurture – the voicing of hope and love. It all but destroys this in the name of competition – in the false belief that one beautiful voice must “battle” another – and ultimately, that one singer alone should prevail. We know this isn’t true just as we know the “winner” of such a competition is unlikely to enjoy for long the artistic status thrust all-too enthusiastically upon him or her. We will suspect that this artistic status is a projection of those (judges/coaches, TV and music executives) keen to convince us of their star-making powers. In fewer words, we’ll suspect that it’s all about them. Today’s Gospel, too, invites us to think anew – about true love, about the “golden rule”, lest we project. God be with you …

Our Gospel features one of the New Testament’s most elegant refrains: Love one another. Jesus says: “I give you a new commandment: Love one another. And you’re to love one another the way I have loved you.”

Scholars debate the newness of the command. Isn’t this the ancient commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself? (Leviticus 19:18). And, certainly, Jesus desires that love of God and love of neighbour remain entwined (Matthew 22:36-40). Jesus is, as we suggested last week, a good Jew, a good Pharisee even. Christian and Jewish scholars concur – the so-called new commandment renews an ancient command. Rabbi Hillel said something very similar (within a century of Jesus’ teaching). Hillel said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” And elsewhere Jesus says: “Treat others as you would have them treat you” (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31).

From the mid-seventeenth century we have ascribed to this ancient commandment the term “ethic of reciprocity” or “golden rule”. Psychologically, the golden rule involves a person empathising with others. Philosophically, it involves a person perceiving a neighbour as another “I” or “self”. Sociologically, the principle is applicable between individuals, between groups, and also between individuals and groups. For example, a person living by the golden rule treats all people with consideration, not just members of his or her own in-group.

It’s a commendable rule. Its roots are biblical. And one of the first things we might say about it is that the old command to love another as oneself is made ever new. Every moment is a new opportunity – a new obligation – to treat others as you would have them treat you.

Love is a new commandment, whether in relation to those with whom we spend most of our time or in relation to those we regard strangers. Jesus’ asking Simon Peter three times “Do you love me?” is an example. Each of the questions is new and each of Peter’s responses is a new response – and opens up new possibilities for the friendship, and beyond.

There’s more here, however. There’s more at stake. Lately, I’ve been made aware of misunderstandings of the golden rule. Misapplications perhaps. The problems stem from too austere a reading of the commandment. It’s all-too easy to make oneself the measure of love. I can be tempted to think first of what I want, and then to assume the same with regard to my neighbour. I like chocolate, so I’ll give a gift of chocolate. I like Bob Dylan records, so I’ll give a gift of a favourite Dylan record. You can see the error.

(Incidentally, Dylan has a song entitled “Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)” whose lyric scans: “If you do right to me, baby/ I’ll do right to you too/ Got to do unto others like you’d have them/ Like you’d have them do unto you.” And that’s a song written during his Gospel period!)

While it’s not a bad thing to consider another’s likes and needs on the basis of my own – it’s certainly better than no consideration at all – there is a danger of projection. Canadian singer Justin Bieber drew heavy criticism earlier this month upon visiting Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Teen fans of Bieber are known as “beliebers”. This is what Bieber wrote in the guestbook at Anne Frank House: “Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully, she would have been a belieber.”

What’s lacking in this kind of application is a radical respect for otherness – the neighbour is someone both like and unlike me. Every person, every creature, presents what phenomenologist and Talmudic scholar Emmanuel Levinas reveres in terms of “the face” – the face of the other which bears the trace of the divine Other – every other is Wholly Other, Levinas says. The face of the earth is no less compelling.

What this means is that my first obligation is to be silent before the neighbour. To listen, that I might understand what he or she truly needs, likes, wants, hopes. Maybe it’s just a matter of deeper appreciation of the golden rule. I recognise in myself the desire to be respected as a unique person, the desire to be heard and to be valued and to be understood. Can I grant others, each and every other, the same respect? Maybe it’s a matter of wider appreciation of the context of the golden rule – the “explanation” given throughout the Torah, as Hillel avers.

In an age of cross-cultural relations, multi-faith networks, fundamentalist ignorance and arrogance, it’s important as ever that we build from and upon respect. It should be said in such a context that the golden rule, or something very similar, is found in just about every religious and ethical system the world has ever known.

Where does that leave us? Jesus gives his new commandment amid mayhem. Judas has set about betraying Jesus, and Peter will soon deny him, three times. The “way I have loved you” takes on new significance. The way is the way of steadfast commitment to nonviolence and patience, compassion and forgiveness. The way is the love of Jesus himself. The way is the glorification of God. The essential task of Christianity is to make the God of love and the rule of love known. We are the love in that we are to be conduits of the love.

Conduits of love, amid the mayhem. It’s not about winning The Voice. It’s not about succeeding on our own terms, or on those of the Uniting Church. It’s not our realisation of an ethical system – not even the very best one. As conduits of nonviolence, patience, compassion and forgiveness, we glorify God. It’s about God’s love. With Jesus, we rise, fall and rise again in the Power and Spirit of God – “whose Name alone is exalted, whose majesty transcends heaven and earth” … Amen.