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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Easter 5, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
May 19, 2019

Psalm 148; John 13:31-35

‘A new commandment amid mayhem’

Our gospel reading features one of the New Testament’s most elegant refrains. Jesus says: “I give you a new commandment: Love one another.” God be with 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). There is no religious commitment without ethical implication. There is no ethical commitment without religious implication. Faith is the good we do, how we do it, and most deeply, the power by which we enact goodness.

Jesus is a faithful Jew, a faithful Pharisee even. Christian and Jewish scholars concur – the so-called new commandment renews an old 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-17th 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 ever made new. Each moment is a new opportunity – a new obligation – to treat others as you would have them treat you.

Even this moment, keenly this moment. As we process the results of our federal election. Amid considerable disappointment, offence, some feeling of hopelessness, anxiety.

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.

There’s more here, however. There’s more at stake. Problems arise 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. You can see the error.

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.

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 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 silence before the neighbour. To listen, that I might understand what he or she truly needs, likes, wants, hopes.

Leigh Sales’ new book, Any Ordinary Day, looks at how people survive the worst that can happen to them (thanks to Heather for sharing). In it, Sales has reason to quote Jesuit priest Steve Sinn who ministered for many years with St Canice’s in Kings Cross. “So Steve Sinn said to me you have to accompany people when things happen to them. And I said to him, ‘How do you know what to say? Do you feel like God tells you what to do and what to say?’ And he said, ‘Well no, I’ve got no idea. I just show up and then I’m just there and if I say the wrong thing and they snap at me it doesn’t matter ... It’s not about me, it’s about the other person. You just have to show your willingness to keep accompanying and stop thinking about yourself and what you might do wrong.”

This willingness to accompany and be alongside brokenness recalls the writing of Bill Williams, a man with a chronic disability who experienced the regular presence of carers. In his book, Naked Before God: The return of a broken disciple, he said he craved “a non-anxious presence ... I’ve been with people who are not made anxious by my brokenness, and I’ve seen the difference. It is, in fact, the best definition of ministry I have ever heard; I nearly wept when I heard it, it so defined what I needed.”

Maybe it’s a matter of deeper appreciation of the golden rule. I recognise in myself the desire to be respected, the desire to be heard and to be valued and to be understood. Can I grant others the same respect? Maybe it’s a matter of wider appreciation of the context of the golden rule – the “explanation” given throughout the Torah (in many cautionary tales, epic adventures, prayers, encounters between the human and the divine), as Hillel avers.

In an age of cross-cultural relations, multi-faith networks, fundamentalist ignorance and arrogance, it’s so important 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 inclusion. The way is the love of Jesus himself. The way is the glorification of God – Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver. Amen.