Living the New Commandment

Camp Wapiti - some 600 beautiful acres on the banks of the Elk River in Maryland - is the fledgling diocesan camp and conference center and a lightning rod for disagreement and conflict in this diocese. Many people believe that our bishop has channeled funds - either inappropriately or unwisely - to the camp at the expense of other vital programs, like the support of poor, inner-city parishes.

Not long ago I heard the director of the camp address those concerns with the appeal that although mistakes may have been made, the fact remains that we own it, we are there are on the ground at Wapiti, and shouldn't we give it a chance?

What struck me about this plea was that it is practically a verbatim repetition of an argument we hear about the war in Iraq: mistakes may have been made, but the fact remains that we are there, on the ground in Iraq, and shouldn't we give it a chance, do our best to make it work?

I don't intend to use time in the pulpit this morning as a critique of either Camp Wapiti or the Iraq war - although I believe there is much to critique in both cases. But it is remarkable how often and well we in the church have learned to mimic strategies, outlooks, and postures that we first observe on the evening news.

Elections for bishops have borrowed campaign strategies from secular political campaigns. Our special interest groups use the same tactics of polarization and fear-mongering as political special interest groups. Our leaders jostle for power with the same mixture of intensity and false humility. We regularly look to big business for organizational models and methods of leadership and real estate development. We have learned our lessons well from the secular world: why shouldn't we borrow rationales for staying the course at Wapiti, because, after all, we are already there?

All communities have politics. The Twelve apostles were playing at politics when they argued about who among them would be greatest. The church is not, nor could it be, immune from politics.

Still, as a community we claim to be striving for something else, we say that we have gathered ourselves around the story of the One who came not to be served but to serve. We hold on so tightly to the memory of the night he showed what he meant by that that we re-enact the drama of his love once a year when we wash one another's feet.

And on that night, after supper, Jesus, who had spent many hours teaching his disciples about the Jewish law, gave them another teaching to follow:

"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

His own disciples showed little evidence from that point on that they understood this teaching - except that they must have repeated it to others, passing it on enough times for it to be written down and handed on to us.

And through the ages, as we look back, we might wonder if others have shown much evidence of learning this lesson: love one another as he loved them - love one another enough to wash each other's feet, enough to die for those you love. Love one another so that all may know that we are his disciples.

Is it unfair to suggest that more often than not we Christians have lived the mirror-image of this teaching: that by our failure to love one another, we have caused many to wonder if we are following anyone, or if Jesus could possibly be worth following? And would it be fair to say that we have so often been following somebody else's script, somebody else's model, somebody else's business plan that there has been precious little time or space to worry about this one, little commandment: love one another?

Would it be fair to say that much of the time we have no earthly idea what love is?

This past week, in a very disturbing story, the New York Times shed some light on the preparations and attitudes of young suicide bombers who are on their way to Iraq. They seem to me to be filled with righteous indignation, moral certitude, and religious zeal. Never mind that they have little idea of what exactly they are being righteously indignant about, that their moral compasses are drastically off-course, and their zeal only serves to warp their religion. They are also, to my reading, full of anger and hatred.

A 24 year old man featured in the article was stopped at the Iraqi border and sent back to Jordan. He is disappointed that he was not able to blow himself up and he is envious of those who have. "I am happy for them but I cry for myself because I couldn't do it yet. I want to spread the roots of God on this earth and free the land of occupiers. I don't love anything in this world. What I care about is fighting."

I don't know much about Islam, to tell you the truth. But I do know that if, as I believe, there is only one God, then the God to which Muslims pray is the same God to whom I pray and you pray. It is the God who sent his Son to give us a new commandment: to love one another.

And can Christians - whose history includes the Crusades and the Inquisition, the Reformation and the English Civil War, who colluded with Nazis, and slave owners, and conquistadors - can Christians claim a much better record of following this one, simple commandment: to love one another?

We want, quite desperately I think, to contrast ourselves to that bleak and hopeless way of thinking. We - like many Muslims - want to live the exact reverse image of that young man's short credo: we don't want to fight anything in this world; what we care about is loving. We want to have an answer to that nihilism: that they'll know we are Christians by our love. We want to shape our lives by this new commandment.

But when we stop to think about this condition we are in - as a church, or as individuals in it - and we hear ourselves repeating the same political slogans that once we heard on the evening news: well, yes, mistakes have been made, but we are where we are, here on the ground, and shouldn't we just stick with it and give life like this a chance? Then are we really providing a witness to that simple, new commandment?

Jesus' command to love one another is a challenge to that kind of thinking and to the status quo - because he knows that mutual love, respect and affection is not our fall-back position. Staying the course is our fall-back position; especially if that course includes holding a grudge, nursing a hatred, plotting revenge or settling a score.

Sure, mistakes have been made - that's how we got in this mess - but why not give it a shot? Why change gears now, with all this gentle talk of love?

Jesus' command to love one another is a rebuke to our self-indulgence and pride.

And when we begin to appropriate the ways and means of this world - the tactics of secular politics, the cynicism of polarization, and mechanics of power struggles, and the inclination to "spin" things so they show us at our best - then Jesus' command to love one another as he loved his disciples is an intervention aimed at preventing the long slide down that slippery slope.

When we begin to accept the state of affairs as they are, although mistakes may have happened, but here we are and shouldn't we just go with it - then Jesus' simple commandment calls us to account. Is this how we love one another?

Here at Saint Mark's, we could heed Jesus' command in a thousand new ways - building on the many ways it has been lived out here for decades, and in the church for centuries. But a few general guidelines in choosing those ways of heeding the command to love one another seem useful.

First we can practice radical hospitality - looking for every opportunity to welcome the newcomer, the stranger, and the lost into our midst. To call hospitality radical is to say that the habit of welcoming others is something that would be so ingrained in us that it is part of our very core of being as a community, and not something that we seek to delegate to the ushers, or a committee, or to someone, anyone else. This can involve everything from paying attention to who is standing alone at coffee hour to helping to run a program of Christian formation to introduce people to faith and strengthen the faith of others.

Second, we can recommit ourselves to take up the work of caring for the poor and those in need - not just a few of us on Saturday mornings or another few on weekdays in the Food Cupboard. Not only can we do a better job of being attentive to those in need in our own community, we can adopt a more expansive definition of "one another" by actively look for ways to bring relief to the poor, the elderly, the sick and lonely, those who are in prison.

Third, we can devote ourselves more and more to the daily practice of prayer in which God invites us to be in conversation with him, to reflect on the choices we make, to seek forgiveness when we make bad ones, and to learn, again and again, that the call to repentance is never a call to stay the course a little longer, because although mistakes have been made, this is where we are, and shouldn't we give it a chance.

The call to repent is a call to be better followers of the new commandment; to be willing to stop doing what we are doing, to turn and go another way - especially when the way we are going engenders nothing but conflict, discord, and the disposition to choose to fight rather than find a way to love.

Christians are called to witness this new commandment to the world. We are called to be men and women whose hearts are so set on loving our neighbor as ourselves - loving one another as Jesus loves us - that we cannot be deterred from this mission. Love one another with righteous indignation that there are those in this world who love nothing. Love one another with the moral certitude that this is the only commandment worth dying for. Love one another with a religious zeal that exposes all other religious fervor as cheap.

Jesus gave us this simple little new commandment - which, of course, is anything but simple to follow.

And the question is, will we try to follow it? Or will we defend ourselves with a script we learned somewhere else - acknowledging that yes, mistakes have been made, but couldn't we, shouldn't we try living this way a little longer? Stay the course, give it a chance see how it goes?

His hands still wet from washing our feet, Jesus challenges us to choose to live a different way: to fight over nothing in this world, but only to love.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
6 May 2007
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia 


Posted on May 6, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.