It’s been a tough time for Jesus. Today’s Gospel reading is one of the final disputes between him and the religious leaders, their attempts to entrap him into uttering blasphemy, and sealing his own fate.
This is a pattern in the Gospel that we’ve followed over the past few Sundays: from the beginning of Chapter 19, as he leaves Galilee for Jerusalem, he has been almost constantly quizzed and hounded by the Pharisees and Sadducees, the two main parties in the Jewish religious hierarchy.
This tension rises sharply after Jesus’ outrageous entry into Jerusalem riding on a Donkey, with all the prophetic implications that raised. If you read from the beginning of Chapter 19 to today’s reading in one sitting, you will sense the momentum of Jesus’ destiny.
The Pharisees had a very legalistic take on God’s commandments. Over the centuries, the original ten had burgeoned into 613. No wonder the ordinary Jew found it almost impossible to find God: there were too many rules, too many hurdles to jump, with the Pharisees in their self-appointed role as guardians of the faith; God’s policemen, always looking to trip them up.
So, this encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees is a fitting end to the legal wrangling, arguments, and ‘catch-him-out’ questions that have been going on. Jesus distils the commandments of God into two. The 613 rules are now redundant. When pressed by a lawyer ‘which commandment in the Law is the greatest?’ Jesus replies with two:
‘The first is this: love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind….And a second is like it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
First; and second. I don’t believe that you can observe one of those commandments without the other. They are held together in an intricate and live-giving tension. We can all ‘know’ our neighbours, but the challenging thing is that loving them takes loving God wholeheartedly.
Without that we can never see them through the eyes of God, or with the mind of Christ. That makes me feel very uncomfortable. Some ‘neighbours’ that I encounter on a daily basis (and that’s not just the people who live next door) sometimes try my patience: how can I love them as I love me?
Yet I feel it is right for us to dwell on that phrase ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ and just ask the question: how can we do that?
You may recall my Ministry Team letter in the last edition of the Parish Magazine, where I wrote about the Christian tenet of ‘hospitality’, especially our experience of it when we first came to St George’s (11 months ago!). It was wonderful! Up until then, our experience of hospitality in a church usually involved ‘fitting in’, which the outspoken me has never been comfortable with!
If you read it, you will also know that I am an ‘Oblate’ (Lay Member) in the Benedictine community at Alton Abbey. Hospitality is a central tenet of the Benedictine way of life. In chapter 53 of his Rule, St Benedict urges the Monk to ‘welcome the stranger as if Christ himself were present, for in them, Christ himself comes.’ Strangers are our neighbours too.
Hospitality in the Monastery is manifested in the warmth of welcome, sustenance, love, care, and space underpinned by the cycle of worship, work, and prayer. We found all those things when we first came to this church. Jesus and Benedict seem to be saying similar things, and whilst we perhaps find it relatively painless to do within our church community, how can loving our neighbours as ourselves work out in our Parish?
Our first natural thoughts are likely to be: ‘what can we do? What action can we take? What ideas, and events will demonstrate that we love them as much as we love ourselves, and welcome them as if welcoming Christ himself?’ We’re culturally conditioned from birth to be ‘busy’, to ‘do stuff’, it’s just how we are. And I must say that there is nothing much wrong with offering tangible and practical things to our village.
But – through activity, we can often squeeze out opportunity, and become unavailable to the neighbour, the stranger who calls. I’m dreadful: ‘Hello, welcome to our church…. here’s a bundle of leaflets, this is what goes on…. sorry I’ve got do such and such, can’t stop to chat’. And I’m gone. What have I missed; more importantly, what has my neighbour lost out?
In the monastery, it’s different – apart from the usual daily cycle of worship, work, and prayer, there is no programmed activity. Space is intentionally left for those who call in for a chat, a pray, and so on.
The perfect environment to simply ‘be’.
That would never work in our Parish of course, so I’m not suggesting that we open St George’s Abbey! But I do think that we ought to ask: are we really available to our neighbours?
Folk in this village, and beyond, are longing for a break from the relentless pressure to be something, to be seen to live up to certain standards. Working all hours. Keeping up with the bills. Driving the children here and there to this and that activity. Time poor, no opportunity to simply be.
How can we be more available? Being available rather than doing ‘stuff’ – I have no simple answer. One example of hospitable availability is the Christmas Midnight Mass. Starting it at say 10pm might make it convenient for some of us, but what about the once-a-year visitor who longs for a glimpse of something beyond the Christmas drudge? They turn up at 11.30pm, and the church, and its people are unavailable….
So what’s my cunning plan? I don’t have one – as such. The hospitality I speak of can only come through the discipline of prayer, meditating and mulling over scripture, and regularly receive the Eucharist. All these things are our food for the journey. Things that will help us to love the Lord our God with every thing and faculty that we have.
At the end of John’s Gospel is the story of the Disciples out fishing one night. The events leading up to Jesus’ death had crushed them, heads and hearts spinning from the relentless pressure: emotional, physical, spiritual… Since his resurrection, he had appeared…and disappeared. God must have seemed strangely absent, just as the fish were too.
They spot Jesus after he gives them a clue where to cast their nets. He’s cooking breakfast. When they came ashore, they simply received his hospitality – he had made himself available. He fed them. Chatted. In that space and in that fellowship, they got a glimpse of something beyond, a new sense of purpose, and really knowing that they are truly loved.
Our neighbours are desperate for this intimate encounter with the mystery of God. So, here’s the plan – let’s consciously deepen our love and devotion for the Lord our God, with all our hearts, with all our soul, and with all our minds.
Let’s come to communion with a deep sense of longing for a renewed sense of loving our neighbours.
Loving them through the eyes of Jesus, in which our neighbour can get a glimpse of glory, and find ointment for their sore and hurting souls