May 9th, 2004
Wesley, Doncaster East
© John M. Connan
I first heard this story forty years ago, while studying at the United Theological College, Bangalore, South India.
He was an Iranian: a student some years before me. Brought up within one of the great world religions, in his early twenties he found less and less satisfaction in that faith. He read widely on religion. He asked questions. He searched for meaning in life. Even as he searched, he found less and less meaning. He converted to Islam, but found no greater satisfaction there. Becoming desperate, he contemplated suicide.
One day he began talking with a fellow office-worker, a Christian.
“Tell me about the Christian religion,” he said.
The Christian refused. “That won’t help you. What you need to do is pray to Jesus.”
That made no sense to the young man.
Then one night he did pray to Jesus. “And,” he said, “such peace and joy flooded my heart that I knew my search was ended.”
The end of his search wasn’t a religion, but a person: Jesus.
You’ve heard the story. You’ve drawn your own conclusions about it. I’m giving you two categories into which to place the story: evangelical or liberal. Do you understand what those categories mean?
From which stream did the Danish professor, who told me the story, come?
Kaj Baagø was a liberal – so liberal he eventually told the Danish Missionary Society that he could no longer represent them. His allegiance was to Jesus, not to the Church and what he saw as its stifling doctrines. Later he was appointed Danish ambassador to India.
What point am I making?
We see everything – ideas and people – through the lens of our presuppositions and prejudices. Inevitably you judged my story in terms of presuppositions and prejudices. We judge new people through the distorting lens of our own mind-set – and have no wish to be confused by the facts!
It’s the same with ideas. If we could only see things without preconceptions and prejudice, we’d discover so much more than when we only see things our way.
Let me give you an instance from this morning’s gospel reading.
“I’m giving you a new commandment: love one another. In just the same way that I‘ve loved you, you’re to love one another. That’s how everyone will recognise that you’re my disciples – when they see how you love each other.”
Most who read or hear that probably think it’s a kind of variation on “love your neighbour as yourself.”
Understood that way it’s a command to care for our fellow human beings, to share what we have with them, to serve in whatever ways seem appropriate. That fits in with the idea of Christianity as the good life and helping others.
That’s a distinct injustice to what Jesus was saying and to what John wanted us to understand when he included those words in his gospel.
Jesus was in the upper room. Judas had left. It wasn’t a public lecture. It was a private conversation: Jesus’ last and most important legacy for his disciples.
This new commandment was given to the eleven: “Love one another – with the love I’ve shown you, with the same intensity, and with the same total self-giving.” It wasn’t a command to love our neighbours. That was taken for granted. Jesus was reminding them and all who follow him of the need to love one another. Not long before he’d shown them what this meant, as he washed their feet. This was a reminder.
It’s easy to think of the early church as ideal – a vibrant and vital movement. But before Jesus’ death there was jockeying for position. James and John asked for places of honour with Jesus. The other disciples were furious. The resurrection made little difference. Paul’s letters deal with church problems. In Corinth some said, “I’m with Paul”; others, “I’m with Apollos,” “I’m with Peter”; and the super righteous, “I’m with Christ.” Little love was lost between such groups.
John’s concern in recording these words of Jesus was to remind us of the love and respect Christians owe to one another. Here was Jesus’ concern for real understanding and fruitful co-operation between congregations and groups within the Church, between denominations and the para-church organisations – sometimes treated as if they’re competing against each other. Here was his concern that Christians should embrace a sense of unity beyond their congregation, a sense of the all-embracing nature of fellowship beyond our local fellowship. Here was Jesus’ call to discover and rejoice in the world-wide fellowship of all who accept Jesus as Saviour and Lord. Here was a call for love grounded in our unity in Christ.
Discovering what this means is a joy. Breaking through barriers that separate us is exciting. It can bring entirely new perspectives on what our faith is all about. Some of the greatest moments in my Christian pilgrimage have been in other cultures, in India, Tonga, or America, and among people of other traditions of the Church.
Among the treasures of those experiences are learning from a Danish Lutheran college lecturer, two Missouri Synod Lutheran missionaries to Muslims, and the Roman Catholic bishop of Tonga.
The Christian cause is too great to be confined. It bursts through any barrier we set. It we let it, it can bring us into relationship with people and to experiences we scarce can dream of. I could almost be talking about the future on which we’ve already voted.
Yet I can almost hear you thinking, “That’s all very well. It’s not as simple as that. Loving doesn’t come as easily as you’d have us believe.”
I agree – to a point. Loving like Jesus doesn’t come easily.
But I do say this. As we discover Jesus’ love for us; as we enter into a personal relationship with him, we discover the depth and breadth, the height and length of love. We begin to know its costs and its joys. As we draw on God’s love for us in Christ, we begin to live that love in ever new and ever more exciting ways.
When that happens, our lives glow more and more with Christ-like love. That love becomes the impetus and driving force of our life: our mission. And everyone will know we are his disciples.
 John 13: 34-35, paraphrased.
 Mark 10:35-45, Matthew 20:20-28.
 1 Corinthians 1: 12.