Love as the heart of everything
Firstly, Love. It is extraordinary sometimes how some try to dodge it, but Love really is the be all and end all, the first and the last, the alpha and omega of Christian Faith, isn’t it? Why are some folk so obsessed with talk of sin and judgement, do you think? Do they actually read the Bible? - or at least what Jesus actually says in it? If we didn’t get the message in last week’s bible readings, today’s Gospel reading again spells it out: it is Love which really matters. We can have all kinds of laws and guidelines, all kinds of religious practices to help us, but, truly, says Jesus, there is only really one thing that matters; to love God with all that we are, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says it not once, but twice: ‘my command is this: love each other as I have loved you’, and again, ‘this is my command: love each other.’ There is no mention by Jesus here, or anywhere, about the necessity of particular views about sexuality or gender theory, or scientific ideas or competing with other faiths, or anything like that which so distracts others. It is just love, Jesus-style love, and nothing else.
So a bit more about Love, even though Penny spoke beautifully about it last week. I want to affirm what she said and to remind us that whatever we are, and do, this is always what really matters. Today’s teaching is also, in a way, another kind of Jesus joke, isn’t it? For Love is a divine command that isn’t even a command. For you can try to keep certain external rules, but you cannot love by command. It is ultimately about relationship, about abiding in love. We are called to become love, as Penny reminded us last week, not simply to think about love, or even do things which look like love. For, as Jesus tells it, and lives it, love actually is not a command but always an invitation – an invitation to share divine life, the fullness of life.
So what does that divine, fullness of, life look like? Didn’t Carter Heyward put it beautifully in the first reading we heard today? -
To love you is to be pushed by a power/God
both terrifying and comforting, to touch and be touched by you…
To love you is to sing with you, cry with you,
pray with you, and act with you to re-create the world.
To say ‘I love you’ means – let the revolution begin.
Rita Mae Brown put the invitation similarly, gloriously, in her wondrous poem Sappho’s Reply – the voice of the true liberating Spirit of which Jesus spoke and embodied:
My voice rings down through thousands of years
To coil around your body and give you strength,
You who have wept in direct sunlight,
Who have hungered in invisible chains.
Tremble to the cadence of my legacy:
An army of lovers shall not fail.
For, secondly, the outflowing of Love, our Gospel tells us, is Fruit. That is the sign of whether we live in love, isn’t it? The test, surely, is not whether human beings live by certain external laws, or hold certain ideas. It is certainly not obsession with sins. To be honest, modern Pentecostalists almost get it. They talk about God’s blessings and how we are invited by Jesus to grow and flourish. That is pretty inviting, isn’t it? Unfortunately the fruit that tends to be focused upon is too easily associated with money and conventional ‘success’. In a way, they actually aren’t then really pentecostal, in the fullest sense. Let’s come back to those fruits in a few weeks, in the season of Pentecost, but feel free to ponder them right now: the fruit of the Spirit, as Paul says in Galatians 5.22-23 is ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’ No mention of money, or power, or success, at all. Yet these are surely ‘good news’ for all.
Thirdly, Friends. Why do you think we’ve so often lost track of such ‘good news’? Why do so many Christians seem so unloving to others? Why is sin so central for many, and not fruitfulness? Could it be because the glue, the pathway, the vehicle, of Love, and Fruit, lies in Friendship? That is what our Gospel reading is saying. Friendship is so easily passed over, but perhaps that little phrase in today’s Gospel is the most radical of all: Jesus said. ‘I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends.’ What a subversion of power, competition, worldly ‘success’ and structures that is!
The Quakers, as many of us know, is a nickname for the Religious Society of Friends. However, every church should be a religious society of friends, shouldn’t it? I wonder how very different Christian history would be, and many churches today, if we had taken Jesus’ call to divine friendship seriously. Not for nothing does this church call itself ‘a Community of Justice-seeking friends’. That is clear and helpful, isn’t it? – though I wonder if we might extend that a little, not least in view of today’s Gospel. Might we also speak, do you think, of being a Community of ‘Love-exploring’ and ‘Fruit-bearing’ Friends?
Friendship has been so undervalued as a central Christian metaphor. Perhaps it is because friendship is not so much about power relationships and so much more about other words which are so wonderful in today’s Gospel – like ‘joy’ and ‘choice’. Friendship also speaks of all kinds of levels of intimacy. There is so much we could explore about spiritual friendship, isn’t there? I’d like to think we might do this in the days ahead. After all, many great Christian writers, not least my fellow Northumbrian Aelred of Rievaulx, have written so beautifully about spiritual friendship. As the words of Carter Heyward and Rita Mae Brown highlight, insights into friendship are also particular gifts of queer spirituality. Indeed, some of that risks being lost with recent emphasis on marriage. I think both the young and the old also have so much to share about the spiritual and other importance of friendship. Let me however offer three brief aspects for the moment, drawing on the icon which is usually in our Peace Chapel but which we have deliberately placed in the central space of our worship today.
The first thing I want to offer up about friendship as Jesus’ path to love and fruitfulness is spiritual intimacy. For this icon is an ancient Coptic creation which is typically called ‘the Icon of Friendship’, with very good reason. It shows Jesus walking together, in mutuality, with a disciple (originally named Menas). This is so different, isn’t it, from images of Christ the King, Lord, Pantocrator, or even Good Shepherd. Indeed, the closeness of this divine relationship is seen in the hand of Jesus placed tenderly on Menas’ shoulder. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, therefore rightly reflects about its meaning:
God has decided to be our friend – indeed, the word in Greek can be even stronger, our lover – the one who really embraces us and is as close as we can imagine. Very near the heart of Christian prayer is getting over the idea that God is somewhere a very, very long way off, so that we have to shout very loudly to be heard. On the contrary: God has decided to be an intimate friend and has decided to make us part of God's family, and we always pray on that basis.
Is that how we relate to God ourselves?
living as friends
Secondly, whilst simple, the details of the Icon of Friendship, as in other icons, are important to reflect upon. Note for example, the hands of Menas. In one hand he holds a scroll, and he blesses with the other. Very likely the scroll contains the ‘rule’, or way of living, of his community. Or perhaps it is like the scroll Jesus unrolled in his home synagogue, at the beginning of their ministry. It prompts us to reflect upon what our own personal, and community, scrolls might contain. What is it that shapes our praying and living, and what is our calling? How do we grow, as friends, with God, ourselves, one another, and others? How are we blessing our world?
walking with the earth
Lastly, as a way into reflecting further on friendship, take a look at the feet in the icon. What do we see? The age of the icon has helped wear away the feet of Jesus and Menas’ feet are bare. What a powerful expression this is of how, in God’s type of friendship, in company with Jesus, we are invited to walk tenderly and intimately with the earth itself. It reminds us that the Jesus’ commandment is an invitation to reconnect with all of creation, for this is holy ground. As friends, we are to deepen our love for earth, and help all of creation bear fruit. Indeed, we might even say that our feet are invited, not only to walk more humbly, like Menas, but to join Jesus’ feet in becoming one with creation itself. Maybe being masked again in our worship might arguably even be a vehicle for this, if we can learn to reconnect, love and bear fruit, with our bodies and not just our minds and voices? Barbara Brown Taylor put it this way in her book ‘An Altar in the World’:
To make bread or love, to dig in the earth, to feed an animal or cook for a stranger—these activities require no extensive commentary, no lucid theology. All they require is someone willing to bend, reach, chop, stir. Most of these tasks are so full of pleasure that there is no need to complicate things by calling them holy. And yet these are the same activities that change lives, sometimes all at once and sometimes more slowly, the way dripping water changes stone. In a world where faith is often construed as a way of thinking, bodily practices remind the willing that faith is a way of life.
I think that is part of the way of friendship and fruitfulness of Jesus in our Gospel – more a way of commending than commanding love, and an invitation to experience as well as share, ‘good news’. How then will we be friends of God?
Let me conclude with the beautiful words of Mary Oliver, in her poem Of Love:
I have been in love more times than one,
thank the Lord. Sometimes it was lasting
whether active or not. Sometimes
it was all but ephemeral, maybe only
an afternoon, but not less real for that.
They stay in my mind, these beautiful people,
or anyway beautiful people to me, of which
there are so many. You, and you, and you,
whom I had the fortune to meet, or maybe
missed. Love, love, love, it was the
core of my life, from which, of course, comes
the word for the heart. And, oh, have I mentioned
that some of them were men and some were women
and some — now carry my revelation with you —
were trees. Or places. Or music flying above
the names of their makers. Or clouds, or the sun
which was the first, and the best, the most
loyal for certain, who looked so faithfully into
my eyes, every morning. So I imagine
such love of the world — its fervency, its shining, its
innocence and hunger to give of itself — I imagine
this is how it began.
In God’s friendship and fruitfulness. Amen.
 in Being Christian
 From New and Selected Poems, 1992, Beacon Press, Boston, MA
by Josephine Inkpin, Easter 6 Year B, 9 May 2021