“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” –John 13:34
Not only is it interesting that things such as doctrine, type of liturgy, worship style, socio-political position and so on were not claimed by Jesus to be the identifying mark of Christian community. No. It was to be love one for another.
In Greek usage (unlike English) there were many defining terms for love. The three most common were eros (sensual or erotic love), philos (warm fraternal love, especially for one we favor) and agape (the character of love God has for all God’s children). In the command of Jesus that Christians love one another, the meaning is not so much about liking one another as literally to respect one another as persons loved by God, even in our differences. It is to recognize persons not by the agreeability of our relationship with them but the assumed relationship to God they have by baptism. Furthermore it is to understand that Jesus, the Lord of the Church, expects us to strive to be a community that respects one another as brothers and sisters. For this kind of love, this living with “Godly respect” for one another, is the essential and distinguishing mark of our identity as a Christian family.
Let me share this example of my late mother–who was the best mother in the world! I am the eldest of three rambunctious boys. We had all the fights you would imagine of siblings, especially competitive male siblings. When we became exasperated in our competition we would bring our case to our mother for resolution. “Mom, he has my ball”… “Mom, it was my turn at bat”… and so on. She would always say: “You boys go and solve it; but remember, you are brothers.” As I recall, we did not perceive her as so great in such moments. Often my own frustration was exacerbated because I thought she did not truly understand what was at stake. If I am right, somebody else had to be wrong. I simply needed mother’s ratification of the sinner and the saint.
Sometimes we’d recite authoritative words: “But Mom, remember you always said….” Like Christians in a church conflict we like to quote “The Word” or at least our interpretation of Scripture relevant to the situation. But all she would continue to say was, “You boys go and solve it; but remember, you are brothers.” What we came to understand were two points: first, she expected us to solve it. She was not going to solve all of our problems for us; second, what she expected most was that in the solving and the solution we remember that we were brothers. No matter how we felt about each other, the anchoring value and the abiding truth was that we were our mother’s sons. Her love for us, her expectations of us, her common gift of life to us was the binding thread of our relationship from which we were to weave the fabric of family life and identity.
This is agape, the respect with which we are to live together as Christians. Our behavior and intent towards each other must always be premised upon God’s love for each one of us, even the difficult and apparently errant among us. In the life of the Church, there have been (and always will be) hard issues for which there are no easy and quick answers; issues for which the search for resolution will be slow, painful and frustrating. However, when the Church has failed to strive towards this command for love or respect in its search for truth, it has had its most embarrassing and stigmatizing experiences in its history. Yes, “By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Like most of you, I have heard or read this text many times before. But this week as I stumbled through the text in Greek, I looked especially at the declension of love–agape. I was surprised that the word love in the phrase “you have love for one another”–(“ean agapen hexete“) was in the accusative singular feminine. The suffix of agape in this declension is “eta nu” rather than “tau epsilon.” The feminine verb agapeen is used to describe the love of God rather than the masculine participle, agapatee, as used other places in the text. Now I am sure this is the main information you came seeking this morning, but the point is this: Jesus is commanding that the Church exercise what may be perceived as feminine qualities of love. Distinguishing qualities that are to be marks of our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ–children of God.
Now for those who are getting nervous about where I may be going regarding Jesus and feminine love, I hasten to say that in many ways Jesus was a man’s man. That is how he attracted so many male disciples and male detractors as well. Jesus was perceived as one with enormous personal power, great public charisma, intellectually persuasive, great moral courage, political savvy and physical strength–he even turned over a few tables (all qualities we stereotypically and culturally assign to masculinity, even if displayed by women).
Also, Jesus told manly stories. Stories about men working: farming, herding, running a business, being a day laborer. Jesus did manly work–he was a carpenter–and he attracted disciples who did manly work such as fishermen.
Jesus told working class men’s jokes. (You know men like to talk about other men being foolish.) He spoke of the fool who built a house on sand; the foolish sower who recklessly sowed valuable seed on rocky unplowed ground; the guy who is critical of the splinter in his eye, while ignoring the 2×4 in his own eye; and of course the stories about rich fools. This was manly talk and, if you listen, you can hear the howls of laughter.
He also joined or was enjoined into the popular issues and philosophical debates of his time: debates about paying taxes to Caesar; or if a man is blind, who sinned, he or his parents? Remember the discussion about: if a woman is widowed seven times, whose wife will she be in heaven? We often envision these stories as being told with the solemnity of a creedal or academic debate–an erudite discussion in an urbane setting. However, experiencing the stories of Jesus were more often like listening to conversations–jokes or debates–in a barbershop or a neighborhood bar or some other place where average everyday men gather for serious, lively and interesting conversation. But to be manly is not to be patriarchal. This was Jesus’ challenge! For in a world that prized qualities of aggression, competition, dominance, structural power and control, Jesus was more concerned about building a community that would include the excluded, bring hope to the fearful and empowerment for the needy; healing the pain that divides us. He wanted a church known for love.
This is hard to do because we do live in a patriarchal society, just as did Jesus and the first Christians. patriarchy is fundamentally a masculine power structure in which all relationships are understood in terms of superiority and inferiority and the structures of power most respected are legal, political, economic. Healing, reconciling, collaborating, mutual respect based upon human worth, commitment to the weak, the failed and the needy are perceived as marginal if not foreign and maternal values in a patriarchal society. Never a part of the major societal assumptions about measuring personal success or building community identity. Qualities we assign to women or maternal matters.
Jesus lived and taught against an exclusive patriarchal way of life. His convictions about the maternal and feminine qualities of divine love was fundamental to his ministry and revelation of God. Now as Christians we believe that Jesus revealed God more intimately and clearly than anyone who walked this earth. In fact, so intimate and powerful was Jesus’ integration of God into own his very being that we say Jesus was God. For Christians one can not separate knowing God from the revelations of Jesus’ life, teaching and continued presence, and central to his revelation was love. We may indeed see God in others great witnesses but never so completely, never so intimately and never so enduringly as in Jesus.
One of the ways Jesus witnessed to this understanding of God was to demonstrate through his teaching the maternal love of God. Think of it: the images of God used in his teaching were not only the maleness of God but also the feminine qualities and identity of God. Remember Jesus explaining God and the kingdom to Nicodemus? Jesus taught Nicodemus that God was like a “birthing mother.” Jesus said, “Think of it this way, Nicodemus, you must be born from above!” Nicodemus was baffled, saying “how can these things be?” How can I think of God this way? (John 3). When he talked about God as the male shepherd looking for the lost sheep, Jesus also spoke of God as the woman looking for a lost coin (Luke 15: 1-10). When he taught of God as the male sower of the seeds of the gospel, Jesus also spoke of God as the woman baker, kneading the yeast of the gospel into the bread of life (Luke 13:18—21).
When using male metaphors for God, Jesus often used the most accepted of male nurturing qualities. A shepherd who cares about the sheep as more than a commodity. God, the good shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to find the one that is lost–not very cost effective, but it is the gospel of divine love. I first understood this when I was a seminarian interning in a rural parish. Farmers had a pastoral and intimate feeling about their livestock that was more than simply the economy of a livelihood. For example, dairy cows had names (to which they sometimes responded). I saw the caring nurturing spirit of a farmer fretting over a sick animal and the great emotion around the birthing of a colt or calf or lamb. And farmers often were there for one another at such times. I saw more of the maternal in those big tough Pennsylvania Dutch farmers than I had ever imagined. I learned that in those communities a good farmer was recognized as one who was caring and patient with his livestock and his fellow farmer.
Remember Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son? Jesus spoke of God the father who keeps the light on, who never gives up on the lost son but waits, affectionately receives and caresses him when he returns, broken and failed. (I love the statue in the Bishop’s Garden of the father embracing the prodigal son. The love and passion is palpable. If you have not, you must see it.) Isn’t this normally the way we think of mothers? Waiting up for us, keeping vigil, hoping, praying for us, accepting our penitence without retribution, lovingly restoring us to the security of the family. Yet (though it is not celebrated in our cultural image of manhood) many of us have experienced this behavior in our own fathers. Yes, God is like the most maternal qualities of a father. In fact when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he taught them to say “Abba,” which literally means pappa or daddy, the affectionate expression of an Arabic speaking child to its father.
Jesus was not afraid to call forth the maternal in his own self-image. Great lament of Jesus: “How often have I tried to gather you like a hen gathering her chicks (to protect from danger) but you would not [come to me].”
Great invitation from Jesus [John 7:37, 38], perhaps drawn from Isaiah 55:1, “If anyone is (spiritually) thirsty let them come to me and drink” (nursing metaphor). Dame Julian of Norwich, fourteenth-century English Mystic whose writings are gaining much popularity today, used this metaphor for her great spiritual meditations on Jesus as mother. Yes, Jesus is calling for a special community, one marked by a special kind of love. A community so different in the way it lives together that the world takes notice. It takes courage for men and women to place patience, humility, compassion, respect, justices, faith at the center of their lives in a patriarchal culture. The qualities of patriarchy–of dominance, competition and control are part of every one of us, from the pulpit to the door, male and female. But so are the gifts of maternal love in each of us. Jesus calls us to a new way of being.
Once when speaking on this to a young adult group, a young lawyer said what seemed to be on the mind of most in the group. She said, “But Dean, this is the way of the world. It is competitive. There are winners and losers, power and success count in every human organization.” I said, yes, it is the way of the world. But, as Christians we have chosen the way of God, who has called us to a “more excellent way”– a way of love. A community commanded to offer a new witness to the world. With all the world’s turmoil, why are they not coming to Church? Don’t recognize us! Oh it takes work and spiritual discipline to be a Christian community. That is why we come each Sunday to be fed and strengthened through “Mother Church.” It’s a lot easier to be spiritual on your own. It is easier to sit on a mountain and blissfully meditate than to live lovingly in community. Yet, Jesus calls us into community, and in community to seek to love one another. As foolish as it sounds, this is our call. LOVE!!! Remember how St. Paul explained love? “Love is patient; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away” (1 Cor. 13:4—8). These words sound like your mother speaking, don’t they.
Yes, we have conflicts, differences–trivial and grave. But the God of maternal love continues to say to us: “You are my children. Solve your problems, but remember you are brothers and sisters. Amen.