Love one another – Christianity is not primarily about keeping rules and laws

Peter Seal, 6 September 2020

Ezekiel 33: 7–11; Romans 13: 8–14; Matthew 18: 15–20

Our reading from the epistle to the Romans and our gospel reading from St Matthew are both about behaviour. They’re about how Christians should relate to one another. There’s quite a lot in the gospel one about really what you might call ‘conflict resolution’, and how that should be done within a Christian community. I’m delighted to say that, wonderfully, that doesn’t feel particularly appropriate – so thank God for that!

In the epistle reading Paul reminds us of some of the Ten Commandments, and then the summary: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. I’m reminded of the story that you may know, which comes from one of the churches in central London, St James’ in Piccadilly. One day the fairly newly appointed rector was in her church, and standing at the side against the wall was one of those big tablets, really a great wooden tablet of the Ten Commandments. It would have been taken down for the redecoration of the church. And she noticed a man who clearly appeared homeless standing reading the Ten Commandments. And she went and stood beside him.

And he stood there for quite a while, clearly reading them, and reading them again, pondering. And then he turned to her and he said, ‘I’ve broken all of those, except murder’. I’m trying to imagine that man today. I hope he’s still alive. It may be that he’s on the streets of London today. And it may be that he carries a heavy burden of guilt for various past behaviours. And it struck me that the overtly evangelical gospel message about repentance and forgiveness can be incredibly liberating for those who have done things in their lives, however terrible, about which they feel really bad, over which they repent and crave forgiveness for.

Again from today’s epistle, Paul wrote, ‘Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light’. If your life in terms of your behaviour feels dark, then the gospel message of reconciliation must appear like a wonderful opening light.

I remember a former Bishop of Winchester, Bishop Michael, who came to meet some Confirmation candidates, and they were invited to ask him questions. One of them said, ‘Bishop, what’s the most important thing about Christianity?’ And he paused, but not for long. He replied, ‘The possibility of reconciliation’. What a great message!

‘Bishop, what’s the most important thing about Christianity?’ He paused, but not for long, and replied, ‘The possibility of reconciliation’.

And then Paul says, ‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves has fulfilled the law’. This is so helpful. It’s a reminder that Christianity is not primarily about keeping rules and laws, though that is part of it. And I remind myself that I regularly break one of the Ten Commandments – probably most days – and I’m pretty sure most of you do too. It’s the one that goes, ‘Thou shalt not covet’. It’s deep within most of our psyches and make-ups and aspirations – so, just in case we were thinking we’re okay in that way, I certainly am not.

One of the ways that we can love one another is to care for one another. Sounds really simple. These past Covid months have really highlighted and focused for us, in our parish and beyond, the primary importance of pastoral care.

And as the months go by we’re really missing seeing one another, being with one another; we increasingly miss, don’t we, being able to shake someone’s hand, to put an arm around their shoulder or give a comforting hug. These are very strange, very challenging, very disconcerting, very frustrating days.

You may have come across Melanie Reed, who writes in the Saturday Times. Following a riding accident she’s paralysed and confined to a wheelchair, and she’s unable, she says, to feel touch. The other week she wrote a most moving article describing what this was like for her. And then she spoke of the importance of listening, and she described listening as ‘a new kind of touch’.

This is a remarkable insight. I think it reveals a great truth. Isn’t it true that occasionally – and it is really only occasionally – we experience that priceless gift, of really being listened too. It’s very hard to listen really well, and we can all, dear friends, develop our listening skills and thereby care for one another better. It involves, as it were, subduing our own agenda. Keeping our egos and our sense of self-importance just under control.

You’ll know, probably, what I mean by open and closed questions, but just in case, here’s a reminder. An example of a closed question is, ‘You alright?’ How often have you heard that from someone? ‘You alright?’ And you can only answer yes or no. That’s really the definition of a closed question – one that only has the answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. What a difference this question is! ‘Tell me, how are you?’ Open, expansive, can’t be answered briefly.

So, let’s carry on the great work of pastoral care which is a hallmark of the Christian Church and of individual Christians and that has been so evident and prominent and appreciated in recent months. Let’s keep on phoning one another, maybe even going to the trouble of buying and writing and posting a card with a friendly message. And of course, Zooming too!

If you perhaps feel God calling you to becoming further trained in pastoral care, then it may be that you should become a Parish Visitor. We always need more people. They’re a wonderful group who are doing extraordinary work. It’s something in different ways for all of us.

So as autumn begins – this season of poetically described mellow fruitfulness – we’re facing a new phase of Covid. My sense is that we’ve got to hunker down. We’ve got to set our faces, grit our teeth, for the coming months, whatever they may bring. It does feel as though it’s going to be tough.

BUT, and it’s a big, big BUT, we are people of faith. Together, together, together, we are strong – yes, very strong. And we can become stronger still. And our motivation? Why do we want to do this? Not just because it works for ourselves, but because we’re following the Lord’s commandment, to love one another. ‘Love one another’, says Jesus, ‘as I have loved you’.

Our loving is made evident, made manifest, comes to light in our caring. We care for one another because, in Christ, we love one another.

And we live in hope, in ‘sure and certain hope’, of a Covid-free way of living one day. And we pray for those seeking to develop an effective vaccine, for every woman, child and man the world over.

Dear friends in Christ, we look to the future, we face the future, we seek to navigate our way through the future, yes, in sure and certain hope. In the name of the risen, ascended, glorified Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.

View the sermon here
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