No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:12 NRSV)
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.”
(Luke 10:25-27 NRSV)
In the first of this short series of thoughts (here) on the theme of discipleship, I reflected on the tensions between belonging and believing. I argued that, for most people, the biggest part of their Christian belief grows over a period of time, as a consequence of being welcomed into a caring Christian community – a church family.
I would like to pick up that theme and continue to explore what it might mean to be a disciple in our own time; and I would like to suggest that as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are primarily called to a relationship not a religion.
Christ calls us into a living relationship with him far more than he does to a set of rules which we must adhere to, or a theological construct which we must support. I am convinced that God weeps at our childish tribalism of churchmanship or denomination.
In a church where I once worshipped, (a generation ago now!), on one occasion as I was coming into the evening service I was followed in by a man who I didn’t recognise as a regular Church member.
He quite tentatively came through the door and approached a long-standing member of the church with a simple question. “I’m looking for the Catholic Church,” he said. “Is this the Catholic church?”
The person to whom the question had been addressed immediately spun on his heels and exclaimed in quite a loud voice, “You mean the Roman Catholic church. This is the Church of England Parish Church and we are part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church. The church you want is around the corner and up the hill.”
And as he was saying this he was ushering the poor man out of the church door.
Sure, he directed the man to where he could find his church, but he couldn’t do it without making a point, he had to rub it in. He just had to play religious one-upmanship.
The Old Testament of the Bible, in the Book of the Exodus, speaks of what we call the Ten Commandments which codified some of the founding principles of the laws of God’s Chosen People, Israel.
But the crucial point is that the people didn’t have to live by those rules in order to be God’s people. They were already chosen by God and the commandments (along with the other laws) were given to help them to live God’s way.
But God had already entered into a relationship with his people long before they received the commandments: he was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and now he was the God of Moses and the people of Israel. The relationship was paramount.
Look at that well known story which we call the parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 10: v25 – 37)
In Jesus’ story, the religious people come off very poorly indeed. Why, because when they see a man dying at the side of the road they put their religious observance before their common humanity. If either of the religious characters in this parable had touched this man they ran the risk of being declared ritually unclean and would not have been able to carry out their duties in the temple.
And Jesus is quite canny in his telling of the parable, because the person who shows the wounded man care and concern is a member of an utterly despised group of people: The Samaritans.
He was one of them: those who were not talked about in polite company, those who you didn’t invite to dinner – even though you were distantly related to them.
But it was the Samaritan who was the injured man’s neighbour; who showed him God’s love; who went more than the extra mile; who broke all the social conventions and entered into a relationship with him.
And why is this important? Because Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in the context of a question about rules. “What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” asked the lawyer who wanted to trick Jesus.
Jesus tells his questioner that there really are only two rules: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and love your neighbour as much as you love yourself. God quite simply wants us to love him and to love the people around us – whoever they are.
Why? Well, as St John says in his letter and in his Gospel, because God loves us, God loves you, God loves me – and he loved us before we had ever heard of him.
He wants us to live in a loving relationship with him and with each other. You might say that relationship is cross-shaped: the vertical is our loving relationship with God, and the horizontal is our loving relationship with each other.
Jesus’ point was that you can’t earn your way into heaven.
You can’t keep a list of the Ten Commandments or various other rules and say, “Yes, I’ve done this, that and that. I’ve refrained from this and that. I’ve ticked all the boxes, I’ve followed all the rules. God must approve of me now. I’m going to heaven.”
It doesn’t work like that.
We may, and should, keep all those rules, but not so that we can pat ourselves on the back and say what good religious people we are, and compare ourselves to others in a favourable light.
Rather, we seek to follow them out of gratitude for the immense love which God has already shown to us by sending his Son to help us to live in relationship with him and with each other. We keep God’s commandments because we are aware of his love for us and want to show that love in return: to God, and to others.
But God knows that we are not very good at doing what we ought to if we don’t perceive a particular reward or punishment, and so he has given us the church so that we can help and support each other along the way; so that we can love and encourage each other.
But the primary aspect of a Church is that it should be a relational community, a loving community – expressed chiefly in our relationship with God in worship and prayer; and in our relationship with each other and with the wider community in which we are set. To put it simply: we don’t go to Church; we are the Church.
“If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4: v12)
Or to put it another way “God is love. Those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.” (1 John 4: v16)
We find that we need a few rules because we are less than perfect human beings and we need a framework. But to live our faith as if the rules were all that matters – well, that’s religion.
However, to behave in certain ways out of thanksgiving for all the love which God has shown to us, especially in relationship with our fellow Christians – now that’s discipleship.