Tag Archives: nice

The best gift

When Jesus commands us to love one another, (John 15:9-17) we are rather inclined to hear it as an instruction to “be nice”. Being nice is what you are supposed to do – you help old ladies cross the road, and lend your neighbour a pair of shears across the garden fence. And it’s not at all what Jesus was talking about. We read these verses often on Remembrance Sunday, because of verse 13 about laying down one’s life for one’s friends. That is rather more serious; it brings memories or thoughts of war, hardship, and yes, of death. But Jesus wasn’t a soldier, and while his words may have encouraged acts of heroism, he wasn’t thinking of falling on a grenade or crawling under fire into no man’s land.

CS Lewis made a useful comment when he pointed out that you can’t feel warm affection for someone just because you are told to. Very sensibly he said that if you are commanded to love someone, the answer is not “But I don’t even like them!” so much as “What would I do if I wanted the best for them?”

Jesus defines love in terms of what he has done for the disciples. As far as we know, he never bought flowers for anybody, sang songs, or cooked dinner. In fact he was often hard on his friends; he expected a lot of them, pushed them into situations they would rather not have faced. He wanted the best for them, and the best was faith and discipleship. And he never asked more than he gave.

So what does it mean for us to love one another? Not just kindness and sympathy, but much more. Jesus gave his disciples the opportunity to know God. His life, and death, and resurrection, were for a purpose – and it wasn’t something he just fancied doing, or some ambition that he could achieve to feel good about it. He lived for us, died for us, rose so that we might find our way to heaven as his disciples.

To love someone would be to want the best for them. And what would be the best?

  • – well, it wouldn’t be to have to endure our bad temper, tantrum, or dented ego
  • – but neither would it be “anything for a quiet life”
  • – the best thing we could give anyone would be God, or at least a knowledge of God, a true understanding, a ticket to heaven.

So why don’t we see love in terms of giving faith? We know, of course, that we can’t force people and must not try. But Jesus didn’t do that either. We know that it’s difficult, because it means acting unselfishly, and that doesn’t come easily. But Jesus had some temptations about that in the desert. We think we’re not going to find the words, which ought to make us more determined to get our example right. But somehow we worry about that too.

Jesus was kind to people, he healed some, was gentle with others who were frightened. But he had no doubt that what was important in his life was teaching, and dying, and rising.

We are commanded – not advised, encouraged, or persuaded – commanded to love in the way he loves. That means we must want the best for other people, and the best is to share faith in him. That’s daunting. It means changing our behaviour and our conversation, adjusting our priorities. And that’s why we are allowed the rest of our lives to work it out.

Is that better?

“Nice people don’t do things like that”.  I wonder how many of us were brought up to avoid the bad manners of childhood with such words – and grew to apply them to adult crimes.  Murder, adultery, lying for advantage are often spoken against.  Most religions forbid such things in one way or another, and the ten commandments of the Old Testament are no exception.  (See Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21)

In today’s gospel (Matthew 5:21-37) Jesus seems to want more.  He is not content that we should avoid the action, but reaches further for the underlying motive.  Anger, lust, and self-centredness are the problem, whether or not the opportunity for action is present.  The idea that these (and other) attitudes might be replaced by the love, justice and mercy of God is wonderful, and very demanding.

In other places, Jesus will speak words of hope that murder, adultery, fraud and bitterness (as well as their underlying attitudes) are forgivable.  But he will not suggest that the sins can be combined with the holiness of character which is important to God, and to the life of God’s people.  The disciples he gathers will not all be exemplary characters, but cannot be content with their failures. We find hope in the fact that they continue to need grace and forgiveness, if the patience needed by the community is more difficult.

So how do we hear Jesus words?  We need to deal with our anger and disrespect of other people.  It doesn’t only become offensive if we are able to hurt them physically – the attitude is already a falling short of God’s standard – a sin.  Similarly with dishonorable relationships, whether unfaithful, or simply manipulative; and words which do not tell the truth in love (as in Ephesians 4:14-16).  This is something we shall fail constantly.  Yet this standard helps us remember the difference for those of different family background and life experience.  Christians are not called to be “nice”, but to become like God in our attitudes to all sorts of people and situations.