When you read a book or a story and there’s someone who says something, do you find yourself imagining how they would say it? In your head do you imagine what they might sound like or at least the inflection or tone of their voice? Maybe even imagine an expression on their face or a hand gesture or shoulder shrug? It’d be something like those ads for audio books that audible.com runs on tv. Except it’s your imagination that visualizes the character and gives them a voice and a personality.
Of course, how you do that would need to be informed by what you know about the character, the context of the story, the ideas they’re expressing and other factors.
I think that can be really important with bible stories. Partly, because we so often do exactly the opposite: we tend to read the bible for ourselves how we hear it read in church. At best, that might be a solemn declaratory tone with little to no emotion that’s just, well, flat. I know we’re trying to respect the sanctity of the Word, but why would we do that by sucking all the life out of it? How often have you heard the story of Jesus throwing the money changers out of the temple and overturning their tables read as if it were the instructions to assemble a bicycle? Where’s the passion, the anger, the sense of excitement and action? How are we supposed to engage something which can have such meaning for our soul and yet we read it as if it had no soul at all?
And, mostly, it’s also about how the story speaks to us. Bible studies inform our understanding, but how we read the story can inspire our hearts and minds in bringing the truth of that story into our lives. It brings it closer, makes it more real, more relevant and more life-like. Very much like God: is God distant, emotionless and irrelevant or intimate, passionate and relevant? Only one of those is life-giving.
Take for example, the story the gospel of John tells of the last night Jesus spends with the disciples before he’s arrested. This week, we’ll hear the part of it that includes Jesus’ “commandment” that we “love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:9-17)
Now, I admit I have some issues with the gospel of John that arise out of it being written so much later than the other gospels and its nature as being less about the narrative and more about the meaning of Jesus. I’ve written about that before. But there are also times when that’s an important perspective. And this is a moment that, for me, distills the narrative of Jesus into a very succinct and simple ideal: love one another as I have loved you. It’s Jesus saying “in my own life, I’ve showed you how to love. Now go and do it.”
By the way, I also imagine that Jesus had a little more to say about how easy that was going to be to do. Or rather, how not easy. I imagine Jesus also reminded the disciples that it’s going to be hard to do, that they’ll be constantly challenged and will fail often and that they must keep trying. I imagine that he reminded them how often people rejected him and that it was the people who will be the hardest to love who will need it the most. And I imagine he reminded them that, no matter what happened, God would always be with them and they should never give up hope.
“This is my commandment.” (John 15:12)
Now read that again as if you were Jesus and this was a commandment that is yours, not anyone else’s. You’d emphasize “my,” wouldn’t you?
And that speaks to me about my understanding of commandment. When Jesus says its his command, it moves me away from the language of command that is authoritarian, that’s about obeying and following an order to behave a certain way and takes me instead to how I understand commandment in the biblical context of the Ten Commandments in Exodus. Right back to Adam and Eve, we’re famously good at disobeying, but this is something different.
Back at the beginning of March, I wrote about the ten “sayings” and I suggested they were not so much laws and rules as we understand that, but rather fundamental principals by which we could live together, build relationships together and grow - together. I also said that they’re more than a social contract, they’re part of deep, heart-filling covenant with God.
This is how I understand Jesus’ new commandment, too. It’s not about following orders, especially the kind that are imposed with fear. It’s not about imitating behaviour, especially the kind that’s routine. It’s not about anything exclusive, destructive or cast in stone.
This, Jesus points out, is not a master-servant relationship, but one in which we are friends with Jesus (John 15:14-15), equals in a relationship that is nurturing, supportive, open and full. It’s a relationship in which, Jesus says, I have shared with you everything that God has given me. That is the wholeness of the love Jesus shares with us, complete with his own life.
Could you say “this is my love, too?”