A group of young, intelligent. Christian students have formed themselves into a social-action team with a specific aim. These undergraduates recognise that they are now at university not simply because of their Godendowed intellectual talents, hut also because they have had both genetic and environmental privileges which have enabled
those talents to be disciplined within sight of maturity.
They now seek to fulfil their Christian obligations of charity to the community by undertaking the remedial teaching of English, and number among
• their peer-group in the city those who, having left school semi-literate or even illiterate at about 15, a few years later see with sorrow just how much a comparatively small increase in their formal education might
help them to gain a better job,
might lift thern from a degrading
dead-end rut into some employment more likel) to help them both in social status and in personal maturity.
In a discussion with this Christian action group. I searched for traces of guilt-mot ival provoked them with hints of "Paternalism." 1 was defeated on both counts. There seems w be among them a simple recognition that their superior educational ability obliges them, as Christians, to help the educationally deprived.
This for them is a practical application of "love your neighbour", in their present situation. On only one point did they appear In need guidance:
to recognise that they need their pupils just as much as their pupils need them. The scales of need arc always equally balanced.
I do not quote this by no means unique or isolated Christian activity simply is a laudatory exercise. I give it because it provided a useful example of what happens when one gets these exhilarating young men and women to question in depth the nature of and the reason for their commitment.
The questions can be simply stated: "What is the difference between your commitment as a
Christian and the commitment of a sincere humanist? . . Should there be any difference
precisely because you are Christians?" In these days of widespread ecumenical Christian social welfare involving thousands of sincere workers (and expending vast sums given in charity), these questions need raising and answering very frequently indeed.
It ought to matter very much whether a person is engaged in Christian social action or
whether hc/she is a Christian
engaged in social action. A person involved in nominally Christian activity can become impersonal in his/her relationship through it to others; it can be a simple sop to an immature Christian conscience.
A Christian engaging in any activity, social or otherwise, requires a personal and individual decision, with conscience as the spur. Many good men and women devote themselves to the service of others.
What each, individually, has to ask is: "Do I do this because I love God?" which can be comparatively easy and need not be particularly Christian OR: "Do I do this because God loves me?" This is not only far more difficult, but far more rare. It is essentially Christian and occurs but infrequently even among Christians.
Commitment for the disciple of Jesus Christ is intrinsically more difficult, in part, because of the contradiction in the basic commandment which is of the essence of a Christian. Perhaps it is not surprising that, coming from the Founder of Christiani ty himself the "Sign of Contradiction," there should be
an apparent contradiction for all who would follow Him.
"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" (John 15: 12). How can love he commanded? How can love ever he the subject of an imperative?
By definition. love must be Free: it cannot be constrained.
The whole foundation of Christianity rests on the almost incredible assurance that the Almighty Creator has Himself freely chosen to flood His creation with the abundance of His Divine Love.
Moreover, God gives to all humankind a totally free will so that His creatures may freely reciprocate that Love; that they might enter into a free, personal, loving relationship with Him.
As even further proof of His love almost to the point of in sanity, of His Mercy almost to the point of recklessness, God has Himself chosen freely to lay aside Ilk rightful glory and to take to Himself a human nature in Jesus Christ. Jesus k not only going to call men to that reciprocal love for God, he is not only going to show them HOW to love God he is going to make that total friendship ol love possible, permanent and
He will himself become the sacrificial victim whose death will redeem all men from the slavery of sin and free them to
love God. Jesus Christ will give his body "as a ransom for many"; he will shed his blood to seal the new and eternal covenant of loving friendship between God and men.
How then can such love which springs only from freedom be commanded as the only valid identity card for the Christian, as the only acceptable entrance ticket to the wedding banquet in the Kingdom of God? If we can unravel that apparent contradiction, we can perhaps lay bare the distinctive nature of the Christian commitment.
If we can attune our sophisticated, and often delavu, minds to those of the people of Galilee hearing Jesus preach for the first time, we can catch still the simplicity and the enormity of his message if we will, we can also shiver at iti; urgency.
The Jews had understood well their special place in God's design. They were accustomed to God playing an interventionist role in their history. They had bred into their bones the relationship between them, as a nation, and God as their allpowerful, supremely majestic Protector benign when they obeyed, devastating when they disobeyed. They were under no illusions as to the power of His benevolence or to the terror of His anger. They were indeed the chosen instrument of God's plan for mankind. They both knew it and dined out on it.
God had made a pact with them, or rather, He had imposed a contract on them to be obeyed by adherence to His laws given to them or else! The Old Covenant was a moral order springing from a legal root and to be kept out of fear. Jesus does not sweep all this away as useless. He is content, for the most part, to work through it. He obeys the customs of his people and
orders his disciples to do the same.
"The scribes and the Pharisees occupy the chair of Moses. You must therefore du
what they tell you and listen to what they say; but do not be guided by what they do, since they do not practise what they preach." (Matt. 23: I).
Yet the message of Jesus shows at once the fulfilment and
the irrelevance any longer of the
Old Dispensation. Indeed, he fulfils it so welIthat he becomes a threat to the legitimate leadership: the priests and the lawyers. He is so irrelevant to
both the official Church and State, (Jewish or Roman), that he swiftly earns the undying hatred of the Establishment, (clerical and lay).
His message is so simple that it constitutes a threat to es
tablished order; his call is so irrelevant to the problems of that or any other, material time, that he becomes a "b other."
And people who loom as both threat and bother must be
eliminated it is always ex pedient that one man should die "for the sake of the people."
(Nowadays we should hear: "for the sake of the silent majority !") Because Jesus was a "bother,"
1 le had to he killed. The only trouble in his case was that he wouldn't stay dead.
Looking at the story of mankind to this present day, we see little sign that Establishments have changed radically in their attitudes. Perhaps therein lie the tears of two thousand years.
Jesus staked his authority, his whole life, on the message: The time has come and the Kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the
Good News." (Mk. I: 15). He is not simply the messenger sent
with an urgent summons.
Somehow the Kingdom is to come through him, because He is come. What is this Kingdom, so long awaited, now realised and yet still to be expected? It is nothing less than the eternal Kingdom of his Father.
Here is the crux. Here is the "great divide" between the person and message of Jesus and those of all other founders of great religions since time began. Jesus calls God, the Supreme Being, the Creator of all, "My Father." Much more he teaches, orders, his followers to do the same.
Indeed, unless we not only call God "Father," but in the motivation of our whole lives see ourselves as little children utterly dependent in the totality
of our being on "Our Father," we simply cannot become members of His Kingdom.
For how many mis-spent years have we read the charge: "Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it" (Mk. 9: 15)? In our minds' eye I suggest, most of us imagine a fairly sturdy child of seven or eight.
We forget the following verse (16) which gives the real clue: -And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them." You don't need to pick up a school-age child to lay your hands upon it -you muss do so if you want to lay your hands on a helpless infant.
This then is the secret. The Almighty Creator, God eternal and omniscient, is "My Father," Jesus bids us be even bolder. He orders us to call God "Abba" that most affectionate term of devoted love with which Jewish children, even when grown to adulthood. intimately address their human father.
Again and again, in his teaching, his actions, his parables, Jesus tells us that "Ab ba" is a God of infinite love, lavishing it upon his children with supreme abandon; loving even when that love is spurned; loving with an insane love, God can do no other He IS Love.
"Abba" is a God of 'total 'forgiveness, of reckless mercy. Once we turn towards Him, even before we can stammer out our feeble, halting words of sorrow. He pours out upon us the plenitude of llis forgiveness, wipes out our past totally with absolute forgetfulness, clothes us in the rich cloth of Divine acceptance all unconditionally.
Read the parable of the Prodigal Son there is not a murmu: of; "Make sure this never happens again." There is no vestige of: "Just this once, but lion't expect such leniency a second time." There is no hint of: "What proof can you offer that you will not sin again?"
The son has not just wasted his father's goods, he has
brought disgrace upon his father's name. How would any prudent father react? But this father. "Abba", hugs the breath out of his erring son with the intensity and immediacy of His joyful, total forgiveness and unconditional reinstatement.
Read the parable of the Lost Sheep and of the rejoicing in the Kingdom when one any "one" is found. No scolding, no probation, no parole, no period of conditional good behaviour or of rehabilitation. These are for the limited minds of men who can only, sadly, make God into a larger version of themselves.
Jesus' God is a Father who conforms only to His own Image and creates men like Himself. This is not to say that perhaps society, any human community, needs some proof of goodwill from its errant members, It is to say that we must not imply human needs to God: it is to say that human society is not yet the family of the Kingdom.
So we return to our original inquiry --how can love be commanded? The command springs quite naturally from the maxim: "Like father, like child." What Jesus is saying to us is that, if we make that leap of faith, if we really believe and act on that belief that God is our Father, "Alpha", of infinite love and unending mercy, then we His little children will want only to be like our Father in every way and to the greatest degree possible.
As Matthew has it, probably in a more refined and literary version than when Jesus actually said it: "Be you perfect. as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5: 48),