John 15.17: “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another”.
I wonder if you’ve ever attempted to do something which you thought we be SO easy – but which then turned out to be a lot harder than you expected? I once watched a TV painter create a landscape with a few strokes of his brush, and thought to myself “I could do that”. I bought some canvass and some paints and brushes, and set to it. I was going to be the next great artist! After many hours of daubing paint upon canvass…I knew that it was not to be so! It’s a lot harder than you think!
Which goes for Jesus’ bold statement today. ‘I am giving you these commands so that you may love another’. It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? We just have to love one another. Easy. Well, perhaps not. It’s easy to love those who are like us, and who think like us. It’s easy to love the people who look like us, or come from the same background as us. But the radical challenge of the Christian message is that we are called to love all humanity – wherever they come from, whatever their background, whatever their crime, however much they differ from us in the opinions, their prejudices, their upbringing and their culture.
This radical challenge has been played out on an international stage of the church, this week. The House of Bishops in Ghana issued a statement of support for a bill currently progressing through the Parliament of Ghana. This bill, if it passes, would criminalise homosexual acts, with a penalty of up to 5 years in prison. Still further, the bill would impose prison terms of up to 10 years on those who support, or lobby for, homosexual people.
Now, of course, the idea of criminalising homosexual people is utterly unacceptable to those of us who live in a Western culture. The Archbishop of Canterbury has issued a strong rebuke to the Ghanaian House of Bishops, as have the senior leaders of the Diocese of Portsmouth, and many other senior church leaders. The internet, therefore, has been ablaze in the last few days with people from Africa and people from the West angrily denouncing each other. Many Africans tend (it seems) to appeal to specific and individual scriptures to justify their scorn for homosexual people. Western people appeal to the great sweep of Scripture, and the command to love our neighbours as ourselves.
Both sides in the arguments are coming from the context in which they have been shaped. In the West, we’ve been taught to look beyond the ‘letter of the law’ into the moral and ethical framework behind the law. Ours is a culture in which it is generally believed that ‘I can do what I want, so long as it hurts no-one else’. Africans, on the other hand, bring a strongly patriarchal culture to their thinking, with a heavy emphasis on the traditional (and very different) roles of men and women. As people who still tend to live in tight family or tribal groups, there is also a much greater sense of the community deciding what is right, or healthy, for an individual to do with themselves or their lives.
As a result of these marked cultural differences (and there are many more I could list) it is hard to see how these two very different groups of Christians will ever be able to agree with each other on this topic. It will take much time, and many debates, for opinions on either side to be shaped and shifted by the other. But can they both love each other, in the meantime?
Love, as St Paul so poetically states in 1 Corinthians 13, is patient and kind. It does not keep any record of wrongs. It perseveres. Crucially, for the present international argument of the church, it ‘believes all things, and hopes all things’. In other words, true love is open and accepting of the position of the other. True love allows space for the Holy Spirit to speak, and for minds and hearts to be shaped to His divine will. This takes time. It certainly takes patience. It certainly takes a constant, heart-felt desire to seek the Truth.
But it is not easy. It takes courage to choose to love those whose ideas, culture and beliefs are fundamentally different to our own, even when we both call ourselves Christians. But this is the hard command that our Lord, Saviour and Master gives us. “I give you these commands, so that you may love another”.
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