by the Revd Matt Harbage
Readings: Acts 11.1-18; John 13.31-35
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I want to share with you a story about Martha. When I was living in Cambridge I was part of a small community which offered hospitality to people with learning disabilties. They didn’t usually stay with us, but we would have them round for dinner and films and gardening and so on.
Well, Martha had learning disabilities and we had her stay with us for a weekend. A week before the weekend began, I went for a run and mightily sprained my ankle. It swelled and swelled, as these things do. My housemates were sympathetic for a while, but life soon returned to normal, and we didn’t speak of it again.
When Martha came to visit, seeing the pain I was in, she pointed to my foot and said, “Ouch.” “Yes, I said, ouch.” I found it very comforting. In fact, every time she saw me, she would point and say “Ouch.” I was constantly in pain and she was always there to offer kindness. My housemates had forgotten about my injury, but Martha did not forget me.
Being in Cambridge, perhaps a little like London, it’s easy to take life at a sprinting pace, and that leaves some people out. Yet, it is those who can’t keep up: those with learning disabilities, those who are unwell or sick, those on the margins, or those with poor mental health.
They have something indispensible to teach us about being human.
It is this idea which is at the heart of L’Arche. From the French for ‘The Ark’, L’Arche is a collection of communities with, and for, people with learning disabilities. L’Arche was founded by Jean Vanier, an incredible inspiration to me, who died just last week at 90.
Jean Vanier’s life was striking because of his love, and in our Gospel reading today we are given the core commandment of the Christian church:
“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another. As I have loved you, that ye also love one another.”
It’s the core Christian commandment because in order to put it into practice we first need to know how Jesus loved us. We have to drink deeply from the well of Scripture which teaches us what Jesus did and said, how he lived, how he died and how he rose again.
It’s core for our Christian life, because the commandment requires us to pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit in order to live it out. We cannot love as Jesus loved out of our own strength but need the Holy Spirit and need one another.
It’s the core commandment of our faith because it’s the core of the church. The Eucharist brings us together to remember the greatest act of love and forgiveness: Jesus’ life, given up to death, for us.
Jean Vanier recognised that this Jesus-love is not wishy-washy. Jesus challenged injustice and worked hard to mould together his diverse group of disciples. In his book, Community and Growth, Jean writes:
“Love is neither sentimental nor a passing emotion. It is an attraction to others which gradually becomes commitment, the recognition of a covenant, of a mutual belonging.”
Talk about a vision for church. A place of mutual belonging, where we welcome others in, just as Jesus welcomed us into his fellowship.
Jean wrote prolifically. In his commentary on the Gospel of John, he reflects on this new commandment we have before us, and writes,
“In the Law of Moses, the Hebrews were called to love God … and love their neighbours as themselves.
Here [in John’s Gospel], Jesus is calling his disciples not only to love others as they love themselves, but to love as he – Jesus – loves them. That is what is new.”
In reflecting on this new commandmant, I want to suggest two applications of all this for our community here in Regent’s Park.
The first, is that we are to exercise love in a thoughtful way, always seeking mercy and justice in grace.
The second, is that bearing the wounds of Christ, we are to welcome everyone.
The able bodied members of L’Arche that I met in the original community in Troley in France, were absolutely clear-sighted about the challenges that people with often profound learning disabilities presented. These members were well trained. Many were professionals in care-giving. But at the same time they never lost their calling to love.
In our building and gardens of St Mark’s we have to sometimes have to deal with antisocial behaviour. It might be graffiti or abuse of alcohol. When dealing with difficult behaviour, Jean Vanier offers us advice: “we have to be prayerful and loving; we must also be competent” (Community and Growth, dealing with tensions in community).
We sometimes need to show tough love, but always with love. I’ve put together a contact sheet at the back of church for those who want some guidance as to which organisations are best to call to support those who are struggling; such as getting help for rough sleepers, or for those whose actions are intimitating others in our parish.
Looking outwards with the love of Christ, critically must lead us to a hospitality which includes everyone. The passage from Acts, with the very surreal vision from Peter, was a message from God which taught him this lesson.
It was no longer only the Jewish people who were acceptable to God and to be welcomed into the new Christian church. Rather, the unclean animals, were now safe to eat too. Not very P.C., but that meant the Gentiles, that they were to be given a chance too.
The invitation of Christ to invite all nations and peoples into his fellowship, which he reminded his discicples on the day of Ascension, is not without cost.
Here in St Mark’s we have the banner of Our Lady, scorched by the arson attack which took place in the 90’s. It is a visible reminder of the cost of welcome and hospitality. It is is, I believe, a wound of Christ.
For Jesus was attacked and wounded because of his Gospel of love. Yet, for the author of John’s Gospel, it is Jesus’ self-giving, which is the glory of God.
May we ponder the calling to offer ourselves too for his glory, as we love one another just as Christ has loved us.