The Butler Did It
Sunday of May13 - Easter 6
Bible: John 15:9-17
9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
Two young blokes came looking for emergency financial assistance. They carried that air of resentful aggressiveness you need to survive being down and out, which puts the people around you on edge.
It’s humiliating to ask for help. You go only because you are desperate, expecting to be knocked back regretfully if you are lucky, knowing more likely that you will be treated with cold contempt. The term “cold as charity” reflects a common reality.
The man behind the counter looked like an ancient English butler, who had decided to be recklessly casual by dispensing with his suit coat for the afternoon, but whose enunciation and bearing immediately gave him away. He treated the two men with the same respect he would have shown His Lordship, but with an unmistakeable undercurrent of warmth. There was nothing effusive about it. It was just there; a real respect that went beyond the good manners required of a butler.
He helped the young fellows with the forms they had to fill out, and produced vouchers for food and tickets for trains. They were delighted. The resentment and aggression slid off them.
At the end, he said, “And is there anything else with which I can help you gentlemen?” I knew I was not simply hearing the manners he had been taught years ago. This was a genuine concern, love actually. The boys left standing straighter and taller, restored people.
Love is immensely healing. It also costs us dear. I read somewhere that we don’t tell the truth about this in church. We talk about love doing good, and about giving us benefit, a payoff. This is true. It heals both the people we love, and us. But it also diminishes us. It costs us to give, said the writer. It puts us in harm’s way.
The love those two men experienced came at the cost of grief carried for decades by the old man who was helping them. I knew a little of his story. Generosity had led to grief and betrayal—I think of the phrase “refined by fire,” and think “No. David, endured a low heat for years.”
John 15, according to the scholars, is a later addition to the first draft of the gospel. The author is clearly facing the problem of love lost. It almost pleads with us to love each other. The poet James Quinn paraphrases the text as
This is my will,
my one command... (AHB 401)
My one command... my one command to you my friends... that you love one another.
There is more than one command, if we look:
Abide in me
go and bear fruit
abide in my love
keep my commandments
abide in my love
love one another as I have loved you.
It all comes back, as Quinn says, to one command said over and again: Love one another.
Love is an utterly transforming discipleship of Jesus. It so transforms us that we will be granted whatever we ask. That is, love is so filling of wisdom and transforming of spirit that we will have the mind of God when we pray. Love is so transforming that we “poor nothings” are no longer servants, but friends of the one who calls himself I am.
John is careful in his poetry, saying, “abide in me as I abide in the Father,” but essentially, he is telling us that truly loving each other means we abide in God.
Love also costs.
13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
The next verse astonishes me: 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. There’s a hint of conditionality, which is swept away by love. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends...
In our economy, the rewards of love should depend on our performance. In God’s economy, we are friends anyway.
Whenever I think back to the best times in church, it is love that has been the cause. It was not correct doctrine. It was not church done properly, whatever that means. It was not the competence of the leadership, or the number of people present, or the excellence of the music, or the preaching. It was the acceptance. It was the act of being made safe, and at home, regardless of whom I was.
I was told recently, by an older colleague, how much he had struggled when he was the leader of our youth group, and how little idea he had of what he was doing. It didn’t matter, because he loved me. That made all the difference.
It heartens me that this man, whom I admire immensely, is still in the same place! His ministry is “on the edge.” There is no handbook to follow; he is making it up as he goes! Love is the fuel and the guide.
When I worked in corporate IT, I was an expert. If your server was down, even with millions of dollars at risk, I could sit for 35 hours at a stretch if need be, follow the rules, and slowly bring the thing back to life. In ministry, I am out of my depth. People are not machines to be coded and controlled. There is no rule book for what I am trying to do, only some suggestions and a litany of failed experiments. The only competency I have, really, is a willingness to love— to pay the cost of love.
When it comes to parish ministry, or any endeavour involving treating people as people, there are no rules. I’m not sure if there ever were, but I find none now. There are only the guiding principles of which grow out of love. They start with the basic respect of do unto others as you would have them do unto you. They move through never treating people as objects or the means to an end— all this derives from Jesus and those like him— and then come to the final cost; the laying down of life.
John 15 is a love song. It is not a handbook on how to do fix a server. It is an appeal to serve, and to love, despite the cost. It is an appeal to open myself to people it would be easier to avoid, respect them, and seek to help them, regardless of the cost.
It would be far easier to be busy and paint the church, or start a growth drive, or renovate the Op Shop. You can get books on how to do that. But we are asked, first, to love. To be open, to risk hurt, to suffer the people who are in our church, in the way we suffer the partner we love. It is a love song we are to sing.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!