“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. ” John 15:12
I remember travelling from Larne in Co Antrim down to Dublin one bright May morning to attend a meeting in Dublin. I was only there for the afternoon business, which was deadly dull and boring for the most part, but that didn’t matter. The train journey was a time to think and a time to reflect, a time to be quiet and to hear what God might be saying.
I have always loved trains; they give you the feeling of order and organization in the world, the feeling that you are part of something bigger. I can just lean against the window and look out. It was a good morning for looking out. It was mild and dry and clear, there was no more than a gentle breeze.
As the train moved out of the station, heading along the lough shore, there were black-headed gulls circling around looking for food. Then as we went along the old quays where, in times past, there would have been great activity as the coal boats unloaded, I caught sight of a cormorant.
The cormorant was standing contentedly in the gentle breeze, with its wings outstretched. No-one really knows why cormorants do this, but you will often see cormorants standing on the rocks with their wings spread; no agitation, no movement, just standing peacefully in the sea breeze.
I remember thinking that maybe there was a lesson to be learned through watching the cormorant; a lesson in being quiet, setting aside all the agitation and all the things going around in our heads, and being still. Perhaps as the cormorant stood there on a May morning, receiving the gentle breeze, so there was a lesson in being open to the gentle breath of the Holy Spirit.
It was a picture that was so simple: if we want to hear what God is saying, then we have to stop and be still and listen. The very thing that God tells his people to do in Psalm 46 is to be still and know that he is God—simple enough.
Isn’t most of what being a Christian is about fairly simple? “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you,” says Jesus.
What could be more straightforward? All Jesus is asking of us in order for us to obey his commands, is that we love one another; no more complicated than a cormorant standing on the shore on a fine spring morning.
Where did we go wrong? Why did the Church get so complicated? If all that is required is that we obey God’s commands, then how do the churches get into such arguments?
I keep reading people who try to explain the decline of the Church by saying that we are living in a secular age, that people aren’t interested in spiritual things anymore. I think this is nonsense. We are no more secular now than we were in the past; there is a spiritual element in all of us. There is huge interest in “spiritual” things, the bookshops have whole sections on “mind, body and spirit”. There is a fascination with angels. Within more traditional religion, pilgrimages to places like Saint Patrick’s Purgatory and Croagh Patrick have never been more popular. People like spiritual things.
I have read no survey anywhere that shows Irish people have turned against God. There is no evidence that against Jesus does not command the same interest he always did. What surveys have shown is that what people find hard is the Church. We no longer accept its authority and we no longer really understand what it is talking about; sometimes I wonder how much we ever did understand.
The sad thing about church debates that they are mostly completely irrelevant to the world beyond the stained glass windows. I wonder sometimes if we are like sailors standing and arguing about who does what, when all the time the ship is sinking. The sort of thing that is the stuff of disputes in church circles is utterly meaningless to the people whom Jesus would seek as his friends. Try stopping someone in the supermarket and asking them about their theological views—and if that sounds absurd, it shows how far we have departed from Jesus.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you”, not to depart so much into the realms of philosophical language that we completely lose touch with the world Jesus came to save.
If our Church is to have a future, it will be one rooted in simplicity: simplicity in our worship; simplicity in our teaching; simplicity in the words we use.
Read and re-read the Gospels and we will not find anywhere Jesus departing into the abstract world of the bishops and the theologians; he can take the most profound, most serious, most important questions in our human lives, and he can give answers in words understood by people who have had no formal education.
If there are things in the church that don’t have any meaning for us, then we have to ask ourselves what sense they make to someone who comes only occasionally, or even steps into church for the first time.
Like the cormorant standing on the shore of Larne Lough, perhaps we need to stand still for a while and listen. What is God saying to the church?
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” It’s not complicated—how are we going to fulfil Jesus’ commandment?