Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson, Dean

‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (John 13: 34)

Over the past two weeks I have immersed myself in a little book known as the Rule of St Benedict. Only 72 short chapters long it has been the foundation document for communities of men and women, monks and nuns, for over fifteen hundred years. The first Archbishop of Canterbury, Augustine, was a Benedictine monk sent from Rome to establish a Christian presence in Kent. Within a relatively short period of time Benedictine monasteries had sprung up across England; they were already well established across most of Western Europe. Our modern Anglican Church is profoundly Benedictine in all sorts of ways.

Benedictine life was an attempt to live in community, under the leadership of an abbot. The vows were simple – obedience, stability and continual conversion. At least they sound simple until you begin unpacking them. But that is for another time. To sustain these three vows, Benedict had his communities fashion their lives around three elements – prayer, study and work. The first, known as the Opus Dei, the Work of God, was the round of prayer and worship offered to God every day – the whole community gathering in the chapel to pray eight times each day. This focus on worship fed the soul. The second, the intentional reading and study of scripture fed the mind. The third, at odds with many of the ‘holy’ people of the day, was that every single monk was expected to be engaged in some sort of physical work – thus quite literally feeding the body. It’s easy to see then where the skill and interest in farming and wine-making, teaching and research came from. Each monastery was self-sufficient. In time, the monasteries became the centres of wider communities, and towns sprang up around the abbey.

What does all this have to do with Jesus’s command to love one another ‘just as I have loved you’? Chapter 53 of the Rule of Benedict opens with these words: “Any guest who happens to arrive at the monastery should be received just as we would receive Christ himself.” (RB 53:1) The door-keeper is instructed to greet and welcome the person knocking as if they were Christ. Hospitality is to be offered to all who ask for it – making no difference between high or low. They should be received promptly, with respect and love. As you read the Rule you realise that this welcome to the stranger at the door is in fact to be accorded to everyone in the monastery too – including yourself. The love of Jesus begins with myself – Jesus loves me. It extends quickly to those I love – my family and friends, and beyond – my work colleagues and associates in life, and still further to my fellow citizens and countrymen, and yet further to embrace all people and indeed the whole of creation. All is loved by God. Jesus, our Saviour and Lord, died for all, the whole of creation. That is the implication of the instruction to the door-keeper; it is also the context of Jesus speaking to his disciples. Shortly before his arrest and crucifixion he says to his disciples, ‘just as I have loved you…’ Much earlier in John’s Gospel we read what is probably the best known verse in the Bible beginning “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” (John 3: 16)

This may seem a big step from the door-keeper in a monastery and the little rules that make community life possible – ensuring that in the winter time extra food is given; that monks be very quick to ask for forgiveness when they have wronged someone and that forgiveness be given equally quickly; that everyone, beginning with the youngest present, be listened to before a decision is made. But this concept of seeing Christ in everyone is all pervasive. It makes a difference. And when we remember that Christ is in me, then when I greet someone as if they were Christ it really is the Christ in me greeting the Christ in you. Imagine what could happen in a family, or school, or work-place, or congregation, or diocese if we consciously looked for the Christ in the other person, knowing that, in doing so, they might see something of Christ in me. How would political debates change? What would divorce and litigation lawyers have to do? Would it be possible to have an ANZAC Day, and all the associated pain and sorrow and hurt and misunderstanding, if we did that?

We could go on, and those of you joining me at Sevenhill in a couple of weeks for the Benedictine Experience will do just that, but right now I want to read you a little story. It’s one of those that has no known author, but is full of truth and struggle and challenge and love. I have told it often. It bears repeating. It goes like this:

“There is an ancient story about a monastery where all the monks were old, tired and waiting to die. They had long since lost their fire for the Lord and had long since ceased to really care about their fellow brothers. Although they shared the same living space, prayed together, ate together and worked together, each monk lived in his own world with heart and mind turned inward.

No one came to the monastery. There were no visitors, no new brothers. The buildings were sadly in need of repair but the monks didn’t care. They felt it wasn’t long until there’d be no monastery at all. Everything would turn to dust.

Then one day a holy man visited them. He was a monk himself. For a time he lived with the old brothers, prayed with them, talked with them, worked, ate and slept with them. He was wise. The brothers turned their hearts and minds outward and listened to him.

When the time came for him to leave, this holy man stood before the brothers who were bidding him farewell and wished them God’s peace. Some of the monks shook their heads sadly; there’s nothing here for us now that you’re going, they thought. But the visitor’s last words to them were, “There is one among you who is Christ.” And he walked away.

Well, the brothers were quite astonished. They looked at one another with surprise. Surely not Brother William, who never arrives at the Chapel on time and never does his work either, for that matter. Surely not brother Mark, who annoyingly slurps his soup. Surely not the Abbot, who’s always gruff with everyone. Christ wouldn’t be late for chapel, or neglect his work, or slurp soup or be gruff. Yet their visitor was a holy and reliable man who had spoken the truth to them the whole time he was in their company. This too must be true. One among them must be Christ.

So each of the monks began to treat the other as if he were Christ, for they didn’t know who it was. They looked for ways to serve one another and were kind to one another and shared with one another. Each did his work as the Christ who was among them. Each honoured his fellow monk by listening with full attention and respect. They began to overlook little things that annoyed them about one another and began, instead, to see the good that was in every person.

Life began to flow back into the dying community. A vitality and joy was reborn that had been lost for many years. The people of the town nearby learned that something had changed at the monastery. In curiosity they came and in love they were received. Each was graciously welcomed and made to feel at home. Every effort was taken to care for their needs and each monk accepted visitors as they were. Men, women and children came to be refreshed and renewed. The brotherhood grew as men came even from far away to join the community.

All the visitors and the new brothers were treated as if they were Christ, for the wise monk had said, “One among you is Christ.”

(Note: In another version the holy man is a rabbi.)

‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (John 13: 34)