Love one another – Kia aroha tētahi ki tētahi

Rev Māmari Stephens
May 9, 2021

Texts: 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17

A couple of years ago I started a Facebook group. I started it, in a way, as a response to an Anglican researcher who rang me up to ask me “So...what is the state of Māori Christianity in New Zealand today?” This person seemed to think I would know, despite being still a newly ordained person yet to be able to distinguish my elbow from my nether regions. But this question did get under my skin a little bit. I could say a few things about the development of Māori Christianity in New Zealand, if I looked stuff up enough and read enough books, but back then in mid 2019 I couldn’t tell you what other Māori were doing in other churches, who they were or what they believed. I thought I would try and find out, so I set up this group, filled firstly with people I knew who might be interested, and would join (so I would not look like Māmari-no-mates). I named it Māori & Christian, and up until today it has been growing pretty steadily. We now have just under 700 members. Not very big, but as a platform for Māori to debate and discuss and cogitate and to encourage each other as we seek God, not bad either.

Pretty early on it became pretty obvious that we have Māori (and some Pākehā and other allies in the group) who have pretty sharp disagreements on how to live out the truth of the Gospels. We have Salvationists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Anarchists, Mormons, Catholics, Rātana, independent Charismatics, Māori Anglicans from Taitokerau AND Māori Anglicans from Tai Rāwhiti, not all of whom like each other. We have theologians and bishops as well as those starting out exploring wairuatanga and what it means to be Christian, those who don’t want to differentiate between Atua Māori and God, those who distrust or even fear traditional modes of Māori spirituality. We have a couple of adherents to Haile Selassie, we have some conservative Māori evangelicals, we have many Māori who distrust church, many who love their local church. We have many who despair of the Treaty relationship, many who experience exclusion and judgment from their own church communities for advocating Māori history and conceptions of the Gospel ahead of Kingdom culture. We have others who are happy in their communities.

When I set up the group I set one rule. Kia aroha tētahi ki tētahi: love one another. There were two reasons I chose this rule. The first reason was that it appears on the front window at my iwi marae in Ahipara, at the beginning of 90 mile Beach. This marae is known as Roma (Rome) not far from the part of the moana known as Kariri, or Karirikura (Galilee). These names are testament to the Christian heritage of the area.  The marae is also known as Te Ōhakī: the last words, the departing words…in this case the last will & testament of Te Rarawa paramount chief of our tribal area: Pōroa. My eldest son Te Rangihuia Adrienne Pōroa Gilgen carries that name. Before Pōroa died he said: “Kia ū ki te whakapono, kia aroha tētahi ki tētahi. Hold fast to your belief, love one another.” 

The thing was, Pōroa was not a Christian. But his leadership carried our people through the time of first contact; the first exchange between iwi Maori and Pakeha and it was during Poroa’s leadership that Te Rarawa chose, as Hāmi Piripi put it: “to abandon the strategy of warfare and take up the banner of aroha”, and of peacemaking particularly between Te Rarawa & our relations Te Aupouri. Around the time of Pōroa’s death in 1830 he appointed Nopera Panakareao as his successor to the mantle of paramount rangatira, and Panakareao did become a Christian, baptizing along with his wife Ereonora in 1836. Nopera Panakareao signed the Declaration of Independence and Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

So when I think about it, those words ‘kia aroha tētahi ki tētahi’ reminds me of Pōroa’s legacy of transformative peace and aroha. And of course by the time of his death it is not unthinkable that Pōroa was citing scripture, or at least echoing it.

Because the second reason I chose this as the rule for the Māori & Christian Facebook group was that “Love one another” is Jesus’ commandment to us in John’s Gospel today. 

In my doctrinal naïveté at the time if I am really honest, in setting up that rule, I think I really meant, “be super nice to each other”. Don’t say mean things to each other that exacerbate the differences between us: instead, restrict your comments to the things that are easy: those things that unite us as Māori Christians: our love of God, our belief in Christ, God’s only son; and our commitment to living out the Gospel in a way that enables us to retain our cultural integrity as Māori.

For the most part we have been able to have good discussions in this group. I have not yet had to boot anyone out, and I’ve only had to delete a few comments as judgmental and unloving. But loving one another in the context of this site has been relatively painless as long as we stay away from the really hard talk. The sexuality talk, the talk about Māori and accusations of occultism, for example. Love, if you were to take this lead, just means tolerance, forbearance & niceness. 

For all its usefulness as a platform and as a mode of connection, Facebook this site is not a community of believers, and politeness and forbearance is not at all an adequate characterization of the love that Christ demands of us in our reading today. Reading the whole of John gives us some more tools to understand what is being asked of us when Jesus tells us to “love one another”.

I want to say a word or two about the context of John’s Gospel, without getting too mired in detail. We know John’s Gospel is quite different to the three other synoptic Gospels, it has little in common with them, but there is also no doubt that John pays special attention to love, and the commandment to love. Love is unquestionably of God first: as verse 9 of our Gospel reading says: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”

We know right from the beginning of John’s Gospel how John has identified Jesus as Logos, the Word. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God... Because of the birth of Jesus, the Logos was here with us - the Word made flesh, the incarnation of God among us. As Tim McKenzie has preached previously on John: In John’s time, some thought the universe must be held together by a Logos, a logic, a Word, that orders the universe. This life we have is extraordinary, and unexpected; it must be based on some kind of order and intelligibility.  We live now in a new order, that lies behind everything, even though so many of us continue to suffer in this world, he came: the one and only Son, the Word, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

And so the Word gives us a commandment:

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

There is something curious here. A something that has fueled a lot of debate: the disappearance from John’s Gospel of the call to love thy neighbour. Leviticus 19; Mark 12,  Matthew 22, Luke 10, and Romans 13 all include verses that affirm love’s outward direction from God, through Christ to us and then beyond us to our neighbours.  We are instructed to love our neighbour as ourselves and Jesus is very clear with the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37 that our neighbour must include those beyond our own immediate community, our own silos, if you like. But in today’s reading, and in the whole of John’s Gospel love thy neighbour in that broader sense is missing, instead we have the charge to “love one another” and it is possible to argue that love in John appears to be more directed to those in the primary community for whom John’s Gospel is written; the community who is also the subject of the three letters of John. That may be, but there is still no doubt that the Gospel of John faces outwards anyway: how could it be otherwise with John 3:16! For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. But it does seem that we are to look to loving our own first. There is to be an unbroken relationship between God, Christ, and us, and through us, to the world.

But this characterisation of love in John, and in today’s reading inevitably leads us to think about what counts as love.  One of the very clear messages we get in John is that Jesus gives as the model for love. that Love is not a value or a principle. Love must be enacted, not just talked about and held up as some kind of vision statement, or dare I say it…Facebook rule.  We learn in today’s reading that Jesus has orientated his whole life to love:

  • Jesus loves the disciples with the same love with which God loves him. 
  • Jesus gives to his disciples the joy that he and God share. 
  • Jesus tells his disciples that they are his joy, his life, and his purpose, and that they are his friends, his equals. To lay down his life for them is love itself.
  • He chose the disciples, he wanted them;
  • He sent them to bear fruit, to love another.

These of course are just some of the things that Jesus has done for us from his love, and so much more beside, such as his gift of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, his washing of the feet of the disciples on the night of the last supper, As Father Francis Moloney notes, all these actions provide the point of reference to the disciples of the time, and for the disciples of the future. His gifts of peace, joy, mission, the spirit and the commission to reveal and to keep revealing the presence of Jesus in a world that will reject him, all these things these actions comprise the love the disciples are charged with passing on to each other, and then beyond (see FJ Maloney, Love in the Gospel of John).

And of course, Christ’s death, his resurrection, these actions of love comprise a response to sin, the weight of the condition of sin. We could never adequately respond to our sin all by ourselves: hence God’s love, affirmed by Jesus’s death on the cross is the necessary counterweight (as Bishop Barron puts it) to the unimaginable weight of our sin. This love addresses the pain caused by our own sin and comforts us in that pain. Julian of Norwich was the English Christian mystic who wrote the earliest surviving book in English by a female author, in the 14th century, she tells us God’s love for us, (that she often compares to the love of a mother for her child), carries on and keeps undoing sin. In Revelations of Divine Love she says:

And for the tender love that our good Lord hath to all that shall be saved, He comforteth readily and sweetly, signifying thus: It is sooth that sin is cause of all this pain; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner [of] thing shall be well.

Julian had the clarity afforded to her by her visions, and nurtured by her relative seclusion from community. Living the perfect law of love in the actual community that inherited the Gospel of John was certainly more difficult than merely proclaiming it. This commandment to love one another is hard, and there is not a lot of guidance as to how to live and love in the rights ways. The three letters of John, read as a whole, seem to show a community that is fracturing into factions. A commitment to the ideal of love is not enough for actual love to occur. And so it is for us.

I need to mention judgment here because it seems to be a sad and awful corollary that while as Christians we talk a lot about love and grace, we can be just as likely to judge others in our hearts and with our mouths; to make determinations in our minds as to who the Good Christians are, who are the ones who love sufficiently, and who should be excluded from the tent or included. We may not think of ourselves as excluding anyone at all. Sometimes we might say things like “love the sinner not the sin” in reference to a real person, and then having said that we fail to speak to, engage with, walk alongside, or even see that real person at all. To leave it at that is a failure of love, and importantly, a breach of the relationship between God, Christ and us as the Church.  Sometimes we might talk about church fellowship and church community, and being brothers and sisters in Christ but then we might not know how to show real love to a real brother or sister, who might be outside our own silos for example, or a person in our silos who might be perceived as difficult, or who might actually BE difficult, someone unlovable, or simply, someone we don’t really want to get in the gutter with. Fleming Rutledge tells this very small story about her own need for love:

[I was] crossing the street near my parish in New York City. A taxi came roaring around the corner and knocked me to the pavement. A crowd gathered and the ambulance was called, but it took an unusually long time to arrive. It was 40 minutes before I was actually put on the gurney. In the meantime, I lay on the asphalt. I was aware of a lot of people standing around looking down at me. What I remember most about that long wait was the great distance between me on the concrete and the faces high above. In those minutes I very much needed someone to get down on the ground with me, to put a coat under my head, to hold my hand and stay down with me until help arrived …. Love comes down”. 

The story of love in this Gospel, and throughout all the Gospels, is the story of God at work in the world– and we can join God in that creative work – God is love – and love comes down – and we must do so too. We are to be swept up in that force of love, not our human logos, but the divine logos.

I don’t know, when Te Rarawa rangatira Pōroa decided to pursue policies of peace instead of war with Te Aupouri if he was directly and consciously acting out of this new understanding of love. In a way I don’t have to be concerned with what he thought, but what he did; and he acted in a way that put the lives and futures of his people before his own; he entered into this new creativity that bore fruit for that community and he seems to have behaved as if that aroha to be the most important thing.

So then. What about me? What about us? Perhaps something we can do now is to ask ourselves, what is something in our lives or the life of someone else where we have seen the enactment of God’s love. Or what we think might be the enactment of God’s love. Is there some area in our lives, some relationship some task before us that could be transformed by living out the promise of this love? What might that look like?

Kei runga i te ingoa o te Matua, o te Tama, o te Wairua Tapu.


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