A story is told about John the Beloved Disciple, who, alone of the twelve disciples, lived to a very old age and died a natural death. As Jerome recounts it, in his last years John had to be carried to the church in Ephesus in his disciples’ arms. At these meetings he’d say no more than “Little children, love one another!” After hearing the same message many times, his followers found it tiresome, and asked him why he always said it. He answered, “It’s the Lord’s command; and if this alone be done, it is enough!” (see William Steuart McBirnie, The Search for the Twelve Apostles (Living Books edition, 1983), pp. 187-188.)
“Love one another:” isn’t this the “new commandment” that Jesus gave the disciples at the Last Supper? Wasn’t this to be the criterion (John 13:34-35) by which all people might recognize followers of Jesus? That they love one another as Jesus loved them – therefore, wrote John, “we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16). There is, of course, also the commandment to love our neighbors and our enemies (Matt. 22:40, 5:44), without which we can’t really love God: love is the fundamental thing; faith “worketh through love,” Galatians 5:6. God loves us infinitely, but if we bite and devour one another, refuse to forgive one another, tell lies to one another, or use one another to gratify our own swollen egos, we shut the door on God also, and refuse God’s love. In such a case, estrangement from God is our doing, not God’s.
Fast forward sixteen hundred years, to the founding of the Religious Society of Friends, whose rallying-cry was “Christ is come to teach His people Himself!” This, said George Fox and others, was a truth known “experimentally,” that is, through direct experience of the “true Light, which lighteth every [person] that cometh into the world” (John 1:9). It’s important to remember that this was no voluntary association of individuals formed around common values and purposes, but a people of God – “the people of God in scorn called Quakers,” they sometimes styled themselves – who knew themselves bound to God by a covenant, and called – called to be saints, called to grace, liberty, holiness, peace, and eternal life, called to the fellowship, kingdom, and glory of Christ: called no longer to live as separate individuals unto themselves, but to die to the old self and live as branches in the One Vine. Three hundred and fifty years later, we Quakers may no longer remember that we’re a covenanted people, and we may no longer even agree that there is a God, let alone a Person titled Christ who calls us to a new life, but neither have we repudiated any of these foundational understandings. So it’s to this covenanted people I address myself here:
New York Yearly Meeting, to which I belong, is in the midst of considering its priorities, having approved a process “to discern… what work God would have us do.” It’s appointed a working group of dedicated, seasoned Friends to meet with local and regional meetings and worship groups. These have done a great deal of deep listening over the past few years, and formulated a Statement of Leadings and Priorities, which is shortly to be presented to the Yearly Meeting for approval. Tomorrow there’s to be a called meeting, at my monthly meeting, to consider the document. I think it’s a pretty good document, and it makes sound, sensible suggestions – loving suggestions – for improving our corporate health.
But there are a couple of things that don’t sit well with me. The encouragement to bring new people into meeting, for example, so that we’ll enjoy an increase in membership. Frankly, I don’t want an increase in membership. 70% of our membership takes no part in our committee work; 10 to 15% come to business meeting; this tells me that membership as we know it is a rotten institution. I don’t even want to see an increase in attendance per se. I’d like to see an increase in love for one another, in mutual forgiveness, in readiness to die to the old self or to die one for another, even to sacrifice personal comfort for one another’s sake. Be more Christlike, Friends! Then, I think, new people would come to us like bees to the honeysuckle vine. And then we might see how to reinvent membership, to have more to do with that covenant with God than it now has.
Then there’s the expressed hope that the Yearly Meeting would “witness to the world on our behalf.” No, I don’t want it to witness to the world on our behalf, I want it to witness to the world on God’s behalf, on Christ’s behalf, on the Gospel’s behalf, or else be silent! I don’t want it to lobby public officials to do the right thing so that what we consider right policies are enacted and enforced, leaving those officials’ defiled consciences unchallenged, but to call those officials to repentance if that’s what their spiritual need is. What have we, a people disarmed of carnal weapons, to do with the apparatus of the state, which is all about domination, force, mass surveillance, and the deployment of carnal weapons? The world says, “let us do evil, that good may come of it” (Romans 3:8); we’re a people called out of the world, forbidden to reason in such a manner. What communion hath light with darkness!? Jesus was silent before Pilate: do we think ourselves any better equipped to negotiate with the world?
On the other hand, if we are a city on a hill that cannot be hid, there’s hope that the world will come to us for counsel when its own counsel fails.