What is the Religious Society for? — Fellowship

January 1, 2014 § 7 Comments

To celebrate and share our joy in G*d’s work and love.

The Religious Society of Friends has taken its name from Jesus’ discourse on love and obedience in John 14 and 15:

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I 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. You 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. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. (John 15:9–17)

One of the things I love most about my meeting (Yardley, Pennsylvania; PhYM) is that we do a pretty good job of living up to this commandment. There have been some difficulties, yes. There inevitably are. What human community has not known conflict? But our love for each other has almost always returned us to a measure of wholeness.

This kind of faithfulness is not just born of sentiment. It takes will.

For Jesus and his listeners, “love” was a “technical” legal term, if you will—a word given its meaning by the covenant between “the Father” and Israel in Jesus’ tradition. It is not so much an emotion as it is an action, an act of will. It is not a sentiment, or a feeling, per se, something that happens between people as a matter of “chemistry” spontaneously, but rather a law, a commandment, something we are ordered to do:

You shall love the lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength. (Deuteronomy 6:5)

The structure of the book of Deuteronomy and of the covenant laid out in that book are based directly on Assyrian vassal treat formulary. An example exists of such a vassal treaty between the Assyrian king (I don’t remember which one for sure, though what comes to mind is Assurbanipal) and his vassal kings. It has this exact phrase in it, though, of course, the “lord” is the Assyrian king. The book of Deuteronomy was written (or discovered, as it claims) in the shadow of the Assyrian threat to Judah after the Assyrian empire had already destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and Judah was Assyria’s vassal, paying tribute to buy its peace.

In both Deuteronomy and the Assyrian vassal treaty it has redefined, love and the three terms of the covenant commandment have specific legal meanings.

Love: To “love” means to follow the terms of the covenant assiduously—to follow the law, not just in the “letter” but in the spirit, to follow the covenant with joy, eagerness, and steadfastness.

The heart. We get our anthropology of the body and its parts’ roles in the human condition from the Greeks, for whom the heart was the house of the emotions, and of love, in particular. But the Semitic anthropology of ancient Israel, of Jesus and his listeners, locates human will in the heart; the emotions are in the gut, if I remember correctly. Thus to command love with all one’s heart means, in the covenantal context, to follow the law with all one’s diligence and intention, joyfully and without hesitation or restraint. It means specifically, to study the law—to know it inside out. This is why Luke breaks the traditional triad by adding oddly the fourth term of “all your mind”—he knows that his Greek-speaking readers will think in terms of Greek anthropology and not get that this commandment means study of the gospel.

The soul. Again, we get our concept of the “soul” from the Greeks, who conceived it as something separate from the body and as being poured, if you will, into the body as into a vessel. The soul is spiritual and eternal, while the body is physical and mortal. But for Jesus and his listeners, the soul was inseparable from the body and it encompassed more than just the mortal frame, but all of one’s life. It meant one’s life. “All your soul” meant all aspects of your life, all your energy and activity and everything involved in living in this world—being willing to “lay down one’s life”.

Strength. Originally, in the Assyrian vassal treaty and in Deuteronomy, “strength” meant specifically, military support—being willing to muster the men of fighting age in your mispaha, or family group, the basic fighting unit in ancient Israel, in answer to the call to arms by your lord. In ancient Israel, the “Lord” was Yahweh, of course, and this meant answering a call to help defend one of the tribes of Israel against some aggression. By the time of Deuteronomy, Judah was a nation state with a more or less standing army and so this meant that each tribe had responsibility for providing men and material support at the ready, under command of the king. We see the ancient sacred war process at work quite clearly in the book of Judges, a book assembled by the so-called “Deuteronomic school” of ancient Israel, a group that maintained the worldview we see in Deuteronomy for several centuries after it was written.

By the time at least of the Dead Sea Scrolls (beginning around 160 BCE), and probably from the time of Deuteronomy itself, “strength” meant all your worldly assets, and included specifically, your wealth; that is, the yield of your fields and folds and/or your money. For one of the book of Deuteronomy’s innovations over the covenant defined in Exodus is that, by this time, Israel and Judah had fairly well-developed urban market economies and the book defines cultic responsibilities to the temple in monetary terms, as well as in terms of grain and animals.

Jesus. So when Jesus commands his disciples to love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength, his listeners heard:

Follow my gospel with all your will and intention and mindful study, with all of your life in all its aspects, and with all the treasure you have in this world.

I doubt that early Friends knew all of this, at least in these terms. Modern biblical scholarship would not be born for another two hundred years. But they obviously intuited it, as they did so often, reaching past the surface to the heart of scripture.

What I’m getting at (and I had not originally intended to pursue this angle in such detail) is that love—divine, or spirit-led love—is something you do, not just something you feel. You follow Jesus’ commandments—you follow the gospel of love—precisely when you don’t want to, when the feelings you have are anger, hate, jealousy, fear, resistance. This is a commandment to stay at the table of fellowship precisely when you least want to.

And if we do, if we are steadfast in our love, “[Jesus] will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of love and truth. . . .  the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (John 14:15–17, 26)

This, I believe, is part of the biblical foundation for the meaning of “Friends” in our name. This is the foundation of our fellowship, and the promise of divine guidance in our work, our meetings for business in worship. The key to both is to worship “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24) and to love one another.

Well—. I had more to say about fellowship in this post, but it’s already really long, so it will have to wait.

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§ 7 Responses to What is the Religious Society for? — Fellowship

  • There seems nothing clearer than the commandment of love: “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren,” 1 John 3:16. Feelings of tenderness and compassion may be desirable, but agapē is clearly not about feelings, which come and go, but about a resolute setting of the will to treat the other person’s best interests as our own, hence Jesus’ resolution to die for us “while we were yet sinners,” Romans 5:8, and His instruction, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you,” Matthew 6:44. That’s love. But fellowship – that’s a different thing.

    “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers,” writes Paul (2 Corinthians 6:14), “for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness?” He advises us “not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat” (1 Corinthians 5:9-11). Another apostle warns, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him,” 1 John 2:15, so it seems that we really have no business going for coffee with folks that love the things that are in the world. Jesus ate with publicans and sinners (Mark 2:16, Luke 15:1 ff.), but then, He was going out to recover the lost sheep, and He showed no hesitation about calling sinners to repentance. For those of us more easily seduced by worldly company, Paul’s advice seems apt (2 Cor. 6:17): “come out from among them, and be ye separate, and touch not the unclean thing.”

    How are we to be universal and Christ-like in our loving, yet chaste and restrictive in our fellowships? I sit with this query, waiting for more light.

    • I wonder whether it is passages like the ones you quote that encourage Friends United Meeting in its attitudes towards LGBT folks—a fear of contamination. This fear comes from the moral-religious imperative to purity, an imperative that Jesus seems to have militantly flouted. Simon the leper hosted one of his household churches in Bethany, as just one example.

      Ironically, Paul himself rejected the very aspects of Torah regarding “works of the law”, that is, the cultic and cultural distinctives that set the Jews of his time apart from other peoples. But then he seems to reapply the same principles to community with nonChristian pagans.

      Well, I think Paul has got the gospel mostly wrong, and this seems one case in point to me. But as to the commandment of love we all agree, I think. One of the most gathered meetings for worship I have ever attended was Sunday morning at one of the consultations sponsored by Earlham School of Religion and Quaker Hill Conference Center. Our clerk, Jan Wood I think, gave a sermon on love that morning and it brought us all up into a deep fellowship of love. Proof that even a prepared message can channel the Holy Spirit.

      • Patricia Dallmann says:

        A more careful discrimination about what constitutes purity needs to be made. Both Jesus and Paul dismissed “the cultic and cultural distinctives that set the Jews…apart from other peoples,” as you’ve noted, Steven. Both men, however, insisted on the necessity of purity of heart that the earlier cultural laws had prefigured, typified, and foreshadowed. It is only when the heart is pure that we are able to see God, Jesus says in Mt.5: 8. So those who damage their souls through vice are chastised by both men; while those whose class, sex, nation, or profession fails to measure up to the prevailing cultural standards of acceptability are not rejected by Jesus or Paul, in fact, these marginalized folks are the ones who grasp the gospel message most readily.

        John, I’m grateful to you for the good description you provided of “love”: “a resolute setting of the will to treat the other person’s best interests as our own,” and likewise for your stating the difference between “love” and “fellowship.” We are commanded to love as Jesus loved but not always called to fellowship. I think of George Fox who left the church of his day and went out alone into the fields with his Bible, or St. Benedict who left a debauched 5th c. Rome and lived alone for two years in a cave, and then emerged to present Europe with a monastic rule that would preserve western civilization through the Middle Ages.

        Love is a virtue, and it is in practicing the virtues that we purify our heart and make it a fit temple for God.

      • QuaCarol says:

        Having served on the FUM board for nine years, Steve, it is absolutely my sense that Friends in other yearly meeting are utterly devoted to purity. Many, many Friends are aghast at being “yoked to unbelievers.” And that goes both ways across FGC-FUM memberships. The subtext is, “Those people aren’t real Quakers, so we must have nothing to do with them.”

  • Jonathan H Robbins says:

    I have lurked on this blog for a while, so greetings from Singapore and Blessings for 2014. Thank you for such a thoughtful and appropriate posting at the start of a New Year. Your insights are applicable not just to the SoF but to all fellowships that declare a commitment to Jesus as Lord. I go to a church dedicated to St Hilda that is part of the Anglican communion. The fellowship of which I am part is mostly Chinese but ethnically diverse, in many ways it ‘feels’ like what things might have been in like in the earliest years of what we now call ‘church’. The tradition of worship is very different to that which you are part of but the love that shows itself in action is similar to that which you describe as being the nature of our God-ward and our community vocations. I will share your piece with the house-fellowship of which I am part and thank you for it.

  • treegestalt says:

    “Love” in this ancient culture is behavioral — but that didn’t make it necessarily contractual. An Israelite might “love” his children in the cultural sense because that was part of the job description; generally he would also be motivated by our sense of the word.

    The whole precept resembles forgiving your neighbor “seventy times seven” times, ie on the 491th offense you don’t suddenly acquire an eternal grudge. All the details you lay out here are like those first 490 incidents…

    [I’ve been passing on your two previous posts to my Meeting, hoping someone will put them to use!]

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