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.