Saint Peter's Church, Morristown, New Jersey
Br. Joseph Brown, n/OHC
BCP – Easter 5 C - Sunday 06 May 2007
The verses read in today’s gospel are spoken at that last supper, right after Judas departs to betray Jesus. The time Jesus has remaining with his disciples is brief and he knows it. They have had three years together, but now he must leave them, thought they do not fully understand how and why. Jesus must say good-bye to his friends.
How hard it is to say farewell to those we love. We search for words to convey what we really mean and feel, definitive words that will say it all. We try to compress in a few thoughts the most important things about the relationship. Jesus sums it up with this: “I give you an new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another."
At first, it seems surprising that Jesus should call this a new commandment. From the days of the patriarchs the Jews had been told to love their neighbors as themselves, and Jesus repeated this message in word and deed during his public ministry. The new element is “Just as I have loved you.”
At the heart of Jesus’ love is a sharing- not just of emotion, joys and sorrows; those vague “good” feelings that are so easily swayed by circumstance, mood and sentiment. But a direct sharing of himself. He wants the disciples to learn their own strength, coming directly from God, and to trust in their own ability to carry on his work when he is no longer physically among them. But it must be done through him who strengthens us.
We can try to love our neighbor as ourselves, but unless it is through the power of Christ, we will fail to live up to this greatest of commandments. He is the pattern and power of love.
There is no doubt that we love one another in families, as friends and even in a general way when we respond to the needs of others, even strangers. It can even seem a burden when it leads us to be anxious for those we love, to suffer when they suffer. Sometimes our love for another can lead us to be overprotective, to adopt the mistaken notion that unselfish love means carrying another’s internal burdens for them. In this way, well-intentioned love can lead to dependence, enabling, resentment and guilt.
We Christians express our identification as disciples of Jesus Christ in the practice of love. That love is the visible sign of who we are. “Love one another as I have loved you”, was not a suggestion, a bit of religious advice that might be helpful if they got around to it, but a command. The command to love is not any easier in a monastery. Personalities, habits, quirks and temperament are no less aggravating when you wear a hood and habit. Because of the close proximity, and the fact that monks are with each other at work, prayer, meals and recreation, small irritants can become monstrous demons.
The brother who sings off-key, or leaves the newspaper all amiss on the floor, who mispronounces names in the Book of Kings, can be as much of a challenge to “love” as a tyrant across the ocean. Love is much harder when it is commanded to love the one right in front of you. It is so much easier to love a cause, or an ideal, or the image we have of another. To love the one who says hurtful things, to love the one who has stolen from you, to love the one who has hurt or betrayed you, is infinitely more difficult. So difficult that I can not do on my own. My own self is too caught up in its feeling of being hurt.
The only way I have found to keep this commandment, is it that I have to let Jesus love that person through me. I have to stop when I want to retaliate and pray for help. I have to catch myself just before the hostile comment leaves my tongue and ask for the grace to fulfill this greatest of commandments. Jesus demands that we love one another, and that we will be recognized as his followers by others because we love so much.
It was his final instruction and the climax of his teaching. Herbert O’Driscoll calls it Jesus’ “bottom line” for those who want to enter the kingdom. So the bottom line in Christianity is not how much scripture you know, not how much sin you have avoided (which is probably not much), not how many people you have evangelized, but how you have loved others in the image and likeness of Christ. Our love must be like God’s, offered with no strings attached. Nothing must be expected in return for the love extended to our neighbor. I must love the brother who sings off key and will continue to do so, I must love the one who offends, I must love the one who would exclude me, I must love the one who betrays me knowing that they will probably do it again. There is simply no other option.
Saint Augustine gave the simple instruction to his people, “Love, and do as you will.” When one’s heart is fixed on loving all good action flows from it. But he also said, “Only those who have the perfection of Christ’s love are able to live together in peace. Those who are without it continually upset one another and their anxiety is a misery to others.” So if we wonder if we are loving, the answer is “Are you at peace with others?”
We know when we are loving and when we fall short. The proof of that is in the very fabric of our daily life.
So let us strive to love one another as Christ loves us so the we might make love more visible and more available to the world. Then there will be no question as to who we follow.