by Br Julian McDonald cfc
This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
John 15, 9-17
Deep down, we all know that we are made for love – to give love and receive it. Nobody has to teach us that. It’s something we know in the depths of our hearts. As we engage in the processes of choosing whether we want to be married, single or opt for priesthood or religious life, we know that to be authentic, we need to make the choices that will lead us to express the love in our heart in ways that are true to ourselves. We did not need Jesus to tell us that we are made for love. However, there are times when we struggle to accept that Jesus loves us unconditionally and without limit. We find it difficult to receive love. Understandably, then, we hesitate at his direction to love others “as I love you.” We see that as a tall order, knowing full well that our frailty will prevent us from measuring up. While Mark Twain earned a reputation for his outspoken criticism of organised religion, his penetrating comment about being unsettled by some parts of the Bible is very appropriate for today’s words of Jesus about love: “It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.”
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” There’s no ambiguity about this statement from Jesus. We all know what it means but we find it difficult to practice it consistently. Yet Jesus went on to say that what distinguishes us as his disciples is our love for others. He’s not referring to some kind of “warm fuzzy” love, but a love that is characterised by effort, decisiveness and self-sacrifice. It’s much easier to love like that when those to whom we extend it are responsive and appreciative. We hesitate to keep on reaching out when our efforts are not even acknowledged by those to whom they are directed.
All too often we interpret Jesus’ reference to “laying down one’s life for one’s friends” as dying for them. Surely spending our time and energy reaching out to others day in and day out is every bit as demanding as actually dying for them. So maybe we might do better to ask ourselves what is worth spending a life-time on. And life, like every other gift, is truly effective only when it is shared. Am I prepared to share my life fully with others or do I deal it out carefully in small doses?
Historically, the Israelites believed that God’s presence was confined to a place to which they were able to point. In their journeying, God was present to them in a pillar of cloud, visible by day, and in a pillar of fire by night. Then they built an ark, in which God resided. Finally, God’s presence was enshrined permanently in the Temple in Jerusalem. Even the disciples who witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus wanted to contain God in a tent or tabernacle. Among the Jewish people, there existed a strong inclination to limit God to one place, one people, one creed. For generations there has been a human tendency to circumscribe and confine God, as though God were a possession. But by definition God cannot be limited. However, John came up with a startlingly new insight. He describes how Jesus, after eating with his disciples and giving them a model of servant leadership by washing and drying their feet, gives them a new commandment to love, adding: “Love one another and abide in my love.” The word for love in John’s Gospel is the Greek word agape. It occurs nowhere in Mark’s Gospel, and Matthew and Luke use it once each. Yet in John’s Gospel it is used seven times, and, in his First Letter, eighteen times. Agape is an intentional kind of love that expects nothing in return. Moreover, John stresses that followers of Jesus actually lodge, dwell or abide in God’s love. In his First Letter, John goes even further, stating that “God is love”. In that context, we are all familiar with the 10th Century hymn, whose first line is: “Where there is charity and love, there is God” (Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est). When anyone abides in God’s love, God is truly present.
Agape, then, is a conscious, intentional, selfless love, a sign of the indwelling God. It is “I in them and they in me.” It wells up from the undepleted love of God, changing us, changing life, changing the world. John’s First Letter clarifies just what this love entails: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3, 17).
This is the legacy Jesus left his disciples. He did not say it once, but repeatedly insisted on it. While it may be daunting, many who have gone before us have demonstrated what it looks like. In Staffordshire, England there is memorial to 306 British and commonwealth soldiers who were executed for desertion during World War I. It is called the Shot at Dawn Memorial. In a letter to his mother, military chaplain, Capt. Julian Bickersteth described the night he spent with a soldier who was to be shot at dawn the following day:
He sat down heavily on a chair…. I took a chair and sat next to him. ‘I am going to stay with you and do anything I can for you. If you’d like to talk, we will, but if you would rather not, we’ll sit quiet.’…Suddenly I hear great heaving sobs and the prisoner breaks down and cries. In a second, I lean over close to him, as he hides his face in his hands, and in a low voice I talk to him…. How can I reach his soul? I get out my Bible and read to him something from the Gospel. It leaves him unmoved. He is obviously uninterested and my attempt to talk a little about what I have read leaves him cold…. I get out an army prayer-book, which contains at the end about 130 hymns, and handing him the book, ask him to read through the part at the end, so that, if he can find a hymn he knows, I can read it to him. He hits on Rock of Ages and asks not if I will read it to him, but if we can sing it… and we sat there and sang hymns together for three hours or more… Oh! how we sang — hymn after hymn…. All night I sat by his side… At 3.00 a.m. I watched the first beginnings of dawn through the window. At 3.30 a.m. I heard the tramp tramp of the Firing Party marching down the road… While his breakfast was being brought up, we knelt together in prayer. I commended him to God and we said together the Lord’s Prayer… ‘Is it time to go?’ he said. `Yes, it is time. I will stay close to you.’… I held the prisoner’s arm tight for sympathy’s sake. Reaching the house, the police immediately hand-cuffed the man and the Doctor blindfolded him… I said a short prayer and led him the 10 or 12 paces out into the yard, where he was at once bound to a stake. I whispered in his ear `Safe in the arms of Jesus’, and he repeated quite clearly ‘Safe in the arms of Jesus’… In three or four seconds the Firing Party had done their work. Poor lads — I was sorry for them. They felt it a good deal and I followed them out of the yard at once and spoke to them and handed them cigarettes… we took the body in a motor ambulance to the nearest cemetery, where I had a burial party waiting, and we gave his body Christian burial. (Taken from ‘The Bickersteth Diaries, 2014-18’)